Token Cantonese

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Guy Freeman sent in this photograph of a beer advertisement in Hong Kong:

I took one look at the ad and thought to myself, "Hmmmm. This is phony Cantonese. It's basically just Mandarin with a couple of token Cantonese markers."

This is how I read it in my head:

kěnéng HAI6 shìjiè shàng zuì hǎo GE3 píjiǔ


"Perhaps the world's best beer."

I registered the HAI6 係 and GE3 嘅 as Cantonese, but felt that they were just cheap replacements for Mandarin shì 是 and de 的. Suspecting that there surely must be a more authentic Cantonese way of saying this, I asked Bob Bauer what it might be, and this is what he sent back:

hai2 ni1 go3 sai3 gaai3 zeoi3 hou2 jam2 ge3 be1 zau2 zau6 hai6 Carlsberg!

喺呢個世界最好飲嘅啤酒就係 Carlsberg!

In this world the best beer to drink is Carlsberg!

Ah, that is much more satisfying! Real Cantonese! If I were a Cantonese speaker, I'd be much more likely to buy Carlsberg if they wrote a real Cantonese sentence like the second one rather than a fundamentally Mandarin sentence with a couple of Cantonese markers like the first sentence.


  1. david said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 1:59 am

    "Probably the best beer in the world" is unusual sentence construction even in its original English – 可能 in the Mandarin version just doesn't capture the nuance. I think they were trying to preserve as much of the sentence as possible. What would that be in 广东话?

  2. Lawrence said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 2:03 am

    Hi, I am a Cantonese-speaking linguist from Hong Kong. The Carlsberg TV commercial that has been around for quite some time. (I am not sure if it is still shown on TV now as I don't watch free TV any more for too much self-censorship. I now turn to web media.)

    Anyway, while I have no way for me to know whether the advertiser simply took the line from Mandarin and replaced shi and de with hai and ge, I have to say that the sentence itself is equally colloquial authentic Cantonese. Bob's alternative is certainly a good too. But meaning-wise the two sentences are not the same. I agree that Bob's sentence is more assertive and the original line carries a sense of uncertainty because of the modal. However, directly claiming one's product the best in the world is probably the most boring and unimaginative thing (as a commercial) that a copywriter wants to avoid. I would suspect that the use of the modal in the commercial is intentional. It creates some sort of room for the viewer's imagination.

  3. Guy Freeman said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 2:06 am

    Thank you for your analysis Professor Mair! The original (famous) slogan is "Probably the best beer in the world", without the name of the beer, so perhaps


    would be even better?

  4. Sili said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 2:32 am

    But that translation is wrong. The point of the slogan is the understated (or humble-bragging, if you prefer) "perhaps".

  5. Martin said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 3:12 am

    Before I read the rest of the post (that is, before the jump), I was a bit lost trying to find what could be wrong/interesting about the image, because it sounded like a perfectly normal slogan in perfectly acceptable Cantonese: "Carlsberg might be the best beer in the world". And though it might be less colloquial than to your liking, it doesn't really say the same thing as the second sentence (as your translations already show). Maybe a compromise could be:

    Carlsberg jau ho nang hai ji go sai gaai soeng zeoi hou jam ge be zau

    [About the toneless jyutping, I honestly don't know what any of the Cantonese tone numbers are, even though I can say them just fine (to the limits of my vocabulary). There're probably stories here on LL about the lack of transliteration education for Cantonese speakers, and also for the continuum between a news anchor's Mandarin-with-Cantonese-markers and that Hong Konger mix of Cantonese sentences with the occasional random English words thrown in (in a Cantonese accent) and then you go right into forum posts/text messages with English letters/Arabic numerals standing in for sound/shape/acronym for good measure.]

  6. Martin said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    I don't know what rock I've been living under, but I was unfamiliar with the "probably the best beer in the world" slogan (without the Carlsberg in front!)

  7. Lane said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 3:46 am

    David, how is "probably the best beer in the world" weird in English? It has been Carlsberg's slogan in English forever. There's a big sign with the slogan (in English) over Copenhagen's City Hall Square, one of the landmarks of the place. And this guy ranked it among his Top 10 Best Beer Slogans:

    I've always quite liked the "probably".

