Cantonese resurgent

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I've often felt that the percentage of loanwords in a language is one index of the strength and resilience of that language (witness English and Japanese, each of which has an enormous number of borrowings).  An abundance of loanwords in a language makes it lively, colorful, and au courant.

When Bob Bauer was in the Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU; HKPU), in 2006 he started a project on English loanwords in Cantonese in collaboration with Cathy Wong in the English Department at HKPU.  After he left in 2008, Cathy continued the work.

The database of English loanwords in Cantonese they created is the newest and best of its kind.  Unfortunately, it is still rather inconvenient to use.  For example, I wish there were some way to list alphabetically all the English words in the database.  It would also be nice if, when you called up all the Cantonese words alphabetically, which can be done now (this is how I did it — may take a while to load), the main English translations would show up in another column to the right.  As it is now, one has to click individually on each item to call up the definition and explanations for that particular item.  Still, this is an enormously valuable list, and I'm very grateful to have it.

Bauer himself is still planning to write a book on English loanwords in Cantonese.

Part 1 will include discussion of several topics: historical Cantonese-English contact in South China, historical periods of borrowing, methods of borrowing English words into Cantonese; phonetic correspondences between English source words and Cantonese borrowings; written representation of Cantonese borrowings, etc. (material will be taken from his computerized database of English loanwords in Cantonese, relevant section of Chapter 3, Modern Cantonese Phonology, and his journal publications).

Part 2 will include three indices of loanwords:

(1) alphabetically-arranged list of Cantonese borrowings plus corresponding English source words;

(2) alphabetically-arranged list of English source words plus equivalent Cantonese borrowings;

(3) semantically-arranged lists of English source words plus equivalent Cantonese borrowings.

As an instructive specimen of Cantonese in action, I offer this vivid, enthusiastic, and humorous YouTube video about the origin, history, sound system, vocabulary, etc. of the language.

There are some amazing moments in this nine and a half minute video, many of which even someone who knows no Cantonese can partially understand due to the clever graphics and because the names and loanwords that are being pronounced still sound somewhat like their originals, even though they are in syllabically rendered Cantonese.  I especially like the last part where it pushes back against Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) hegemony and advocates retention of local languages.

Most of the non-standard (i.e., non-national) local languages (topolects) of China are in dramatic retreat.  Even such a once important language as Shanghainese is rapidly dying, with few young people being willing or able to speak it, and — of those who do — it is so adulterated with Mandarinisms (and that runs the gamut from phonology to morphology to lexicon and grammar) that it is no longer recognizable as the special language it was a short half-century ago).  Ditto for Taiwanese.  I am astonished and dismayed by how few people in their 30s and younger are able and willing to speak the full range of fluent Hoklo.  See "National Language versus Mother Tongue" for one look at this phenomenon.

Cantonese, however, seems to be different, and I attribute that in large measure to the special experience of Hong Kong under the British, where — until 1997 — Cantonese was enabled to flourish alongside English as a vibrant language of daily life and even intellectual discourse.  After more than a century of this sort of nourishment, Cantonese has established sufficient basal strength and solidity to withstand — at least up to now — the considerable pressures that have been exerted upon it since 1997.


  1. leoboiko said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    Is there an objective way of measuring how much of a lexicon is loaned, given that loanwords eventually naturalize? If so, has anyone compiled data comparing how loany various languages are?

  2. Peter Austin said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    The YouTube video uses a lot of reading pronunciations and sounds and is structured more like Mandarin. It is pretty distant from the spoken language, especially "street Cantonese", but this does not detract from your point about loans and vibrancy of Cantonese versus other Sinitic languages.

  3. William Steed said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

    I wonder if it isn't loans so much as words new to the language. Languages with lots of internal lexical innovation don't necessarily fare too badly either. I'm thinking along the lines of Icelandic and Scandinavian languages that are still pretty strong (from my perspective), despite high levels of English bilingualism, and aren't as strong on English loans as many other languages.
    My suspicion is more that it's about a language's openness to innovation in general that will keep it vibrant. Where there's a very strong conservatism of language, it may be more difficult to find vibrant language use. The strongest uses of Shanghainese that I've seen are in things like rap, where wordplay and English loans are common and (so far as I can tell) valued.

  4. Amy said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    I would like to know your reasons for why you are so dismayed at the spread of Mandarin?

    Of course I think it sad to see a language die, and dislike any sense of a language being forced out, but in the case of Mandarin, my opinion is that, for a a country as large and varied as China, with so many immigrants coming from different parts of the country to the cities, it is necessary to have some sort of lingua franca.

