Loose Romanization for Cantonese

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A month ago, it was being called "Women's Romanization for Hong Kong" (8/17/19).  Now it has been catapulted into an all-purpose, across-the-board status for the Hong Kong anti-extradition protesters:

"Insurgent tongues: how loose Cantonese romanisation became Hong Kong’s patois of protest", by Rachel Leung Ka-yin, Hong Kong Free Press (9/21/19).

Leung's article begins:

“Gwong Fuk Heung Gong! Si Doi Gark Ming!”*

If you understand the above slogan, chances are you’re probably a Hong Konger born in the post-80s or 90s. If that did not make any sense to you, the “language” in use is a form of loose Cantonese romanisation, which recently saw a surge from the niche to widespread use in political activism via the online platform LIHKG**.

*["Liberate Hong Kong! the revolution of our times!"]

**[VHM:  like Reddit]

Loose Cantonese romanisation differs from the standard forms of Cantonese romanisation such as Jyutping and Yale romanisation, and is believed to have come into existence in the late 2000s. It arose organically as a result of the increased use of instant messaging applications among youngsters who were unfamiliar with the Chinese input systems of Cangjie or Zhuyin.

As the use of personal mobile phones and texting became widespread in the early 2010s, texters did not always change to the available Chinese input methods from the default English keyboard when expressing Cantonese messages, rather choosing to resort to romanisation of Cantonese words via the English alphabet.

This is a development of profound importance.  In the past, I have often decried the lack of a widespread, functional Romanization for Cantonese (and other Sinitic languages, for that matter, including Shanghainese, Hakka, Taiwanese, and so forth).  Cantonese (and the other languages) may have had Romanizations, but they were restricted mainly for use by scholars (language specialists) or narrow pedagogical purposes.

It was (and remains) my opinion that Cantonese should have a Romanization that is taught in schools, that can be used for multiple applications throughout society, and that is potentially available for writing poetry, prose, and other types of texts.  But that has not happened.

What we see taking place in Hong Kong now gladdens my heart beyond all expectations, since the people have taken matters into their own hands and just gone ahead and are making their own Romanization.  Nobody is doing it for them, and nobody is telling them to do it.  They are making this loose Romanization by themselves in response to a felt need for a functional orthography in Cantonese.

Note, moreover, that those who are creating this writing system for Cantonese are the young people of Hong Kong, the same people who have courageously fought off an unjust extradition bill that was being imposed on their homeland and who have stood up to a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas in defense of their ideals.  These are the same people who have composed a fitting national anthem to express their aspirations and goals.  As such "loose Cantonese Romanization" has a genuineness and spontaneity that gives it undeniable validity as a means for expressing their ideas.

Leung's good article explains in detail the nature of LCR (which is how I shall refer to "Loose Cantonese Romanization" henceforth), how it arose, and why it is gaining legitimacy:

The Hong Kong Education Bureau’s “Trilingual* and Biliterate**” language education policy since the 1997 handover greatly increased English language standards among students.  Thus the average post-90 would be likely to be much more familiar with English phonics, rather than Jyutping or Yale.

[*English, Cantonese, Mandarin]

[**English, "Chinese"]

This laid the necessary linguistic foundations for a new form of Cantonese romanisation to arise organically amongst the post-90s generation.

One post on LIHKG was all it took for loose Cantonese romanisation to shoot to the front lines of the anti-ELAB protest and resistance movement. The initial thread read:







Approximate translation with glosses:

"This is how we communicate on 8.18 (day of scheduled peaceful protest), if you suspect there might be a ghost (a troll/ spy), write on a piece of paper: ‘Do you know what the **** I’m saying?’ (in loose romanised Cantonese). If they are unable to understand, you will then know if they are human (a true protester) or ghost (a troll/ spy). Bump this so it becomes ****ing viral!!!!!!"

The use of loose Cantonese romanisation in these highly publicised contexts (slogans, activism materials, public online forums) as compared with its previous confinement to niche and rather private communication (instant messaging) also demonstrates that Hong Kongers have increasingly adopted this form of communication as part of their social and linguistic identity, to validate their status as Hong Kongers.

The productivity of loose Cantonese romanisation will continue to produce linguistic innovations that will redefine the lexicon as we know it. Until then, our generation will be known as the vanguard of the trilingual and triliterate.

These are heady times.  We are witnessing the birth of a writing system for Hong Kong Canto-English, which is an altogether different language than, say, the Cantonese of Guangzhou, which is barely limping along under the choking restrictions of the PRC in Guangdong Province next door.

It is exciting to observe linguistic creation in action.  This is a process that I have been ardently hoping would take place for Cantonese, but never expected to see it during my own lifetime.


"Hong Kong protesters' argot" (9/7/19) — includes a long list of relevant posts

[h.t. Chris Fraser, Fraser Howie, and Carmen Lee]


  1. Alvin said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    Being a normal Hongkonger, I never noticed it, until one day I thought and realized that I was taught 煲冬瓜 (Mandarin) in both primary and secondary schools (and even later in university) with the help of pinyin, yet nobody taught me Cantonese with any romanization. Teachers seemed to assume everyone to just know how to speak Cantonese. I rarely consulted dictionaries for Cantonese pronunciation, and when I did the pronunciations were indicated in 反切 (but nobody even taught me how to interpret 反切). Weirdly, the primary school I was in taught IPA in English classes, which did help improve my English pronunciation tremendously.