    But I don't understand the strength of the Mandarin 可能. Google Translate gives both "probably" and "possibly", which are very different. "Probably" is cocky, but Danish in the nod to understatement – "we hate to brag, but…" "Possibly" would be more English: "I hate to trouble you, old chap, but we think Carlsberg may just be…"

  8. Guy Freeman said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    Comments from Facebook friends:

    'The original slogan sounds "local" or "real" enough to me. Also there may be some laws prohibiting advertisers from simply asserting their own products as the best. The original slogan ("possibly the best") would be a clever way to get around that.'

    'Usually 喺(and usually bended into 響) is referring to and make emphasis of a location and prof's translation miss the hedging tone. If we really need to translate it now and make it appealing to the younger generation, it should be translated to 世界上最好飲嘅啤酒(好似係)。'

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 7:17 am

    From a speaker of Cantonese and Mandarin who hails from Guangzhou:

    I think the difference between the two Cantonese sentences is that the original phrase is more literary and the other one is more colloquial. The more colloquial phrase changes the meaning of the original phrase. I can't think of a "more Cantonese" way to express the exact same meaning as the original phrase unless being "literary" is less Cantonese and being colloquial is more Cantonese.

    I don't think there's anything "un-Cantonese" about modern written/literary Chinese. It's true that colloquial Cantonese is very different from written Chinese, but it's not like Mandarin speakers speak in the same way as they write either. If a Cantonese person thinks written Chinese is Mandarin and un-Cantonese, s/he might be under the impression that there's no difference between spoken Mandarin and written Chinese, which is probably not rare among people who don't know Mandarin well.

    Also, it's interesting to me how much you seem to have been influenced by the Cantonese way of thinking about Cantonese. Cantonese people in Canton and (maybe HK too) tend to be very preoccupied about discerning what is truly Cantonese and what is not and have this idea of "true Cantonese" vs "phony Cantonese". The idea of "phony Cantonese" reflects the idea that there exists a true, pure form of Cantonese that only true Cantonese people speak. In Canton, these true Cantonese must come from certain central areas of the city and preferably also have a true Cantonese ancestry.

  10. neko said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 10:31 am

    I'm a native speaker who has been hearing that slogan my whole childhood, so it itself sounds perfectly fine to me due to exposure. But more importantly, the construction is something i hear and use often. I'm quite…. surprised that a nonnative speaker, even if he is a repected scholar, gets to proclaim what is or isnt authentic cantonese…..

    The second translation alters the meaning dramatically, and sounds strange beginning with "hai." Native speakers would omit it. As is, it sounds like what it is: someone trying to manufacture cantonese by using all the possible correct "cantonism"

  11. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

    To me, "可能係世界上最好嘅啤酒" is a perfectly natural Cantonese translation of the original (English-language) slogan. One might consider changing 好 to 好飲, but that's about it.

    Of course the word 可能 is essential to the slogan. As others have pointed out, it's the word "probably" that makes the English-language slogan distinctive and memorable. As an advertising slogan, "喺呢個世界最好飲嘅啤酒就係 Carlsberg!" is so uninspired it would make me cringe.

  12. Fluxor said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

    I agree with Jens Ørding Hansen that the slogan is perfectly natural Cantonese. It is certainly not " a fundamentally Mandarin sentence with a couple of Cantonese markers". To me, however, the nuance of the Cantonese version, despite the decent translation, is just different enough from the English version for this ad feel a bit "off". I felt that way the first time I saw it and seeing it again, my feelings haven't changed. It's all in the differences in nuance behind "probably" and "可能".

    "喺呢個世界最好飲嘅啤酒就係 Carlsberg!" is no doubt a worse slogan, although neither version inspires me to want to buy Carlsberg.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 11:26 pm

    Notes on the "probably" slogan

    First of all, they dropped it in 2011:

    "Carlsberg drops 'probably best' slogan in brand relaunch" (4/7/11)

    "Probably the best tagline in the world? Carlsberg changes its tune" (4/18/11)

    I asked about a dozen native speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin to render the English slogan into their language, without showing them the established translations. It was very easy for the Mandarin speakers, but it was hard to find Cantonese speakers who were willing or able to write something down because, although they could translate it orally, they didn't know how to write all the morphemes in characters. They weren't sure how to write what they said in Romanization either, because they had never learned how to do so. And they weren't sure which tones they were using either.

