A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)

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Message in a store window @ 826 Valencia, San Francisco:

The note begins straightforwardly with Mandarin:

wǒ ài nǐ yīnwèi 我愛你因為 (“I love you because”)

But then it shifts into a kind of Cantonese-Mandarin hybrid, or so I thought.

nei5 hai6 ngo5 ge3 你係我嘅 is Cantonese for “you are my”.

They write the second syllable of the word beginning with gá 噶 in Roman letters as “bi”.  So far as I know, gá 噶 has no meaning, but is used only for purposes of transcription, especially of Tibetan words.  So I thought that perhaps they were trying to say the Mandarin word for “next-door neighbor”, viz., gébì 隔壁, but perhaps had forgotten how to write both the characters or wanted it to sound more Cantonesey.  But Abraham Chan pointed out:

I suppose that’s a nickname: ‘bi’ stands for baby. It is very common in Hong Kong to refer to your loved one, whether a lover or a kid, as zyu1 豬 (a pig). Bi Bi zyu1 豬 is just a more emphatic way to say that. I suppose the gaa1 噶 is part of a personal name.

That is followed by a clever emoji-style pictograph (which looks like a cross between 🐷 and 😍, the “pig face” and “heart eyes” emojis), then the English word “From”, a single character for the name of the person who wrote the message, a heart, the name of the facilitating organization (loveyou2.org), and the date in Hindu-Arabic numerals on the last line.

Here are some pertinent, revealing remarks on how to say “neighbor” in Cantonese and related topics by Judy Weng, whom I’m pleased to have do her recitations of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese in Cantonese in my class:

I know of a few ways my family in Hong Kong and toi4 saan1 台山 (i.e., Hoisan) say “neighbor”, and they are:

  1. 居 / 居 (leon4 geoi1)
    • I would say this is the more formal way to say “neighbor” and I don’t hear it as much. It could also be because people from 台山 don’t say it as much and my family generally does not speak formal Cantonese unless we’re at a fancy family dinner with “relatives” that we don’t really know.
  2. 隔籬鄰舍 / 隔籬邻舍 (gaak3 lei4 leon4 se3) (technically this refers to all the people who live within a close proximity)
    • This is the most common way I hear people in Philadelphia, 台山, and Hong Kong refer to neighhor and if I’m right, this is only in Cantonese and not used in Mandarin
  3. 隔離 (gaak3 lei4)
    • This technically means separated, but it’s also used to refer to neighbors. It could be as a shortened version of (2), but I hear it used like so: 住隔離嘅…, which translates literally to “those who live separated”, but is understood as “those who live next door”

I didn’t get a chance to ask my family why they think they (or others) would write it this way, but I know it’s very common for the younger generation to mix some Mandarin into their Cantonese sentences sometimes (even in Hoisanwa 台山话), not because they do not know how to say it in their own topolect or Cantonese, but just because it sounds funnier or (according to my cousins) cooler. A lot of times when I get text messages from my cousins there are Roman letters mixed in because it’s easier to type that than to type in Cantonese and find the right character. “Bi” is universally easy to understand and even for some parents (like mine) who do not speak fluent Cantonese tend to be able to sound out. Out of habit, they would also write small quick notes to their parents the same way. Obviously, I’m not sure if this is applicable to all Cantonese speakers, but this is what I’ve seen from my family.

I hope this was helpful. For the pronunciations, I used the online dictionary http://ykyi.net/index.php.

In addition to the three terms for “neighbor” that Judy notes, I also found the following one on CantoDict:

gaak3 leon4 隔鄰

The latter three Cantonese terms for “neighbor” are not used in Mandarin.

[Thanks to Chas Belov]


  1. Sally said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 12:41 am

    The Mandarin at the top seems to have been printed on the page, not written by hand. Same for “you taught me” and “謝謝” on the notes further down. So the mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin perhaps wasn’t a deliberate choice in this case.

  2. Sally said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 12:53 am

    Also, what’s “我愛你因為…” in Cantonese?

  3. Fluxor said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 1:33 am

    “我愛你因為…” is perfectly good Cantonese.

    隔離 means “next to” or “beside” in Cantonese. In the proper context, it can also take on its more formal meaning of “quarantine” or “separate”. Regular usage is pretty straightforward, e.g. 你嘅杯係你隔離 (your cup is next to you).