    Although the government has been, especially in the past, more forceful with it than I like, the young people I have met here in China embrace the language these days, it seems. This is the language of their media and their schools, their national identity, as well as the reference for pinyin input… without a grasp of mandarin it is difficult, if not impossible to access the internet, as this is necessary to input characters. (although there may be handwriting tools also? I feel these are quite slow and often frustrating to use, however) The only time I come across the local dialect in my area is with older people or those talking to family members.

    I agree that it is a shame to see smaller languages and dialects dying, but if it is because a more 'effective' way of communication has been established between large numbers of people, I think it is, at least, understandable.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 8:28 am


    I am not dismayed at the spread of Mandarin. Rather, I am concerned about the disappearance of true Mother Tongues. You yourself have given many reasons for why one might be alarmed at what is happening to local and regional languages.

  6. Cameron said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    Do English loan words in Cantonese remain mostly restricted to Hong Kong or do Hong Kong-based media spread them across the whole Cantonese-speaking area? If they do become widespread, how quickly do they spread? Do terms in some semantic domains spread more widely and quickly than others? Are there clear patterns in the geographic diffusion of the loan words? Could such diffusion patterns be used to measure the relative isolation of Cantonese-speaking communities from Hong Kong media?

    So many questions . . .

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    From Bruce Balden:

    There's a sign in Vancouver that contains the character 呔士多 where it means "tire". (the store sells exotic tires for sports cars). My Cantonese dictionary shows no listing for that character, whereas Google translate shows "tie" (not clear) but it must mean something since it's in Unicode.

    In other words, you can find English loanwords to Cantonese right here in Vancouver. However, that sign is at variance with the database since "tire" there is 車軚 or 士啤呔. Should I send them an update??

    Response from Bob Bauer:

    Thanks very much for sending me that email about 呔士多 'tire store'.

    The first thing one needs to keep in mind is that the written form of Cantonese has never been standardized. No Cantonese speaker (except for gwailous) goes to school and to learn to read and write conversational Cantonese using the colloquial/dialectal characters. However, the written form of Cantonese has accumulated over time an informal, improvised, ad hoc set of conventions that some writers try to follow, but these are not formally taught in school, so Cantonese speakers pick them up through through their observations and experiences (see Introduction to "The Written Representation of Cantonese" by Cheung and Bauer, JCL monograph #18, 2002). What this means is that Cantonese speakers may or may not follow this set of conventions when they write Cantonese.

    Yes, it is the case that (automobile) tire is written with several different sinograms, including 軚, 呔, 胎, and all of these are included in the several relevant entries related to 'tire' in the ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary ms. I can mention here that 胎 is ordinarily pronounced "toi1" but undergoes a change in pronunciation to "taai1" when it is used to mean 'tire' (胎 is the most commonly used sinogram in HK newspapers to mean 'tire').

    As for other uses of sinogram 呔 taai1, it also means 'tie' as in 領呔 leng5 taai1 'tie worn around the neck', 煲呔 bou1 taai1 'bow-tie', etc.

    A lot more could be said about any of these topics but I'll have to stop here for now.

  8. Mandy said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 2:36 am


    You're mixing two different issues here: 1) using Mandarin as a standard language to communicate within China vs. 2) allowing other regional topolects the right to coexist in China.

    Unlike Shanghainese, Cantonese isn't dying — it's still a vibrant, majority language in Hong Kong. What I and many Cantonese speakers have issue with isn't about Mandarin being the standard language of the PRC, but the attitude that some Mandarin speakers exhibit toward Cantonese and Cantonese speakers. The government and many Mandarin speakers think that Cantonese is some second-class, backward language that must be replaced/standardized by Mandarin.

    The status of Cantonese has been *artifically* suppressed in places like Guangzhou, where standard 廣府話 is spoken. Why would speaking Cantonese in one's native Cantonese city of birth is considered "backward"? This is happening to other topolects as well but Cantonese speakers have shown the strongest resistance because they have a large amount of native speakers both inside and outside of China.

    The suppression of Cantonese has nothing to do with Mandarin being a more 'effective' way of communication but everything to do with the language policy of the PRC. This is incredibly stupid of them because they are creating "social problem" that otherwise wouldn't have exhisted. Ten years ago, nobody cared about speaking Cantonese in Guangzhou, now it's like EVERY Cantonese speaking person is making a point to speak Cantonese!

  9. joanne salton said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 8:09 am

    I should have thought that loanwords are merely one part of the picture during language death – surely Shanghaiese has plenty too amongst all the other changes mentioned?

    Is there are more convincing example of how they strengthen a language rather than English/Japanese? – they after all need little help.

