American-Born Cantonese Perceptions of Cantonese

This is just a short note of some observations, after meeting with a group of around 10-15 primarily university-aged American-born Cantonese (most of whom’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong) today.

While priding themselves in being Cantonese, however low their fluency in it may be, they themselves call Cantonese terms “slang.” Mandarin was never really mentioned in conversations as an H language to which Cantonese would be an L language; Cantonese seemed like an L language with respect to Standard Chinese (by this I am referring to the written Mandarin) that they had perhaps learned when learning to write Chinese (with spoken Cantonese or spoken Mandarin) in a formal classroom setting. I didn’t hear the term “slang” as resulting from the concept of Mandarin having considerably more social or practical value today than Cantonese as the language of mainland China, so I’m not sure if the term slang was used because they haven’t thought of a more precise term of understanding Cantonese as a vernacular or even as having many colloquial expressions (I wouldn’t expect them to have been exposed to a term like “topolect” unless they had purposefully researched Cantonese before), but it seemed like they were quite ignorant of written Cantonese.

Through some old Cantonese language textbooks, they learned and were thoroughly surprised to find that terms in spoken Cantonese that differ from their Standard Chinese counterparts indeed have written forms of their own; further, I’m not sure if they realized that these terms were not created out of thin air, but have different meanings in Standard Chinese and/or were used in older forms of Chinese but are not used in Standard Chinese. So they were clearly unaware of the process by which spoken Mandarin became the standardized form of written Chinese (although, realistically, who would be familiar with it if they had not researched it themselves?).

Though they read through the Cantonese language textbooks, they did not have much interest in reading a book like Cantonese as Written Language by Don Snow, although in part understandably so because it seems like a dense book unless or until you have developed a greater interest in Cantonese. So they were not interested in the social implications of Cantonese’s language status and the phenomenon of its developed written form, having only recently been exposed to it.

I don’t blame them for their ignorance, but it does kind of motivate me to return to actively learning about Cantonese and possibly blogging. But at the same time, I don’t know if this is the most profitable use of my time. I guess the bottom line is this: I still love Cantonese and think its development as a written vernacular is novel and super cool, but am not sure how much I should commit to learning about it.

P.S. It’s kind of odd writing in these linguistic terms again after a long time of not.

Some Articles on Cantonese

I must admit, I kind of miss blogging. I haven’t blogged for well over a year on this blog, and on any of my blogs for that matter. I haven’t kept up with Hong Kong news as much because it’s honestly kind of depressing, and over time I have realized more that I do not need to hope in the democratization of Hong Kong and/or the recognition of Cantonese as a language. Because I am a Christian, these things are not as important to me as living a life focused on my relationship with God and honoring Him.

But whenever I start reading about Cantonese (perhaps not so much when I read about Hong Kong politics because the state of it seems dismal almost all the time), I feel as if some inner desire in me is rekindled, and as if I can easily devour literature on Cantonese now as I did in the past. So here are some interesting articles on Cantonese I just found with a quick search on UPenn’s Language Log:

Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese (8/2013)

A quick exit for Cantonese (7/2015)

During this academic term it seems like I’ll have more free time, which will possibly be spent reading more about Cantonese. Though I’m not studying a subject related to Cantonese in university (partly because I know that in American universities Cantonese is primarily at most offered as a language course), who knows, maybe I’ll have opportunities in the future to continue this study more, especially if I am able to study abroad in Hong Kong in the near future. Cantonese remains something that intrigues and delights me.

English/Chinese Terms Connected to Cantonese

Beginning in the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, Chinese settlers to Western countries primarily came from Guangdong province, and many of the first Westerners seeking to conduct trade with China found their base in neighboring Hong Kong. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many early terms traded between English and Chinese (as in English terms derived from Chinese, and vice versa) were more specifically trade-offs between English and Cantonese. With the overwhelming dominance of Mandarin in characterizing “Chinese” the world today, though, it seems that the influence of Cantonese in shaping such language trade is underestimated, ignored, or unknown to most.

But there is indeed a large list that persists, and I have long wanted to draft a list of such “loanwords,” as some call them; perhaps most notable is the multitude of Chinese terms for proper nouns (cities, countries, universities, etc) that sound closer to their English counterparts when spoken in Cantonese, as compared to when spoken in Mandarin.

Ideally, this list could be updated later as I or others came up with more loanwords or whenever I have time, but here’s to start:

[Note 1: The letter “j” has a silent value using jyutping.]

[Note 2: I used the format English word: Chinese characters (Cantonese pronunciation) below.]

