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.

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I honestly doubt I need an introduction to the current international Olympic frenzy.

Open any social media, and half of what you see is sports news from Tokyo 2020/2021. (For me, the other half is depressing Hong Kong news.)

And with any luck, or if you’re following any Hong Kong-related accounts, you might have some dramatic moments to follow and celebrate.

In this edition of Bel Canton, where I highlight (new) Cantonese words that are essential to current topics, let’s react to the Olympic Games together!

But first, the basics.

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Subtitles available in English and Cantonese. German transcript below.

Ich bin heute auf eine deutsche Seite gestoßen, die versucht, die Beziehung zwischen Kantonesisch und Mandarin, oder dem Begriff Chinesisch, zu erklären. Spoiler Alert: diesen Artikel finde ich total Quatsch. Er behauptet, Kantonesisch sei ein Dialekt von Chinesisch, und Mandarin sei Hochchinesisch.Diese Art Kategorisierung ist ganz politisch motiviert, und von einem rein sprachwissenschaftlichen Standpunkt ist sie sehr problematisch.

In diesem Video werde ich versuchen, als ein Sprachenliebhaber, ein Amateursprachwissenschaftler und ein Sprecher von drei sinitischen bzw. chinesischen Sprachen, zu erklären, was ein Dialekt in diesem Zusammenhang wirklich bedeutet, und abgesehen von der Politik, was Kantonesisch eigentlich ist, und wie man überhaupt diese Sprachen betrachten soll.

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Inject Jyutping is a new Chrome extension that simply does what it says: it adds Jyutping romanisation onto Cantonese texts you see on the internet. This comes in the form of Ruby characters, i.e. small pronunciation guides on top of characters, which are common in all languages that use Chinese characters except Cantonese—until now.

This extension is so simple that you can already see the result in the image above, so this will be more of a recommendation than a review. I love it so much because it does one simple thing so well, but can be immensely helpful towards learners. It’s exactly what I aim to do for the transcriptions in our upcoming Cantonese podcast for intermediate-advanced learners.

Since it’s a Chrome extension, don’t forget that the new Microsoft Edge can use it as well.

How it works

It’s just one button. Literally. Click it, and you get jyutping plastered all over whatever Chinese text that happens to be on your screen.

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Sinitic languages family tree.

Since the turn of the 20th century, languages in southern China suffered a downturn that extended from high society to the lower classes. When leaders that spoke southern languages began to extol the northern language Mandarin, they quickly propelled the entire society to follow suit.

Our story begins in 1895, when the Qing government lost the First Sino-Japanese War. It was perceived by the rulers as utter humiliation to lose to a nation that once kowtowed to the empire.

Since then, Chinese people increasingly studied abroad in Japan and Western countries, in hopes of bringing home foreign knowledge and know-how.

One of the ideas imported from the West was racialism (racism)—not the ensuing discrimination, but the fundamental idea of dividing human beings into ‘races’.

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Hong Kong protest scene

When I started writing the first part of this post, I didn’t anticipate that I would be writing a part two. Yet here I am, because the sheer longevity of the movement (following the legacy of the Umbrella Movement) has created a jargon of its own.

First, let’s delve into the differences within the pro-democratic faction. Because if you thought protesters were all as united as they seem, you’re in for a bit of surprise…

Deep divisions

Last time, I talked about the two main factions, yellow (pro-democracy) and blue (pro-China). But divisions within the anti-government faction runs deep, and have been so for years.

To approximately describe an individual’s position on the political spectrum, the same way you say ‘moderate left’ or ‘far right’, we use nuances in the colour. 淺黃 cin2 wong4 (light yellow) would describe someone who opposes the authoritarian government, but holds values such as nonviolent protest and peaceful resolution, for example. 深黃 sam1 wong4 (deep yellow) would refer to someone supporting anything from violent protest to independence.

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Lennon Wall at the Hong Kong International Airport.

It’s been over a year since Hong Kong’s latest fight for freedom began. Over this period, the movement has come to develop its own lingo. If you have tried to figure out what people are talking or writing about the protests, you might be confused by the vocabulary that’s missing from dictionaries.

I initially created the ‘Bel Canton‘ section on this blog precisely for something like this: to document the ever-changing Cantonese language, and to keep you, lovers of Cantonese-speaking culture, up to date. Now, let’s tread some dangerous ground, and find out what these *ahem* pesky troublemakers *ahem* are babbling behind your backs!

The Factions

Hong Kong, like many other societies, has been rapidly polarised over the past years. Today, instead of left- or right-leaning political views, there are colour-based factions.

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Hong Kong International Airport

When people and blogs talk about reasons to learn Cantonese, they talk about travelling to Hong Kong, or perhaps Macau and Gwongdung. They talk about the golden age movies and martial arts flicks from Hong Kong, and 90s Cantopop. Oh and there are almost as many native speakers as German.

If you are passionate about these things, you already have very good reasons to learn Cantonese. And you should absolutely go for it! But things have changed over the past decades, and Cantonese-language culture has grown and evolved, especially online.

And I am here to tell you that, whether you already have plans to learn it or have merely entertained the idea once or twice, now—mid 2020—is a better time to learn Cantonese than ever before. Now is the time to take action and make those dreams of understanding a completely new culture come true.

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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

  1. represent the recording as accurately as possible,
  2. expose the reader to different pronunciations, and
  3. 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!

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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 😉

Single life

superdry brand logo

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.

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