Language notes from Macao and Hong Kong

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From June 13 until the 18th, I was at a conference on Buddhist culture and society held at the University of Macao.  There were about thirty participants, all except me from East Asia, and the East Asians were about evenly divided among scholars from Taiwan, China, Macao, and Hong Kong, plus one each from Japan and Korea.

Macao is a highly multilingual city, with the following languages being spoken by the indigenes:  Cantonese, Portuguese, English, and Mandarin, among others.  As an example of the kind of linguistic puzzles that can result from such a mix, let us look at the name of the part of Macao in which the University of Macao is located, namely Taipa (an island).

According to Wikipedia,

In Cantonese, Taipa has been known by many names over time, including 龍環 (Lung Waan, meaning "Dragon Ring"), 雞頸 (Gai Geng, "Chicken's neck"), 潭仔 (Tam Tsai, "Pool"), and 龍頭環 (Lung Tau Waan, "Dragon's-Head Ring").

The article goes on to offer a possible Minnan origin for Taipa as well as a possible Cantonese origin, but does not evince confidence in either, and both seem far-fetched.  See also the the article on Taipa in the Chinese version of Wikipedia, which isn't conclusive on the origins of the name either.

As soon as I saw the Chinese equivalent for Taipa, I was taken aback, since it didn't seem to come close to the sound "Taipa", and the characters used to write it, especially the first one, are not common in Mandarin:  氹仔.  Neither 氹 nor its variant 凼 is to be found in most electronic fonts, and 仔 is a typically Cantonese noun suffix (usually, but not always, diminutive).

The Cantonese pronunciation of 氹仔 is tam5zai2 and the Mandarin pronunciation is dàngzǎi.

The character dàng 氹/凼 means "ditch" or "pool" (note the water radical in both forms of the character).  Since bodies of water play such a large role in the geography of Macao, it is not surprising that an important part of the city would have a name like 氹仔 tam5zai2.

I suspect that Taipa has a Portuguese etymology, but not knowing much Portuguese, I am hesitant to hazard a guess as to what it might be.

I should, however, note that speakers of European languages refer to the island as Taipa, whereas speakers of various Chinese languages refer to it by some version of the Cantonese.  Although recorded announcements on buses and in public places say both "Taipa" and "Tamzai", Chinese-speaking bus and taxi drivers and other service personnel may not know "Taipa", so you have to be prepared to say something like "Tamzai" to them if that's where you want to go.

After five enjoyable days in Macao, I moved over to Hong Kong for a series of meetings with colleagues and collaborators on various projects.  I first started going to Hong Kong in 1967, and have been in love with the place ever since.  This is not the occasion to explain all of the reasons why I find Hong Kong to be such a congenial city, but I'd just like to jot down some observations on language and script usage I made during the four days I recently spent there.

My first informant was Tang Pui Ling.  She has a Ph.D. in Chinese philology and teaches traditional language studies at the University of Hong Kong, so she can by no means be considered a teeny bopper or anything of the sort who is hip to the latest fad.  So, when she informed me that people in Hong Kong no longer say something like zoi3gin3 再见 ("goodbye"), but instead say "bye bye" (she gave me a number of other examples showing how English words were displacing Chinese words in Chinese), I had to take this as a significant change in language usage in Hong Kong.

Pui Ling then showed me records of some chats between her and her sister, who works at the counter of an airline at the Hong Kong airport.  I was stunned by the long exchanges between them which consisted of Cantonese, Mandarin, and English all mixed together in the same sentences.  That is to say, it was natural for them to shift among the three languages in the same sentence.  Furthermore, when they resorted to Cantonese, it was written in a mixture of standard characters, special characters used only for Cantonese, and Roman letters.  I remember clearly a Cantonese final particle, lu (written just like that in Romanization), at the end of a sentence that was mostly made up of English words.

