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Pronunciation and orthography

This section describes the sounds of the Teochew language (pronunciation) and how they can be written down (orthography). Heritage speakers will be familiar with pronunciation, but this is usually at an instinctive level, without them necessarily being aware of all the distinct sounds that they can distinguish and speak. This is especially the case for languages that have not traditionally been written down, like Teochew.

For new learners, the tones and certain vowel sounds, especially /ɯ/ and nasalized vowels, are probably the most difficult to master. However, even native speakers may find it hard to consciously describe and write down the tones that they use, because it is learned instinctively. Being able to notate the sounds of one’s language is a key aspect of metalinguistic awareness.

In this guide, several comparisons are made to Mandarin, which is the variety of Chinese most commonly used for formal education, because it is assumed that readers will already have some knowledge of its phonetic system from learning Hanyu Pinyin.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is used in this chapter to notate sounds. IPA symbols are distinguished from surrounding text by slashes, e.g. /pʰaʔ/. Other notation schemes will be surrounded by brackets, e.g. [pha’]. The rest of the study guide uses two different romanization systems, the IPA, and Guangdong Peng’im, which uses only characters that are found on standard keyboards. Pronunciations in the tables below are transcribed in both IPA and Peng’im, as well as other systems developed by missionaries in the 19th century and which may be encountered in older texts. These are explained more fully under “Orthography” below.

To hear examples of Teochew pronunciation, check out our video series on Teochew pronunciation and Pêng’im on YouTube:


  1. Consonants
    1. Aspirated and voiced consonants
    2. Initial and final consonants
  2. Vowels
    1. Nasalized vowels and di/triphthongs
    2. The vowel /ɯ/ or /ɤ/
  3. Finals
  4. Tones
    1. Notation of the tones
    2. Tone sandhi
  5. Orthography
    1. Guangdong Peng’im
    2. Duffus (1883) and Fielde (1883)
    3. Other systems
    4. Word spacing and punctuation
  6. Chinese characters
    1. Literary vs. vernacular pronunciations
  7. Regional differences in pronunciation
  8. Historical changes in pronunciation
  9. References and further reading


Syllables in Teochew may begin or end with a consonant, or have both, or have no consonants.

IPA Peng’im Duffus Fielde
p b p p
p ph ph
b bh b b
t d t t
t th th
ts z ts, ch c
tsʰ c tsh, chh ch
k g k k
k kh kh
g gh g g
ʔ (final only) -h -h -h
m m m m
n n n n
ŋ ng ng ng
s s s s
h h h h
z or dz r j, z j
l l l l

Aspirated and voiced consonants

The aspirated consonants /pʰ/, /tʰ/, /tsʰ/, /kʰ/ are similar to those in Mandarin, and involve a slight forcing of air as the consonant is pronounced. Their equivalents in Hanyu Pinyin are [p], [t], [c]/[q], and [k] respectively. In the Wade-Giles system for Mandarin, aspirated consonants are marked with an apostrophe.

Voiced consonants /b/, /g/, /dz/ are pronounced like /p/, /k/, and /ts/ respectively but with the vocal cords vibrating. These sounds are not found in Mandarin.

The following pair of common words can be used to practice the aspirated/unaspirated (/tʰ/ vs. /t/) and voiced/unvoiced (/g/ vs. /k/) consonants:

/tʰau˩ ke˧/ • 頭家 • “towkay, boss”

/tau˩ ge˥/ • 豆芽 • “beansprout”

The following sentences will help in practising them:

/tau˩ ge˩ tʰau˩ ke˧ kai˩ tau˩ ke˥˧/

豆芽 頭家 個 豆 假

“the beansprout boss’s beans are fake”


/tau˩ ge˩ tʰau˩ ke˧ kai˩ tʰau˥ bo˩ ge˧˥/

豆芽 頭家 個 頭 無 牙

“the beansprout boss has no teeth in his head”

The “tʰ-” in /tʰau˩ ke˧/ is aspirated, while the “t-” in /tau˩ ge˥/ is unaspirated. The “k-” in /tʰau˩ ke˧/ is unaspirated and unvoiced, while the “g-” in /tau˩ ge˥/ is unaspirated and voiced.

Initial and final consonants

/ŋ/ can come in the beginning of a syllable, unlike in Mandarin where it is only found at the end. Indeed /ŋ/ and /m/ by themselves are valid syllables in Teochew, e.g. /ŋ/ 黃 “yellow” (also a surname) and /m/ 唔 “not”.

