Cantonese Blackberry ad

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Chuck Cook, PANDA Group Cooperation Officer of the European Bioinformatics Institute, called to my attention this Blackberry ad that he spotted on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) in Hong Kong:

Chuck was particularly interested in finding an explanation of zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5 至勁係你 which, as he said, "I still do not understand, despite asking my wife's cousin, a native speaker of Cantonese who is fluent in Mandarin and competent in English."

Let us concentrate on the entire line

heoi2 gan2 leoi5 haang4 zung6 ho2 ji5 jat6 jat6 update, zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5

in which the particularly troublesome clause occurs.

This line can be punctuated as

heoi2 gan2 leoi5 haang4,
zung6 ho2 ji5 jat6 jat6 update,
zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5.

去 緊 旅行,

If read in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), this would be:

Qù jǐn lǚxíng,
zhòng kěyǐ rì rì update,
zhì jìn xì nǐ.

But even if you pronounced this sentence with Mandarin sounds, nobody would understand what you are saying because of the specifically Cantonese lexical and grammatical elements that will be discussed in detail below.

The sentence may be translated into English as "You can continue to update [Facebook], even while you're on a trip; you're really awesome!"

A possible Mandarin translation might be

Lǚxíng dang zhōng,
hái kěyǐ měi yī tiān update,
nǐ zuì liǎobùqǐ.

還可以 每一天update,

Additional grammatical and lexical notes:

The character ging3 勁, originally meaning “force, strength, energy” (MSM jìn), carries in modern Cantonese the connotations “great, smart, capable, powerful”, etc. Zi3 至 means “utmost”. So zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5 至勁係你 conveys the idea that “the smartest / greatest / most brilliant / most awesome / most capable / most powerful [person] is you” or "You're the greatest!". One can also say zeoi3 ging3 hai6 nei5 最勁係你, but 至 is more colloquial in Cantonese than zeoi3 最. Likewise, you can say zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5 至靓係妳,zi3 lak6 hai6 nei5 至叻(smart)係你, etc., all with roughly the same meaning.

The use of gan2 緊 after a verb indicates continuing or progressive action: so we have ji6 gan2 食緊 ("eating"), jam2 gan2 飲緊 ("drinking"), zou6 gan2 做緊 ("doing"), se2 gan2 寫緊 ("writing"), fan3 gan2 瞓緊 ("sleeping"), heoi2 gan2 去緊 ("going/leaving"); and compare heoi2 leoi5 haang4 去旅行 ("go on a vacation") with heoi2 gan2 leoi5 haang4 去緊旅行 ("during a vacation"). In MSM 緊 is pronounced jǐn and means "tight, taut, close" (i.e., it has nothing to do with continuation or progression as it does in Cantonese).

When there is only a verb, gan2 緊 will be placed right after it, but if you need to denote an object (direct or indirect), gan2 緊 will be inserted between the verb and the object, hence, you have heoi2 gan2 leoi5 haang4 去緊旅行 ("while you are travelling", as indicated on the Blackberry ad), or daa1 gan2 maa4 zoek3 打緊麻雀 ("playing mahjong"),jau4 gan2 seoi2 游緊水 ("swimming"),ji6 gan2 faan6 食緊饭 ("eating"), and so forth. Gan2 緊 is the most common particle for indicating the progressive form (it may be the only one, since I can't think of any other way to indicate the progressive in Cantonese). Cantonese V + gan2 緊 [Verb + progressive marker] is equivalent to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) zhèngzài 正在 zheng4 zai4 + V.

In Cantonese, the particle zung6 仲 means "still, even", as in ngo5 ji5 ging1 tung4 nei5 gong2 zo2 hou2 do1 ci3, nei5 dou1 zung6 hai6 gam2 zou6 我已经同你讲咗好多次,你都仲係咁做 ("I have already told you many times, but you still do it this way"). The character zung6 重 is also used to write this Cantonese morpheme indicating "still, even" as well. Cantonese Adv. zung6 仲 ("still, even") functions more or less equivalently to MSM hái 還. In MSM, 仲 is pronounced zhòng and means "second among three brothers; mid-, intermediate". It is completely unrelated to the Cantonese particle zung6 signifying "still, even".

The most obvious indication that the sentence under discussion is Cantonese and not Mandarin is the copula hai6 係, which contrasts sharply and unmistakably with MSM shì 是.

