Cantonese intonation

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On a recent flight across the Atlantic, I watched a Hong Kong movie called Gangster Payday in English, 大茶飯 ("Big Tea Rice"?) in Chinese, directed by Lee Po-Cheung. One of the things that struck me was a particular pattern of pitch and time at the ends of certain phrases, involving elongation of the final syllable, typically on a mid-level pitch. It seems to come in bunches, and to occur on quite different phrase-final syllable sequences, so I'm guessing that it's an intonational pattern rather than a series of lexical tones.

The movie is available on YouTube, so I've pulled out a few examples of this phenomenon, in the hope that someone who knows Cantonese (and perhaps also the speech patterns of Hong Kong gangsters — or at least older Hong Kongers of lower-SES origin?) can explain it.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

    In Cantonese, daai6 caa4 faan6 大茶飯 (lit., "big tea rice") means "a big crime like an armed robbery, a large business deal, etc."

    I'll add something about the intonation later.

  2. Martin said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

    I'm no linguist, but I do speak Cantonese, so I hope I don't misunderstand the intent of this post.

    He's basically doing the Cantonese equivalent of extra long "huh"/"eh"/"yeah"/meaningless-words at the end of his sentences by stretching out his sentence markers, for emphasis I guess. That's not limited to movie gangsters or even Cantonese speakers, but common in Chinese overall. See

    [(myl) In this movie, it's only the men who do this, as far as I noticed, and they don't do it all the time. And I haven't noticed this happening in other Cantonese (or Mandarin) movies. Have I just been unobservant? Or is there a social/interactional content that fits this movie especially well?]

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 8:10 pm

    From Bob Bauer, a specialist on Cantonese:


    My initial impression in listening/watching a couple of segments is that the elongated intonation is carried by utterance-final particles.


    This agrees with what Martin says, and it was also my initial impression as well.

  4. David Donnell said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 12:37 am

    For what it's worth – probably not much – I've been intrigued by this intonation pattern for years, as spoken by middle-aged Chinese women on the NYC subway.

    Some years ago I imitated it, using nonsense syllables I made up on the spot, for a Chinese-born friend. She reflected for a moment then said, "That sounds like a dialect of Cantonese I've heard."

    Pardon this fuzzy post. But I have enjoyed that intonation pattern for years; it's quite animated and engaging!

  5. David Donnell said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 12:52 am

    Afterthought: Regarding the middle-aged, and even elderly, Chinese women I've heard speaking using this intonational pattern on the NYC subway: they seem to be – as my dear nonagenarian mom would say – "salt of the earth". Nothing seemingly upper class or genteel about them; they apparently don't give a damn how loudly they are speaking in public. (Distinct from Chinese people I've heard in other settings, speaking more softly.)

  6. neko said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 3:10 am

    Native speaker who moved away young, so I have seen enough shows and movies where gangsters are shown speaking this way, but don't personally know anyone who actually does that. But it's unmistakable movie-thug speak. if I imitate that at home my mom probably wouldn't find it amusing at all.
    For me what stands out is not merely the drawing out of the final syllable, which a diverse group of other Chinese speakers also practice sometimes as other poster have noted. There is an edge in the entire sentence, something menancing that is impossible to miss but I can't quite put a name to. This is absent in sample 3, the odd one out.

  7. amandachen said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 7:40 am

    Oh, an Anthony Wong movie. Gotta watch this.

  8. Jeremy said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    My wife likes to watch TVB dramas, which are in Cantonese. I notice this (or at least something similar) from the female characters regularly. After reading the description, I was surprised to hear male voices in the audio clips.

  9. Fluxor said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    As Prof. Mair has already guessed, the elongation is indeed an intonation pattern and is meant for emphasis. The reason that it often appears in bunches is because the speaker is trying to emphasize a certain emotion over several sentences, so each sentences ends in elongation.

    As for the audio, I had a hard time figuring out the first word or two, but I think the transcript should be like this:
    – 飲大啊? 鬼哥, 唔係搵你傾吓偈都咁難啊嗎?
    – Drank too much(emphasis)? Kwai-Ko (name), is it that hard to have a chat with you(emphasis)?

