Cantonese is a difficult language, even for the Cantonese, even though they start early and get plenty of practice. Some Cantonese speakers can’t even pronounce words in their own language, a particular problem arising with words that start with the nasal consonant ng–, such as ngor (I), ngan (silver) and ngau (cow). The solution adopted by many is to omit the initial consonant altogether, but this leads to yet another difficulty: what to do with a word that consists solely of that nasal consonant, such as ng (five). The usual rendition is “m”, which gives the unfortunate impression that the speaker is expressing an opinion on food. Many Cantonese speakers also have difficulty pronouncing an n sound at the beginning of words such as nai (milk) and nei (you). These are often pronounced “lie” and “lay”, respectively, which at least gives the lie to the notion popular in the West that the Chinese are unable to pronounce the letter r.
So where does that leave the rest of us? Cantonese is a language full of snares to trap the unwary. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve said something different to what I thought I was saying, sometimes with embarrassing results, simply because I got the tone wrong.
Consequently, if you’re thinking of visiting Hong Kong, throw away your phrase books and other self-instruction paraphernalia, because they are all a complete waste of time. There’s only one word that you should learn, a word that can be applied in almost any situation and if spoken with real feeling will convince your listeners that you’ve lived in the territory for years. It is a word that can be used to express surprise, disbelief, exasperation, frustration, annoyance, disgust and relief, and several other emotions if you’re really desperate. This is the word:
In the appropriate context, nothing more need be said.