Differing Cantonese and Mandarin readings of the same headline

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A Cantonese grad student from Guangzhou sent me this headline that means something very different in Cantonese and in Mandarin:


Érzi shēng xìngbìng, mǔ bèi gǎn ānwèi 儿子生性病,母倍感安慰
("When her son contracted a venereal disease, the mother felt redoubled happiness").


Ji4zi2 saang1sing3, beng6 mou5 pui5 gam2 on1wai3 儿子生性,病母倍感安慰
("[Given that] her son is obedient, the sick mother felt redoubled happiness")

One may say that the first reading is absurd, but that is the way it would be parsed in Mandarin, since Mandarin speakers would not know that saang1sing3 生性 is a lexical item in Cantonese meaning  " natural disposition; well-behaved; sensible; thoughtful; obedient".

Here are some examples of common phrases that can have quite different meanings in Mandarin and in Cantonese:

1. 返工 Mandarin fǎngōng: rework, redoing; Cantonese faan1 gung1: return to work, redo a job
2. 心机 Mandarin xīnjī: scheming, mentality; Cantonese sam1 gei1: serious mind
3. 张飞 Mandarin Zhāng Fēi: a name; Cantonese zoeng1 fei1: one fare / ticket
4. 出面 Mandarin chūmiàn: to perform, act on behalf of; Cantonese ceot1 min6: outside
5. 口齿 Mandarin kǒuchǐ: mouth and teeth, the way to articulate; Cantonese hau2 ci2: credit, promise
6. 人工 Mandarin réngōng: artificiality, manpower, manual labor; Cantonese jan4 gung1: salary, pay
7. 偷鸡 Mandarin tōu jī: steal chicken; Cantonese tau1 gai: be indolent in one's duty
8. 挂住 Mandarin guà zhù: hang, put up; Cantonese gwaa3 zyu6: miss, care for

There are countless other expressions that have radically different meanings in Cantonese and in Mandarin.  Such discrepancies lead to serious misunderstandings and mistranslations.  Here is a celebrated case where Cantonese do6toi1 墮胎 ("abortion") was used to translate Mandarin rénliú 人流, which can also mean "abortion", but in this sentence was intended to convey another meaning — "stream of people" — which doesn't exist in Cantonese:  "Shāngchǎng xīnchūn rénliú shēngyì jiào qùnián tóngqí lù dé zēng yī chéng 商场新春人流生意较去年同期录得增一成" ("The business of the flow of people in the malls during the new spring is 10% greater than during the same period last year").  Instead, the translation of the crucial phrase in a Hong Kong newspaper came out as "duòtāi shēngyì 墮胎生意" (abortion business").

Sources: here and here.

Bob Bauer points out that students in Guangdong province, including its main city of Guangzhou, are finding it increasingly difficult to handle written Cantonese:

The inability of students to read the Chinese characters with their Cantonese pronunciations reflects the decline of the Cantonese language in Guangzhou. Decades ago young children there switched over to learning Putonghua and stopped learning Cantonese in the usual way.

Thirty-odd years ago when I was living in Taiwan I gave a newspaper to a Taiwanese-speaking friend and asked him to read an article out loud by pronouncing the Chinese characters with their Taiwanese pronunciations. He made the attempt but couldn't do it.  [VHM:  That was thirty years ago.  The situation regarding Taiwanese, especially in the northern part of the island, is far more dire now.]

Over the past year or so people from Guangzhou have sent me emails in which they have asked me what they can do to "protect" the Cantonese language. Unfortunately, if the language has reached the stage where it needs protection, it's most likely too late to do anything for it.

That's what it's like in Guangzhou, inside the PRC.  Now that China has taken over Hong Kong, policies for the same sort of preferential treatment in favor of Mandarin are being instituted and enforced.  Unless some drastic changes take place within the next decade or so, the future of Cantonese, even in Hong Kong, looks increasingly bleak.


  1. Bathrobe said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 1:53 am

    But 返校 in Mandarin does mean 'back to school'.

  2. martin schwartz said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:06 am

    Pardon a vulgar and a trivial remark by a non-Sinologist,
    but the Cantonese and the Mandarin could be ambiguously and compactly reconciled, if English were written in ideograms, as:
    son clap clap ma.
    Some years ago in a Berkeley Chinese restaurant I saw a sign that
    marked the restaurant as distinctly Cantonese: saam1 man4 (=salmon).
    Reading this as "3 humanities" one can English it as "trivium" ="logic, grammar, rhetoric" and then 'trivial (fish)", i.e. the usual fish offering in
    restaurants. And I like the contrasts in Victor Mair's 6) and 7).
    Martin Schwartz

  3. Kevin Yeung said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:20 am

    Native Cantonese speaker from HK here. To be honest when I read the headline the first time my brain did a "greedy search" and parsed the longest match too, so I understood it as the nonsensical Mandrain meaning also.

    It was only after I mentally insert a comma between the 4th and the 5th character that the sentence made sense to me.