    There was a time where I relied on pinyin to type Chinese on a computer because I was too bad at memorizing the Cangjie decomposition rules, radicals and exceptions (though I still needed Cangjie to type out Cantonese characters like 唔, 嘅, etc.). I tried to use a Cantonese input method (the one in Microsoft Office 2010) but failed miserably since I have no idea what romanization rules it operated on. (I've since relearnt Cangjie and is mostly fine with it.)

    When I saw the trend being started on LIHKG I thought it to be an ingenious idea, but now I also cringe at how difficult it is to understand the text. Granted, it was not aimed to be legible — it aimed to throw off non Cantonese speakers and using standardized Jyutping or Yale would make it slightly easier for someone to translate back to written Cantonese. But nowadays there also exists Cantonese input methods, like the one by Google, that are smart enough to understand some loose romanization so it might not make a huge difference.

    It does make me wish that a standard Cantonese romanization system would be more widespread among Hongkongers. To this day I still haven't learnt either Jyutping or Yale romanization. I wonder if I should start learning some day.

  2. Toby said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 10:03 am

    As a native Cantonese speaker here in HK I have to say that your translation of the LIHKG post is very good!

  3. Chas Belov said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

    "Do you know what the **** I'm saying?" in English is a line in the LMF song 岑家拎 (which I just listened to in honor of the protesters).

    I'm used to Yale, so this is a bit disorienting (no pun intended) but mappable. I can't tell what "up" is but can say and understand the rest of that sentence. Not sure if I would understand it in the heat of a protest.

    Not sure it works as a strategy unless they keep changing the catch phrase but that's not for me to say.

    Interestingly, iOS 13 just came out Thursday and according to the release notes supports Cantonese input methods. Not sure which romanizations they support and the whole Chinese entry thing is above my head, but based on what you're saying in this article, this feature's addition may only have a symbolic effect.

  4. Chas Belov said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 12:21 pm

    I'll also note the lack of tonal markings presenting a similar challenge to Hebrew and Arabic not marking for vowels. Probably adds to its effectiveness as a shibboleth.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    I know very little Cantonese but the translation given in the article looks like a C+ at best. It must be totally wrong about "NEI GI NG GI NGO UP MUD 7 AH", which surely breaks an English word into two parts in classic Cantonese style? :P Translation of first line also dubious. Translation of last line apparently more complete trash.

  6. Chas Belov said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

    Actually, with no tonal markings, how do they distinguish between mai (buy) and mai (sell)?

  7. John Rohsenow said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 2:15 pm

    "How loose Cantonese romanisation became HK's patois of protest"
    VM wrote: "Leung's good article explains in detail the nature of LCR (which is how I shall refer to "Loose Cantonese Romanization" henceforth) …"
    JSR: Intuitively I can feel the sense of "loose", but is the article you cite the first instance of calling it that?

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 2:37 pm

    Upon further study I realize I must be wrong and the translation above is right that UP MUD 7 is Cantonese vulgarity, not English (i.e., "噏乜柒" lit. 'say what dick', my new expression of the day.) But I still think the last line especially is a mess and should be

    同 我 推爆 佢 呀 屌
    with me expose him part. fuck
    Fucking expose him/her with (or for?) me!!!!!!!

    Nothing to do with "going viral", which anyway is not achieved by bumping a post in a message board. But non-ghosts (of which there are none in this thread me and article author included :/) 請指教…

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 2:41 pm

    @Chas Belov
    There is nothing special to be worried about re: 'buy' and 'sell' in particular; after all *all* words which contrast only in terms of tone are collapsed here. So, context. How about in languages where 陽上 and 陽去 merge and 'buy' and 'sell' are homophones to begin with?

  10. Calvin said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

    @Jonathan Smith

    "NEI GI NG GI NGO UP MUD 7 AH" is literally in Cantonese "你知唔知我噏乜 啊".

    噏 is a Cantonese slang word means talk unintelligibly/nonsense, likely derived from 發噏瘋 (delirium-like behavior).

    Here 7 is a euphemism for the vulgar word , as explained in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese_profanity. In the same wiki page, you'd also find 岑家拎 is actually a curse phrase.

  11. Calvin said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 4:29 pm

    @Jonathan Smith

    "同我推爆佢呀" can be loosely translated as "Help me make this go viral", or simply "spread the word". I suppose "屌" added the urgency.

    You are correct that "bump" in the original translation is not the most accurate, but "推爆" originated in the message board world (see https://pttpedia.fandom.com/zh/wiki/%E6%8E%A8%E7%88%86).

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    @ Calvin Thank you. Looks like I am the C+ student after all :D if that…

  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 9:55 pm

    Anders Corr, Ph.D.‏ @anderscorr

    Prof. Victor Mair (U Penn) strongly supports the romanization of #Cantonese in #HongKong — important beyond the protests, where it is germinating, and into literature and identity. https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=44443


    With long string of comments.

  14. B.Ma said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 2:54 am

    I have been doing this for 20 years, since we got phones in school that could be used for texting. Remember when you had to press 2 once for A, twice for B and three times for C?

    You can text in English or Romanised languages without looking at the screen (i.e. under the table so the teacher doesn't see – but they probably knew and ignored it anyway), and you couldn't get Chinese characters on phones in those days in the first place.

    If there is an ambiguity (e.g. buy and sell) just use the English word. Or you can say "mai bei [someone]". When it's noisy you can't even hear the difference between the tones, so it rlies on context.

    Also use English for simple nouns and verbs which are shorter than the Romanised Cantonese would be.

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