In my Bel Canton series, I attempt to break down Chinese into the substituent components so that you can understand what’s going on behind the scenes and find it easier to remember the structures and vocabulary. However, not every character translates so well word-for-word into English, which is why I have to create my own conventions for this break-down. Here are my principles:
- I always follow the Cantonese script first with Jyutping romanisation. Pronunciation may differ slightly from speaker to speaker, but I romanise my own pronunciation, which I can promise at least all Hongkongers will understand. I don’t have the so-called “lazy sounds” that my teachers basically purged in school but you might see in other materials. They should not be considered wrong, rather just variations or even shifts in the pronunciation. More on that in another post.
- each word in the English translation/break-down (i.e. separated by a space) corresponds by default to one Chinese character.
If you’re a follower of the Cantonese-centric part of my blog, you might have heard about the Cantonese Conversations project elsewhere. It is an initiative that Olly Richards and I, among others, took a while ago to create a set of Cantonese learning materials that are completely organic and natural, in order to fill the gap of listening/reading materials on the intermediate/advanced level. It is a package of video/audio recordings of native conversations, together with a written transcript, Jyutping transcription and my English translation.
It came out officially a few months back, and recently I’ve been working on putting out a revised version, particularly focusing on proofreading the Jyutping. And that got me thinking: if I assume correctly, the majority of users will be reading the Jyutping instead of the Chinese script. And there’s a troubling thing about Cantonese: not only does it lack standardisation, but it is also undergoing a number of pronunciation changes. What that means is if you listen to us native speakers, there will be multiple ways of pronouncing the same words. We hardly even notice the differences, even though they tend to sound drastically different to foreign ears.
In the Jyutping transcriptions inside the package, we aim to
- represent the recording as accurately as possible,
- expose the reader to different pronunciations, and
- limit the number of varieties to make sure readers can still recognise them as the same word.
And quite often, these goals came into conflict, and we had to try and strike a balance. So halfway through the revision process, I thought I’d take to my own blog to explain some of the most common divergent pronunciations, so that it is still possible to recognise the words under different guises. The following pairs of sounds are often called ‘lazy sounds‘ (懶音 laan5 jam1) by native speakers. Chinese teachers will tell you one of them is right and one is wrong, while younger people would say one is newer and one is outdated. The fact is that they’re both in use, so I suggest you use either one yourself, but make sure to get acquainted with both of them. Here we go!
At the time of writing, it’s the Chinese Lantern Festival, i.e. the 15th day of the first lunar month, also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. And a mere 3 days after that, it’s a day that many Hongkongers either relish or fret about: the western Valentine’s Day! Among local teenagers, being single is a thing often poked fun at, to say the least. So, to celebrate my 21st single Valentine’s in a row, here’s a rapid-fire list of local/Internet Cantonese slang related to love and relationships – so you can save your 我愛你 ngo5 oi3 nei5 (I love you) for your significant other and joke light-heartedly about him/her with your friends afterwards 😉
Superdry – single life in a nutshell.
Sometimes I look back on single life, which felt so dry (thirsty for romance). Whenever people with 愛情嘅滋潤 oi3 cing4 ge3 zi1 jeon6 (the “moistening” of romance) took to the Internet to 曬命 saai3 meng6 (to “sun-dry” life) i.e. brag, or poke fun at me, all I could respond with was 首先…… sau2 sin (first…), which is a shorthand for 首先，你要有個女朋友 sau2 sin1, nei5 jiu3 jau5 go3 neoi5 pang4 jau5 (…but before that, you must have a girlfriend), a self-deprecating joke that’s gotten so overused on the Internet that the first part alone is understood to imply the entire sentence.
“What’s my name in Chinese?”
I cringe a little whenever I hear this question, because it comes up so often. To Westerners, Chinese is probably the epitome of an exotic language: it sounds sing-songy and weird and looks completely incomprehensible. But all I could answer to this question is, “what’s your name in Russian then?” That would probably just be the original name with an accent, which is basically the case in Chinese. Still, we see that many Westerners do end up getting a Chinese name (漢名 hon3 meng2 Han name) that sounds almost completely different. How do they do it?
