Women's Romanization for Hong Kong

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The Hong Kong extradition bill protests, with hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes even a million or two million people (out of a total population of 7.392 million) on the streets, have been going on for more than 11 weeks, with no end in sight, even though the PRC keeps threatening to invade.  One of the main problems the protesters face is how to deal with infiltrators from the north who pretend to be protesters, but promote violence and beat up the Hong Kong people.  Here's one way the Hongkongers are using to expose the intruders:

The speed with which this technique is spreading is attested here, here, and here ("anti-troll tactic").

This is not to say that this type of ad hoc, spontaneous Romanization of Cantonese has not already existed for some time.  Indeed, young people have been using it extensively for texting, on social media, etc. for years.  What's new is that it is now consciously being employed to out fake protesters who do not know Hong Kong Cantonese and its informal writing system.

This is how Chris Fraser describes it:

To confuse online trolls and to quickly identify (face-to-face) suspected non-native infiltrators, protesters this weekend advocate using improvised romanized Cantonese or Canto-English code mixing. Since most HKers don't know any "standard" Canto romanization, everyone makes things up as they go. The results can be amusing and very hard to figure out.

Here's a post advocating the shibboleth technique (I don't completely understand it myself).

Daniel Sun, in the first comment to his own Tweet displayed above, makes this important remark:

It’s affectionately known as Kong Nui Ping Yum – Hong Kong girls’ phonetics. AKA Martian script due to its apparent incomprehensibility.

This calls to mind other phonetic scripts invented or popularized by women.  It's hard to believe that I haven't written a Language Log post about this yet, but I can't seem to find a record of having done so.  Goodness knows that I have often lectured and written about women's scripts often enough, and was responsible for bringing the first investigators of nǚshū 女書 ("Women's Script") (devised and used by women in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China) to the United States in the early 80s.

One of the greatest novels in the history of world literature, The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 源氏物語), was written by a woman, lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, in the early years of the 11th century.  She wrote the novel in what was called "onna no moji" ("women's writing"), i.e., kana, in contrast to "otoko no moji" ("men's writing"), i.e., kanji ("Sinographs; Chinese characters").  Kana were also sometimes called "onnade 女手" ("women's hand").  Conservative Koreans followed suit by stigmatizing alphabetical Hangul, promulgated by King Sejong in 1446, as "amgeul 암글" or "amkeul 암클", "women's script".  It was also pejoratively called "achimgeul 아침글", which means that it could be learned in one morning, as though that were something bad!

I have long been an advocate of phonetic scripts for topolects and languages, not only in China, but throughout the world.  It seems that, in the case of Cantonese, although there have been Romanizations (e.g., Yale and Jyutping) devised by linguists and language specialists, they have never been taught to or caught on among the broad populace.  Now, in the time of need, young people are creating their own informal, nonstandard Romanization for their living language.  Perhaps, in time, they will be able to write great literature in it.

Jiāyóu fùnǚ! 加油婦女! ("Go women!")


  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    The first two Korean forms you cite are still used (or so it's claimed), but my dictionary (표준국어대사전) labels 암클 as a "spelling mistake" for 암글, which is strange, since the word is generally pronounced with the aspiration. (The morpheme 'female' is amh–with the /mh/ sometimes written in older texts as a cluster underneath the syllable, so the aspiration is certainly etymologically correct.)

    But gee, I've never heard of 아침글, and my dictionary doesn't give it. Actually, though, as you say, it sounds like a good idea!

  2. Kate Gladstone said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 4:15 pm

    Results of an Internet search for 아침글 —


  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 4:25 pm

    "gi" for jyutping ji1 知? 暈

  4. Avinor said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 4:45 pm

    If not with Romanization, how is Cantonese character pronunciation taught in HK schools?

  5. David Marjanović said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 5:09 pm

    Here's a post advocating the shibboleth technique (I don't completely understand it myself).

    Instead of the URL of the post, the link contains the entire text of the quote and thus leads only to an error page; please repair this.

