Monday, September 16, 2019

Cantonese cheatsheet #1: 5 basic ways written Cantonese differs from written Mandarin

(Note: This is the first “cheatsheet” in a continuing series aimed at helping people with a foundation in Mandarin transition into reading Cantonese)

Some people I know got into Cantonese after stumbling across a Hong Kong media source or forum (*cough cough* LIHKG) and discovering that their existing knowledge of “Standard Written Chinese” only got them so far. That’s because written vernacular Cantonese is a  far cry from written Mandarin, employing a whole host of characters rarely seen up north. However, Mandarin readers still have a leg up over people with no character experience, as there is still a fair amount of overlap between the written colloquial forms of the two languages.

As someone who arrived at Cantonese after studying Mandarin, a lot of my early study focused on how the two languages differ so I could keep them straight in my head. Below are are five key divergences in terms of functional use. With these, a person literate in Mandarin should be able to start making simple sentences with Cantonese-specific characters.

1. 係 haih (vs. )

The primary “to be” verb in Cantonese, corresponding with in Mandarin. Its primary usage is for “A is B” style constructions like below:

Ngóh haih Hēunggóng yàhn.
I am a Hongkonger. 

Ngóh haih yīsāng.
I am a doctor.

2. 喺 hái (vs. )

This coverb functions fairly similarly to in Mandarin. However, the huge thing to pay attention to is how close the pronunciation is to (to be)—they only differ in tone. is a low flat low tone while is a rising tone. They also differ by one radical.

Ngóh jyuh hái Hēunggóng.
I live in Hong Kong.

Ngóh hái gūngyún sihk faahn.
I eat in the park. 

(Note the verbs for “to eat” differ here between Cantonese and Mandarin; verb differences are a whole other can of worms and will be covered in more detail later)

3. 唔 mh`, 未 meih, and  móuh (vs. , 沒, and 沒有)

Cantonese uses distinct negative adverbs from Mandarin. The first, , functions similar to in that you will generally see it before a verb or adjective. (Note that it should be romanized as a low falling tone, but some people also just write m or mh) Some examples:

Ngóh mh` haih Faatgwok yàhn.
I am not French. 

Ngóh mh` sīk Faatyúh.
I don’t know French/I can’t speak French.

Just like Cantonese has its own standard negative adverb, it also has a separate one for lacking or having not done something. Thus, we see instead of :

Ngóh meih heui gwo Yahtbún.
I have never been to Japan.

The one major exception comes up with the verb . In that case, Cantonese has a word that efficiently blends the sounds of meih and yáuh together while also conveying the sense of “not having” in a single, genius character: móuh.

Ngóh móuh pàhng yáuh.
I have no friends.

4.  kéuih kéuihdeih,  néihdeih,  ngóhdeih (vs. 他/她/它,他們,你們,我們)

The characters for the pronouns “I/me” () and “you” () do not differ between Mandarin and Cantonese (though you could argue Cantonese song lyrics still use the feminine more than contemporary Mandarin does, as in the case of 《喜歡妳》). 

However, it’s another story with the third person when speaking about people or animals. In that case, // becomes (kéuih). 

Kéuih yauh leng yauh gōu.
He is both handsome and tall.

Kéuih haih ngóh daaihgō.
He is my big brother/boss/triad leader. (check your context!)

(In the last example, note the lack of possessive particle between the pronoun and 大哥—for many close/familial relationships, a possessive particle is not obligatory.)

Cantonese also has its own particle for pluralizing pronouns, similar to  in Mandarin:  (deih).

Ngóhdeih mh` séung fāan ūkkéi/ngūkkéi.
We don’t want to go home. 

5.  ge… and other measure words vs.  and much more)

In Cantonese,  (ge) functions like when it comes to marking a general sense of possession or attaching adjectives to nouns. Some examples:

Nī go haih kéuih ge.
This (thing) is hers.

Ngóh jūngyi yám hóu laaht ge tōng.
I like eating/drinking very spicy soup. 

Kéuih cheung gō ge sìhhauh hóuchíh hóu hōisām.
She seems very happy when she sings.

However, one major difference between Cantonese and Mandarin when it comes to marking possession is that for many nouns in Cantonese, you use the measures word (e.g. 對,張,部,頭,隻, etc.) instead of ( being there for more general usage). 

Ngóh jek māau hóu dāk yi.
My cat is very cute.

Néih gāan ūk/ngūk hóu daaih.
Your house is very big.


Anyway, this is just a starting point. Going forward, I’ll add more cheatsheets covering a wider variety of parallel structures. But I hope this helps people as they embark on reading more Cantonese texts. For those who read this and have suggestions/comments/elaborations, please share in the comments!

