Sunday, October 6, 2019

Cantonese Cheatsheet #2: Question words in Cantonese

(Note: This is part of a continuing series of "Cheat Sheets" where I share some of the major differences I learned between Mandarin and Cantonese to help people who read the former begin to read the latter)

This post covers Cantonese words in comparison to their Mandarin equivalents. Take note of how Cantonese’s question words often slip into their own usages, evading certain differentiations seen in both English or Mandarin. 

That being said, I'll first highlight that basic yes/no and copular ("to be") questions in Cantonese are usually made with a verb-negative-verb structure and a final particle () at the end of the sentence. This is a bit different from Mandarin, which can either use: (1) to change  a statement into a question OR (2) a verb-negative-verb structure but no :

Is it your computer?

Do you like it?

(Note: There are cases where you can create a question in Cantonese without verb-negative-verb structures and use a final particle, but that is usually only seen in rhetorical questions like, 仲要講咩? Do you still need to talk?)

In general, the final particle a () is added to questions using question words as well, though it can be swapped out for other final particles to add some tone or flare. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve restricted the example sentences below to only use a.

1. 邊個 bīn go, 邊位 bīnwái (vs. , 哪一個)

The default way to express “who” in Cantonese (similar to in Mandarin) is to use bīn go (邊個).

Who is she?

In cases where you need to be more polite (like on the telephone), bīn wái (邊位) is a suitable substitution for bīn go.

With whom would you like to speak?

Note that in the above example, Mandarin expresses politeness to the other speaker with the formal , while Cantonese expresses politeness through the swap in question word, though whether that politeness is being directed at the other interlocutor or the person being sought after is up for debate. What matters is that while these are both stock phrases in telephone Mandarin and Cantonese that express approximate meaning, there are subtle differences to be aware of. 

However, know that bīn go is also the neutral way to ask “which” in cases where the noun in question uses the default measure word, , functioning similarly to 哪一個 in Mandarin.

Which place?

However, if the noun you are referring to has a particular measure word (like 張,條,隻, etc.), then you will need to swap out the with the appropriate measure word, as in below:

(*imagine there is a room full of cats having a play date*)
Which two cats are yours?

In this manner, bīn go can also be interpreted as “which person” when referring to assembled people rather than “who” or “whom”:

(*you walk into a bar with your friend and there are five men sitting down*)
Which one is your boyfriend?

2. 邊度 bīn douh vs. 哪裏, 哪兒)

Bīn douh is the standard “where” word in Cantonese, similar to 哪裡 or 哪兒 in Mandarin. It comes up a lot following hái ():

你住在哪裡?/ 你住在哪兒?
Where do you live?

Often, bīn douh is shortened to just bīn in very short, colloquial expressions.

()去哪裡?/ 去哪兒?
Where are you going?

3. 乜嘢 māt yéh, (vs. 什麼, sometimes )

The closest equivalent to the Mandarin 什麼 in Cantonese is 乜嘢, or “what”:

What is this?

What is he doing?

When the final particle làih ga is added at the end of a māt yéh question, it can take on the meaning of “what sort of”/“what kind of” (什麼樣的), often with a questioning, derisive, or sarcastic tone.

What sort of movie is this?

Māt yéh is often truncated to simply (), especially for quick questions:

What are you saying? / What are you talking about?

4. () dím (yéung) vs. 怎麼)

For “how” questions, Cantonese uses dím yéung (點樣) or just dím ():

How can one best study Cantonese? (literally, “how best study Cantonese;” in English, we might also say, “What is the best way to study Cantonese?”)

How do we discuss this problem?

And here’s an example with the truncation:

*when asking for pedestrian directions*
How does one get there (by walking)?

5. 點解 dím gáai and 做乜嘢 jouh māt yéh (vs. 為什麼)

The most common way to ask “why” (為什麼) is to use the question word dím gáai. Mandarin speakers might find it helpful to break this expression further, knowing that in Cantonese function similar to 怎麼 in Mandarin, while is a shortened form of 解釋, or “to explain.” Thus, in asking, “Why?” a Cantonese speaker is essentially asking, “How do you explain?”

Why didn’t you tell me?

Why do you live here?

However, if someone is asking (often bluntly) about purpose or intention behind a particular action, they can also use jouh māt yéh (做乜嘢), which functions similarly to the colloquial 幹嗎 in Mandarin:

Why are you standing there?/What are you standing there for?

Why are you eating my salad?/What are you eating my salad for?

6. () géi dō (vs. 幾)

Here, Mandarin speakers may breathe a sigh of relief, as the question word for “how much” and “how many” questions is basically the same between the two languages. However, there is a subtle difference… Whereas in Mandarin, is almost always followed by an appropriate measure word, in Cantonese, it is almost always followed by , with an additional measure word optional:

How much (money) is it?

How many people are in your party? (at a restaurant)

How many apples did you eat?


This is just the basics of question words in Cantonese. As I mentioned above, there are many more (creative) ways to ask people for information in 廣東話, or to simply use questions as sarcastic barbs in the course of conversation. Hopefully I’ll get to cover some of that in a later post.