    [vhm: fixed]

  6. Slawkenbergius said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

    You have definitely mentioned nǚshū before – I learned about it from an old blog post on here earlier this year! Here is one example I dug up with a google search – https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42729

  7. 번하드 said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 5:58 pm

    So I tried a search, too, and, among other things, found:
    which mentions '암클' (re:women) and '아햇글' (re:children that are still learning) but also says that there seems to be no historical record proving that these two were actually used.
    I also saw another: '반글', probably deriving from 반=half.

    @Kate Gladstone: ah, you made me remember that I'm actually subscribed to another kind of '아침글', a morning newsletter!

  8. Chris said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

    @David Marjanović:
    The LIHKG post is here:
    Sum Lok-kei, the reporter who called my attention to it, is here:
    Lok and several of his colleagues are excellent sources of information on breaking events in Hong Kong.

  9. unekdoud said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 6:34 pm

    @Jonathan Smith: I think jyutping "gi" doesn't exist (a quick search suggests it's rare at best), whereas "Gigi" is a well-known name and gives almost the correct pronunciation.

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    "up mud 7"
    this is fairly awesome if I understand it correctly, which is far from certain

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2019 @ 10:50 pm

    From Chris Fraser:

    People are running with the idea, so there's now a poster for the 8/18
    protest that looks like the following. The 漢字 text would be:

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 10:10 am

    From Ross King:

    Not called this [VHM: amgeul (암글) or amkeul (암클), "women's script"] any more, except as part of the narrative of 'hangul the despised underdog during Choson'. Actual attestations are not easy to find; there is a reference in _Hwangsong Sinmun_ from 1898, and another from the Choson Kidokkyoin Hoebo (or something like that–the Protestant newspaper) from 1900, and otherwise the locus classicus is a passage from grammarian Ch'oe Hyonbae's 1930s magnum opus on the various historical names for the script (embedded in a discussion of the contribution of Korean Christianity to the script and orthography movement).

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    Today (8/18/19), Kris Cheng at Hong Kong Free Press published an article with the following title:

    "Si doi gak ming: Hong Kong protesters ‘spell out’ their message in effort to foil mainland Chinese trolls and ‘spies’".

    Romanized Cantonese is being used as a kind of ingenious code that is only intelligible to Cantonese speakers.

    One notes this ad hoc romanization eschews any tone marking.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 1:31 pm

    From an anonymous contributor:

    Some more links related to Romanization and "Kongish":

    2015 article

    Linked from this tweet.

    Twitter users using Kongish: here and here.

    Link to Hong Kong Free Press article on protesters using Kongish.

    More on press coverage (Apple Daily): here, here, here, and here.

    I tried to avoid linking tweets that are nested within other tweets.

    Language Log posts on "Kongish" (8/6/15) and "Kongish, ch. 2" (1/22/16).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 9:20 am

    From John Whitman:

    Hangul (DPRK 朝鮮 + kul = ‘writing’) is now the pride of both countries, and 암 is a highly pejorative term, somewhat like ‘hen’, or Japanese めす=雌; that is, a term for female animals.

    I’ve never been able to confirm how much this term was actually used in the Choson period. It could be a later imitation of the Japanese term おんなで for hiragana (which is less pejorative, but equally obsolete).

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 10:50 pm

    From Haewon Cho:

    Of course, nobody calls 한글 achimgeul or amkeul nowadays! Rumors say that Hangul was once called amkeul, but there was no documented evidence as far as I know. So lucky to have the writing system that can be learned in one morning!

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

    From David Lurie:

    The Heian term onnade 女手 (to my knowledge onnamoji is a later coinage) does not indicate a script invented, or exclusively used, by women. The earliest documents attesting to its emergence (over the course of the 9th century) for which writers are known are by men, and at the time of the Tale of Genji (and thereafter) they continued to use it. Certainly the script was strongly associated with poetry, letters, diaries, and tales written by women, hence the name, but they never monopolized it.

  18. Hwa SH said,

    August 22, 2019 @ 8:44 am

    There is a pretty big Malaysian Cantonese community. Cantonese words and names in Malaysia are virtually always spelt on an ad hoc basis in a way that makes them relatively intuitive for English speakers. It's a bit different than the Hong Kong style. I don't think most Malaysian Chinese even know that there are formal romanisation systems for Cantonese and Hokkien (as opposed to the wide use of hanyu pinyin for Mandarin) and they look kinda weird to me.

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