    I recently asked some Cantonese speakers to give my colleagues a short basic Cantonese lesson. They didn't really know what to do and It started like this. "Thanks for coming to teach us your language- Could you say 'hello' for us?"
    "We just say 'hello'" "Well, how about goodbye?" "We always say 'bye'"

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 8:15 am

    from Bob Bauer:

    [VHM: The formatting consists of .hw = headword, char = character(s), ps = part of speech, clf = classifier; measure word, then comes etymological and usage notes, definition, after that cross references, serial number of the entry, and finally references to sources and scholarly studies. Obviously, I'm eager for the real dictionary to come out, and we're getting close.]

    Selected Lexical Entries Related to Eng. Loanword tire
    and Extracted from ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary Ms.
    13 December 2012

    .hw taai5/1
    char 軚
    ps N.
    clf 條 tiu4
    en loan from Eng. tire (or tyre); a.s.a. 車軚 ce1 taai5/1; a.w.a. 呔
    taai1, 肽 taai1, 胎 taai1 with change in pron. of std. Can. toi1; 胎
    taai1 is most com. wrtn. form used in HK. Ch. newspapers; std. Ch. is
    輪胎 leon4 taai1
    seealso 爆軚 baau3 taai5/1, 補軚 bou2 taai5/1, 車軚 ce1 taai5/1, 士啤
    軚 si6 be1 taai5/1, 輪呔 leon4 taai1, 軚 taai5, 軚軨 taai5/1 ling4/1
    df tire (made from rubber), as for the wheel of a motor vehicle,
    bicycle, etc.
    exchar 前面兩條軚漏氣
    exrom cin4 min6 loeng5 tiu4 taai5/1 lau6 hei3
    exeng Air leaked out from the two front tires
    ser 1000005129
    ref HPP1970:443; SL1977:795; CTA1997:072; MT1997:105; WKB1997:260; ZN1999:335; CE2005:941; ROZ2009:220; RSBfmInternet24082011

    .hw taai5/1 pou3/2
    char 軚舖
    ps N.
    clf 間 gaan1
    en 軚 taai5/1 is loan from Eng. tire (tyre); a.w.a. 呔舖 taai1 pou3/2
    seealso 爆軚 baau3 taai5/1, 補軚 bou2 taai5/1, 車房 ce1 fong4, 車軚
    ce1 taai5/1, 輪呔 leon4 taai1, 士啤軚 si6 be1 taai5/1, 軚 taai5/1, 軚
    軨 taai5/1 ling4/1, 呔舖 taai1 pou3/2
    df auto tire shop, i.e. a shop that sells tires for automobiles and
    may also change the old tires to new ones on automobiles
    exchar 星期日好多軚舖都唔開
    exrom sing1 kei4 jat6 hou2 do1 taai5/1 pou3/2 dou1 m4 hoi1
    exeng Quite a lot of auto tire shops don't open on Sundays
    ser 1009005129
    ref RSBfmInternet05102011

    .hw taai1 pou3/2
    char 呔舖
    ps N.
    clf 間 gaan1
    en 呔 taai1 is loan from Eng. tire (tyre); a.w.a. 軚舖 taai5/1 pou3/2
    seealso 爆軚 baau3 taai5/1, 補軚 bou2 taai5/1, 車房 ce1 fong4, 車軚
    ce1 taai5/1, 輪呔 leon4 taai1, 士啤軚 si6 be1 taai5/1, 軚 taai5/1, 軚
    軨 taai5/1 ling4/1, 軚舖 taai5/1 pou3/2
    df auto tire shop, i.e. a shop which repairs or changes tires on
    exchar 喺呢間呔舖有個師傅仔補呔好叻
    exrom hai2 ni1 gaan1 taai1 pou3/2 jau5 go3 si1 fu6/2 zai2 bou2 taai1
    hou2 lek1
    exeng At this auto tire shop there's a young technician who is quite
    sharp at repairing tires
    ser 1099005129
    ref RSBfmInternet05102011

    .hw taai5/1 ling4/1
    char 軚軨
    ps N.
    clf 個 go3
    en loan from Eng. tire-rim; a.s.a. 車軨 ce1 ling4/1; a.w.a. 呔令
    taai1 ling6/1, 呔軨 taai1 ling4/1, 軚令 taai5/1 ling6/1
    seealso 補軚 bou2 taai5/1, 車軨 ce1 ling4/1, 車軚 ce1 taai5/1, 輪呔
    leon4 taai1, 士啤軚 si6 be1 taai5/1, 軚 taai5/1, 軚舖 taai5/1 pou3/2
    df tire-rim, i.e. the metal rim of a wheel which a rubber tire (as
    for an automobile, bicycle, etc.) fits around
    1exchar 我想換軚唔換軚軨
    1exrom ngo5 soeng2 wun6 taai5/1 m4 wun6 taai5/1 ling4/1
    1exeng I want to change tires but not change the tire-rims
    2exchar 佢搵十八寸電鍍軚軨
    2exrom keoi5 wan2 gan2 sap6 baat3 cyun3 din6 dou6 taai5/1 ling4/1
    2exeng He's looking for 18-inch electroplated tire-rims
    ser 1999005129
    ref CE2005:941

