"Come, comrades, over there!"

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There's a huge controversy over whether the police commander uses the Mandarin word "tóngzhìmen 同志们" ("comrades") at around 2:15 in this video:

I asked about a dozen native speakers of Cantonese who are also fluent in Mandarin and, indeed, trilingual in English, if they thought the commander used the Mandarin word "tóngzhìmen 同志们" ("comrades").  If he did, that would be highly significant for at least two main reasons:  1. an indigenous policeman would not use Mandarin pronunciation, 2. that term is not used in Cantonese to address military personnel.

There was such a variety of opinions voiced in reply that I'll let the respondents speak for themselves.  Before quoting them, however, it's important to point out that, whether they were able to identify exactly what words the commander spoke, what he said was unnatural to their Cantonese ear.

1.

I'd say that it's actually quite hard to discern what the commander is saying. What I hear is this:
"[Mandarin] 來,? ? ? , [Cantonese] go2bin6 嗰便" aka let's go ???, over there

The ? ? ? sounds vaguely like [Mandarin] 同志們, which is what the voiceover narrator is claiming, and is also saying that it wouldn't be normal for the HK police to use. He later poses the question if the commander is actually a HKer, or if he's from somewhere else.

2.

If he actually did say "comrades" in Mandarin that would be unusual; actually I don't even hear it that much in the mainland nowadays (though admittedly I'm not often yelled at by police). However, I can't tell whether he actually says "comrades" [in Mandarin]. The commentator says he does, but from what I can make out I'm simply not sure. For example, I'm not hearing the final -n sound I would expect in either Cantonese or Mandarin, nor do the tones seem quite right. Then again, the sound isn't clear….

3.

I've listened to the video but I can't understand much of what the policeman is saying.

It sounds like the narrator of the video thinks that he said tungzhimen.

I noticed in the written comments that some writers say it was uttered, while others aren't sure or that it wasn't said.

I don't think I've ever heard any Hongkongers say this term.

If I recall correctly, there was a time when tongzhimen was regarded as a quite formal/marked term in mainland Putonghua.

4.

I have listened to it several times, but it is not very clear whether he was saying "來, 同志們, 嗰邊". Indeed, we also have 同志 in Cantonese, but it refers another to meaning in most occasions, i.e., the homosexual.

5.

I listened to it more than thirty times, but I still do not think that he spoke Mandarin "同志們". I rarely hear people saying 同志們 nowadays in the mainland, and it is weird if the police suddenly inserted a Mandarin phrase into Cantonese. I will try to figure out what the police is saying.

6.

I tried very hard to listen but had a hard time distinguishing. I forwarded it to my Cantonese-speaking students and they said the same thing. It is unusual that Hong Kong police would speak Mandarin (at least he said "Lai 來" first in mandarin).

7.

The first word doesn't sound like Cantonese. It would have been "loi" for 來 in Cantonese pronunciation; but we don't say "loi", rather "lai" 嚟 as an equivalent. Still, Cantonese speakers don't say "lai" in a command like this. It should have been something like "sheung" 上, or simply in English "go, go, go." But I've never been in the HK police force so I really don't know what the standard commanding word is.

8.

Pretty sure it sounded like "lai". I would've expected the colloquial 嚟 or weirdly the formal Cantonese pronunciation of 來 "loi".

9.

Actually, the pronunciation of 來 in Mandarin is very similar to 嚟 in Cantonese. I have listened to the video again and again, and it seems very difficult to distinguish whether the word was 來 or 嚟.

10.

It isn't clear enough that I could say with confidence that what the commentator claims is wrong, but I also couldn't say with any confidence that I hear a clear "lai" here. Whatever the utterance before tongzhimen is, it seems to have two syllables / pulses of sound rather than one, and that confuses things further.

It is true that use of "lai / lei" in a situation like this seems more natural to me for Mandarin than for Cantonese, but use of "lei" here in Cantonese doesn't seem impossible. Anyway, the larger point is that I just can't be sure what he said is "lai / lei" at all.