To conclude, even when written in Chinese characters, a Cantonese sentence like 去緊旅行仲可以日日update,至勁係你 is not fully intelligible to a Mandarin speaker because of the distinctive lexical items and grammatical constructions it contains. When pronounced aloud in Cantonese, a sentence such as the one under discussion is totally incomprehensible to a speaker of Mandarin. Curiously, Chuck Cook's wife's cousin, who is a native speaker of Cantonese and who is fluent in Mandarin, got tripped up by the latter part of the sentence. I dare say that, if the cousin had heard that part of the sentence spoken in Cantonese (zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5) rather than merely seeing it written in characters (至勁係你), the cousin would probably have understood it without any difficulty.

[With a tip of the hat to Mandy Chan, Abraham Chan, Bob Bauer, Don Snow, Genevieve Leung, and Wicky Tse]


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Cantonese Blackberry ad [] on said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    […] Language Log » Cantonese Blackberry ad – view page – cached February 14, 2011 @ 9:12 pm · Filed by Victor Mair under Variation, Writing Systems Tags […]

  2. Eric said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    Agree with KAMiKZ — I'm quite surprised to hear of a native Cantonese-speaker from Hong Kong who couldn't understand a short Cantonese phrase written down. Most HKers read "in Cantonese", regardless of whether they speak Mandarin as a second language. That is to say, when confronted with a string of Chinese characters, the little voice in the brain supplies the Cantonese pronunciation — even if the text is explicitly non-Cantonese in grammar and lexicon.

    BTW In your first paragraph after "additional grammatical and lexical notes" — 叻 in the sense of "smart" is read lek1. It becomes lak6 only in terms like 叻沙 (laksa) or 叻埠 (the old name for Singapore). Also two paragraphs later, 食 should read sik6, not yi6.

  3. Daniel Tse said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    Is 勁 ging6 or ging3? Cantodict seems to have both, but I've only ever heard ging6.

  4. Daniel Tse said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    hai5dou6 喺度V (e.g.佢喺度遊緊水) is another way to form the progressive. As in the example it can be combined with 緊.

  5. dalt said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    There are a couple more typos. 打 in the sense of "to play" is read daa2. It becomes daa1 only when used to transcribe the English word "dozen". 去 in 去旅行 is read heoi3, not heoi2. Most speakers pronounce 勁 as ging6, although ging3 might be expected from the Middle Chinese reading of this character.

  6. dom said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:13 am

    more on typos: agreed with dalt and Daniel. I've always understood that 勁 is just a borrowed character for the word ging6 'awesome'; the book pronunciation of 勁 should still be ging3, I believe.

    The second syllable of 旅行 is hang4, not haang4. "haang4" is the colloquial reading (i.e. 白讀) and is only used for the verb 'walk' (i.e. it's a free, not a bound, morpheme). Everywhere else it's hang4 (except of course in the word for 'bank' and 'line/row', where it's hong4, but that corresponds to Mandarin háng).

  7. jfruh said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:15 am

    Never mind the Cantonese, I'm curious why "update" is in English. Is there no good Cantonese (or even Mandarin) equivalent for this?

  8. dom said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:20 am

    @jfruh: actually, "update" and "upload" are also in Cantonese (as loanwords from English)… they just happen to written in English script. They're pronounced ap1dei1 and ap1lou1. :-)

  9. Eric said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:45 am

    @jfruh there's "更新" (gang1 san1), which is indeed how Facebook translates it in all three of its Chinese localizations (zh-CN, zh-TW, zh-HK; note that the zh-HK one is just standard written Chinese with traditional characters, not Cantonese; I don't know exactly how it differs from the Taiwan one).

    But I could think of at least two reasons to use English instead. First, when it comes to computing, HK Cantonese speakers commonly use a lot of English terminology anyway. Second, "更新" has other senses besides "update", like "renewal". The phrase "日日更新" specifically seems to evoke one of the other senses instead — it has sort of religious overtones, at least to me. (Though, I'm not a native speaker of any form of Chinese).

  10. Norman said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    @jfruh, to add to Eric's point, the more you listen to Cantonese, the more you'll realize a lot of English words find their way into normal, day-to-day conversation. While there are standard forms, English has supplanted some.

    For example, you'll be hard pressed to find someone who will say:
    你幾時食午餐阿? (When are you going to have lunch?)

    Instead, most locals will say:

    (Not sure if the ending 'a' is the right character)

    This might just be HK Cantonese, though.

