A monumental new Cantonese-English dictionary

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ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary
Robert S. Bauer Series: ABC Chinese Dictionary Series Paperback: $42.00 ISBN-13: 9780824877323 Published: December 2020
University of Hawaii Press 1248 pages

Considering the enormous amount of labor that went into the making of this major reference work (the compilation, editing, typesetting, proofreading, and printing), the ample scope of its contents, and its sheer size (1,248 pages with triple columns), at $42, this is a real bargain.

Publisher's description

Cantonese is spoken by an estimated 73 million people worldwide. It remains hugely influential and a source of great pride—especially for its speakers in Hong Kong, where it flourishes as the predominant language and so sets Hong Kong apart linguistically from all of mainland China. The first and most authoritative reference of its kind to be published in the last forty years, ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary comprises about 15,000 lexical entries that are unique to the colloquial Cantonese language as it is spoken and written in Hong Kong today. Author Robert S. Bauer, a renowned lexicographer and authority on Cantonese, has utilized language documentation resources to the fullest extent by gathering material firsthand from dictionaries, glossaries, and grammars; newspapers and magazines; government records; cartoons and comic books; film and television; websites; and native speakers striding the sidewalks of Hong Kong to capture concretely contemporary Cantonese.

In addition to the Introduction, which presents an exhaustive description and analysis of Hong Kong Cantonese, this dictionary’s special features include: alphabetical ordering of the lexical entries by their Jyut Ping romanized Cantonese pronunciations; parts of speech; cross-referencing with semantically related lexical items; variant pronunciations and written forms in Chinese characters and English letters; explanatory notes on social status and usage (literal, figurative, slang, jargon, humorous, obscene, obsolete, etc.); information on sociocultural, historical, and political aspects; and example sentences showing lexical usage in the context of spoken Cantonese.

Series editor's preface

It is my great pleasure to contribute a preface to Robert S. Bauer’s ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (ABC CECD). I have watched this stupendous lexicographical treasure grow from its inception to the monumental achievement that it is today.

The genesis of this dictionary took place nearly two decades ago when I expressed to Bob my desire for an up-to-date, reliable Cantonese-English dictionary to which I could refer while learning this new (to me!) Sinitic language.  Although Bob mentioned several existing dictionaries, we both agreed that none of them were quite suitable for my purposes.  So I gently suggested that Bob write one himself.  Much to my gratification, he happily agreed to do so. Knowing Bob to be a doyen of Cantonese language studies, I was fully confident that he would do a thoroughly responsible job of compiling my dream dictionary.  He has done that, and he has exceeded my expectations.

Bob began studying Cantonese in 1974, visited Hong Kong a number of times thereafter, and has lived in Hong Kong continuously since 1997.  He started seriously collecting written Cantonese way back in 1980 while researching the language in Hong Kong for his Berkeley PhD in 1982. After he discovered that some Hong Kong magazines and newspapers were being written in Cantonese, Bob became interested in understanding and identifying the conventions on which written Cantonese is based. This led to his landmark 1988 publication “Written Cantonese of Hong Kong” (Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 38.2: 245–293).

Over time Bob has published a stream of authoritative scholarly articles and books on diverse aspects of Cantonese, which is quite different from Mandarin in terms of grammar, syntax, morphology, lexicon, etc., and requires more than a thousand special characters.  As Bob’s expertise in the language increased, so did his reputation in Hong Kong.  He has become a sort of folk hero, a gweilo who is an authority on Cantonese language.  He has appeared often on television and radio and is regularly interviewed in newspapers and magazines for his views on the nature and preservation of Hong Kong language.  These public appearances are especially delightful because he gives them in Cantonese.

After Bob had been working on the dictionary for about ten years and it was clear that he was well on his way to making it a reality, I arranged for its publication in the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series at the University of Hawai‘i Press.  Over the last five years or so, it was very hard to pry the dictionary out of Bob’s hands.  He always wanted to collect one more specimen of current Cantonese, then satisfy himself that it was actually still in use and that he had its precise meaning.  In addition, there were the enormous challenges of compiling and typesetting the dictionary in an acceptable format.  Bob was stymied for a couple of years about how to deal with the software and programming, but the geniuses at Wenlin worked their magic: Despite the gargantuan scope and complexity of these tasks, the last stages of putting the dictionary together went quite smoothly.

Some of the most poignant memories I have of Bob, which I will forever bear in mind, are our meetings whenever I passed through Hong Kong, at a tea shop or, more often, our favorite Indian restaurant, to talk over dictionary matters and the state of Hong Kong Cantonese.  Most of all, I will never forget Bob’s shirt pocket bulging with slips of papers, little notebooks, and pens, to record yet another live specimen of Cantonese in action—and Bob always at the ready with a smile on his face.

Selected readings


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 5:59 pm

    I hope one day all the ABC Series is available electronically in a single online comprehensive resource, or at least ebook versions are published for each.

    Congrats and thanks for the effort.

  2. Peter B. Golden said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 6:49 pm

    A magnificent achievement. Congratulations to the author! My wife was part of the Shanghainese emigration that came to Hong Kong in 1949. She was at that age when it was still possible to acquire something approaching native fluency in Cantonese. Her Cantonese friends tell me that she still has a slight Shanghainese accent. Her older brother and sister, spoke Hong Kong Cantonese with a noticeable accent, while her younger sister and brother gained native fluency. Family gatherings meander from Shanghainese to Cantonese (and sometimes Mandarin), with the younger siblings more often using Cantonese and the older ones Shanghainese.

  3. Chas Belov said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 2:17 pm

    I've had Parker Po-Fei Huang's Cantonese Dictionary for many years. Even though I never became fluent in Cantonese – I can order food and that's about it – I find the book fascinating. I also enjoy the U of H book on Cantonese slang. Both use Yale Romanization, which is what I learned when I took three semesters of Cantonese at San Francisco City College.

    I'm intimidated by the Jyutping that appears to be used in this new dictionary, as well as by the book Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents (which I perused in a bookstore many years ago and which is apparently now out of print).

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