Cantonese nasal-stop alternation

In Cantonese phonology, a close relationship exists between the nasal codas (-m, -n, -ŋ) and the stop codas (-p, -t, -k). These two types of codas can also be classified into three homorganic pairs: the bilabial m/p, the dental n/t, and the velar ŋ/k. Their close association is best evidenced by the very fact that all stop sounds come from nasal sounds.

The phonological alternation

Apart from phonetical association, we find that the homorganic pairs are also semantically related. For some characters (or words) with syllables ending in nasals, there are semantically similar characters which have the hormorganic stops. For example, both dam3 揼 and “dap1” 耷 means ‘to hang down’. The initial consonants and the vowels of the alternating pair are identical while the terminal nasal /–m/ and stop /–p/ are a homorganic pair. In Cantonese phonology, this interesting phenomenon is known as nasal-stop alternation (陽入對轉), mainly an alternation of homorganic consonants between nasal and stop finals. In other dialects, it could be oral-nasal or oral-stop alternation.

Regarding the initial consonants, a few items may alternate between aspirated and unaspirated initial stops, e.g. “kim4” 拑 ‘to pinch’ and “gip6” 挟 ‘to squeeze together’. As for tones, high or low tones on syllables with nasal codas usually (but not always) correspond to high or low tones on syllables with stop codas, e.g. “ngam4” 吟 ‘to grumble’ has a low tone whereas “ngap1” 噏 ‘to babble’ has a high tone.

Many of these characters are colloquial verbs which lack standard Chinese characters as their written forms. For example, we don’t have a widely accepted character for “jip3”, ‘to pickle in salt’. Consequently, the hormorganic character “jim1” 腌 is also used to represent both syllables.[1] The same is true for ‘‘doeŋ3’’ 啄 ‘to peck’ being used to stand for ‘‘doek1’’ as well.

As for their semantics or usage, the paired characters are not completely equivalent or interchangeable in every case. The colloquial verb “kam2” 冚 seems to be more commonly used than the corresponding “kap1” 扱, both meaning ‘to cover on top’. On the other hand, “fiŋ” 捹 and “fik” 口 both mean ‘to throw away; to swing an object in the hand’ and are interchangeable; the same is also true for “niŋ” 拎 and “nik” 搦 ‘to carry in the hand’.

Different theories

Most linguists believe that the syllables with nasal codas are the more basic originals while the stops are the colloquial variants.[2] A few opine that there are an equal number of word pairings that are originated from the syllables with stop codas.[3] However, it is generally agreed that the usage of the nasal members are less restricted than their stop counterparts.

Other linguists regard the alternation between homorganic final consonants in pairs of semantically-related words as a feature widely found among languages of Southeast Asia as well as south China (Chuang-chia and Hmong for example). Such paired words belong to a “word-family”, a term first used by Bernhard Karlgren (1934) to refer to sets of words with similar (but not identical) sound in Archaic Chinese that were related in meaning, representing relics of morphological processes.[4] Similarly, Bauer notes that the Cantonese phenomenon is believed to be a remnant of an ancient word-derivation process, now no longer productive, in which different types of suffixes (causative and transitive) were attached to lexical roots.[5]

Some examples

In the Cantonese syllabary, there are about 50 pairs of such characters that show alternation between homorganic nasal and stop codas. The following is a list of some examples for reference:

Nasal codas Stop codas
laam5 look at laap3 glance at
dam3 to hang down, sag dap1 to hang down, droop
kam2 to cover on top kap1 to cover on top
ŋam4 to grumble ŋap1 to babble, gossip
jim1 to pickle in salt jip3 to pickle in salt
saan3 to disperse, spread saat3 to scatter, sow, spill
ŋan3 to stand on tiptoes ŋat6 to stand on tiptoes
bin6 to distinguish bit6 to identify
kin2 to open up (book); remove kit3 to open up (book); unveil
fun1 spacious fut3 wide
ciŋ3 to lift up (luggage) cik1 to pull up (trousers)
fiŋ6 to fling away; swing (a limb) fik6 to fling away; swing (a flag)
niŋ1 to carry by hand nik1 to carry by hand
toŋ3 to slide open (a door) tok3 to push up (a bar)
doeŋ1 to peck doek3 to peck


  1. ^ 陳伯煇:《論粵方言詞本字考釋》. Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Bookstore, 1998, p.89
  2. ^ Tsou, Benjamin: “Homorganic Nasal/Stop Alternations in Cantonese”, University of Hong Kong
  3. ^ Zhan Bohui: 廣東粵方言概要 “(An Outline of Yue Dialects in Guangdong)”, Guangzhou: Jinan University Press, 2002, pp 19-20
  4. ^ Chan, Marjorie: Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale (1999) 28.1:101-112
  5. ^ Bauer, Robert: “Modern Cantonese Phonology”, London: Routledge, 1997, pp 92-93

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