11.

I don't think he speaks Mandarin, and I am pretty sure there is no "來". He said five syllables before 果邊 [VHM:  "over there" in Cantonese], so it is "xx xxx 果邊 (那邊)."  I don't think there is any second-tone pronunciation  (just like lái) among these five syllables. It also does not sound like Cantonese, and the middle three syllables sound like "form check line" [VHM:  suspecting that it sounds like English].  The first two syllables sound like a name. I am still trying to find some more background information about it.

12.

Whatever he says does sound a little weird for Cantonese but doesn't sound like "lai, tongzhimen" – or anything else identifiable in Mandarin. The use of such a phrase in 2019 would be pretty odd even in the mainland – maybe you would have heard it in the 1980s but not too likely today

The last respondent, whom I shall quote next, has a Ph.D. in Chinese linguistics, specializing in Cantonese.  I've often consulted him about matters pertaining to Cantonese phonology, morphology, and usage, and over the years he has been highly reliable.  In this instance, I queried him repeatedly, and he consistently and without hesitation affirmed that the police commander said "tóngzhìmen 同志们" ("comrades"):

a.

Yes, it indeed sounds like "comrades" in Mandarin, and it is unusual to hear this in Hong Kong. I shall not speculate whether this represents an infiltration of the People's Liberation Army, as some have claimed, since this officer could well be a mainland immigrant.

b.

I don't hear "lái 來." It actually sounds more like "OK" to me.

To be frank, I tend to believe this particular officer is indeed a legitimate Hong Kong police, but the fact that he used "tóngzhìmen 同志們" indicates that some of those who accompanied him (who have remained silent all along) were mainland police officers (gōng'ān 公安). Hong Kong police never call upon their colleague as "tóngzhì".

This theory has spread widely throughout the web, e.g., here.

c.

No idea [whether he speaks English]. He does speak fluent Cantonese though, but the phrase tóngzhìmen is unmistakably Putonghua. By the way, he repeated the phrase at least three times, as witnessed in this video:

One thing is certain:  Xi Jinping still addresses members of China's armed forces as "tóngzhìmen 同志们" ("comrades").

Readings

"The Base, Al Qaeda, and gays in China" (8/12/13)

"'Comrade' between communism and gaydom" (11/15/16)

"Glass Rabbit" (2/2/11)

"Comrades, 'hike up your skirts for a hard shag'" (7/23/17)



6 Comments

  1. Guan Yang said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 7:07 pm

    It definitely sounds like 同志们. Is it possible he's using it ironically, in exactly the same way we might use "comrades" in English?

  2. Bathrobe said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 7:10 pm

    For example, I'm not hearing the final -n sound I would expect in either Cantonese or Mandarin

    It is quite normal not to clearly pronounce the final 'n' in Mandarin. Instead the sound may come out as slight nasalisation. I think I can hear that nasalisation, but I'm not sure.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 7:26 pm

    All along, I've been thinking that the final -n sound would easiiy get muffled by his elaborate face mask.

  4. John Swindle said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 11:01 pm

    If the comrades really are Mainland reinforcements, then what we're hearing may be foreigner talk. "Tóngzhìmen" may be the only Mandarin word and the only Communist word the commander knows, so he's deploying it to full effect in addressing them. It doesn't have to actually make sense in Cantonese or Mandarin.

  5. Caitlin said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 6:23 am

    My friend's friend (I know…) is a Hong Kong police officer, and they are laughing over this controversy because they say they are saying in English, "form check line." Try slowing the video down and I think you'll be able to hear it. This doesn't settle it for me, but it's plausible.

  6. B.Ma said,

    August 11, 2019 @ 10:43 pm

    Agree with "form check line".

    When we were in school in the 1990s we might say 來, 同志們 in Mandarin ironically, in the way someone in English might say "gather round, dickheads" referring to a group of friends in which the speaker is included when forming some sort of schoolyard conspiracy.

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