My next experience with Chinese in computers in Hong Kong was when I observed a woman at a Starbucks that I frequented writing characters on the glass of her cell phone.  I noticed that she was flailing away at the screen in a way similar to what I have earlier described (though not quite so demonstratively), and that after each frantic flailing at the screen, she would pause to pick — from a list of characters that the program suggested she was trying to write — the one that she really wanted.  This was something that I witnessed several times in Hong Kong during this visit.  The people who seemed to be fairly good at this method of entering characters attacked the glass with less vehemence and tended to spend less time pausing between characters entered.

After watching the woman for several minutes, I asked her if she sometimes used other methods for writing on her cell phone.  She said, "Oh, yes.  There are this handwriting method, Cangjie (character components), bopomofo (Mandarin phonetic symbols), Hanyu Pinyin (official PRC Romanization), and several others, and I use them all depending upon circumstances."  When I asked her which method she preferred above all others, her response floored me, "English," she said, without the slightest hesitation.

"What?" I asked incredulously, since she was clearly a local Hong Konger who had been speaking fluent Cantonese on her phone and writing in Cantonese with her handwriting and other methods.  "You prefer to use English over all those Chinese methods?"

"Yes," she said matter-of-factly.

"Why?" I asked.

"Simple," she replied.  "It's faster and easier; takes less effort."

This from a woman whose mother tongue is Cantonese and who received her elementary through college education in writing through Zhongwen (i.e., written Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]).

For a discussion of "Zhongwen", see this post and the comments thereto.

That exchange in Starbucks, breathtaking though it was, substantiated much that I have suspected (especially concerning the inroads of English in electronic information processing in Chinese environments) during the last three decades and more.

Riding around the city on subways, I had ample opportunity to observe people writing on their cell phones at close quarters.  I didn't see many flailers, but I did see more people using Pinyin than I had expected for Hong Kong (perhaps that was in large part a function of the flood of Mainland tourists and students in Hong Kong).

One novel encounter was with a young tyke who seemed to be about 11 years old and was carrying a soccer ball under one arm.  He was quite at home with his cell phone and was writing short, simple sentences on it.  Displayed at the bottom of the glass was a touch pad of buttons with about nine different types of strokes on them.  He produced the characters he wanted by keying in sequences of the strokes of which the characters were composed, and didn't have much trouble with the uncomplicated characters he was writing.  Here was yet another method for entering Chinese characters into an electronic device.

In sum, I believe that Hong Kong functions as a sort of language lab for the Sinosphere.  The trends that I witnessed there on this trip and during many previous visits to the city are a harbinger of things that are spreading throughout the Mainland.

To end on a sweet note, this morning in the restaurant of my hotel, I was amused to read the following label:  Mable Syrupy.  The equivalent Chinese on the label was tángjiāng 糖浆 ("[sugar] syrup").  The item next to which the sign was placed was maple syrup, which in Chinese would be fēng(shù) tángjiāng 枫(树)糖浆.  There are several other ways to refer to maple syrup in Chinese, but I shall refrain from listing them here.


  1. mcur said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 2:45 am

    My Portuguese is also by no means expert, but according to this thread a taipa is a clay or mud wall, especially for keeping water out (for agricultural purposes, etc.). The reference to water makes that seem like a plausible explanation.

    Also, fwiw 'bye bye' is also a very common way way of saying goodbye in Japanese (casual of course, and perhaps more feminine than, say, 'jya ne').

  2. Bruce said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 3:04 am

    For American readers, the word "subway" as used in Dr Mair's article is not a train but a way to go under a busy street. Many of HK's busy streets are so dangerous for pedestrians that fences have been erected between the roadway and the sidewalks. So other ways need to be found to cross the street! On HK Island, you can go considerable distances through various overhead walkways and never go to ground level. On the Kowloon (north) side of the harbour, subways are more common.

  3. Carl Offner said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 4:02 am

    @Bruce: I remember seeing that usage (in the U.S.) when I was a kid. There was a train station with a tunnel to get from one side of the tracks to the other. And there was a sign for that tunnel that simply said "Subway". I think my parents had to explain to me what it meant, although of course in retrospect the meaning was obvious.

    I don't think I've ever seen that usage since.