Cantonese to English:

bok choy: 白菜 (baak6 coi3)
chop suey: 雜碎 (zaap6 seoi3)
chow mein: 麵 (caau2 min6)
dim sum: 點心 (dim2 sam1)
kumquat: 柑橘 (gam1 gwat1)
longan: 龍眼 (lung4 ngaan5)
lychee: 荔枝 (lai6 zi1)
ketchup(?): 茄汁 (ke4*2 zap1)
wok: 鑊 (wok6)
wonton: 雲吞 (wan4 tan1)

kowtow: 叩頭 (kau3 tau4)
kung fu: 功夫 (gung1 fu1)
sampan: 舢舨 (saan1 baan2)
typhoon: 颱風 (toi4 fung1)

(*see Wikipedia for more)

Early and some existing (English) romanizations for Chinese proper nouns come from Cantonese:

Peking (as in Peking duck), Nanking (as in the Rape of Nanking), Canton, and Toisan are some that I can think of off the top of my head.

“Chiang Kai-shek” is based on the Cantonese pronunciation of “蔣介石” as “zoeng2 gaai3 sek6.” Similarly, the common Western romanization of  “Sun Yat-sen” follows the Cantonese pronunciation of one of his names, “孫逸仙,” pronounced “syun1 jat6 sin1.” With that said, I’ve been annoyed on a few occasions, hearing some refer to “Chiang Kai-shek” as not based on a (proper) Chinese pronunciation.

English to Chinese:

Some of the below Chinese terms are only used by Cantonese speakers.

[Note: In Chinese, usually, a “口” radical placed on the left of a character will indicate that the new “口”+__ character is to be pronounced as the original character is, but will only used for its pronunciation [lacking the meaning of the original character]. In the case of “咖啡,” “咖啡” follows the individual pronunciations of “加” (gaa1) and “非” (fei1) to create the sound “gaa1 fe1” based off the pronunciation of “coffee”; “加非” itself without the “口” radicals lacks much meaning. As “加” is pronounced as “jia1” in Mandarin, it is clear that the term “咖啡” used to mean “coffee” in Chinese is derived from Cantonese, or else “咖啡” would be pronounced as “jia1 fei1” in Mandarin, rather than “ka1 fei1” as it is today. The same goes for “curry.”]

coffee: 咖啡 (gaa1 fe1)
curry: 咖喱 (gaa3 lei1)
chocolate: 朱古力 (zyu1 gu2*1 lik6*1) [Because “朱古力” only sounds like “chocolate” in Cantonese, Mandarin speakers have derived a different Chinese character representation of “chocolate” that resembles the English pronunciation of “chocolate” when pronounced in Mandarin.]
cheese: 芝士 (zi1 si6*2)
salmon: 三文魚 (saam1 man4 jyu4*2)
sandwich: 三文治 (saam1 man4 zi6)
strawberry: 士多啤梨 (si6 do1 be1 lei4*2)

Proper nouns – Places:
Boston: 波士頓 (bo1 si6 deon6*2)
California: 加州 (gaa1 zau1)
Canada: 加拿大 (gaa1 naa4 daai6)
Chicago: 芝加哥 (zi1 gaa1 go1)
Las Vegas: 拉斯維加斯 (laai1 si1 wai4 gaa1 si1)
Mexico: 墨西哥 (mak6 sai1 go1)
Netherlands (based on “Holland”): 荷蘭 (ho4 laan4*1)
New York: 紐約 (nau2 joek3)
San Francisco: 三蕃市 (saam1 faan4 si5)
Rome: 羅馬 (lo4 maa5)
Seattle: 西雅圖 (sai1 ngaa5 tou4)
Singapore: 星加坡 (sing1 gaa3 bo1)
Spain: 西班牙 (sai1 baan1 ngaa4)
Sweden: 瑞典 (seoi6 din2)
Switzerland: 瑞士 (seoi6 si6*2)
Toronto: 多倫多 (do1 leon4 do1)
Vancouver: 溫哥華 (wan1 go1 waa4)
Washington: 華盛頓 (waa4 sing6 deon6)

Plus, just about every place in Hong Kong’s romanized name is based on its Cantonese pronunciation (although some old names are from derived from other dialects like Hakka). Streets named after British persons similarly are represented in Chinese by combining Chinese characters based on their pronunciations in Cantonese.

Harvard: 哈佛 (haa1 fat6)
Stanford: 斯坦福 (si1 taan2 fuk1)
Yale: 耶魯 (je4 lou5)

bus: 巴士 (baa1 si6*2)
partner: 拍檔 (paak3 dong3)
taxi: 的士 (dik1 si6*2)

Chinese: Dialects, Topolects, or Languages?

Growing up, my idea of “Chinese” was Cantonese. As an ethnic Chinese born and raised in the States, I primarily encountered English on a regular basis outside and Cantonese at home; I rarely encountered Mandarin when I was young, or even when I did, I didn’t know it was also “Chinese.” My parents and all of their Chinese friends primarily spoke Cantonese, I attended a Chinese school that held instruction in Cantonese, and frequented a Chinatown in which most people I saw as Chinese spoke Cantonese.