The consonants /ŋ/, /m/, /p/, /k/, and /ʔ/ may come at the end of a syllable. Of these, only the final /ŋ/ is also found in Mandarin. Mandarin has syllables ending in /n/, which are not found in Teochew. Hokkien has final /t/, which is not found in Teochew. /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ʔ/ are known as stops, because the flow of air is suddenly interrupted. The glottal stop /ʔ/ is only found at the end of syllables, whereas the other three may begin a syllable. Final stops are short and not always pronounced clearly in everyday speech so they may be hard to distinguish from each other, especially the /k/ /ʔ/ pair.


The basic vowels in Teochew are as follows:

IPA Peng’im Duffus Fielde
a a a a
e ê e e
o o o
i i i i
ɯ or ɤ e
u u u u

These basic vowels can also be combined into diphthongs or triphthongs, e.g. /ia/, /iou/, /ue/.

In the system of Fielde (1883), the diphthongs /ou/ and /ua/ are represented by [o] and [w] respectively.

Nasalized vowels and di/triphthongs

Vowels can also be nasalized, where, as the name suggests, air is expelled from the nose as well as the mouth when speaking. In rapid speech, it can be hard to distinguish nasal from non-nasal vowels. The simple nasal vowels /ã/, /ẽ/ are pronounced like in French:

French an /ã/ “year”; Teochew /tã/ 呾 “speak”

French fin /fẽ/ “end”; Teochew /sẽ/ 生 “birth”

However, Teochew has more nasalized vowels than French. Particularly challenging is the nasalized triphthong

/gũãĩ/ 果 “fruit”

The vowel /ɯ/ or /ɤ/

The /ɯ/ or /ɤ/ vowel is similar to the Hanyu Pinyin vowel ‘i’ in Mandarin [zì] 字 or [sì] 四, but not like the ‘i’ in [jì] 記 or [xì] 戲. Hanyu Pinyin uses the same letter ‘i’ to represent both these vowel sounds, but uses different letters to represent the same consonant in order to imply that the vowel following it should be pronounced differently. If written in IPA, they would be /tsɯ˥˧/ 字 vs. /tsi˥˧/ 記 and /sɯ˥˧/ 四 vs. /si˥˧/ 戲.


The following is a list of the possible combinations of vowels and consonants into finals, i.e. syllables without the initial consonant. Syllables can also start without a consonant, e.g. /ue/ 話 “speech”.

IPA Peng’im Duffus Fielde
a a a a
ah ah ah
am am am am
ap ab ap ap
ang ang ang
ak ag ak ak
an aⁿ aⁿ
ai ai ai ai
ãĩ ain aiⁿ aiⁿ
au ao au au
auʔ aoh auh auh
ãũ aon auⁿ auⁿ
e ê e e
êh eh eh
êng eng eng
ek êg ek ek
ên eⁿ eⁿ
i i i i
ih ih ih
im im im im
ip ib ip ip
ing ing (ing)
ik ig ik (ik)
in iⁿ iⁿ
ia ia ia ia
iaʔ iah iah iah
iam iam iam iam
iap iab iap iap
iaŋ iang iang iang
iak iag iak iak
ĩã ian iaⁿ iaⁿ
ie, io iê, io ie, io ie
ieʔ, ioʔ iêh, ioh ieh, ioh ieh
ieŋ, ioŋ iêng, iong ieng, iong ieng, iong
iek, iok iêg, iog iek, iok iek, iok
ĩẽ, ĩõ iên, ion ie, ioⁿ ie, io
iou iou (iou), iau io
iu iu iu iu
ĩũ iun iuⁿ iuⁿ
o o o
oh oh o̤h
ong ong ong
ok og ok ok
on oⁿ o̤ⁿ
oi oi oi oi
oiʔ oih oih oih
õĩ oin oiⁿ oiⁿ
ou ou ou o
õũ oun ouⁿ oⁿ
u u u u
uh uh uh
ung ung (ung)
uk ug uk (uk)
ua ua oa, ua oa, ua
uaʔ uah uah oah, uah
uam uam uam uam
uap uab uap uap
uaŋ uang uang (wng)
uak uag uak (wk)
ũã uan oaⁿ, uaⁿ oaⁿ, uaⁿ
uai uai uai uai
ue ue ue
ueʔ uêh ueh ueh
ũẽ uên ueⁿ ueⁿ
ui ui ui ui
ũĩ uin uiⁿ uiⁿ
ũãĩ uain uaiⁿ uaiⁿ
ɯ e
ɯʔ eh ṳh ṳh
ɯŋ eng ṳng ṳng
ɯk eg ṳk (ṳk)
ɯ̃ en ṳⁿ ṳⁿ
m m m m
ŋ ng ng ng