  4. Stephan Stiller said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 4:29 am

    1. Last time I was in Macao, the frequency of languages on the streets seemed to be Cantonese > Mandarin > English > Portuguese. The English had to do with the tourists, but it was surprising that there was only very little Portuguese. Macanese, which linguists like to mention, is either no longer extant or just barely.
    2. Note how the character 氹 is practically unused in Mandarin outside of the name 氹仔. It's used in Cantonese in a very small number of lexical items, though.
    3. Note the tones in Cantonese for 拜拜: baai1baai3.
    4. Last time I checked, a 5-stroke input method (used on at least Nokia phones) seemed to be far more common than Motorola's 9-stroke method. It might be the case that the young person used Q9 (yet another menu-based method and different from all the others), and I don't know what's most popular on smartphones.

    I think when he writes about "riding around on subways", he means underground trains. But it is true that "subway" in HK means "[pedestrian] underpass", like it does in British English.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 5:12 am

    I don't remember from my Cantonese any "lu" particle and this paper doesn't mention it either (but does have a lot of interesting stuff on Cantonese/English mixing). What does "lu" mean?

    This is as good a place as any (or at least less bad) to mention some what I suspect is Cantonese and Mandarin mixing I overheard in San Francisco Chinatown recently. In a restaurant which I know to have both native Cantonese and native Mandarin speakers, one of the staff said "Xie xie [schwa]" to a customer. I'm guessing (because I didn't ask) that the schwa was a Cantonese ending being tacked on to the Mandarin, except that I was taught that the ending particle was pronounced more like the "a" in father, not like a schwa.

    Does Mandarin have an ending schwa particle that would be used after "Xie xie"?

  6. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 6:22 am

    拜拜 has been the de facto standard farewell greeting in Hong Kong for a very long time. By the time I started learning Cantonese in 1997 no one said 再見 except in very formal contexts.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    Stephan Stiller mentioned offline that the main language of instruction (everyone seems to use the expression "medium of instruction") at the University of Macao is English. That's absolutely true, and the students seem to enjoy speaking and hearing lectures in it — even in the Chinese Department!

    I think one of the attractions of English in a linguistic melting pot like Macao (or Singapore, for that matter) is that it enables people from a wide variety of linguistic backgrounds to interact freely and without prejudice to any of their own languages.

    It seems that one of the advantages of English language instruction at the University of Macao is that it attracts students from all over the world. The same is true of English medium of instruction in Hong Kong. There are, in fact, English medium of instruction curricula set up at many institutions of learning (at all levels) in the PRC itself. Certainly many of the students from the Mainland who come to Macao and Hong Kong do so because of the English medium of instruction.

    I was surprised by how many service personnel (hotels, restaurants, etc.) in Macao interact with the public only in English, when some other language is clearly their mother tongue.

    Portuguese is very much in evidence in signs, labels, public announcements, and so forth, but it is true that very few people actively speak it in public on a daily basis. One of the graduate students who assisted at the conference I attended was half Portuguese, and he could speak Portuguese, but communicated mainly in Cantonese, secondarily in English, and also in Mandarin.

  8. tsts said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    Agree with Stephan Stiller on the ordering of languages in Macao. In fact, the only Portuguese I noticed was on official signs. I'd bet if you were to replace all Portuguese signs with Dutch or Hungarian overnight, 90% of the population would not notice a difference.

    Concerning the discussion of input methods, did the lady at Starbucks mean English as a language, or use of "informal romanization loosely based on English pronunciation". My impression was that in HK as well as here in NYC, many younger Cantonese speakers just skip the characters completely when texting, writing and sending stuff like "wai, lay hai bin dou a? o hai starbucks yum gafei" (sorry for any bad Cantonese), with a lot of English thrown in.

  9. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    Recently observed in San Francisco; two (apparently) recent immigrants speaking languages I took to be Cantonese and some unknown Chinese dialect to each other, slowly and carefully. About three sentences out of five they were able to understand one another; when they couldn't penetrate each other's dialect, they used input methods on their cell phones and showed each other the text they'd entered – in Englsh.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 4:30 pm


    I couldn't believe the lady in Starbucks when she said she preferred English, so I actually queried her and asked again, "Do you really mean in English language, not just Romanized Cantonese?" and she told me that she really meant in English. But I think that your characterization of the Romanized Cantonese (which already has many English loan words), plus "with a lot of English thrown in" is probably pretty close to the mark.