Thus, identifying as “Chinese” at school and in the greater American community, Cantonese and Chinese were the same to me. I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese, I went to Chinese school and learned Chinese; in all situations, Chinese seemed synonymous for Cantonese. But perhaps I first learned of Mandarin in first grade when some classmates were also Chinese, but didn’t quite speak the same. It was much later that I learned about “Chinese” in a more general sense – the plethora of “dialects” and the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese.

In recent times, as I find myself more perceptive of people’s perspectives on “Chinese,” I have observed some young family friends (10 years old and younger) who are also American-born Chinese and their perceptions of “Chinese.” In a sense, they are more tied to their Chinese roots than me: they continued to primarily speak Cantonese with parents and schoolteachers perhaps even up to age 10 (while Cantonese was never really the main language I used) and learned Mandarin in Chinese school, additionally visiting Hong Kong quite much more frequently than me (about every other year). But moving on from their backgrounds, perhaps this is telling of Chinese people’s natural perspectives of “Chinese” – these children refer to Cantonese just as “Chinese.” If speaking about both Cantonese and Mandarin, for example, they might ask, “Does he speak Chinese or Mandarin?” In this way, with their frequent visits to Hong Kong, I feel that they have developed the concept of Hong Kong specifically (in contrast to Guangdong or the whole of China) being their ethnic “Chinese” home – where Chinese people speak Cantonese, what they perceive as “Chinese.”

Speaking from my experience and how I believe these young children perceive “Chinese,” from a non-political standpoint, it seems rather odd to deem your native tongue a mere second-class “dialect” when you feel it is a complex and complete language in itself — one you can fully express yourself in. Additionally, while being told that you are “Chinese” and speak “Chinese,” you can’t help but see little reason to make a distinction and call the “Chinese” you speak – Cantonese – something other than “Chinese.”

But in another sense, I think that our interpretations of “Chinese” reveals some disconnect between the way we think about and speak of dialects or languages in English and Chinese. In Chinese, we call Cantonese and Mandarin “方言,” which is seen as the Chinese equivalent of “dialect.” But as this academic paper, Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, suggests, “topolect” seems like a more accurate translation of “方言” and classification of “Cantonese” and “Mandarin”: regional speech. And although reading such a paper may seem like a daunting and laborious task, I would highly recommend it to those interested in thoroughly learning what we should call Chinese “dialects” and why. (Otherwise, I think the abstract (page 3) would suffice.) As a paper published about five years ago (it was published in February 2008), this paper is relatively recent; I found it in part intriguing because of its relevancy to the current(ly being molded) identity of Cantonese in Hong Kong. (In other words, you should read it.)

Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, is just one of many Sino-Platonic Papers at the University of Pennsylvania which present research centered on East Asian studies. While exploring the site, I have also found a paper more on Chinese in general: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms. Although I have yet to read this latter paper, perhaps it would be informative and suitable for those more interested in linguistics and Chinese in general (as evident, I tend to focus on information and readings primarily relevant to Cantonese).

(Yay for happy and leisurely academic readings!)


I can’t help but feel that the term “Chinese” used in universities and seemingly everywhere is very centered on what the People’s Republic of China’s government has defined as “Chinese,” even as it is supposed to cover the whole political region of China in which over 1 billion people live.

If you just think about it, even if a region that is inhabited by so many people is just one political state, there is bound to be more than just one language within the region – we just conveniently simplify these languages in deeming the language of China solely “Chinese.” So why aren’t these languages called languages, but dialects? Perhaps if one attempted to draw parallels in linguistic differences among Chinese “dialects” and Western European “languages,” he might find that they were equal in distinction. But in today’s context, that doesn’t seem to mean anything: why? Because China is one political state, while western Europe is made up of numerous? I can’t help but feel a bit wronged. Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to push for Cantonese to be recognized as a distinct language, but I still feel that this distinction must be addressed for anyone who might learn “Chinese,” which most likely refers to Mandarin and simplified Chinese, the language that supposedly over 1 billion people speak as their “native” language. I feel that too many think that the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese are as simple as “Hello” and “Howdy” and one area using the term “hella” or “hecka” in conversation, with another area using the term “wicked.”

Maybe I’m just terribly afraid of the possibility that Cantonese will fade away and die with Hong Kong becoming just another city in the People’s Republic of China. And although I know that no matter how much I might wish for it, Cantonese will likely never come to be considered an actual language, I want people to know about Cantonese. How ~70 million people speak it and how interesting it is that Cantonese would flourish in Hong Kong, even as its use was never promoted by any government. How unique the situation of Cantonese is and how much of a pity it would be to see a language used by so many disappear on a state’s mere political necessity to “unify” its people. It just doesn’t seem fair, killing a language so that another might be exalted and reign supreme, especially if the possible death of such a language might currently be considered so insignificant that it wouldn’t even be found worth recording in the history books.