Hong Kong counterprotestors, Mandarin honorifics

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[This is a guest post by Brendan O'Kane]

Like pretty much everyone else I know, I’ve been following the news out of Hong Kong with a mixture of hope and admiration and absolute dread. I was looking at reports from yesterday’s rally in support of the police when something caught my eye: the sign text in this image:


“阿Sir (Ā Sir)", of course, is standard usage, amply attested across decades of Hong Kong police dramas. It’s the rest of the sentence that stands out: they may have bothered to use full-form characters for it, but 我撐您 (Wǒ chēng nín) ("I support you") is Mandarin, and the use of honorific 您 (nín) ("you") in particular is a dead giveaway.

The sheer obviousness of this is what I find really startling: if even I can tell that there’s something off about the Cantonese, then they really weren’t trying. Or perhaps they were deliberately using such an obvious Mandarin-ism to send a message. Or maybe, as one Cantonese-speaking correspondent suggested, it’s just an artifact of the same linguistic snobbery that forces all “formal” written usage in the direction of Mandarin. Whatever the case may be, this is an interesting aspect of language usage in the Hong Kong protests (and counterprotests).


  1. Y said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 5:31 pm

    Is 阿 the "Ah" that you see in front of Chinese names in 19th century American sources, even in the census records?

  2. Robert Sanders said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:38 pm

    Yes, it is the same “Ah”.

  3. Chaaak said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

    The use of 您 is not necessarily Mandarinism. It has the same pronunciation as 你 (both nei5 in Cantonese), and s considered to be the honorific version by some. I never use this character in Written Cantonese but there are many others who do.

    It also reminds me of the character 妳 (you, female), which is also falling out of use in Hong Kong.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 12:39 am

    For those of us who don't know what that 阿 is… what is it?

    I wouldn't expect mainlanders to use "sir", but that's really only because I still remember the street vendor who repeatedly addressed me as "gentleman".

  5. B.Ma said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 4:58 am

    Wiktionary definition is "Used in front of persons' given names or kinship terms to express familiarity (traditionally in rural or southern Chinese dialects)."

    If your name was abbreviated Mike, you might be called 阿Mike in Cantonese in the same circumstances it would be appropriate to call you Mike in English. For the typical two character Chinese given name, the second character is usually used e.g. Victor 梅維恆 could be called 阿恆 in non-formal conversation.

    阿Sir / 阿Miss is the way you address a police officer or a teacher(/coach/instructor). In the UK, school teachers are addressed as "Sir"/"Miss", although this practice has not seemed to carry over to British international schools.

    I agree with commenter Chaaak and do not think this is Mandarin. I don't use 您 myself as the Cantonese pronounciation is the same as 你, but some people do use it in writing. I find the situation akin to how French persists in retaining unpronounced letters particularly for third person plural verb forms. It is only linguistic snobbery if you also think a computer program should be spelled computer programme in British English.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 6:31 am

    "It is only linguistic snobbery if you also think a computer program should be spelled computer programme in British English" — I would respectfully disagree. Rather than linguistic snobbery, I would class it as linguistic ignorance (in the sense of misunderstanding) — we Britons have accepted without demur the (American) spelling "program" in the context of "computer program", whilst retaining our traditional spelling "programme" for (e.g.,) radio programmes, concert programmes, etc., thereby gaining a useful distinction in that "program" unambiguously refers to a computer program whilst "programme" refers to the more generic concept.

  7. WSM said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 7:39 am

    I feel it's pretty clearly making a political point/argument concerning the unity of Cantonese- and Manardin-speaking/writing cultures

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    In that sentence the first lexical item 阿Sir aa3 soe4, as mentioned in one of the comments, is the Cantonese term for addressing police officers (and also teachers).

    In my opinion the fact that 阿Sir aa3 soe4 has been used at the beginning of the sentence indicates that the writer is thinking and writing in Cantonese, even though the formal standard Chinese 您 nei5 in Cantonese and nin2 in Putonghua has been used.

    I would assume that the writer has used it as a visual symbol to show politeness and respect toward the police officers.

    We have to keep in mind that written Cantonese has never been standardized, so use of standard Chinese 您 does not imply that the writer is writing in standard Chinese.

    By the way, there is a fair amount to say about Cantonese 阿Sir aa3 soe4 (see the lexical entry for it in the ABC Cantonese English Dictionary on page 11 of Volume One of the Proofreading Draft). You will note that aa3 soe4 is also written with the character for snake se4 but is pronounced soe4.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 8:20 pm

    From Zeyao Wu:

    I have never heard or used 您 in Cantonese, but beyond that, this sentence "阿sir, 我撐您" sounds really Cantonese!

    In Cantonese, we do have honorifics such as 閣下, 令x, or 仁兄, but my hypothesis is that people do not use these two-character honorifics since these phrases weaken the power of the sign. In 我撐您, the stress is exactly 撐.

    Second, 您 means 你們 in this case since there are many 阿Sir. However, no matter what possibility it is, 您 is Mandarin-ism (I just learned it from your language log and I like this word!)

  10. Lai Ka Yau said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 2:34 am

    I would like to confirm the others' observations that 您 is definitely used by some people writing in Cantonese. (Though frankly, my personal, unscientific reaction to the use 您 (and 妳) in Cantonese writing is quite negative…)

    @B.Ma: In Hong Kong at least, 'Madam' is the usual word for female police officers. 'Miss' is only used for teachers.

