Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages, part 2

« previous post | next post »

From Guy Freeman:

These advertisements on a Hong Kong bus (plastered on the back of every seat on the upper deck) use Cantonese so unashamedly, at least in their main type, that I just had to pass them on.  Clearly advertisers still appreciate that written Cantonese is the best way to connect to the Cantonese-speaking masses.

A monolingual Mandarin speaker, if they heard these sentences spoken, would not be able to understand them.  Even when written in Sinographs, as they are here, these sentences are not fully intelligible to the monolingual Mandarin speaker.  This puts the lie to the common myth that Cantonese and Mandarin (and all the other Sinitic topolects) are identical when written in Chinese characters.

Advert text with woman:
zung6 diu3 jyu4/2
(literally, still fishing?)
(are you) still sleepy/nodding off?

m4 gau3 fan3 bin1 jau5 zing1 san4
(one) didn’t get enough sleep so who could be energetic!

Advert text with man:
gwaa3 zyu6 waan4/2 sau2 gei1
(are you only) thinking about/caring about fooling around/playing with your mobile phone?

siu2 sam1 m4 gei3 dak1 lok6 ce1 aa3
Be careful not to forget to get off the bus!

[transcriptions and translations courtesy of Bob Bauer]

When will people ever get over the idea that there's only one "Chinese" language and that all the other Sinitic topolects are just "dialects" of it?



  1. Marc said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 9:30 pm

    Prof Mair, wouldn’t a statement / letter from the heads of the major Chinese departments here and in the UK to the effect that there should be x number of languages recognized in modern China, resolve the matter to the satisfaction of fact checkers, copy editors, and style guides?


  2. Jenny Chu said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 5:23 am

    What's been interesting to me over the years has been the change in the power dynamic, and thus the expectation of what language a Cantonese speaking HKian and a Putonghua speaker should use with each other.

    A few years back (let's say just post handover) a Mainlander living in HK would have been expected to learn Cantonese. If not, then he or she would be expected to speak English with a Cantonese HKian. Although sometimes that was remarked upon ("I feel a little funny speaking English with him – after all, I guess we're both Chinese" a HK colleague told me once) it was not a big deal. Now, it is absolutely assumed that a Mainlander can come to HK and speak Putonghua everywhere without any particular barriers. If they learn Cantonese, it's just a nice to have.

  3. Lai Ka Yau said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 6:38 am

    A tangentially relevant point: I would tend to gloss the verb 玩 was wun6 (literary pronunciation)/waan2 (colloquial pronunciation). I don't think waan4 is really used on its own, outside of words like 開玩笑.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 7:09 am

    Now, it is absolutely assumed that a Mainlander can come to HK and speak Putonghua everywhere without any particular barriers. If they learn Cantonese, it's just a nice to have.

    According to 100% of mainlanders who I've spoken with about this, everyone except staff in the very most expensive stores will give you the stink-eye the second Putonghua comes out of your mouth. It made them really uncomfortable.

    So "without any particular barriers" doesn't seem to be fully accurate.

  5. Duncan Mak said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

    Michael Watts –

    I'm from Hong Kong, and I'm a native Cantonese speaker. Let me say, even when I speak Cantonese, many working in the customer service industry will give me the stink eye for asking a question or disrupting what they're doing.

    I feel the same dynamic shows up in other cities like New York as well. The Mainlanders in HK might simply be too "fragile" (玻璃心) in the face of this, but I'd say that most Hong Kongers just shrug it off and move on.

  6. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 9:47 pm

    When will people ever get over the idea that there's only one "Chinese" language and that all the other Sinitic topolects are just "dialects" of it?

    When the PRC government finally succeeds in stamping out all of the other Chinese languages?

  7. Alex T said,

    April 3, 2019 @ 8:57 am

    I went to Hong Kong last year and paid very close attention to the languages I heard and used. A handful of people addressed me (a white American) in Cantonese or expectant silence, then continued with whatever language I used. One or two answered in Mandarin when I spoke Cantonese, either hearing a strong Mandarin influence (guilty) or simply assuming I knew it. I spoke with some workers in a cosmetics discount store, and they were all HK natives that were significantly more comfortable speaking in Mandarin than English. They told me it's a nice bonus when a foreigner can speak Cantonese, but just in the way that it helps them do their job faster. Like if you're a ticket agent at the train station and someone hands you an itinerary to punch into the computer, instead of shouting dates and times through the glass.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 6:51 am

    From Tong Wang:

    Gwan2 seoi2, if written with Chinese script, should be 滚水(gǔn shuǐ). "滚" has another meaning as "going away". So is this the reason that 滚水 in Cantonese also means getting out of the way?

    Below is a web page I found discussing various kinds of "water" in Cantonese.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 6:53 am

    @Tong Wang:

    Thank you very much for your note about 滚水. Since it also means "boiling water" in many topolects (闽南语、河南话、四川话、湖南话、江西话、粤语、潮语 — also Wu and Hakka and others), I think that it comes from the basic idea of "roll; turn; rotate" (as the water seems to do when it is boiling fast).

    See here:

    I think the Cantonese meaning of "leave" is secondary.

    One of my favorite Cantonese expressions, also borrowed into Mandarin (gǔndàn) and other topolects, is gwan2 daan6-2 滾蛋 (lit., "roll out [like an egg]"; "get out [of the way]; go away; scram; beat it; begone; get out; go to hell; f*** off").

    "Bad Egg" (4/5/10)

    "'Either… or…'" (4/9/16)

    "The paucity of curse words in Japanese" (9/4/14)

    Thank you so much for that web page discussing various kinds of "water" in Cantonese. I love it!

  10. Lai Ka Yau said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 9:57 pm

    @Duncan Mak – Let's keep the 玻璃心 stuff to Facebook and local forums, and focus just on the sociolinguistic discussion here.

    @Alex T – I've had a professor (who has since left the city) who commented that Hong Kong was the worst place to practice Cantonese because everyone would only talk in English after seeing a Western face. I think the typical situation is still defaulting to English rather than Mandarin when speaking with a Westerner, so I suspect the Mandarin influence in your accent is the main factor here.

RSS feed for comments on this post