  4. The Suffocated said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:26 am

    This hilarious crash blossom was hot back in 2010. Someone even matched it with another crash blossom 獅子山下體現香港精神. See The Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities in Hong Kong for more details.

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:42 am

    Having known a few dysfunctional families, the Mandarin reading does not sound wholly out of the question to me …

  6. Bathrobe said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:49 am

    三文鱼 is not distinctly Cantonese. It is also used in Mandarin.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 3:07 am

    Martin Schwartz — it is rare that I sit at my computer and laugh out loud, but your "son clap clap ma" had just that effect and is absolutely priceless, IMHO.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 4:05 am

    I'm surprised to see the traditional version of 儿 in a newspaper from the PRC…

    Bob Bauer points out that students in Guangdong province, including its main city of Guangzhou, are finding it increasingly difficult to handle written Cantonese:

    How about spoken Cantonese (and Taiwanese)? Is that in decline, too, or is a diglossia developing in which Mandarin is used for writing and not all that much else? I'm thinking of Standard German and my altogether unwritten dialect.

  9. B.Ma said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 5:56 am

    @David Marjanović, that's because it is not a newspaper from the PRC.

    In my visits to the areas of the PRC bordering Hong Kong, including some schools, native Cantonese have no problems speaking it, while migrants from elsewhere in China don't bother learning it. As for reading and writing, young people who spend time interacting on Hong Kong-based forums are more au fait with Cantonese characters.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 6:08 am


    "But 返校 in Mandarin does mean 'back to school'."

    Please elaborate.

    "三文鱼 is not distinctly Cantonese. It is also used in Mandarin."

    Saam1man4 jyu4*2 三文鱼 ("salmon") is one of the many Cantonese words that have been borrowed into Mandarin. Others are those for "taxi" (dik1 si6*2 的士 / dak1si6*2 得士 / dak1si6 德士), "furniture (gaa1si1 家俬), and "park[ing]" (paak3ce1 泊車).

    sānwènyú 三文魚 (1,920,000 ghits)
    guīyú 鮭魚 (5,520,000 ghits)

  11. Bathrobe said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 6:47 am

    On the morning when all the kids come back to school after the holidays, the roads are packed with cars as parents drive their little darlings to school. When I mentioned this to Chinese speakers in Beijing, the expression that came back was 返校. It possibly originated from Cantonese but it is definitely now used in Mandarin.

    There are also plenty of ghits. See this sentence, for instance:


  12. Guy_H said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 6:49 am

    Oh that is too funny. I automatically read it using the incorrect parsing (and it wasn't obvious to me it was the wrong reading!)

    A few thoughts:
    1. The Cantonese translation is missing a word, it should be "beng mou" i.e. the sick mother felt double happiness. [VHM: added now]
    2. The point about young Cantonese students finding it difficult to handle written Cantonese? Older people have this problem too. My Cantonese father is an early baby boomer (in his late 70s) and like many of his generation, he wouldn't be able to write in Cantonese either. He can only read and write in standard Chinese (either traditional or simplified). I'm sure he could read written Cantonese though (by sounding out the words).
    3. Purely anecdotal but I've noticed my youngest cousin (16y) who grew up in Hong Kong has a tendency to say phrases like 還可以 or 蠻好 in Cantonese. I have no idea when it became acceptable for teenagers to talk like this, because it sounds so…"Mandarin-ified" to me.
    4. I find it much, much harder to read a standard Chinese newspaper out loud in Taiwanese/Hokkien than Cantonese. Taiwanese seems to have so many words missing or which aren't used. Whereas there always seems to be a correct Cantonese pronunciation for any phrase in Mandarin. Not sure why this is the case.

  13. Vanya said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 8:54 am

    This sort of confusion is not unusual in languages even more closely related than Cantonese and Mandarin. If a Pole says “on szuka norkę” it means “ he is looking for the mink”, but to a Czech it means “he is fucking the Norwegian (woman)”. Notoriously “coger” means one thing in Spain but something quite different in Uruguay. And no one will get too worked up if you say “I gave her a smack on the fanny” in Illinois, but don’t say that in polite company in Bristol, UK.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    @Vanya, while the word fanny may be fine (if a bit of an odd word choice) here in the U.S., talking about smacking someone on the fanny (or butt, or behind) could be considered quite inappropriate for other reasons, depending on who is being smacked and the audience (there are differing viewpoints on spanking children).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    The misunderstanding discussed in the main part of the o.p. has to do with a completely different parsing of the characters, not a difference in the connotations of the same terms.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

    @David Marjanović, that's because it is not a newspaper from the PRC.

    …Oh, right, I inferred it was from Guangzhou, but that isn't actually mentioned anywhere.

  17. Lai Ka Yau said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 7:19 am

    Several of the Mandarin meanings listed actually exist in Cantonese as well; in particular, 出面's Mandarin meaning also works in Cantonese if the tone of 面 is changed to 2.

  18. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

    @Bathrobe: Actually 返工 in Cantonese simply means "go to work", not "return to work". It's the equivalent of Mandarin 上班.

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