    @Michael Watts: I believe 阿sir is also used by Cantonese speakers in the Mainland for police officers as well (I remember hearing it from a clip from a news report about the 小悅悅 incident).

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 4:32 am

    I begin to suspect some fairly significant cultural differences here. On Youtube, when watching America-origin videos of motorists interacting with the police, the driver (almost) invariably addresses the police officer as "Sir". I now learn that a similar situation appears to obtain in Hong Kong. Yet I am reasonably certain that we in Britain do not address policemen as "Sir", nor policewomen as "Ma[d|']am". Within the last two months I have had two interactions with the police whilst driving (or being in charge of) a car, and on neither occasion did I feel the slightest inclination to address the policeman as "Sir", even though in my wife's hotel I invariably address clients as "Sir", and this has now become so ingrained that I regularly address male strangers (such as the DPD driver with whom I wished to speak yesterday) as "Sir" without feeling in the least bit awkward.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 5:12 am

    A small percentage of my students at Penn address me as "Sir". They are invariably male and usually from the south, and a few of them went to military academies in middle school and high school. They "sir" me every single time they address me or reply to me. I never ask them not to "sir" me, but I have to say that being "sirred" so frequently usually makes me feel uncomfortable, to the point that I sometimes almost feel like asking them why they do it, but I know that would be fruitless, pointless, and offensive. Also, most (in fact I would say all) of the ones who do this are nice people.

    There was only one male student who "sirred" me frequently, but not always, who didn't bother me, and it turned out that he was from the north and did not go to a military academy. I don't know why he "sirred" me so frequently, but I do know that he really respected me.

    I only get about one student like this every two or three years.

    I also very much dislike being "ninned" in Mandarin, and I never, ever could bring myself to "nin" anyone. There are only a couple of exceptions where I don't mind a person younger than me to address me as "nin", and that is when I have tremendous mutual respect for them, though I still would never "nin" them back.

    Japanese honorifics are so numerous and complicated as to be beyond my grasp, so when speaking Japanese I usually resort to the most neutral level of speech possible without regard to how people are addressing me. The feeling is somewhat like the way I speak what may be called "grammarless Russian", but that's another matter for another time.

  13. Matt said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    B. Ma:

    "阿Sir / 阿Miss is the way you address a police officer or a teacher(/coach/instructor). In the UK, school teachers are addressed as "Sir"/"Miss", although this practice has not seemed to carry over to British international schools."

    I think it has remained in former parts of the British Empire however. The Pakistani exchange students at my university, when addressing my advisor (also from Pakistan), invariably prefaced every response to his questions with "sir."

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2019 @ 7:42 pm

    From Don Snow:

    As everyone noted, the 阿Sir part definitely sounds Cantonese but the rest of it does not. Theory #1: The person is intentionally using vocabulary in part 2 that sounds a little more like Putonghua, to indicate pro-government leanings. Theory #2: The person is using vocabulary in part 2 that seems more standard – a more formal register than the first part – and doesn't perceive it as being Mandarin at all, in the sense that often people in Hong Kong see written Mandarin as simply the standard written form of Chinese taught in schools. Here the assumption is that many people in Hong Kong don't really have a "written Cantonese" category in their minds (in fact, it is hard to talk about this in Cantonese because initially many people don't really know what you are getting at); instead the most salient category in most people's minds is "中文", which includes a higher register which is the written Chinese taught in schools and used in most media and a more colloquial register that is closer to spoken Cantonese.

    My suspicion in this case is that what is going on is a mix of theories 1 and 2, perhaps with neither as really dominant.

  15. PeterL said,

    July 5, 2019 @ 2:36 am

    Victor Mair wrote: "Japanese honorifics are so numerous and complicated as to be beyond my grasp …".

    Standard Japanese polite language is easy compared to Kansai dialect (Kyōto, Ōsaka, etc.).

  16. Fluxor said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 3:19 am

    OP writes: "我撐您 (Wǒ chēng nín) ("I support you") is Mandarin"

    It isn't Mandarin. I would be very surprised to hear a Mandarin speaker use that phrase. In fact, it is so uncommon that Mandarin speakers have even posted questions online asking what that Cantonese phrase actually means.

    广东话中的我撑你是什么意思? (Link: https://zhidao.baidu.com/question/199733143.html)

    我撑你是什么意思? (Link: https://zhidao.baidu.com/question/197861807.html)

    Replacing 你 with 您 doesn't make this phrase Mandarin.

    OP writes: "The sheer obviousness of this is what I find really startling: if even I can tell that there's something off about the Cantonese, then they really weren't trying."

    The OP's phrase "they really werent' trying" suggests to me that his primary theory is that the counterprotesters aren't native Cantonese speaking HKers. Rather, they must be mainlanders with poor enough Cantonese to make a sign where even a non-native speaker "can tell that there's something off." After all, what self-respecting native HKer would support the police/government?

    However, I think the OP's opinion of his own Cantonese capability is perhaps a bit overstated and that he's simply seeing what he wants to see. 我撐您 is quite Cantonese. 您 is used to show respect and sounds no different than 你. And yes, there are plenty of local HKers that support the police and how they've handled the protests.

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