Saturday, September 7, 2019

#1 Cantonese Listening Tool: RTHK On The Go

App name:
RTHK On The Go

App creator:
Radio Television Hong Kong

UI Language:
English, Chinese (繁體)


Download links:

According to a foreign professor I met in Hong Kong, a true test of a person's Cantonese is whether they can listen to the RTHK morning traffic report and give accurate commute recommendations based on what they heard. It's certainly a creative metric for fluency, though perhaps a little incomplete. I think you should also be able to listen to one of the morning shows (e.g., 瘋show快活人) and give an accurate summary of the latest celebrity gossip. But to each their own...

RTHK stands for Radio Television Hong Kong, and it has been a major source of news and entertainment in Hong Kong since 1928, operating seven radio channels (though one is mostly a stream of China National Radio) and three TV channels (though one is just a live stream of CCTV1). RTHK On The Go, which is available on both iOS and Android, allows for easy streaming of RTHK Radio's seven stations.

Above: RTHK On The Go station selection screen

Some language pedagogy experts say you need to be exposed to a high volume of auditory input in a target language before you really grasp its sounds and syntax (credit to Spongemind, a bilingual podcast for Korean and English learners, for bringing this to my attention). RTHK On The Go can certainly get you there without you ever having to set foot in Hong Kong (though I recommend you go). You can just leave it playing in the background while you cook, exercise, whatever, and you have a steady stream of Cantonese content. 

There is incredible diversity of programming across the RTHK stations, ranging from news briefs to talk shows to Cantonese opera performances. These expose you to a variety of accents and voices, which is important if you are only used to the sound of your textbook CDs or Cantonese teacher. My favorite moments are when listeners call in—sometimes an 8-year-old with a cute story of domestic conflict, sometimes an 80-year-old man wishing a friend happy birthday—and you get a brief look into the life of a Hongkonger you've never met. 

RTHK radio offers an additional challenge (opportunity?) for Mandarin speakers in that there are ample instances of celebrity interviews with people from mainland China or Taiwan who can understand Cantonese but not speak it, resulting in trans-lingual dialogues that keep you on your toes. These get more confusing when there are roundtable discussions between three Cantonese speakers, two Mandarin speakers, and a random person who switches in between. But if you can keep up, kudos to you—you're two thirds of the way toward living a Wong Kar-wai film (you need to pick up Shanghainese to reach 100%). 

For those with political matters on their mind, RTHK does a fairly strong job of bringing in perspectives from all sides of the Hong Kong political spectrum. Indeed, despite receiving public funding, it is not entirely a shill for the establishment. It also offers programming in English (as well as other minority languages in Hong Kong, like Hindi), meaning if your Cantonese listening is only getting you 50% of the message, there are other segments that can give you important news and cultural information in a language you prefer.

My favorite RTHK programs (mostly on RTHK 2):

Albert Au

(other program suggestions are greatly appreciated!)

Monday, September 2, 2019

Interesting Cantonese: A Basic Introduction to Cantonese

Interesting Cantonese

Susanna Ng

Ming Man Publications Limited (Hong Kong)

Date published
First edition came out in 2005, but many since then

Cantonese romanization method: 

Sticker price
$225 HKD 

Audio format:

What this book is good for
Building vocabulary, learning common phrases

This book is ubiquitous in English-language bookstores across Hong Kong, and for good reason. With over 3,000 vocabulary words and expressions, it is a thorough catalog of Cantonese required for everyday life. 

The book labels itself as "For Beginner & Intermedia Level," though it doesn't really offer any of sort of graduated curriculum that helps you build sentences or ideas of increasing complexity. Instead, it covers phrases and words thematically, beginning with "Daily Conversation," moving on to "Interesting Cantonese," and finishing with "Improve Your Cantonese." An appendix titled "Names of Places in Hong Kong" is very helpful for anyone wanting to improve their ability to give directions or communicate with cab drivers.

Each part is split into further chapters, with "Daily Conversation" being the most diverse in terms of topics, such as Eating, Drinking, Money, Transport, Time, etc. Improve Your Cantonese actually deals head-on with grammatical issues like verbs, tenses, etc. but more through lists than through gradual introductions of sentence structures. For example, the verb chapter is really a list of standalone verbs, each one followed by an example sentence in English, the romanized form of the Cantonese, and then the Chinese characters.

For example, on page 230:
I write down your name.
Ngóh sé dāi néih go méng.

One amazing aspect of the book is the 4 CDs it provides (though you need to have a CD drive, of course). The CDs include recordings of ALL the Cantonese vocabulary and phrases in the books, making for an excellent repository of spoken Cantonese. However, the English translations are not read aloud, so if you are listening to this while you drive or work out, you are listening more for sound acquisition than for pairing meanings between languages; for the latter, you need to be looking at the book as you listen.

I find Interesting Cantonese to be a solid reference material for people who either want to learn some quick phrases (the first and second parts of the book) or for those who already know basic sentence structures and want to plug in new vocabulary (part three of the book). However, it lacks the series of dialogues or reading passages you might look for in a well-rounded primer in an intro language curriculum. The book could also use an index, as it can be difficult to rediscover entries you only vaguely remember. 