Transliteration and Translation
There are several important concepts and factors relating to how Westerners have their Chinese names. Firstly, we transliterate, not translate. Translation of a name, in a daily sense as I would put it, involves more of a transfer of meaning (意譯 ji3 jik6 meaning translation), like how we say ‘Jacob means Supplanter in Hebrew’. But we never call Jacob ‘Supplanter’; Jacob is just Jacob, or rather, יַעֲקֹב with an anglicised pronunciation. A more common example comes from European first names based on saints: ‘Katarzyna’ would be a translation of ‘Catherine’, since strictly speaking, they are names native to different cultures with the same meaning (in this case, reference to the original Catherine).
What’s a word?
Funny question, isn’t it. A word is the thing in a text that stands between two spaces.
But as you know,in Chinese languages you don’t write spaces. And if you caught up with my introduction, the structure of a text and how we look at it differ quite a bit from the alphabetical languages we’re all so used to.
Now let’s dig deeper into the world of “words” – or 字 zi6 – shall we?
We in bilingual schools end up with a lot of inconsistencies in what a ‘word’ designates in Chinese writing and speech – though no real confusion – especially when writing essays. I don’t know about foreign schools, but our exams always had clear word limits: “around 800 words” for an essay, or maybe 200 for a shorter question.
Like it or not, Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. At least where it’s available anyway. Even though in Hong Kong we’re still impatiently waiting for it to arrive, this album has gone viral among my friend circles. What it is is an ever-growing list of Cantonese-based puns on Pokémon, created by an Asian-American. Some of them are so culture-specific that learners or lovers of Cantonese might not get them! Since Pokémon and Cantonese are two of my biggest passions, I thought why not take the good stuff that’s there, and share the fun with more of you guys? You never know, you might learn some cultural fun facts 🙂
Disclaimer: these pics are used with permission from the owner Annie @pokemonyc. The game itself belongs to Nintento/Niantic.
It’s finally time to open the Pandora’s box of Cantonese! Despite having lots of colloquial and expressive stuff planned, I suddenly had the idea to start with something simpler, but extremely useful in daily life: units. The world appears to be divided into metric VS imperial when it comes to units, and you might wonder how we make our measurements in Hong Kong. In a way we are like the UK: depending on situation, we use a mix of both, plus our traditional units. But there is a general trend: my generation is educated in the metric system, so the other systems might end up going out of use in the future, for better or worse. But for now, let me tell you how I and people I know measure things. And believe me, the Chinese names of the ‘western’ units are just as easy!
Slight note, before you read this, you might want to check out my guide to the word-by-word breakdowns below!
What comes to mind when you think of Chinese? Time and time again I’ve heard people saying things like “it’s a picture for every word”, and many a language’s version of “it’s all Greek to me” points to Chinese instead. It’s always this exotic, unknown tongue in a faraway land. In the first article in my new Bel Canton section, I’ll start with the mother of Cantonese – Chinese, breaking it down to you how it’s actually composed, and showing you why it isn’t as mystic as it appears to be.
But before I talk about the structure of Chinese languages, I’d like to briefly describe the structure of the Chinese language family so as to clear up some ambiguities concerning what I’ll be discussing.
The Chinese language family
You won’t believe how many times I’ve had this conversation, but the linguistic status of Chinese languages are pretty much still undefined, especially among Chinese-speaking communities themsleves. The confusion usually comes from the unity in writing: despite the many tongues existing in China, everyone writes the same way, with (mostly) the same set of characters, and can understand one another through the script, even if they don’t share the same speech. This has a long history: for a long time China has used classical Chinese as the written standard, from which the spoken languages deviate, pretty much like Latin and the Romance languages. It isn’t until a century ago that they decided to reform the written standard according to Mandarin, the language of government at the time. Hence to this day, the other spoken languages are still labeled dialects (方言). That’s putting aside the political subtext which clearly influences this choice of terminology, since dialects are subordinate to a language, but this is not the right place for that. Nevertheless, it is indeed said that it’s the “square characters” – our logograms, as opposed to alphabet – that has given us mutual intelligibility in writing and thus engendered a tendency towards unification throughout Chinese history.