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    I assume the seeming contradiction between asserting that loanwords are a sign of strength and asserting that "Mandarinisms" (including loanwords) are a sign of danger depends on implicit assumptions about power and agency. Cantonese, it is assumed, has been adopting English loanwords of its own free will and from a position of strength and self-confidence, whereas Mandarin loanwords are externally imposed by coercion (or at least arise from the understandable need of a subjugated people to curry favor with the occupying forces). Well, maybe. But it's not as if there wasn't a rather glaring power imbalance in the old days in Hong Kong between the Anglophone rulers and their Cantonese-speaking subjects. That the British were much more enlightened despots than their Mandarin-speaking successors doesn't change that. On the other hand, it would be interesting if recent English-origin loanwords into Cantonese could be subdivided into those of BrEng origin and those of AmEng origin (or, heck, AustEng origin or other sources), if one (debatably?) assumes that the motive for adoption of AmEngisms is more the result of "soft power" and cultural prestige and what not and less tied up with the colonial legacy.

  12. Grace said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    I speak my favourite language
    that’s who I am.
    We teach our children our favourite language,
    we want them to know who they are.

    (Christine Johnson, Tohono O’odham elder, American
    Indian Language Development Institute, June 2002)

    I am sure that everyone agree this statement. However, regional topolects speakers/linguists should enthusiastically engaged in national language policy. Taiwanese Hokkien in Taiwan is a good example for that.

  13. Bob said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

    have no fear!
    1/ I have read that recently, the Shanghai Metro Syetem started to use Putonghua, Shanghainese, and English, to announce the names of the upcoming subway station. <Shanghainese is not spoken on the streets of SH, only because more than half of SH residents are new "immigrants" from other parts of the country; it is still spoken among the longtime/original SH residents…. who residide in areas not commonly visited by westerners.
    2/ Although Chinese local TV stations use only Putonghua in their programs, but many commercials are now in the local dialects.
    3/ After KMT's took over of Taiwan in 1945, it also mandated the use of Mandarin as the official language, as well as the language for schools,in TW.. it was somewhat high-handed in high schools; but Taiwanese (South FooKuenese) never stopped being used. Its movies/popular songs are well established in the morket place, it even became the language for The Opposition in those early domocratic movement days. Now, teachers in classrooms speak Taiwanese to show he/she is closed with the students, he/she is withit, he/she is hip…
    4/ I could not find the youtube sement, thus have nothing to said re that. Just wondering, what it made of WincesterSouce/喼汁, 陳Sir, 蝦多士 ….

  14. B.Ma said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    @joanne salton

    Well, you have learned 2 words in Cantonese then: 哈佬 (ok, a bit of a stretch) and 拜拜

  15. Bloix said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    I don't know anything about Japanese, but English, it seems to me, has no difficulty in accepting loan words because in English it doesn't matter if you know the etymology of a word or not. We are generally not conscious of the original meanings of the component parts of words even when they're not loan words, so we don't mind importing new multisyllabic words that can't be broken down to their origins.

    Hebrew, by contrast, is a language in which every word is based on a root – usually three consonants, sometimes two or four – whose meaning, part of speech, tense, voice, number, etc. – is widely varied and extended by changing the vowels between the consonants and adding a wide variety of prefixes and suffixes.

    A native Hebrew speaker is always conscious of the root of a word, and much of the language's poetry, word play, and nuance is based on not only the root but on the many words with a wide variety of meanings that arise from the same root.

    When Hebrew takes a loan word – which it does, frequently – the word becomes a huge chunk of impermeable meaning that can't be unbundled to its original root. It has no relationship with any other word in the language, and instead remains immovably and unmistakeably foreign.

    There are a few happy exceptions to this phenomenon. The loan word "telephone," for example, happens to fall easily into a four-consonant pattern which can be assimilated into typical Hebrew word formation. And so one sees"telefon" a telepone, "l'talfen," to telephone, "tilfanti" I called, etc.

    But usually the loan words just litter the language, never melting into the sea of native Hebrew words.

  16. dom said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    @joanne, a common greeting when you run into someone you know is sik6zo2 faan6 mei6 aa3 "have you eaten yet?" or heoi3 bin1 aa3 "where are you going?" These are the kinds of the things that wouldn't immediately come to mind when you ask native speakers point-blank how to say 'hello'.

    OTOH 'baai5baai3' is a very common way to say "bye" (though of course there are other things one can say when one is leaving)

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