Uppercase and lowercase letters in Cantonese Romanization

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Banner in Hong Kong:


It says:

gwong1 fuk6 hoeng1 gong2 si4 doi6 gaak3 ming6  (Jyutping)


"Liberate Hong Kong! the revolution of our times!"

I invite comments on the usage of uppercase and lowercase letters in the Cantonese Romanization on the banner.  Let me just say for the moment that overall I'm pleased by it, but I want to see how the discussion among Language Log readers goes before offering my own interpretation.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Eric Vinyl]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 6:49 am

    I assume that the leading cap. is intended to indicate the start of a word boundary, but nonetheless find it odd that Cantonese speakers would think of "Hoeng1 gong2" / "Hong kong" as one word rather than two.

    But then I don't find it odd that Mandarin speakers would think of "Tai wan" as one word, so perhaps I am just over-influenced by my long-standing exposure (in English) to Hong Kong as two words and to Taiwan as one.

  2. David Cowhig said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 7:16 am

    I like it! Reading romanization by itself for me has been harder than reading characters after I achieved a decent level of Chinese since with romanization all in lower case I had a hard time figuring out when words began.
    While some of my colleagues could read a talk from a romanization script in a formal talk, it has always been very confusing to me so I have stuck with character text. With caps at the beginning of the words it reads more easily.

  3. Mango said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 7:28 am

    Well, Hong Kong used to be frequently written as one word in English until the 1950s or so, and it still is officially Hongkong in the name of the HSBC.
    I was also thinking that capitalisation here indicates the start of a word boundary, but why is Doi capitalised then?
    What I also find interesting is the correction in "fuk".

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 11:40 am

    I noticed that you wrote hoeng for the sign's Heung. Living in the San Francisco area, I often see eu in Cantonese names, representing \, but I've never seen oe.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 11:41 am

    I tried to enter the IPA character for the French sound of eu but it didn't come through.

  6. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 3:57 pm

    FWIW 香港 is Xiānggǎng in pinyin, almost never Xiāng Gǎng, for reasons I don’t quite understand but I’m sure Dr. Mair could explain succinctly.

  7. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 4:13 pm

    I was going to say “for reasons Dr. Mair or Mark Swofford could explain,” but I notice that it is in fact “Xiāng Gǎng” more often than not on pinyin.info.

    But like Philip Taylor said, we think of Tai Wan as one word, not two, just like Bei Jing, and even Ha Noi.


    As indicated, jyutping opts for ‐oeng where e.g. Yale uses ‐eung.

    Although that spelling probably long pre‐dates Yale romanization.

    This post was brought to you by Xiang Gang Gang.

  8. Josh Reyer said,

    May 28, 2020 @ 7:19 pm

    My Vietnamese co-workers always found it disconcerting that when I corrected their drafts of English documents I would change their Viet Nam and Ha Noi to Vietnam and Hanoi. But one thought he had the game figured out, and in a document wrote, "Hochiminh." When I corrected it to Ho Chi Minh, he was understandably exasperated.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    May 29, 2020 @ 1:10 am

    Like everyone else has remarked already, treating 香港 as one word rather than two is parallel to the way every other Chinese city's name is treated, so not really surprising. It does imply that the name is thought of more as a name than as meaning "fragrant port".

    But this is very slightly related to something I've found very funny for years. China commonly uses two-letter abbreviations for its city names. The abbreviation for Shanghai is SH.

    The reason I find this so funny is that, to an American, this appears to make perfect sense. But the reality is very different: that SH stands for Shanghai.

  10. Calvin said,

    May 29, 2020 @ 1:52 am

    @Michael Watts, I am not sure in what context you saw the two-letter abbreviation for city names, i.e. SH for Shanghai.

    In Chinese, each province and city has an official one-character abbreviated name. For example:
    Shanghai: 沪
    Beijing: 京
    Guangdong: 粵

    Back to the topic here: If the rule is to capitalize only the leading character of a word, then "Si Doi" should be written as "Si doi", for 時代 (era/times).

  11. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    May 29, 2020 @ 7:16 am

    The abbreviations do not replace the province-level single-character names. But as Professor Mair's repeatedly illustrated, the Roman alphabet has a steadily increasing rôle in written Chinese and in China.

    Of course HK is well established, SH for Shanghai and BJ for Beijing are quite common, and I saw plenty of "I ❤ GZ" signs during the 2010 protests (ironically presumably based on pinyin but also conceivably for yutping Gwong2 zau1).

    You'll also often see GD for 粤; apparently these are standardized (PDF link, see p. 3).

    In that context it always seemed instinctually obvious that SH was Shanghai and not Shanghai.

  12. Calvin said,

    May 29, 2020 @ 8:32 am

    Fair enough, and that brings to mind one of LeBron James's nicknames given by Chinese NBA fans — 老北京 (LBJ).

    But that sort of use is still limited to a handful of large cities. Which one has the rightful claim for SZ, 深圳 or 蘇州?

  13. Alison said,

    May 29, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    I first noticed Latin character acronyms getting popular in the hip-hop scene, for example in CDC (Chengdu Corp.) and CSC, a rival crew out of Changsha. I ❤ SZ is definitely a common sticker in Shenzhen, and I've seen DGC stickers around Dongguan too. I think most of it follows the example of New York City = NYC, which maps nicely to Chinese cities, which are mostly two characters plus 市. If you type the three Latin characters into your phone in pinyin, you will just get the city name.

  14. Alison said,

    May 29, 2020 @ 8:40 am

    Minor correction: type the two Latin characters into your phone.

    To answer Calvin about which city owns the acronym – I would say whichever one pops up first in the phone autocomplete!

  15. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    June 1, 2020 @ 3:55 am

    It occurs to me that if Shanghai were an American city, its abbreviation would be Sha.

    I wonder if China used pinyin exclusively you'd see BEI or GUA as abbreviations instead. One of the interesting things about different languages is seeing the way e.g. Spanish or German tend to abbreviate, different than Am.E.


    It's "limited to a handful of large cities" because these abbreviations are strictly for province-level subdivisions. GZ, for example, is unofficial.

    The only U.S. abbreviation I can think of that uses the first letter of each syllable is Arizona, and that's only because it conflicts with Arkansas.

    I feel like Delaware or Pennsylvania would be cromulent, but few other states would parse well under that model to me.

    This reminds me of a hat I've seen. At places like gas stations and flea markets, next to the baseball caps with officially licensed logos of the city's professional sports team (or passable bootlegs thereof) there are more inexpensive and almost always lower quality hats that feature the city's name, usually in the same colours as the pro club but without that team's nickname or logo.

    The cheapie, Chinese-made orange and black caps have "SF" on them, and say "San Francisco," which makes perfect sense. I'm certain that further south you can find similar hats that say LA and SD. But in Oakland, they say OL.

    These Oakland hats are fairly widely available, but I have never, not once, seen one on another person's head. For all I know it's all the same shipment and they just still haven't sold out of the first batch. Clearly this was some entrepreneur's idea to cash in on various cities' hometown pride, mutatis mutandis, but not a response to any specific customer demand, and without significant input from any native speaker.

    If you had to restrict yourself to only two letters, it seems like most English speakers would select OK instead of OL, though I cannot explain why I feel this way. (I know that abbreviation is already taken by Oklahoma, and would be tend to be interpreted as meaning "just alright." I would buy an unlicensed hat that said OAK.)

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 1, 2020 @ 6:22 am

    "OL" for me would immediately suggest "Office Lady", but then I am almost certainly influenced by the fact that the Japanese use that exact abbreviation/phrase.

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