The International Phonetic Association (IPA) symbols can be use to represent the sounds of Hakka. Square brackets ‘[‘ and ‘]’ are used to indicate the contents are IPA sound symbols. Tone information can be thought of as the change in pitch, and we shall use Yuen Ren Chao number scale explained below. The use of Chinese characters will be seen as optional, but where they can be used for clarity, they will be included.

Firstly, Hakka words are made of one or more syllables. But, in general we can think of a syllable as a series of phonemes together with a pitch or tone that is meaningful to a conversant listener.

We will analyse the syllable in Hakka as represented by the initial, rime and tone, where the initial is usually a consonant, the rime embodies three things : glide, main vowel and syllable final (or ending), and the tone is the pitch variation of the syllable that helps to differentiate syllables which would other wise be the same set of phonemes.

For example, [ suŋ ] is the syllable for both 雙 (pair) 送 (send), however the pitch variance of these two words differentiates the meaning for the conversant listener, thus:

[ suŋ₃₃ ] 雙 pair
[ suŋ₅₃ ] 送 send

Note the subscripts, [ ₃₃ ] and [ ₅₃ ] represent two of the pitch variations (or tone contour) during the pronunciation of a syllable in Hakka. The former 33 represents a mid-level tone. The latter 53 represents a high falling tone contour. This subtle tone difference enables the conversant listener able to distinguish between different meanings, and together with contextual information in the sentence or conversation enables proper understanding of what is being spoken.

The following shows the different types of syllables of Hakka under such an analysis

Composition Initial Rime Tone
Phonemes Co (onset) Vg (glide) Vm (main vowel) Cf (final) T (toneme)
龍 [liuŋ₁₁] l j u ŋ ₁₁
姐 [tsja₃₁] ts j a ₃₁
馬 [ma₃₃] m a ₃₃
育 [juk₃] j u k
啞 [a₃₁] a ₃₁
五 [ŋ₃₁] ŋ ₃₁

In the Hong Kong Hakka dialect, there are seventeen initials (including the mild glottal stop – which we include for completeness, although we’ll deal with it more as zero initial in our subsequent treatment). The initial [z] seems to appear as a voiced fricative counterpart to words in other Hakka dialects that begin with the palatal approximant [j].

巴 b [p] 怕 p [ph] 罵 m [m] 花 f [f] 話 v [ʋ]
肚 d [t] 兔 t [th] 路 l [l]
歌 g [k] 可 k [kh] 餓 ng [ŋ] 河 h [h] 痾 Ø [ ˀ]
渣 z [ts] 叉 c [tsh] 社 s [s] 羊 y [z]

When these initial is followed the medial, [j], the palatal approximant acts as on-glide. In the romanisation, it is represented as i.

表 bi [pj] 票 pi [pjh] 苗 mi [mj] *埠 fi [fj]
店 di [tj] 添 ti [thj] 鐮 li [lj]
夠 gi [kj] 舊 ki [khj] 牛 ngi [ŋj] 休 hi [hj] *嘔 i [ ˀj]
蕉 zi [tsj] 嚼 ci [tshj] 笑 si [sj] 油 y [zj]

As mentioned above, the [Ø] zero initial syllables for those syllables beginning with a vowl are usually pronounced with a mild glottal stop. We shall ignore that feature, so [ˀa] is treated as [a] instead.

The voiced initial /v/ given the ipa value of a labial dental fricative [v] in the above table, but is more correctly defined as a labial dental approximant [ʋ] in that the stricture is shorter in duration than [v]. It does not combine with the glide [j].

2. Rimes

A rime is composed of a vowel nucleus which may or may not have a consonant ending (usually a nasal or occlusive stops). The following an an inventory of Hong Kong Hakka rimes, which number 54 including three syllabic nasals.

