In-syllable tone spelling for Hakka.


HakGa LooMaSuh 客家羅馬字

Hitherto, we’ve used a system of numerals to represent the tone in Hakka. Thus a syllable, ‘fong’ can be read in a number of different tones, ‘fong1’ 方, ‘fong2’ 房, ‘fong3’ 訪, ‘fong4’ 放. Suppose we got rid of the tone numerals, and instead focus on spelling to indicate the tone of a syllable…

If we have six tones in Hakka, we can represent the tones by modifying the last vowel letter in any syllable of Hakka, where

tone 1 would show no change to the final vowel in the spelling
tone 2 doubled the final vowel in the spelling
tone 3 the addition of -r after the final vowel in the syllable
tone 4 the addition of -h after the final vowel in the syllable

1 2 3 4
a aa ar ah
e ee er eh
i ii ir ih
o oo or oh
u uu ur uh
‘fong’ 方 ‘foong’ 房 ‘forng’ 訪 ‘fohng’ 放

For tones 5 and 6, these syllables end in a clipped consonant, -p, -t, or -k. We can differentiate the two tones such that

For the cases where the rime has three vowel letters, e.g. -iau, -ieu, -iai, -ioi, -iui, the last vowel should be doubled to form tone 2, and -r and -h will appear at the end of the the vowel cluster to indicate tones 3 and 4 respectively.

1 2 3 4
iau iaau iaur iauh
ieu ieeu ieur ieuh
iai iaai iair iaih
ioi iooi ioir ioih
iui iuui iuir iuih

tone 5 has no change in the spelling of the final vowel
tone 6 has the addition of -h after the final vowl in the syllable.

5 6
ap ahp
at aht
ak ahk

For example, ‘lap5’ 擸 , ‘lap6’ 臘, ‘fat5’ 闊, ‘fat6’ 活, ‘sak5’ 析, ‘sak6’ 石 will be

5 6
‘lap’ 擸 ‘lahp’ 臘
‘fat’ 闊 ‘faht’ 活
‘sak’ 析 ‘sahk’ 石

So we have

‘fong’ 方, ‘foong’ 房, ‘forng’ 訪, ‘fohng’ 放, ngiuk 肉, ngiuhk 玉.

Special cases, ng, m, n

1 2 3 4
n nn nr nh
ng nng ngr ngh
m mm mr mh

‘n2’, 你
nn, 你

‘ng2’ 魚, ‘ng3’ 五
‘nng’ 魚, ‘ngr’ 五

‘m1’ 毋, ‘m2’ 毋
‘m’ 毋, ‘mm’ 毋

For ng, nng, ngr and ngh, the choice to double n rather g seems whimsical, let me explain it as follows. Whereas r and h are appended onto the end, rather than inserted before or after the intial letter, fell down to the consideration  whether we would end up creating false r- initial words, or false h-initial words; and secondly, if ng represents a single sound, it should remain intact so that gave us the only option of placing -r or -h after the ng. So, for the only oddity nng (ng2) we could argue it could have been written ngg instead, but we did not set up a case where -g was a silent letter to indicate the tone, to tone 2 : n2 to nn, ng2 to nng, and m2 t o mm, the doubling occurs on the leftmost character. So for Tone 1 and 2, both of which are traditionally Ping tones, their symmetry of form lies in the doubling of one letter in tone 2. In Tones 3 and 4 the -r and -l respectively show symmetry of form by being appended after n, ng, and m instead.

Example 1

《靜夜思》 李白 Lir Pahk, Cihn Yah Su

床前明月光, coong cieen miin ngieht gong
疑是地上霜。 ngii sih tih sohng song
舉頭望明月, gi teeu mohng miin ngieht
低頭思故鄉。 dai teeu su guh hiong

Example 2

古 訓 《 增 廣 賢 文 》
Gur hiuhn 《zehn gorng hieen vuun》

昔 時 賢 文 ,誨 語 諄 諄 ,
sit sii hieen vuun, fuih ngi zun zun

集 韻 增 文 ,多 見 多 聞。
sihp yuhn zehn vuun, do giehn do vuun

觀 今 宜 鑑 古, 無 古 不 成 今。
gon gim ngii gahm gur, mauu gur but saang gim

知 己 知 彼 ,將 心 比 心。
di gir di pir, ziong sim bir sim

酒 逢 知 己 飲 ,詩 向 會 人 吟。
ziur fuung di gir yirm, si hiohng voih ngiin ngiim

相 識 滿 天 下 ,知 心 能 幾 人。
siong sit man tien ha, di sim neen gir ngiin

相 逢 好 似 初 相 識 , 到 老 終 無 怨 恨 心。
siong fuung haur cih co siong sit, dauh laur zung mauu yehn hehn sim

近 水 知 魚 性 ,近 山 識 鳥 音。
kiun suir di nng sihn, kiuhn san sit ngiau yim

易 漲 易 退 山 溪 水 ,易 反 易 覆 小 人 心。
yih zohng yih tuih san hai suir, yih farn yih fuk siaur ngiin sim

