Alphabetical transcriptions in Cantonese

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[This is a guest post by Till Kraemer]

I live in Hong Kong, and many things are fascinating here, especially the way they use English characters in Cantonese. Some very frequently used words (including tones and everything) don't have Chinese characters at all, like "hea" and "chur". Obviously it's colloquial, but this interesting Chinese/English mix goes as far as official names of movies:

(image source)

Note that "快D" is Hong Kong's very common spelling for "hurry up" (again, I believe there is no equivalent Chinese character available for the "D", but there is definitely a tone to it – flat high, I would guess first tone in Cantonese).
I'm really curious if this kind of spelling fusion has happened anywhere else in the Sinosphere or even in East Asia!

Separate little treasure:

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#TranslationErrors ICE’s Hong Kong Urban History Series 香港都市史系列 Who is "Rednaxela" in Rednaxela Terrace? 到底列拿士地臺個「列拿士」係邊嗰? Streets in Hong Kong often named after Kings, Queens, Governors and powerful businessmen. Located in Soho, Central, Rednaxela Terrace is named after a strange “Mr. Rednaxela”. In fact, it was originally known as “Alexander Terrace”, named after its property owner, a Mr. Alexander. However, at that time, as Chinese scripts were read from right to left, a Chinese clerk wrote the name backwards when registering the street. Subsequently, the Chinese transliteration followed the wrong English and became the name we know today. 香港嘅街道一向以國王、皇后、港督同外籍商業大亨嘅名字命名。位處中環蘇豪區嘅列拿士地臺就根據一個奇名命名(註:列拿士並非一個存在的英文姓氏)。其實,佢本來根據該地嘅物業持有人,一位名叫亞歷山大(Alexander) 嘅先生–命名,所以叫做亞歷山大臺。但係由於當時中文係由右往左讀,所以一位華裔公務員喺為街道註冊時,不慎將個名倒轉寫 (Rednaxela)。可想而知,中文街名跟住錯誤嘅英文名進行音譯,就變成今日嘅列拿士地臺。 Source: Andrew, Y., & Gillis, H. (2009). Signs of a Colonial Era. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. #hongkonghistory #hkstreet #hkhistory #alexander #hkknowledge #icehongkong #urbancity #urbanrural #translators #errors #righttoleft #lefttoright #翻譯擺烏龍

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They managed to spell "Alexander" backwards and then transcribed it into Cantonese using an imaginary pronunciation of a non-existent word to guide their transcription I believe? Or do you think they may have used some kind of standard transcription method based on the most common English syllables? Is English standard enough for this?

Selected readings


  1. ycx said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 4:09 pm

    I believe "快D" (the D is also written as 啲) could be cognate with the Mandarin Chinese "快点" or the Beijing-accented "快点儿", since the two words have a similar pronunciation and are used in basically the same contexts.

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 4:43 pm

    I am not sure what the writer means by "English" as distinct from Latin characters. If I am not mistaken, Cantonese uses the digraph eu (in names like Leung) to represent something like its French, not its English sound.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 10:32 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    The use of the English letter D in the written form of Hong Kong Cantonese was first described back in 1982:

    Bauer, Robert S. 1982. D for two in Cantonese. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 10.2:277-281.

    Language Log readers may be interested to know that, in addition to English D, some other English letters have also been incorporated into the written form of Hong Kong Cantonese. This phenomenon and various other interesting aspects of Hong Kong’s written Cantonese have been examined in some detail in the following publication:

    Bauer, Robert S. 2018. Cantonese as written language in Hong Kong. Global Chinese 4.1:103-142.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 10:34 pm

    From Pui Ling Tang:

    In fact, we have a character for D, written as 啲. But it seems that people more prefer to use D recently, maybe because D is much simpler to write.

  5. Ash said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 10:38 pm

    What does the author mean by "hea" and "chur"? I speak Cantonese and don't recognize these words. How are they used and in what context? Chances are there are Chinese characters that can be used. It's surprising that the author wouldn't know about D = 哋, since both are super common. This sounds like a question for Robert Bauer or Don Snow. Also, a good resource for looking up how things are written in Cantonese:

  6. Daniel Tse said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 12:09 am


    'hea' (Jyutping he3) is pretty well-known in Cantonese. It does have a character 迆 but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone using that over 'hea'. An example would be 冇乜嘢做,hea下啫 "I don't have much to do, just relaxing a bit".

  7. Ash said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 12:36 am

    @Daniel Tse:
    Ah! I have a hard time with romanizations used by native Canto speakers. Like 'r' seems to be used to indicate a longer vowel (though I'm not 100% sure of that). gives for he3, but I realize that there is often more than one way to write a given native Canto word with characters. Unfortunately, my copy of The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters by Robert Bauer and Cheung Kwan-hin is in storage.

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