A former international school teacher has created a new Cantonese font, which combines over 8,000 characters with colourful, Romanised pronunciation guides in order to foster language learning and teaching.

Cantonese Font
Cantonese Font. Photo: Jon Chiu.

“Initially I just wanted to do this because my wife is Argentinian and I tried to teach her Cantonese,” said Jon Chui. “She had the hard time with the tones.”

The creator, who is now a dance studio owner, used his programming knowledge to create a context-sensitive typeface that places a pronunciation guide on top of each character.

Chui told HKFP that the biggest problem when learning Cantonese is mapping different pronunciations to characters: “It is difficult for people to think about how Cantonese has one character that maps to many sounds.”

Jon Chiu
Jon Chiu (right). Photo: Jon Chiu.

Cantonese is a Chinese language with a complex series of tones – there are six lexical tones and three allotones in Hong Kong Cantonese.

Cantonese Font
Cantonese Font. Photo: Jon Chiu.

To deal with the issue of tones changing in different contexts, Chiu set the most common pronunciation as the default tone for each character. When the character is followed by a specific character to form a special word, the pronunciation guide will automatically change.

The pronunciation is shown in Jyutping, a Cantonese romanisation system. The jyutping is coloured to distinguish different parts of the pronunciation including the onset, nucleus and coda.

There are visual markings to show tone placements, and the font also includes a Hong Kong oriented mini-dictionary feature, which translates English into Chinese as users are typing.

Cantonese Font
Cantonese Font. Photo: Jon Chiu.

He started this project one year ago and released it on Monday for Mac and Ubuntu, available freely under an Open Font Licence.

Romanisation ‘gives clarity’

“It’s really great to see more tools that support Jyutping romanisation,” Maggie Holmes, the co-founder of NGO Chinese as an Additional Language Hong Kong, told HKFP on Wednesday.

“Learners of Chinese as an additional language need romanisation because it gives us clarity about how to pronounce each character,” said Holmes, whose organisation supports students studying Chinese in Hong Kong.

However, she had some reservations about “plastering Jyutping indiscriminately above long chunks of Chinese text,” as it can be difficult to focus on the characters. Nevertheless, she added that using Jyutping is still vital when new vocabulary is being introduced.

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Mandy Cheng is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. Previously, she worked at Ming Pao, focusing on investigative and feature reporting. She also contributed to Cable TV and others.