    First emphasis seems to express the speakers surprise at someone drinking too much. Second emphasis seems to indicate that the speaker has been looking to have a chat with Kwai-Ko for a while now, but has been unsuccessful. In English, the emphasis would probably end up on the word "that", as in "Is it THAT hard to have a chat with you?"

  10. Norman said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    Uncles and aunts on my Dad's side definitely do it for emphasis, or when they're grandstanding. Usually when they're trying to "occupy" more space in an argument.

  11. flow said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 9:00 am

    @myl "In this movie, it's only the men who do this"
    —around 25:00 (in a scene where a male and a female character are walking together around a night street corner after having practised writing characters in a small restaurant) the woman clearly does use elongated sentence-finals, it would seem to me, even if hers are not quite as drawn out as his.

  12. Y said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

    Does Singaporean lah get stretched out like that, too?

  13. AG said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 8:03 pm

    茶飯 is a Japanese rice dish – is it something similar in HK? I'm finding only Japanese resources when searching.

  14. Nnm said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 7:29 am

    Those are particles stretched for emphasis. Often heard in HK when discussions get a bit out of hand then there are tons of 'laaaah' and 'ga' and so on at the end of each statement. My daughter goes to local school here in Hong Kong and as a non-native Cantonese speaker is now down with the local lingo. It is through her that I learned the nuances of each of those particles. She speaks with those stretched out particles when excited or surprised. I speak mandarin so it is quite hard for me to follow Cantonese conversations but now I know that half the sentences are actually just sounds to emphasise what was said before instead of carrying any literal meaning I had to translate for.

  15. Luisetta Mudie said,

    May 5, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    Definitely an intonation pattern. In my experience it's a working class thing and that particular pattern I'd say is largely male. At least, it's not very feminine or cultivated. Maybe the ladies on the subway are too old to care! The more cultivated version is more like "woh". These actors sound like the drivers from my old place of work in HK. I haven't noticed it anything like as much in Guangdong, only HK. It's funny, because Wong Kar-wai hired a former crew-member to act in his movies because he spoke that way.

    Psychologically, I'd say it's used as a tension-relieving device in situations that could otherwise escalate to confrontation or aggression. It's not exactly polite, but it conveys a certain chumminess and reassurance when the speaker is disagreeing or giving an opinion in a very direct manner.

  16. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:38 am

    "Big Tea Rice" according to Baidu Baike, refers to the good tea and good rice not available to the "regular plebes" except at the banquets, and had gathered a negative connotation. As V. Mair said at the beginning, "Big Tea Rice" became known in HKCinema as euphemism for "a job / robbery / contraband sales meet". To say someone is "去食大茶饭" (going to eat big tea rice) is basically saying they're going to do something illegal / big robbery.

    The elongation of that last syllable seem to be unique to Cantonese as sort of emphasis, and sort of dialectical flourish. In Mandarin you'd sometimes find 的 or 了 tacked on to some sentences that I think serves a similar purpose.

    On the other hand, Cantonese is a very heavily tonal language and the same word can be pronounced like 8 ways? (I've never formally studied Cantonese, merely picked it up as family use) so I can't give you a "definite" analysis, other than "that's what Cantonese sounds like".

  17. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:46 am

    Sort of trivia, the movie ref above also goes by a different title: 潛龍風雲 (Lit: Hidden Dragon Wind Cloud) in China. Apparently, mainland Chinese have no idea what the heck "Big Tea Rice" means. :)

  18. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:58 am

    One more thing:

    In all the situations, the speaker is relying on some situational irony

    Example 1, translated to American colloquialism of similar tone…

    "Brother Wei, are you so busy that you don't have time to chat with me, man?"

    Example 2

    "You think he just want to book a banquet? He's casing my place. He want's to buy me out, man. He's gonna push me out. Man. He's gonna make big bucks in development. Man."

    "Whatever. My job to to preserve the peace and arrest culprits."

    "Well, it's already happened. So who are you going to arrest, man? We little citizens rely on you police to protect us. So go arrest someone, man."

    Example 3:

    "That's right amount, kiddo. Why didn't you find me more people earlier?"


    "Even Uncle says okay, okay?"

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