5-Way Hong Kong Dictionary: The Hong Kong Polyglot’s Dream

廣普日韓英 圖解生活辭典 香港篇 (Cantonese/Mandarin/Japanese/Korean/English Picture Dictionary, Hong Kong Version; note that some pages say title is 字典 instead of 辭典)

林珮琦 (Catherine Lin)

SOW Publishing Ltd., Hong Kong

Date published: 

Cantonese romanization method: 

Sticker price: 
$290 HKD

What this book is good for: 
Building vocabulary

I love this book. Here is a resource that not only contains a wealth of Cantonese vocabulary, but if you study/speak any of the other four languages listed in the title (Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, or English), it also helps you learn Hong Kong-specific terms in those languages as well.

Note that since this is a dictionary, it is not the best standalone resource for learning the Cantonese language—there aren’t explanations of the grammar, romanization, or final particles. This should be bought as a supplement to another book or Cantonese course, or just as something fun to flip through or find flashcard inspiration. 

The book organizes vocabulary into five units: Basic, Living in Hong Kong, Shopping in Hong Kong, Eating in Hong Kong, and Having Fun in Hong Kong. While the majority of the entries are focused on standalone words (e.g. Antacid, Yau Tong MTR, pork liver), there is also a handy assortment of stock phrases and sentences (“Could you give me a discount?”—> Yau5 mou5 dak1 peng4 di1 a3?).

As alluded to earlier, the Hong Kong-specific vocabulary is incredibly useful for anyone living in the SAR. Of great use is the food section (with individual pictures) articulating everything from fermented and salted soybean to various varieties of dim sum. There is also a handy list of MTR stations, though since the book was published in 2016, it is missing newer stations, particularly those on the South Island Line.

Mandarin speakers who grew up or studied in mainland China will get additional use out of the book’s use of 
simplified characters for Mandarin listings and traditional characters for Cantonese. This makes navigating Hong Kong signage much easier, while also drawing attention to the notable differences between Cantonese and Mandarin usage (e.g. 對 vs. 双 as the appropriate measure word for items that exist in a pair). 

The book markets a companion product known as a “MyVoice” smart pen (智慧筆 in the Chinese-only marketing material). I have not tried this, but apparently the pen pronounces all five languages used in this book. It also has a recording function that allows you to listen to your own voice upon playback so you can adjust your pronunciation. It sounds nice, though I think you can achieve a similar effect by combining the (free) Google Translator smartphone app with a voice memo app on your smartphone.

I noticed a few small typos in the English (e.g. “Perface” instead of “Preface”) and an unusual choice of measure word in the Korean, but I don’t think they detract from the overall product. Slightly more frustrating is that the index in the back only has a Jyutping iteration, making it hard to look up words by English/Mandarin/Japanese/Korean—for those, you basically need to have a vague sense of where a term might fit into a given unit.

The Hong Kong Internet Compendium (香港網絡大典)


香港網絡大典 (Rough translation: The Hong Kong Internet Compendium)
Formal written Chinese, with slangy Cantonese mixed in; limited English

香港網絡大典 (Hēung góng móhng lok daaih dín) is your #1 destination for explanations of Hong Kong internet culture. Found a confusing Pikachu meme without context? You're covered. Keep encountering pop culture references to some dude named Edison Chen? Read on. For all those people digging into the meme-dense space that is LIHKG, this is a great resource.

香港網絡大典 is mostly written in formal written Chinese (as opposed to written colloquial Cantonese), meaning it should be accessible to most people literate in traditional characters (run it through a character converter if you desire simplified). If you do not read Chinese, you can try Google Translate, but the results may be interesting. 

Because this is a Wiki, you are getting crowd-sourced information. That means there may be some inaccuracies from time to time, but overall the info conveys impressive depth. There are meme repositories, video clips, and plenty of other elements to help widen your exposure to a Hong Kong perspective on the World Wide Web.

For instance, check out the page on 大時代 (Daaih sìh doih; a.k.a The Greed of Man), one of the greatest television dramas ever (I am only slightly editorializing). Whereas the Wikipedia entry on the show will just talk about the synopsis, cast, etc., 香港網絡大典 is more concerned with the pop culture and meme implications of the show. Thus, we have a nice gallery of classic lines from famed actor Kong Ngai (江毅):

As well as some fun history about when the 2015 late-night rerun of the show (which prominently features a stock market crash) coincided with a drop in the Hang Seng, further confirming the "Ding Hai Effect/丁蟹效應":

Overall, 香港網絡大典 may not be the best tool for Cantonese beginners, but it is a great place to explore if you are eager for cultural context. If you want to be at the cutting edge of what is happening, I recommend the trending news page (新聞動態):

There you will find summaries of current events in Hong Kong with handy links to relevant reference pages. It is incredibly helpful if you are tracking timelines of Hong Kong social movements.