Modern Chinese languages are tonal, but the number of tones is variable. Teochew has eight tones, vs. four in Mandarin or seven in Cantonese. In traditional Chinese scholarship, tones were classified into four kinds, corresponding to the four tone classes in Middle Chinese: level 平, rising 上, departing 去, and entering 入. The entering “tones” are not actually distinct tones in terms of musical pitch, but represent syllables that end in a stop consonant, i.e. /p/, /t/, /k/, /ʔ/. In Teochew, the four tone classes are divided into two series, high 陰 and low 陽, although they do not necessarily correspond to pitch differences.

Notation of the tones

In IPA, tones are represented using a scale of five pitches that represent the pitch contour of the sound, much as one would write music down with a scale of musical notes. The lowest pitch is 1, the highest pitch is 5. For example, a tone that falls in pitch, like the fourth tone of Mandarin, would be represented by the number sequence 53, or with the symbol ˥˧. In Guangdong Peng’im, the tones are simply numbered from 1 to 8 in the traditional order. Peh-oi-ji was developed for Hokkien, which has one fewer tone than Teochew (tones 2 and 6 are merged in Hokkien). In the missionary systems (Duffus, Fielde in table below), which are similar to Peh-oi-ji, the tilde mark (e.g. [ã]) is used to differentiate tone 6 from tone 2.In

Name IPA Peng’im Duffus Fielde
陰平 33 or ˧ 1 a a
陰上 53 ˥˧ 2 á á
陰去 213 ˨˩˧ 3 à à
陰入 2 ˨. 4 ak ak
陽平 55 ˥ 5 â â
陽上 35 ˧˥ 6 ã ã
陽去 11 ˩ 7 ā ā
陽入 5 ˥. 8 ȧk âk

Tone sandhi

Another challenge for learners is that the tones can change depending on their context, a phenomenon known as tone sandhi. In Mandarin, this is fairly simple: the third tone changes to the second when it comes before another syllable in the third tone. In Teochew, the situation is more complicated, because there are more tones, and all except two of them undergo changes. Sandhi always affects the preceding syllable in a series of syllables.

Original tone After tone sandhi
1 1
2 6
3 2 or 5
4 8
5 7
6 7
7 7
8 4

A few rules may help in remembering how some of the tones should change:

  • Medium-level (1) and low-level (7) do not change
  • The entering tones (4 and 8) interchange
  • The low 陽 tones (5, 6, 7, 8) all become low (7, or 4 in the case of 8)

However, deciding what constitutes a series is not easy. Syllables in a polysyllabic word will certainly undergo sandhi. Sandhi stops at phrase and sentence boundaries. Sandhi can also be modified when speaking for emphasis, or to convey different shades of meaning (e.g. see Li, 1959, pg. 16). It is probably easiest to be aware of the basic sandhi changes and learn the patterns by listening to native speakers.

In this study guide, the example phrases and sentences will be notated with both the original (citation) tones and the changed (sandhi) tones in brackets, to reflect how the phrases or sentences should sound when spoken out loud. However the Wiktionary index lists only the citation tones, including in compound words, which is the standard practice for dictionaries.


Different schemes have been developed for writing Teochew phonetically. The rest of the study guide uses both IPA and Guangdong Peng’im (the standard promulgated by the Guangdong regional government) side-by-side to write Teochew. For other Chinese languages occasionally quoted in examples, the following systems are used: Mandarin – Hanyu Pinyin, Hokkien – Peh-oi-ji, Cantonese – modified Yale.

The different orthographies are compared in detail in the tables above. Here are some notes on their key features and points where they differ from one another.

Guangdong Peng’im

  • Published by the Guangdong Provincial Education Department in 1960.
  • Used in most works on Teochew published in mainland China.
  • Distinguishes between aspirated and unaspirated consonants with e.g. [p]/[b], [t]/[d], [k]/[g], similarly to Hanyu Pinyin. In IPA, these symbols would represent unvoiced/voiced pairs.
  • Glottal stop final is represented by “-h”, like Peh-oi-ji.
  • /z/ or /dz/ is represented by [r]
  • /ɯ/ or /ʏ/ is represented by [e]; /e/ by [ê].
  • Nasalized vowels are marked by adding [-n], e.g. [ain] (IPA: /ãĩ/).
  • Tones represented by numbers 1 through 8.