    住隔離嘅 would mean “(those that) live beside (us)”.

  4. B.Ma said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 6:16 am

    Agree with fluxor completely.

    1. The whole note is perfectly fine in Cantonese, so I wouldn’t even describe it as trilingual.

    You wouldn’t say 谢谢 aloud in Cantonese but it is not unusual to print that in “Mandarin pronounced in Cantonese”, so we can’t really tell whether these notes are intended to be specifically one or the other.

    I note that the characters are traditional, so it is possible that they might be of a Hong Kong Cantonese origin. If the window was in Hong Kong, we might not even consider that they could be in Mandarin.

    2. I would refer to neighbour, as in a person, as 鄰居 in Cantonese. I’ve never heard anyone say 隔籬邻舍, but I don’t know any Taishanese.

    I might also say 隔離屋 to mean something to do with my neighbour, perhaps “my neighbour’s fence has collapsed” or “borrow a battery from the neighbours”.

    If you’re going to say 隔離 on its own it needs a bit of context otherwise it just means “adjacent”.


    “中意” would more commonly be written as 鐘意 and usually translates to 喜欢 in Mandarin.

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    Is there anything like this situation in Europe? What about all the varieties of Italian: Sardinian, Sicilian, Venetian, Neapolitan, Friulian, etc.? All are vernacular instances of an underlying Italian language that comparatively few people speak every day. The same applies to Scandinavia, I suppose. Of course, the Chinese writing system adds a certain twist to the situation there.

  6. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

    So actually – that would be Tetrascriptal (quadscriptal?)

  7. Chas Belov said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

    I didn’t realize there was so much complexity in such a little posting. Thank you!

    @Sally, yes, the text at the top of each post is pre-printed. Apparently it is a program of 826 Valencia. Their window is full of dozens of these varied pre-printed headings in multiple languages (I recall also seeing French) with added hand-written notes. So the choice of Mandarin is apparently that of the program, not of the individuals posting (beyond choosing which pre-printed heading to use); possibly there is no pre-printed Cantonese option but (fortunately) that doesn’t stop the posters.

  8. Chas Belov said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    Is there any chance bizhu is a bilingual pun of bijou, or jewel?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

    I’ve asked about a couple of dozen native speakers of Cantonese what would be the most natural way to say “I love you because…” in their language. Their answers are very interesting, not just because of the variety of opinions, but because their responses reveal much about the state / nature of writing in Cantonese.


    1. From a retired professor of Chinese literature:

    Because I never learned Cantonese romanization, I can only give you the answer in made up spelling:

    “Ngo dim gai ngoi nay ne? Yun wai . . . .”

    My mother insisted I learn to write Chinese when I was very young, but it was purely wenyan.* To this day, I don’t know how to render spoken Cantonese in writing.

    *VHM: Wenyan means “Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese. And he only started learning Mandarin when he went to college.

    2. From a non-academic:

    for romantic occasions, Cantonese use 中意, 锡 (锡, also used as kiss) instead of 爱。Only children may say 我爱妳,妈咪…

    3. From a college graduate:

    Hmm…usually it’s something like

    我 sek 你 – I think the sek is written like 惜

    4. From a retired librarian (who loves cats!):

    It depends on what the speaker means by “love”….. 鍾意 is the most general. A person can 鍾意 a certain cat, a certain doll, a certain teacher, a certain hobby; it can also refer to a deeper, more intimate kind of “love” (perhaps with emphasis added such as 好鍾意). I think “愛” is okay in particular situations (e.g. mother loving a child; between spouses).

    5. 鍾意 is more “like” than “love”


    Over the years, I have been told countless times by Cantonese speakers that they never learned how to write their language, whether in characters or with the alphabet. They really are at a loss on how to transcribe what they say and put it down on paper or enter it into a computer. Naturally, there are a small number of individuals who master one or another romanization scheme for Cantonese, and some folks can write Cantonese with characters, but most people tell me that they can’t write everything they want to say with characters.

    Ditto for Taiwanese, Shanghainese, etc.

    I will post additional responses as I receive them.

