If you ask Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM — Guóyǔ 國語 / Pǔtōnghuà 普通话) speakers how many tones there are in their language, most of them will tell you without much hesitation that there are four tones (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) plus a neutral tone.
Chances are, however, if you ask a Cantonese speaker how many tones there are in their language, they will not give you a clear answer, or if they do, it will differ from what other Cantonese speakers claim. That has always been my experience over the years, but I just did a little survey to reconfirm my earlier impressions. The results are rather more amazing than I expected them to be:
I will list the replies from respondents roughly from those who are older to those who are younger. Some just give a number, but some also give an explanation, in which case I include it as well. In addition, I will note what I know about their occupation if I have that information:
[N.B.: When the respondents speak of "entering tones" (rùshēng 入声), that refers to the -p, -t, -k endings, which are totally absent in MSM.]
All responses are from lifelong native speakers of Cantonese, except #4, an American who has been completely fluent in Cantonese for decades.
11 (?) Don't know! I think (or I heard) that it's a lot! I'd say… 11. (librarian of the history of science)
9 [no comment] (professional)
9 Is that a trick question? …
Answer: 9 based on traditional counting that includes 3 Rusheng but 6 based on phonological system.
Is that what you are looking for, or are you referring to tonal mergers that may be reducing the total count? And that seems to be complicated. (professor — linguist specializing on Cantonese)
9 I know the "right" answer is nine, but the entering tones are really pronunciation differences, so let's say six – except that the first tone can either be high level or falling. (professor — linguist specializing on Cantonese)
11 [no comment] (professor of Chinese language and literature)
7+ unless you count the rusheng (the p, t, k endings) as tonal. Please do let me know the correct answer. (professor of Chinese literature)
7 Depends on if you count the hard -k and -t endings that don’t exist in Mandarin?
ma = mother, sesame and same tone is so-so and also paternal grandmother, twins, horse.
mat = wipe, sock
mak = ink
So I count 7 there but there are some other tones that “ma” might not be used for…
(professional — for greatly expanded remarks by this respondent, see below at *)
11 I think, my answer is 11, if we include rùshēng 入聲 ("entering tones") and put the biàndiào 變調 ("modified tones") into it.
But I am not quite sure…… (professor of Chinese philology)
5 (?) Haha I think I can recognize 5. I've heard the 6th… but it's so faint to me that I don't really distinguish it. On the other hand my parents have always said 9! (recent college graduate working in finance)
Zero idea But somebody told me it's supposed to be 8. (graduate student in Chinese language and literature)
9 (?) I think Cantonese has 9 tones? I know there are some disputes as to whether it's only 6 or a 6+3 combination, as some contest the last three tones are not the same as the first 6, linguistically speaking, but I generally go with 9 tones. (graduate student in Chinese history)
5 (?) I actually don't know how many tones there are in Cantonese. I have attempted to count a couple years back, but some tones to me sound so similar I can't tell if they're different. Yet, I also think they don't sound the same. I don't remember how much I really counted up to, but I think there were at least 5. I'm pretty sure there are more than that though. (college student in the sciences)
It's uncanny that, in general, the older and more academically oriented to Chinese language studies the respondents are, the greater the number of tones that they tend to recognize / claim, and vice versa.
Now, if you're really curious about just how complicated and challenging Cantonese tones can be, I recommend that you take a peek here:
"The Phantom Tone" by I’m Learning Cantonese (download medium on the App Store or Play Store)
Cf. "Why learn Cantonese and one way to do it" (1/20/17)
[Thanks to Don Snow, Judy Weng, Norman Leung, Alan Chin, Timothy Wong, Nelson Ching, Marjorie Chan, Pui Ling Tang, Lily Lee, Howard Y. F. Choy, TinhVan Diep, Justin Wu, Carmen Lee, and Ashley Liu]
*Additional remarks by respondent #7. He begins by expanding on the question of tones, but then moves on to the matter of literacy. Although he was fluent in Cantonese from the time he was a child and right through adulthood, due to the fact that there was no suitable way for him to write Cantonese, he was greatly hampered in his progress toward literacy, being forced to learn characters in a Mandarin oriented context. I list a few relevant Language Log and other posts after the conclusion of his additional remarks.
There is also confusion because Mandarin counts ma, man, mai as different , and in Cantonese depending on the word there's bleed also with mee, mu/mut, etc, the -E and -u sounds that all count as separate sounds entirely — the issue being that Mandarin doesn't have hard endings at all that I can think of.
So what is a tone and what is a separate sound? If I look up jyutping it all makes sense, and I use jyutping all the time now, but I've never studied jyutping formally or any other Cantonese transliteration system, and my (limited) Chinese schooling in Cantonese did not use any romanization whatsoever, it was all memorization of characters and the sounds that go with them.
So like a lot of Cantonese legacy learners my Chinese literacy is very low, I know a few hundred characters and can only now, returning to it as an adult and learning pinyin and some limited mandarin and discovering jyutping, that i can barely read newspaper headlines and menus. From the time I stopped going to Chinese school in 5th grade (and i went every after school, not weekends) until my mid-30s I never wrote a coherent sentence in written Chinese. Now with the help of online dictionaries I can crank out basic notes like "come at 4 pm tomorrow, we will have food and drink" and instructions on how to use a door buzzer and things like that. If i had to I guess I could write a very bad business letter, the reader would know instantly that this guy is an ABC. But she would understand it.
And verbally only in the past couple years have I started to give presentations to Chinese senior citizens in Cantonese and Toishanese . I spoke Cantonese and Toishanese with my family everyday and in public interactions in Chinatown, but never before in an "official" capacity. The experience has been great.
And that as somebody who didn't speak English at all until kindergarten and first grade — I remember not being able to speak English at all in school.
It's very humbling , it's like realizing that your mother language is about as recognized in current American discourse as Catalan or Liberian English, despite our 100 million speakers and preponderance still in the US.
"Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/14)
"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)
"English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage " (9/4/13)
"Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages" (9/25/15)
"Token Cantonese" (5/16/15)
"Speak Cantonese" (6/10/16)
"Hong Kong Multilingualism and Polyscriptalism" (7/26/10)
"Identifying written Cantonese" (8/30/08)
"Cantonese novels" (8/20/13)
And there are many others. Note that important references and comments are often raised in the discussions following the original posts.
"Written Cantonese" (Wikipedia article)
"How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language"
Snow, Donald B. (2004). Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong University Press.
Cheung, Kwan-hin; Bauer, Robert S. (2002). The representation of Cantonese with Chinese characters. Journal of Chinese linguistics. Monograph series, no. 18.