Duffus (1883) and Fielde (1883)

  • Developed by Christian missionaries for translating Bibles and Christian texts into Teochew/Swatow. Both systems are similar to each other, and appear to be based on the Peh-oi-ji system, also developed by missionaries, for Hokkien. The system used by Lim (1886) is similar to that of Duffus.
  • Used in missionary works and Bible translations published in the 19th century.
  • Aspirated consonants marked by adding [-h], e.g. [ph] (IPA: /pʰ/).
  • Duffus (1883) preserves the distinction between /ts/ (written as [ts]) and /tʃ/ (written as [ch]), and their aspirated forms /tsʰ/ ([tsh]) and /tʃʰ/ ([chh]). These were later merged into /ts/ and /tsʰ/ by Teochew speakers in the late 19th century (Xu, 2013).
  • /z/ is represented by [j] or [z]
  • /ɯ/ or /ʏ/ are represented by [ṳ]
  • Fielde (1883) uses [w] to represent /ua/ in some syllables, [o] for /ou/, and [o̤] for /o/.
  • Nasalized vowels marked with superscript n, e.g. [aiⁿ] (IPA: /ãĩ/)
  • Preserves final /-t/ and /-n/ that were lost in 20th century Teochew. Guangdong Peng’im cannot write /-n/ finals because it already uses [-n] to represent nasalization.
  • Tones represented by accent marks.
  • Syllables that join words or phrases that result in tone change (sandhi) are joined by hyphens.
  • Verb complements and particles that do not result in tone change of the preceding syllable are joined by double hyphens (in Duffus’s system)

Other systems

  • Gaginang Peng’im is used by the Gaginang online portal and associated online communities, mostly by diaspora Teochews. It is similar to Guangdong Peng’im, e.g. using [ao] for /au/, [-n] for nasalization, [p]/[b]/[bh] for aspirated/unaspirated/voiced. Differences from Guangdong Peng’im:
    • Initials: [j] for /ts/, [y] for /dz/, [ch] for /tsʰ/
    • Vowels: [eu] for /ɯ/
    • Stops: [-p] for /p/, [-k] for /-k/, and [-t] for /-t/
    • Tone marks: [a], [à], [ă], [ak], [ā], [á], [ạ], [āk]
  • Teochew Romanization System of the Teochew Tsiann-im Tsiann-zi Tshok-tsin-hue (Teochew Association for Orthoepy and Orthography) is used in several online communities of Teochews in mainland China. It is similar to the missionary systems and Peh-oi-ji, e.g. in the tone marks, use of hyphens, and preservation of final [-t]. Differences from the Duffus system:
    • Initials: [z] for /dz/
    • Vowels: [ur] for /ɯ/
    • Nasalization shown by suffix [-nn]
    • Tone marks: [a], [á], [à], [ak], [â], [ă], [ā], [âk]
  • The textbook Spoken Swatow (Koons and Koons, [1967] 2016) uses a phonetic system based on Manual of Articulatory Phonetics by W. Smalley (1963).

Word spacing and punctuation

Texts written in Chinese characters do not usually have word spacing, and traditionally also lacked punctuation.


In this study guide, word spacing will be used in both the romanized and Chinese character texts. The rules for word spacing will broadly follow the standard for Hanyu Pinyin. For romanized texts, the initial letters at the start of a sentence, and the first letters of proper nouns, will be capitalized. Punctuation marks follow English convention.

Chinese characters

One might ask: As a Chinese language, shouldn’t Teochew be written with Chinese characters? Unfortunately, it is not the case that every word in Teochew can be unambiguously mapped to a Chinese character used in Mandarin or literary Chinese. Unlike Cantonese and Taiwanese Hokkien, no education authority has published a standard Chinese character orthography for Teochew, and there is not a strong written tradition of texts to build precedent.

Several very common words do not have Chinese characters, e.g. /mũã/ in /mũã zik/ ~日 “tomorrow”. In Taiwanese, which is closely related to Teochew, it has been estimated that about 15% of the words in a given text, including many high-frequency words, cannot be represented by characters that are cognate with words in Mandarin or Literary Chinese (Cheng 1978). Some authors may “borrow” characters with similar sounds or meaning to represent them, e.g. 明日, but these characters may already have a distinct original pronunciation, in this case /meŋ/ 明. Different authors may use different characters for the same word, or the same character for different words, e.g. /mẽ ni/ 明年 “next year”, which is also written 夜年.

