Thursday, 10 December 2009

one word

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.


  1. Aaiiyyaaaah!!!! That's a great word; I think I'll adopt it into my vocabulary.

  2. "Aaiiyyaaah"!!!i actually cannot transfer it into real language.
    i personally found cantonese sounds much better than mandarin (i totally dislike mandarin. i think sichuan dialect sound much better than mandarin. i cannot stand 4 tones of mandarin). of course, it has to be spoken in a gentler way. i also found cantonese sound extremely beautiful when it is sung in songs.

  3. Funny. I had similar difficulties when I was trying to learn Japanese. My Japanese friends would roar with laughter every time I inadvertently mentioned (at least to them) some unmentionable body part.

  4. Make sure you pronounce each letter with equal emphasis Kris.

    You’re absolutely correct Yun Yi. The word has no real meaning. It’s merely an exclamation. I also agree that Cantonese is more ‘musical’ than Putonghua.

    I don’t know about Japanese NP, but the frustrating aspect of such mistakes when speaking Cantonese is that native speakers regard words we think are similar (differing only in tone) as being completely different, so it doesn’t occur to them to make allowances for the clumsy errors of inept foreigners.


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