  10. Fluxor said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    I’ve heard 隔離鄰舍 used to refer to people living in the neighbourhood (as indicated by Ms. Weng’s description in the OP), although that seems to be to be a bit more formal than other usages, e.g. 街坊.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 1:04 am

    Continuing from my last comment above:

    6. From an American-Chinese specialist on Cantonese language:

    Literally I would translate it “我好重意你, 因為。。。” Keep in mind that to me it feels a bit un-Cantonese to jump so quickly into an explanation of why – seems more natural to pause after the declaration and put the explanation in another sentence later if it is really called for.

    7. From a Sinologist who teaches in a university:

    I would say something like: 我中意你係因為…..

    8. From a teacher at a university in Hong Kong:

    I think it should be something like “我中意你,因為……”.

    9. From a professor of early Chinese thought and literature:

    I think there are several ways to express that meaning, just depending on who you are talking to or how strength the feeling is that you wish to express , because the word “love” can be translated as either 鍾意 or 愛 in Cantonese. In general, 愛 expresses a stronger feeling than 鐘意 and is used more popular to the beloved ones like girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, and husband. We use 愛 for our parents as well. If you are speaking to an ordinary friend to express your love for him/her, we usually use 鍾意 but never愛 to avoid any misunderstanding……

    Therefore, the sentence could be spoken as:


  12. liuyao said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 1:51 am

    Interesting that 愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention. A search in Dream of the Red Chamber (which is regarded as Beijing Mandarin in 18th century) reveals that all instances of it are in fact “to like” (something or someone). 愛吃的 = (what he) likes to eat; 不愛唸書 = doesn’t like to read books/study.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 8:35 am


    “…愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention”.

    Brilliant observation! I absolutely LOVE it. What you have pointed out is so important that I’m going to devote a separate post to it. Must wait several days, though, because of some other posts in the pipeline and heavy teaching duties. I will aim to make my post about “romantic love” — in response to liuyao’s great comment — on February 14.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    Continuing the sequence from the above comments:


    From a university instructor of Chinese language and literature:
    I think like this (spelling not standard):

    ngo hou dzongyi nei yanwei…

    From a distinguished teacher and scholar of Cantonese language and Chinese linguistics in Hong Kong:


    Ngo5 zung1 ji3 nei5, jan1 wai6 …

    From an expat who has lived in Hong Kong for decades and teaches Chinese philosophy at a university there:

    I’d go with:

    ngo5 hou2 zung1 ji3 lei5, jan1 wai6…
    我好鍾意你, 因為…

    If we plug 我愛你 into a typical Canto-English dictionary, it’ll return “ngo oi lei” or “ngo ngoi lei,” but I think Cantonese speakers more naturally say “jung yi lei” and add the “hou” to indicate it’s a deep feeling. I remember seeing a movie in which the female lead’s passionate statement that she truly loved the male lead was “ngo hou jung yi hou jung yi lei” 我好鍾意好鍾意你.

    (When I learned Cantonese, “you” was “nei2” and “love” was “ngoi” but now the online dictionaries routinely give “lei” and “oi.”)

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 1:19 am


    From a university professor of Chinese Language and Cultural Studies:

    I would say 我中意你,因為……, or 我中意你,係因為……。

    From a graduate student in historical studies:

    I think usually people will say “我愛你,因為…” or “我(好)鐘意你,因為…” depending on the context. Even when expressed in a romantic way, many Hongkongers I know will say 鐘意 instead of 愛 because it sounds more natural, though there are also those who will say 愛. The 好 can be added if it means to express a more passionate feeling.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    From a radio journalist who interviews people in Cantonese every day:

    My first response without thinking…


    For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the sign says, but whatever it says, I’m sure the person doesn’t intend it to mean “you’re my neighbor”. I’m guessing “噶 bi” is a code word for something. The reason I think it’s as such is because 噶, as a particle, is sometimes used as substitute word for 㗎, BUT, it’s not common for HK youth to use 噶 for 㗎 — I think those in Guangzhou use 噶 more commonly. For the 90s/00s HK generation, using 噶 for 㗎 in writing could be a “giveaway” that the writer is from the mainland.

    It’s going to be hard to figure out the precise meaning asking the “literary” group — it’s best to post the question in the local forums that the HK millennials frequent such as 高登.

    On second thought, since I think the writer of the sign may come from the mainland, “噶 bi” really could mean “neighbor”…

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