運 去 金 成 鐵 ,時 來 鐵 似 金 ,
yuhn hih gim saang tiet, sii loii tiet cih gim

讀 書 須 用 意 ,一 字 值 千 金。
tuhk su si yuhng yih, yit suh ciht cien gim

逢 人 且 說 三 分 話 ,未 可 全 拋 一 片 心。
fuung ngiin ciar sot sam fun vah, vuih kor cieen pau yit piern sim

有 意 栽 花 花 不 發 ,無 心 插 柳 柳 成 陰。
yiu yih zai fa fa but fat, mauu sim cap liuu liuu saang yim

畫 虎 畫 皮 難 畫 骨 ,知 人 知 面 不 知 心。
vahk fur vahk pii naan vahk gut, di ngiin di miehn but di sim.

錢 財 如 糞 土 ,仁 義 值 千 金。
cieen coii yii buhn tur, yiin ngih ciht cien gim.

流 水 下 灘 非 有 意 ,白 雲 出 岫 本 無 心。
liuu siur ha tan fuih yiu yih, pahk yuun cut ciuh burn mauu sim.

當 時 若 不 登 高 望 ,誰 信 東 流 海 樣 深。
dohng sii yohk but den gau mohng, suii sihn dung liuu hoir yohng cim

路 遙 知 馬 力 ,事 久 見 人 心。
luh yaau di ma liht, suh giur giehn ngiin sim.

兩 人 一 般 心 ,有 錢 堪 買 金,
liorng ngiin yit ban sim, yiu cieen kam mai gim

一 人 一 般 心 ,無 錢 難 買 針。
yit ngiin yit ban sim, mauu cieen naan mai zim

相 見 易 得 好 ,久 住 難 為 人。
siong giehn yih det haur, giur cuh naan vuii ngiin.

馬 行 無 力 皆 因 瘦 ,人 不 風 流 只 為 貧。
ma haang mauu liht gai yin siuh, ngiin but fung liuu zit vuih piin.

The early users of Mandarin’s Gwoyeu Romatzhy hoped that by tone spelling, the learner associates each tone with a different spelling, much in the same way that syllables in different tones can be thought of as different entities in the minds of the average speaker of a tone dialect.

The rules for GR aren’t as straightforward as above, I’ve decided on an arbitrary assigning of doubled vowel, -r and -h for no particular reason than -r and -h don’t feature in Hakka and so are silent to all intents and purposes, and doubling a vowel means the same vowel in a different tone.

Coincidentally, since Tone 1 and 2 are both traditionally called 平 tones, the single and double vowel distinguishes them in this system. Tone 3 is the 上 or ‘rising’ tone, and it just so happens r for rising is a good aide memoire. Tone 4 is the 去 or departing tone, and it’s tone profile is a high falling pitch sounding tone for the majority of Hakka dialect, so h for high will jog the memory here. Moreover, for Tones 5 and 6, the 入 tones, the h in tone 6 also points to a higher pitched tone profile compared with tone 5 for the majority of dialects.

GR has it’s critics, and this HakGa LooMaSuh might get a similar reception 😀


We have discussed other dialects of Hakka, which have splittings in the third and fourth tone. This would, together show eight different types of tones, and to accomodate this, extra tone letters can be used as follows. Where there is only one Ru tone, then the base syllable is preferred, thus, ap, at, ak.

There is the case for extra tone elements, if the tone 4 is split into lower and higher registers. In which case,

  • let the yin qu tone be indicated by adding the letter h after the last vowel, and
  • let the yang qu tone be indicated by adding the letter l after the last vowel.
      E.g. tone 1 i ; tone 2 ii; tone 3 ir; tone 4 ih; tone 4′ il.

In the case where there is a splitting in the third tone,

  • let the yin shang tone be indicated by adding the letter r after the last vowel, and
  • let the yang shang tone be indicated by adding the letter w after the last vowel.
      E.g. tone 1 a, tone 2 aa, tone 3 ar, tone 3′ aw, tone 4 ah, tone 4′ al, 5 tone at, tone 6 aht


A Beginners’ Chinese-English Dictionary of the National Language (Gwoyeu). Walter Simon, 1964, Third Revised Edition. Lund Humphries.


Update : For the special case of the syllable in the second tone, I have changed my mind to bring it into agreement with the other nasal sounds, thus it is now written (formerly ngg). With the explanations given above, and for vowel clusters too, the system seems to have some overall symmetry of form. Rather than messing with the notion of the main vowel for doubling, it would seem easier just to double the last vowel for tone 2 instead, since this would not require choosing which is the main vowel, especially in tripthongs. I would like to thank Mr. Susanto Phang Kit Lung for his views and suggestions that have lead to elaborating on my initial attempt at writing this post.



About daylightstar

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