Chinese authors writing about Teochew have used variant characters to represent some of these words without clear Mandarin or literary Chinese equivalents, e.g. 𠁞 (Unicode U+2005E) for /boi/ “cannot”. Unfortunately many of these characters are not found in most computer fonts. Some are not even found in Unicode, e.g. 口+乜 /me/ (Li 1959, pg. 259). This makes typing them on most systems quite laborious, especially for a word that is as common as /boi/.

Cognates may sometimes be written with different characters in different languages. For example, most Teochew writers use 𠁞 for /boi/, but the Taiwan education ministry recommends 袂 for its cognate in Hokkien, also pronounced /boi/. The variant character 𣍐 (Unicode U+23350) is also used.

Many of the Chinese characters used to write certain Teochew words are probably used for their phonetic value only, because they contain the “mouth” radical 口, e.g. /ti¹¹/ 哋 and /m³⁵/ 唔.

The final challenge with using Chinese characters is that Teochew, like other Southern Min languages, makes extensive use of literary vs. colloquial pronunciations (文白異讀, see below).

In this study guide, Chinese characters will be used as a help for readers who already know Mandarin or another Chinese language and who may be interested in recognizing cognates. However I can make no guarantees about the etymology and do not adhere to or mean to propose any standard, although I try to follow the usage of Li (1959), or of entries in Wiktionary. Traditional characters are used here, because they are used in most of the reference works consulted.

Literary vs. vernacular pronunciations

Chinese characters can have different pronunciations in Teochew. When reciting from texts, and in vocabulary with a more formal register, the literary pronunciation is used. For everyday speech, and for “earthier” language, the vernacular pronunciation is used. Literary pronunciations tend to be closer to Mandarin or “official language” (官話 M: guānhuà).

For example, the character 學 “learn” has two pronunciations:

/hak⁵/ • hag8 • literary

/oʔ⁵/ • oh8 • vernacular

Both forms are encountered in various compound words:

/oʔ²tɯŋ⁵⁵/ • oh8(4)deng5 • 學堂 • “school” (traditional)

/hak²hau³⁵/ • hag8(4)hao6 • 學校 • “school” (modern)

/hak²seŋ³³/ • hag8(4)sêng1 • 學生 • “student” (seng1 is also literary, cf. colloquial ser1)

/tua¹¹oʔ⁵/ • dua7oh8 • 大學 • “university” (both characters with vernacular pronunciation)

/tai¹¹hak⁵/ • dai7hag8 • 大學 • “university” (both characters with literary pronunciation)

In addition, a number of characters are pronounced differently when used as a surname. See “Terms of address”.

Regional differences in pronunciation

The different counties within the Teochew region (see “Introduction” have their own local dialects of the Teochew language, which have some differences in pronunciation. For example:

  • /-ie/ (Teochew city) vs. /-io/ (Swatow), e.g. /tie⁵⁵/ vs. /tio⁵⁵/ 潮
  • /-oi/ (Teochew city) vs. /-ai/ (Gêg-ion), e.g. /sõĩ³³/ vs. /sãĩ³³/ 先
  • /-ieu/ (Teochew city) vs. /-iao/ (Swatow) vs. /-iou/ (Têng-hai), e.g. /lieu⁵³/, /liao⁵³/, /lieu⁵³/ 了

More information on the dialect phonology can be found at the website 潮语拼音教程. Local dialect pronunciations are also indicated in online dictionaries like and Wiktionary.

Historical changes in pronunciation

Spoken Teochew was not written with phonetic spelling until the arrival of Western missionaries in the 19th century. Their records of Teochew pronunciation allow us to see how the pronunciation has changed over the past two centuries. Changes include:

  • Merger of /-t/ stop at the end of syllables into /-k/
  • Merger of /-n/ ending to /-ng/
  • Distinction between the pairs of initials /ts/ and /tʃ/, and /tsʰ/ and /tʃʰ/ has been lost

Some of the older forms may be retained in some regions or in diaspora communities. Diaspora communities also experience other phonological changes in their speech because of influences from other languages in the wider community.

The historical changes were briefly sketched by Bodman (1982), and more carefully reconstructed by Xu (2013).

References and further reading

On the problem of writing Chinese regional languages with characters:

  • Snow, Don. (2004). Cantonese as written language, Chapter 3

Original content copyright (c) 2019-2021 Brandon Seah, except where otherwise indicated