So 乜野 ry 啊

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One of the things that I learned during my recent short stay in Hong Kong is that there are some especially interesting ways of mixing English and Cantonese, including putting Cantonese in the middle of English words. One example (due to Bill Wang via Tan Lee):

so [mat1 je5] ry [aa3]
so 乜野 ry 啊
Why say sorry ? [Usually in an angry and unpleasant mood]

Apparently the syllables of the English word are re-analyzed as if they were the monosyllabic quasi-morphemes of a Cantonese polysyllabic word.

The two syllables mat1 je3 are often merged and become me1:

sorry -> so [me1] ry [aa3]

(See Wai Yi Peggy Wong, "Syllable Fusion in Hong Kong Cantonese Connected Speech", 2006, for more on this kind of merger.)

[Update — more on the infixation phenomenon here.]


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » So 乜野 ry 啊 [] on said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    […] Language Log » So 乜野 ry 啊 – view page – cached October 5, 2010 @ 3:53 pm · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and culture, Sociolinguistics Tweets about this link […]

  2. Claw said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    Infixation of "what" in Cantonese is also described here: (p. 138)
    It provides examples using me1 (咩 – the fusion of mat1 je5 乜嘢 "what thing") and mat1 gwai2 (乜鬼 "what damn"; somewhat more intense than just me1).

  3. Rhacodactylus said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    We're already living in Joss Whedon's Serenity!


  4. komfo,amonan said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    OK I'll bite. Is this post understandable at all without the meanings of those hanzi?

  5. D.O. said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Sorry, but what are those "Cantonese polysyllabic word[s]" made part of English syllables and part of Cantonese? Or is the whole construction "so [me1] ry [aa3]" is one word in Cantonese?

  6. Claw said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    @komfo,amonan and D.O.:

    Let me take a stab at clarifying Mark's post:

    In Cantonese, the word mat1 je5 (乜嘢, meaning "what") and its variations (me1 咩, etc.) can be found as an infix that occurs after the first syllable of a polysyllabic word in order to signify disbelief. It often has a sarcastic tone. For instance:

    舒服 (comfortable) -> 舒咩服 (how is this comfortable?) [For instance, this may be exclaimed after one sits on a comfortable-looking couch but instead finds out that is not comfortable at all.]

    Mark was simply remarking his intrigue at finding out that the infixation occurs with English words too:

    sorry -> sor-咩-ry [For instance, used when exclaiming disbelief in the sincerity of another person's apology.]

  7. komfo,amonan said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    @Claw: 99.44% clear. Thank you.

  8. Joyce Melton said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 7:21 pm


  9. groki said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    (my thanks also, Claw.)

    does this construction show that "sorry" has in effect become a Cantonese polysyllabic word now?

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    @Joyce Melton: Twelve Google hits on "in-fucking-croyable".

  11. David said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    幽默 (you1mo4) is a transliteration of English "humor" that has been reanalyzed as a V-N: thus I believe one can say 幽一个默 = "to hu a mor" = "make a joke"

  12. D.O. said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    Claw, my thanks too. Fascinating!

  13. Claw said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    I should also note that aa3 (啊), which Mark mentioned in his post, is there because it often appears at the end of wh-questions in Cantonese. 乜嘢 and its variations are wh-words, so the infixation transforms the statement into a wh-question. It's a rhetorical wh-question that makes an assertion and doesn't expect a response from the listener, but it's synatically still a wh-question so it receives the final aa3.

  14. LINAR said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Gawd, if only Whedon had visited Hong Kong or Singapore once. He'd then have known how to properly write code switching amongst bilinguals or those at least quite familiar with the other language. :P

  15. L said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 8:22 am


  16. Jorge said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Twenty one Google hits for Spanish "In-fucking-creible" too.

  17. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    I sometimes wonder if Whedon wanted to script Serenity entirely in Singlish, but settled on mostly English with Mandarin short expressions after the network expressed disbelief that the (mostly American) audience would invest the half-hour or so of mental work that it takes speakers of Standard English to learn to understand Singlish, and the Singaporean government warned him that shows in Singlish are refused airtime on Singaporean TV.

  18. groki said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    ah, I see that "no" is the answer to my question does this construction show that "sorry" has in effect become a Cantonese polysyllabic word now?

    "Why two languages might be better than one: Motivations of language mixing in Hong Kong" (from myl's next post) characterizes the English words that get mixed as:

    words of English origin which … remain essentially English words in the sense that:

    1. they have no accepted Chinese characters in writing … ;

    2. there are norms that prevent them from entering 'pure' Cantonese speech (for example, … on radio or TV news programmes); and

    3. they are generally perceived, unlike full-fledged loan words, as English words: they are much less likely to be used by monolingual speakers of Chinese.

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