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When I was learning Cantonese, I had no formal teacher, just some friends who had been learning Cantonese much longer than me helping me out. These people told me that anytime a dictionary had an "n" sound at the beginning of a syllable, I should pronounce it as an "l" sound instead. For example, 你 should be pronounced "lei5" instead of "nei5". They told me that the "n" pronunciation was old-fashioned and only used by the elderly (at least in Hong Kong, I'm not sure about Guangdong).

How true is this? Does nearly everyone in Hong Kong pronounce 你 as "lei5"? If so, would I sound weird if I pronounced it as "nei5?

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese#Phonology says:

The de facto standard Cantonese pronunciation is that of Canton (Guangzhou). Hong Kong Cantonese has some minor phonology variations but is almost identical to standard Guangzhou Cantonese.

Hong Kong and Macau merge certain phoneme pairs. Although termed as "lazy sound/pronunciation" (懶音) and considered substandard to Guangzhou pronunciation, the phenomenon has been widespread in the territories since the early 20th century. The most notable difference between Hong Kong and Guangzhou pronunciation is substituting liquid nasal /l/ for nasal initial /n/ in many words. An example is manifested in the word for you (你), pronounced as [nei˩˧] in Guangzhou and as [lei˩˧] in Hong Kong.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese_phonology#Historical_change says:

Many modern-day younger Hong Kong speakers do not distinguish between phoneme pairs like /n/ vs. /l/ and /ŋ/ vs. null initial and merge one sound into another. Examples for this include 你 /nei˨˧/ being pronounced as /lei˨˧/, 我 /ŋɔː˨˧/ being pronounced as /ɔː˨˧/. Another incipient sound change is the lost distinctions /kʷ/ vs. /k/ and /kʷʰ/ vs. /kʰ/, for example 國 /kʷɔːk˧/ being pronounced as [kɔːk̚˧]. Although that is often considered substandard and denounced as "lazy sounds/pronunciation" (懶音), it is becoming more common and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions (see Hong Kong Cantonese).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Cantonese#Phonology says:

In modern-day Hong Kong, many native speakers no longer distinguish between certain phoneme pairs, leading to instances of sound change through mergers. Although considered non-standard and denounced as "lazy sound" (懶音) by purists, the phenomena are widespread and not restricted to Hong Kong. Contrary to impressions, some of these changes are not recent. The loss of the velar nasal (/ŋ/) was documented by Williams (1856), and the substitution of the liquid nasal (/l/) for the nasal initial (/n/) was documented by Cowles (1914).

...

In educated Hong Kong Cantonese speech, these sound mergers are avoided, and many older speakers still distinguish between those phoneme categories.

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  • /ŋ/ vs. null initial is upsetting. Sounds quite grating.
    – Mou某
    Aug 7, 2023 at 8:07
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In general, yes, using a nasal [n] even when prescriptively 'required' by the Middle Chinese etymology (or indeed by the English etymology, as in 冧把) does sound very 'correct' but also 'old-fashioned' in Hong Kong (and across most of the Pearl River Delta, including the prescriptive centre of Cantonese, Guangzhou). As quoted in a 1999 study:

Hashimoto (1972) associated those speakers who preserved the historical syllable-initial [n-] with "standard Hong Kong Cantonese". However, in the speech of the majority of the younger speakers, male and female, of HKC of the 1970's and 1980's, the historical [n-] had merged with [l-] (Yeung, 1980; Bauer, 1982; Bourgerie, 1990).

This trend has become inexorable in the last 20 years, such that more than 80% of the population that was born in and after the 1970s has a relatively complete /n/ to /l/ merger. A 2015 study stated that there was no longer any gender or age difference in the merger, and that at least in Hong Kong:

the change appears to be close to completion.

A 2017 thesis qualifies this somewhat though, with plenty of hypercorrection of /l/ to /n/. Hence:

The data demonstrate the neutralization of the initial [n-] and [l-] in HKC. Since both [n-] and [l-] are still found in speech, the merger of [n-] and [l-] in HKC has not yet in completion.

It must also be remembered that the difference between /n/ and /l/ can be considered somewhat continuous, and this has been notated as /l̃/. So there can be some fluctuation between all of these variants, rather than just a binary alternation.

Cross-linguistically, there is a trend notably before /i/ that:

The preservation of initial /n/ specifically before high front vowels is more common than the preservation before any other vowels, because /n/ before high front vowels is acoustically and articulatorily dissimilar to /l/.

That study, published in 2022, concluded that amongst these Hong Kong Cantonese speakers listening to artificial generated syllables:

[They] failed to explicitly identify the specific vowel contexts of /n/~/l/ alternation/non-alternation. No significant difference on the alternation rate was found between vowel contexts (i.e. high front vowels vs. non-high front vowels) across languages.

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There are many Chinese characters that are required to pronounce with a nasal component n or ng in Cantonese.

Not hitting the nasal component is like trying to pronounce "r" in English without tongue curling.

The following website is a pretty good reference: Cantonese pronounciations of Chinese characters from Hong Kong Chinese University.

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  • Is "a nasal component n or ng" the same sound as Spanish ñ as in the country name: "España", which in French is written "Espagne"?
    – Pedroski
    Aug 6, 2023 at 5:03
  • I don't know either French nor Spanish. In English just think of any words that start with "n," such as no, not, nor, etc. Aug 6, 2023 at 5:07
  • Oh, thanks! That's just an ordinary n isn't it? To say España you say S payn yah. To speak ñ you kind of tighten your nose and push your lips forward a bit to make a sound like en in 周恩来。 Sorry, don't know any technical details of speech sounds!
    – Pedroski
    Aug 6, 2023 at 5:18

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