    Anyway, here's what I have so far. If I receive any more translations, I'll add them later.


    The first thing that pops up in my mind is 應該係世界上最好(飲)嘅啤酒. 可能 is a bit literary to me. 應該 is used more often in colloquial Cantonese in my experience with Cantonese in Canton.



    可能是世界上最好喝的啤酒 I know it's not right to add " 喝", but I feel it's more natural this way.




    I'm hoping that a few more Cantonese speakers will add their voices.

    Meanwhile, recognizing that the "probably" is the key part of the original slogan, I would not be surprised if some Cantonese speakers use either waa6 m4 ding6 話唔定 or waa6 m4 maai4 話唔埋 to express that nuance.

  14. neko said,

    May 18, 2015 @ 5:11 am

    There is nothing strange with 可能 with using in a colloquial style. I do not know why you insist that is the case.

    Another possibility is 或者 …

    應該 has a sense of "(if it isnt yet,) this should probably become the best beer in the world."

    話唔定 is the wrong "tone" for the image they are trying to project. 話唔定 would sound like a stall keeper from the local market is selling it.

    We have a fluid gradient of literally – colloquial in our speech you know. Why do you inisit we have to use words that exisit only in cantonese to sound authentic? Only actors playing caricatures sound like that. It's as bad as being surprised at someone who is black when they dont use AVE 100% of the time.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2015 @ 6:24 am

    I'm pleased to report that, overnight, I have received three more Cantonese versions.

    Abraham Chan:


    Mandy Chan:

    I would say 或者係世界上最(至)好飲嘅啤酒. But given how long that Carlsburg ad's been around (pre-1997), I wouldn't be surprised to know that Cantonese speakers who grew up hearing it are conditioned to think that this classic phrase sounds "perfectly " Cantonese. Are there any more Cantonese ways of saying it? Perhaps there are, but without thinking too hard (which is no longer intuitive…), I just can't think of other ways of saying it that would be dramatically different from the Carlsburg rendition.

    The second rendition is, of course, grammatically correct, but as someone pointed out, putting hai2 at the beginning of the sentence may not sound entirely intuitive to a native speaker. But the construction isn't wrong by any means.

    The Carlsburg phrase is always around, although there are times when the ad is played more frequently; and recently, it is being "resuscitated" and voiced by the comedian 葛民輝 (of the radio personality 軟硬天師 fame.). Carlsburg kept the catch phrase (可能係世界上最好嘅啤酒),but added something extra before it: 可惜嘉士伯唔搞XYZ (insert any noun, like gym, supermarket…), 一搞,都可能係最好. In fact, I just heard it (可惜嘉士伯唔搞超市…) on TV the other day.

    And there is also the branding and marketing issue to consider. The Carlsburg image is known to local HK men as 男人嘅豪情,always about stuff that men like to "humble brag" about, women's legs, football, rugby, etc. So the Cantonese rendition has to reflect that cockiness as well. So, that 可能 is one way to get around the false advertising regulations while still being able to convey the idea of “actually, not 可能,we KNOW we are the best!"

    Don Snow (specialist on Cantonese writing):

    Hmmm, this is a dangerous question, putting me in the ring not only with a stellar array of linguists, many of whom speak Cantonese better than I do, but also probably some advertising firm that got paid a lot of money. However, never being one to flinch from charging into the breach….how about…


    With 话吾定 I've tried to capture a little more Cantonese flavor than the original, like Bob's version, but also preserve the "probably" – though with a tiny bit more of the in-your-face flavor I so love in Cantonese. However, I'll admit that I'm not entirely sure how natural – even correct – this will sound to real Cantonese ears, so the Carlsburg advertising firm need not yet quiver in its boots.

    (Sorry for the 简体字 – my computer's 繁体字 function seems to be choking today.)

  16. Eidolon said,

    May 18, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

    A preliminary observation from reading the different translations given is that people who study Cantonese scholastically tend to choose constructions that they think are "uniquely" Cantonese, while native Cantonese speakers tend to choose constructions that make use of "universally understood" Sinitic phrases. I don't find this very strange as it matches the different experiences at play.