  11. AntC said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

    I lived in HK in 91/92, and visited Macau. By then it was clear that both colonies would be returning to PRC control. (And there was extensive tourism from HK'ers to the casinos.)

    Yes, in Macau there were (faded) street signs in Portuguese, but my initiatives to speak the language (learnt on holiday in actual Portugal) were met with an indulgent smile and a response in English. Admittedly this was tourist-standard Portuguese in tourist sites, not linguistics conferences.

    I got the distinct impression that Portuguese was effectively dead in Macau even then (supposing it had ever penetrated beyond the colonial government).

  12. Simon P said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 12:02 am

    Interestingly, in HK people even sometimes use English as an input system for Cantonese. Since HK doesn't educate its citizens in their native language, people don't learn the jyutping romanization. There are, however, jyutping input systems, and since people don't always know the jyutping, they can resort to English. For example, go to and type in some English words.

    My favorite thing about English in HK is how Cantonese will absorb English loan words and incorporate them in the language in such wonderful ways. If you watch a HK movie, you might hear words like "Secu!" (short for "Security", shouted to alert the guards) or "做in" ("interview"). They will also break words up into syllables, to fit in Cantonese grammar, like "你o唔ok呀?" (meaning "Are you ok?") or "你un唔understand呀?" (or even ("你un唔un呀?"), following the grammatical pattern also found in Mandarin, but even more common in Cantonese, of repeating the first syllable with a negative to form a question ("你開唔開心呀?": Are you happy?).

  13. Simon P said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 12:15 am

    @Chas Belov: The "lu" particle is a very colloquial one. It's a variant of the 囉 particle, but with a more playful tone. "噉咪得囉!" and "噉咪得lu!" (preferably with a long, drawn-out 'u') both mean something like "So that's ok, then!", but the latter sounds softer, jokingly, and couldn't be said in an angry tone (unless you're being sarcastic). The world of Cantonese sentence-final particles is extremely rich, and that paper is far from exhaustive. I've seen a list of 36 different ones, and that was still missing a few extremely colloquial/slangy ones, like "zek1" (pronounced with a plosive 'k', like English "jack", which flies in the face of Cantonese phonology).

  14. Simon P said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 12:18 am

    Addendum: I recall that Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar contains a table of how these particles can be combined, in which order, which ones merge into combination particles, which ones add up in groups of up to four, though the authors admit that some users can get even more particles tagged at the end of the sentence. I rarely dare to throw in more than three.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 1:03 am

    @Simon mh goi saai

    Also found it in

    36 finals and still not complete meh?

    I once conceived of (but never did – anyone want to try) a Rainy-day guide to Cantonese sentence finals. That is, it would start with
    下雨 (lohk yuh) It's raining
    and then proceed with
    下雨添 (lohk yuh tìm) It's raining, and I was expecting it to be sunny.
    and so on.

    Still, I don't recognize most of the particles from the and they seem to be different from the ones in the books I studied with (US Foreign Service Institute) However, the FSI book is dated 1970 so perhaps sentence final particles have been changing over the last 44 years.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    From Bob Bauer:


    You mentioned the romanized utterance-final particle "lu3" in Cantonese. This is a relatively new development in Cantonese speech. There have been a couple of papers written about it by my students at HKU and CUHK. I have encouraged them to publish their work but they're reluctant to do so.

    At any rate, lu3 is an entry in the ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary with detailed explanation about its meaning and example sentences.


    For those of you who have been wondering, the final draft of Prof. Bauer's ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary has just been completed. Now it's just a matter of typesetting, proofreading, and printing. I hope that it will be published by the end of this year.

  17. maidhc said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 2:28 am

    Do they have maple syrup at all in Hong Kong? It's not that common in restaurants in the US (except in Vermont). Maybe the Chinese sign was more accurate.