丫 a [a] 矮 ai [ai] 凹 au [au] 暗 am [am] 晏 an [an] 罌 ang [aŋ] 鴨 ap [ap] 活 at [at] 厄 ak [ak]
寫 ia [ia] 嬌 iau [iau] 尖 iam [iam] 輕 iang [iaŋ] 劫 iap [iap] 劇 iak [iak]
計 e [ɛ] 蔘 em [ɛm] 恩 en [ɛn] 澀 ep [ɛp] 仄 et [ɛt]
前 ien [iɛn] 月 iet [iɛt]
機 i [i] 金 im [im] 新 in [in] 十 ip [ip] 日 it [it]
哥 o [ɔ] 開 oi [ɔi] 安 on [ɔn] 放 ong [ɔŋ] 說 ot [ɔt] 惡 ok [ɔk]
茄 io [iɔ] 艾 ioi [iɔi] 軟 ion [iɔn] 香 iong [iɔŋ] 啜 iot [iɔt] 腳 iok [iɔk]
姑 u [u] 水 ui [ui] 分 un [un] 宋 ung [uŋ] 骨 ut [ut] 叔 uk [uk]
久 iu [iu] 乳 iui [iui] 軍 iun [iun] 雄 iung [iuŋ] 屈 iut [iut] 曲 iuk [iuk]
唔 m [m] 女 n [n] 吳 ng [ŋ]

In the romanisation, where /i/ is followed by a main vowel /a,e,o,u/, the glide /i/ has the IPA value [j]. When these rimes have a zero initial the romanisation /i/ becomes /y/. Thus when no consonant begins the rime /iau/, it is a zero initial rime and the romanisation becomes /yau/. The IPA rendering above as [iau] is more correctly written [jau] (but remember in Hong Kong Hakka [j] onset becomes a fricative [z]. 羊 [jɔŋ₁₁]=[zɔŋ₁₁]).

In certain rimes where /i/ follows the zero initial, for example /in²/ this is [ʔin₁₁]

There are three syllabic consonant which are listed in the rimes above, [m̩], [n] and [ŋ̩]

When the velar nasal [ŋ] combines with the palatal glide [j], we will retain the velar nasal in this analysis rather than substituting the palatised nasal [ɲ] which in Chinese philological practice becomes [ȵ].

3. Tones

A syllable is further differentiated in speech by the presence of tonal information. This is the pitch level at which a tone is produced in speech. Since Hakka is a tonal language, the pitch is important for the listener to distinguish what has been spoken. We distinguish the tones by using a tone number. There are generally six tones in Hakka, which shall be numbered 1 through to 6. Each tone has a different tone contour, or pitch representation.

1 [₃₃] sa¹ sand fan¹ translate su¹ book
2 [₁₁] sa² snake fan² annoying su² potato
3 [₃₁] sa³ pour fan³ turn su³ hand
4 [₅₃] sa⁴ dwelling fan⁴ cooked rice su⁴ word
5 [₃] sip⁵ wet fat⁵ wide suk⁵ shrink
6 [₅] sip⁶ ten fat⁶ living suk⁶ cooked

The pitch represented between the square brackets for each tone is based on a scale ranging between 1 and 5, with the lowest pitch at 1 and the highest pitch at 5.

Tones 5 and 6 only apply to syllables ending in occlusive endings (or stops) -p, -t, -k. All other rhymes take the remaining four tones, which end in nasal endings, -m, -n, ng and also vowels.

4. Tone Change

Sometimes when syllables are pronounced together, there is a slight change in the tone pitch. They affect only tone1 and tone4. Tone1 will change pitch from [33] to [35], and tone4 changes from [53] to [55] if the following syllable has a tone which ends lower than they do. This tone change is knowned as tone sandhi. It may be summarised as follows