    For scholars of Cantonese, Cantonese is defined by its difference from Mandarin and other Chinese dialects/languages. That is what makes it Cantonese – as opposed to Mandarin, Teochew, etc. Scholars are drawn to these differences as differences are fundamental to systematization and classification – and thus to becoming a scholastic expert on a subject.

    Yet, in practice, what we call "Cantonese" is a living language, a language that is constantly shifting and changing, absorbing and integrating. Idioms, words, and constructions from literary Chinese, and even colloquial Mandarin, are entering Cantonese all the time, and the same is the other way around though to a lesser degree in recent years. The everyday language experience of Cantonese speakers is consequently not a closed loop but an open system, and what feels "natural" is the sum of linguistic interactions, which includes but is not limited to local expressions. Thus, distinguishing "phony Cantonese" from "true Cantonese" on the basis of etymological scrutiny is a fine scholarly exercise and serves to elucidate the different layers of the language, but does not ultimately govern what locals feel is "natural" in their speech.

  17. J. Random Hacker said,

    May 18, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

    It's still simpler than that. Most Sinitic languages, including Mandarin, are composed of two diglossic layers, the real spoken language and a written language, Classical Chinese before, but now the hodgepodge 新文言 composed of late Classical (and folk Classical), early Mandarin, Japanese-made loan translations and a general Westernized concept system. Despite some Mandarin influences in the latter, it still has mostly the same distance with basilectal Mandarin as basilectal Canton Cantonese.

    (Non-Canton Cantonese is typically less koiné-ized in vocabulary, and hence exhibits a greater distance with the H variety)

  18. neko said,

    May 18, 2015 @ 10:14 pm

    I agree with most of what you said, Eidolon, except this:

    "Scholars are drawn to these differences as differences are fundamental to systematization and classification – and thus to becoming a scholastic expert on a subject."

    Differences are easy to detect. Pointing out only what is different would be easy for an enthusiast. I'd think an expert would expect more rigor, and a deeper understanding, which necessarily include the nuances of why terms that are shared can still be "authentic" in both languages.

    This graf from the original post seriously irks me:

    "Ah, that is much more satisfying! Real Cantonese! If I were a Cantonese speaker, I'd be much more likely to buy Carlsberg if they wrote a real Cantonese sentence like the second one rather than a fundamentally Mandarin sentence with a couple of Cantonese markers like the first sentence."

    I haven't made a study of it, but I'll wager at least a quarter of my conversational Cantonese is "fundamentally Mandarin, with a couple of Cantonese markers." Does that make me, a native speaker, a phoney!?!? Non-sense!

    Only actors and comedians exaggerate the differences. THAT sounds phoney!

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 9:18 am

    Neko's comments remind me of a phenomenon that I have also witnessed among speakers of Shanghainese and Taiwanese, especially younger ones, viz., increasing amounts of Mandarin in their speech, and often English as well.

    Of course, this is a natural process of language change and is worth studying as well, but I appreciate the remarks of commenters such as Eidolon and J. Random Hacker who try to make sense of the continuum between Cantonese and Mandarin, with all of the blended linguistic manifestations that it embraces.

  20. shubert said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    嘅 kai3 by sound makes more sense than 的 de.

  21. neko said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 11:59 am

    Dr. Mair, as it happens, I moved away from HK a long time ago, so my cantonese is like a time capsule from before the takeover, i.e. before mandarin education really picked up, and before the full effects of the border loosening could be felt. Most people my age and anyone who is younger would find my speech old fashioned.

    If this was truly about trying to make sense of the continuum between cantonese and mandarin, then the paragraph i quoted would make even less sense: in it you've demarcated, unilaterally, what is and isn't "real" cantonese, making no attempt to appreciate the continuum. After all the thoughtful comments from the native speakers you emailed, haven't you entertained the possibility that you 可能 spoke with too much haste and finality in that paragraph?

  22. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    Speaking of which,

    "The politics of multilingualism in Hong Kong" (5/19/15)

    The Mandarinization of Cantonese began long before the Carlsberg ad, and it's still going on.

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