  11. bryan said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 12:46 am

    zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5 至靓係妳
    WRONG. 靓 / = leng in Cantonese, not ging! 妳 = you [feminine form]

    至靓係妳, zi leng hai nei = you're the prettiest!

    靓 is not correct. No such thing. It's originally in Traditional form 靚 and pronounced only in Cantonese. From China, they used this word, and simplified the radical 見 with the phonetic taken from 亮 liang via 漂亮. 靚 has the same or almost the same meaning as 漂亮.

  12. bryan said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 12:51 am

    食緊 = sik gen, not ji gan!!!

    食 is always pronounced "sik" in Cantonese. It's meaning = "to eat" / "to make a living" in Cantonese, but it means "food" when pronounced "shi" in Mandarin.

  13. bryan said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    (Not sure if the ending 'a' is the right character): doesn't matter as long as it's pronounced "a" in Cantonese. It could even be 亞, or 啊, but NOT 啞, because 啞 = mute.

  14. bryan said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 1:02 am

    note that the zh-HK one is just standard written Chinese with traditional characters, not Cantonese


    zh-hk = Standard Chinese in Traditional Characters + characters used in Cantonese per Hong Kong, not Guangzhou, if there's a zh-gz designation, which tend to use zh-cn in but read in Cantonese.
    zh-tw = Guoyu used in Taiwan in Traditional Characters
    zh-cn = Putonghua plus pinyin in Simplified Characters.

  15. bryan said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 1:04 am

    I'm curious why "update" is in English. Is there no good Cantonese (or even Mandarin) equivalent for this?

    "update" from English is easier to input. The equivalent in Cantonese / Mandarin might be a little bit more cumbersome to input.

  16. Chuck Cook said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 5:50 am

    Many thanks for the explanation Victor! Just to clarify: my wife's cousin certainly understood what he was reading, he just wasn't able to explain/translate it in a way that allowed me to understand it–at least when we were on a noisy, moving train. -Chuck

  17. Bob Violence said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 2:08 pm


    zh-hk = Standard Chinese in Traditional Characters + characters used in Cantonese per Hong Kong, not Guangzhou, if there's a zh-gz designation, which tend to use zh-cn in but read in Cantonese.
    zh-tw = Guoyu used in Taiwan in Traditional Characters
    zh-cn = Putonghua plus pinyin in Simplified Characters.

    He was speaking specifically about the zh-hk variant of Facebook, which has no Cantonese-specific characters that I can see, although there might be some buried in there somewhere.

  18. BobSun said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

    I am a standard Chinese speaker,but I never figured out the last 4 characters' meaning.And that is why I entred the entry.What I am saying is that,my ignorant of this phrase may suggest that it is not a standard saying,maybe a dialect.

  19. Cai Wen said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 12:29 am

    重 can be pronounced chóng in MSM, and when it is it means "again," as in chóngxīn kāishí 重新开始 "begin again." Perhaps 仲 in the sense of "still, even" is related to this meaning of 重。"Still" and "again" don't seem that far off from each other to me.

  20. Ian said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    Dr. Mair asked me to post this excerpt from an email I sent him on this post:

    "The use of jin 紧 to suggest "continuation" or "uninterrupted-ness" exists in some conservative Mandarin dialects, as well, and is not limited to colloquial Cantonese. In Wuhan Mandarin, the word 紧 has a similar usage to the Cantonese, except that it is used immediately before a verb. It suggests continuation, but it also similar to the MSM term 一直 in its “always/often" or "without cease/interruption" meaning. For example, "他紧吃饭”, read something like "ta4 jin qi3 fan2", is equivalent to MSM "他一直吃饭" or "他还在吃饭"; another example is "拐子紧搞个某事“, read "guai3 zi jin gao3 ge mo1 si1", meaning in MSM "哥哥一直干某件事" or in English "Brother is always off doing something"."

  21. Sai said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    It would translate idiomatically to kiwi English as "You're the coolest!" with the 'You' being a reference to the user although the preceding phrase has no subject and could be an implied 'It' as in '"It can still update", with the 'You' in the above translation of "ji ging haih nei"' being an address to 'It.' However, as this is an ad, designed obviously to promote the image of the user and there is also a whole list of 'You' this and "You' that referring to people, I would favour the interpretation that "You' is a reference to the user and not the Blackberry.

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