1 + 1 [₃₃][₃₃] no change dung¹ si¹ tuŋ₃₃ si₃₃ thing
1 + 2 [₃₅][₁₁] sandhied cung¹ min² tshuŋ₃₅ min₁₁ intelligent
1 + 3 [₃₅][₃₁] sandhied qiang¹ hoi³ tshiaŋ₃₅ hɔi₃₁ turquoise ocean
1 + 4 [₃₅][₅₃] sandhied min¹ zong⁴ min₃₅ tsɔŋ₅₃ mosquito net
1 + 5 [₃₅][₃] sandhied zung¹ guet⁵ tsuŋ₃₅ kɛt₃ China
1 + 6 [₃₃][₅] no change sam¹ sip⁶ sam₃₃ sip₅ thirty
4 + 1 [₅₃][₃₃] no change hian⁴ gim¹ hiɛn₅₃ gim₃₃ cash
4 + 2 [₅₅][₁₁] sandhied zo⁴ ngin² tsɔ₅₃ ŋin₁₁ to behave
4 + 3 [₅₅][₃₁] sandhied gi⁴ za₃³ ki₅₅ tsa₃₁ reporter
4 + 4 [₅₅][₅₃] sandhied siau⁴ va⁴ siau₅₅ v₅₃ humour
4 + 5 [₅₅][₃] sandhied zoi⁴ gok⁵ tsɔi₅₅ kɔk₃ corner of the mouth
4 + 6 [₅₃][₅] no change fong⁴ hok⁶ fɔŋ₅₃ hɔk₅ end of the school day

There are also syllables who have a unstressed tone, and both tone1 and tone4 syllables will sandhi if they are followed by the unstressed tone syllable.

5. Accent

In comparison to the Moiyen (Meixian) paradigm, the Hong Kong dialect shows the following behaviour:

1. Hong Kong Hakka does not distinguish between [n] and [l] initials, thus for Moiyen speakers [nam11] south and [lam11] blue are distinct, but they are merged for Hong Kong Hakka speakers who pronounce them both as [lam11].

2. Hong Kong Hakka does not have the [u] medial rhymes.

Thus, Moiyen rimes

ua [ua], uai [uai], uan [uan], uang [uaŋ], uat [uat], uak [uat]
ue [uɛ], uen [uɛn], uet [uɛt]
uo [uɔ], uon [uɔn], uong [uɔŋ], uot [uɔt], uok [uɔk]

becomes merged into Hong Kong rimes

a [a], ai [ai], an [an], ang [aŋ], at [at], ak [ak]
e [ɛ], en [ɛn], et [ɛt]
o [ɔ], on [ɔn], ong [ɔŋ], ot [ɔt], ok [ɔk]

3. Depending on the speaker, certain rimes with a mid high vowel ɛ merges with other rimes, or lose the medial preceeding it.

  • eu [ɛu] merges with au [au] or iu [iu]
    • 狗 geu³ [kɛu₃₁] > giu³ [kiu₃₁] “dog”
    • 小 seu³ [sɛu₃₁] > sau³ [sau₃₁] “a small amount”
  • ieu [iɛu] merges with iau [iau]
    • 繳 gieu³ [kiɛu₃₁] > giau³ [kiau₃₁] “to make a payment”
  • ien [iɛn] merges with en [ɛn]
    • 仙 sien¹ [siɛn₃₃] > sen¹ [sɛn₃₃]”fairy”
  • iet [iɛt] merges with et [ɛt]
    • 結 giet⁵ [kiɛt₃] > get⁵ [kɛt₃] “to marry”

All of these involve a mid-high vowel e [ɛ].

4. There are examples of words which have undergone vowel changes in Hong Kong Hakka:

Example Reading Changed Meaning Condition
bun¹ [pun₃₃] bin¹ [pin₃₃] “to give”
bun⁴ [pun₅₃] bin⁴ [pin₅₃] fertiliser, nightsoil, excrement bin⁴ gong¹ [pin₅₃ kɔŋ₃₃] “night soil urn”
mun¹ [mun₃₃] min¹ [min₃₃] mosquito min¹ zong⁴ [min₃₃ tsɔŋ₅₃] mosquito net for bed
yun² [jun₁₁] vin² [ʋin₁₁] to be dizzy

The IPA symbols are used as a guide only. All subsequent Hakka words and phrases will only be given in the romanisation outlined above.


About daylightstar

Passing on the Hakka language to all comers and eager learners.
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