  18. Simon P said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 2:32 am

    @Chas Belov: lok6 jyu5 (sorry, more used to jyutping) should be written 落雨, not 下雨.

    Here's a list of 26 final particles, as well as a few combinations:

  19. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 2:33 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    Addendum: The Cantonese modal particle lu3 is transcribed as "lu" in Internet exchanges because there is no Chinese character (either standard or dialectal) that is pronounced in Cantonese as lu3.

    However, the standard Chinese character 嚕 which is pronounced in Cantonese as lou1 could be used for this purpose in the appropriate contexts, but it may be ambiguous.

    Morphosyllable lu3 may be a phonetic variant of Cantonese 嘍 lo3 which is also a modal particle.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 8:57 am


    I'm not sure how strict the labeling laws for "maple syrup" are in Hong Kong:

  21. Simon P said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

    By the way, there's actually another reading of 氹 in Cantonese, besides the "tam5" reading that means "pool". If you read the character as "tam3", it means "to sweet-talk; to cajole". Thus a phrase like "我去氹仔" could actually be read either as "I'm going to Taipa" or "I'm going to sweet-talk boys", though of course the former reading is a lot more likely.

  22. julie lee said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

    @ Simon P:

    My Mandarin-speaking brothers as boys would also split up English words into syllables, as if each syllable were a Chinese word, and use them with Mandarin grammar:

    When wrestling each other, the one who had pinned down the other would split the word "surrender" into "SUR", "REN" , and "DER", treating each as a Chinese word. So if he meant "Will you surrender?" he'd say:
    "SUR bu (不) SUR,REN bu (不) REN, DER bu( 不) DER?" (literally, "SUR not SUR, REN not REN, DER not DER?" which, in Mandarin grammar, means "Will you SUR, will you REN, will you DER?")

    I was always amused at how they turned the little Engish they knew into Mandarin.

  23. Jenny Tsu said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 10:21 pm

    Let me know next time you're in Hong Kong. I have such a collection of topics which, if I were only still a practicing linguist, I would love to see investigated further.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 12:24 am

    From Tang Pui Ling:

    For the sentence-final particle "lu3", there is no corresponding Chinese character in our written language. We usually write the pinyin "lu" to represent the word. I've just found a HKU MA thesis which has some discussions on the particle (Decoding the hidden A-gender p.31-36). I agree that "lu3" is used to serve as a marker to show the completeness of an action. In some cases, when females use it, it also has the feeling of cuteness or softness.

    For the words like 拜拜 (bye bye), we really have a lot in our daily life. Other examples include "ok", "keep", "agent", "friend", "point", etc., these are the English words which are usually mixed into Cantonese sentences (中英夾雜). A MA thesis on this topic is also available for your information. In some other examples, the English words have already been infiltrated into Cantonese lexicon and become loan words:

    Bus 巴士

    Taxi 的士

    Fail 肥佬

    Toast 多士 [VHM: cf. 士多, which means "store"]

    [VHM: these are all purely sound transcriptions, the characters bearing no relationship to the meanings of the English words they are used to transcribe]

    But the Cantonese pronunciations of the above words are still a little bit different from the original English ones. A study of Zhang Hongnian 張洪年 on this aspect is available.

  25. Jerome Chiu said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    On "bye bye": I grew up in Hong Kong, and so far as I can recall, "bye bye" had already become common usage (definitely more common than zaijian) by 1970.

    On "lu3": When I use it in online chats, it usually (if not always) means "liao" 了 in a friendly, casual way. But the demographic cross-section of those whom I chat with is rather limited, so YMMV.

    On the lady who preferred English as an input method: This is totally true, but most probably not unique to Hong Kong. But of course Hong Kong has its own variety of Facebook-ese and Whatsapp-ese, with their ample use of abbreviations, emoticons, etc. So we have: C7 for Cristiano Ronaldo (a usage found throughout the world), So7 for Luis Suarez (probably a unique HK usage – So7 comes from 蘇7, where 蘇 is the 蘇 of 蘇亞雷斯), ching (from "c-hing") for "shixiong" 師兄, etc.

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