Lazy Pronunciations

Lazy Pronunciations

Lazy pronunciations (or lazy sounds / 懶音) are the “left-over” phonetic traits from childhood for some native speakers. Some sounds are difficult to pronounce for a child and they are replaced by similar sounds which would take less effort to pronounce (hence, lazy).

As the child grows older and her linguistic ability has developed better, the lazy sounds will be replaced by the correct sounds. The correction sometimes happens naturally (under peer-group pressure perhaps), and sometimes requires guidance (or force) from the adults.

Unfortunately, this process might not happen to some people, for many different reasons. This is why when people speak with lazy sounds, they sound like a child.

Common categories of lazy pronunciations and sounds include:

  • ‘n’ initial replaced by ‘l’.
  • E.g., 男 (man) – naam4 becomes laam4
  • ‘gw’ and ‘kw’ initials were reduced to ‘g’ and ‘k’.
  • E.g., 過 (pass) – gwo3 becomes go3
  • ‘ng’ initial disappears.
  • E.g. 我 (I) – ngo5 becomes o5
  • ‘ng’ is final replaced by ‘n’.
  • E.g. 講 (talk) – gong2 becomes gon2
  • ‘k’ and ‘t finals confusion.
  • E.g. 塞 (block) – sak1 becomes sat1
  • ‘ng’ is final replaced by ‘m’.
  • E.g. 五 (five) – ng5 becomes m5

In recent years, many young pop stars suffer seriously from lazy pronunciations and this seems alright, if not trendy. As a result, many youngsters follow them. This was certainly not the case in the past when lazy pronunciations were less tolerated.

I still remember when I was a kid, a children’s TV program was launched for only a week or so, and one of the hosts got replaced. The reason? Many parents complained that she spoke with lazy sounds.

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The cause of lazy pronunciations

This is a controversial topic, and I thank you for your time in leaving me a comment.

The study you have referenced only addresses English speakers. A similar study for Cantonese can be found here.

The above study does confirm the confusion of some sounds listed in my post (e.g. ‘kw’ initial and ‘k’ final). As for sounds like the ‘ng’ initial removal, I am a first-person witness of seeing children doing it because it is easier to pronounce. Call my experience ‘folk linguistics’ or ‘pseudoscience’ if you like. I prefer to call it ’empirical evidence.

As for the ‘n’ and ‘l’ sounds, how early an individual sound is developed in childhood does not necessarily reflect how easy it is pronounced in a sentence as a whole. It also depends on the language itself. In the case of Cantonese, many native speakers can testify that ‘lei5’ simply takes less effort to pronounce compared with ‘nei5’ when used in a sentence.

Why do the children choose those sounds in the first place?

Some say it is the influence of the public media. I would say it is a bit of that and also in some cases, the sounds take less effort to pronounce. Then the major blow is the lack of awareness of the adults in correcting the lazy sounds produced by the children.

It is one of my objectives of this series to fight against the myth many people believe that phenomenon of lazy pronunciation is part of the Cantonese language evolution. I will have more upcoming posts on this.

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I would appreciate it in your future comments if you could append phrases such as “I think” or “in my opinion” to any subjective comment on other people’s opinions if it contains seemingly provocative words.

Language change is always controversial, because speakers of a language are extremely sensitive to differences in how it is spoken, and have very visceral reactions to these differences. There is, therefore, a universal tendency to assign derogatory labels to people who talk differently (“lazy,” “uneducated,” and so forth).

However, none of these explanations is justified. Matthews & Yip (1994; Section 1.5) talk about how Cantonese pronunciation variation (such as the n/l variation) is “quite systematic, following variables such as age, class and gender,” and that “this distribution in many cases indicates a sound change in the process.” (For more on sound change, check out Lyle Campbell’s “Historical Linguistics,” second edition. For Cantonese in particular, I recommend “Modern Cantonese Phonology,” by Robert Stuart Bauer.) For Lazy Pronunciations.

Best explanations of lazy pronunciations

These explanations are also subjective (and thus cannot be considered objective and empirical, but only anecdotal); those native speakers you cited find it easier to pronounce the /l/ because that’s how they talk. “Lazy pronunciations” are actually “default pronunciations,” which is why deviating from them always requires effort.

It would take a lot of conscious effort for an older Cantonese speaker to talk exactly like a young person for an extended period without slipping up and “lazily” saying nei5 or ngo5 every so often.

I can personally attest to this: I’m learning Cantonese through Pimsleur lessons, and the speakers on those tapes use the old-fashioned nei5 for “you,” so this is what I’ve grown used to.

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I, therefore, have to make an effort to say lei5 instead of nei5; for me, the /n/ is the lazy pronunciation And of course, it’s not because I find one sound easier to pronounce than the other; when I speak English, I don’t replace /l/ with /n/ or vice versa, and to do so would take effort.

You also said that you are a first-person witness of children omitting the initial ng-. I’m sure that you’ve witnessed this, but I question your explanation of what causes it. Just because children are doing it doesn’t mean that it’s a defective pronunciation.

The fact of the matter is that the vast, vast majority of children learn to talk exactly like their peers (and NOT their parents, grandparents, or teachers). I guarantee you that if you went to a Cantonese-speaking elementary school, all the children would be addressing each other as lei5; they can’t all be lazy.


Also, you pointed out that the document I cited was a study of English speakers; this is true, but it is my understanding that children pick up speech sounds in a certain order, and that the language they speak doesn’t have much effect on which sounds develop first.

For instance, the nasals /n/ and /m/ always develop very early, and as it happens, almost every language in the world has at least one nasal phoneme. (The early development of /m/ leads many people to believe that this is one explanation for why terms like “mama” for “mother” seem so common cross-linguistically.)

Appearing in a Cantonese language forum. He demonstrates throughout his speech the lazy pronunciation of the word 我 (I) in which the ‘ng’ initial is eliminated. One noticeable instance is at 1:07 (-4:38) minute.

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