Cantonese chatting

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[This is a guest post by Tom Mazanec]

I recently became curious about the origins of the Cantonese word king1 gai2 傾偈 ("to chat"). Though I've never formally studied Cantonese, I'm picking up bits of it from my wife and in-laws, who moved to the U.S. from Guangzhou about 30 years ago and use Cantonese to speak to each other and to my children. I like to think I know it slightly better than my 1-year-old and almost as well as my 3-year-old. My in-laws use the term king1 gai2 often, especially in light-hearted tone to describe the kids' pre-verbal babbling when they were under 1.
The equivalent phrase in Mandarin is liáo tiān(r) 聊天(兒), which appears to have no relation to king1 gai2. So this got me wondering about where king1 gai2 came from. On its surface, the characters appear to mean "pouring out gāthās" (gāthā: "song" in Sanskrit; "Buddhist verse" in Chinese). This makes little sense (though it would've been nice to put it into my T'oung Pao article on gāthās a few years ago), so I suspected the characters 傾偈 were used in a purely phonetic manner. Sure enough, the word is also sometimes written as 傾計 (king1 gai2). 

The Wiktionary entry on 傾偈 says some speculate that it comes from 謦欬 (Canto: hing3 kat, MSM: qǐngkài; "cough, chatter"), but doesn't say who or on what basis. The locus classicus for this latter term is chapter 24 of the Zhuangzi 莊子, which Prof. Mair renders as "mirthful murmurs" in his translation (Wandering on the Way, p. 237). If this is true, and 傾偈 derives from 謦欬, it means that 欬 would have lost its entering tone in the process: 偈 has long had two pronunciations, an entering-tone one (Baxter-Sagart's Middle Chinese *gjet, Canto git6, MSM jié) and a departing-tone one (B-S MC *gjejH, Canto gai6, MSM ), but in Cantonese, they don't use the entering-tone pronunciation of 偈 in 傾偈. This seems weird to me, but I don't know much about premodern Cantonese and its relationship to other Sinitic languages. Perhaps one of the readers out there would be able to comment on this.
Another possible lead from Wiktionary is 傾蓋 (B-S MC: *khjwieng kajH, Canto: king1 goi3, MSM qīnggài), which means "to set one's carriage canopies down," often in the context of two people meeting on the road and stopping to chat. For example, in the second-cent. BCE Hanshi waizhuan 韓詩外傳, it is said, "When Confucius met Chen Benzi of Qi in the region of Yan, they put down the canopies [of their chariots] and talked for the rest of the day" 孔子遭齊程本子於郯之間,傾蓋而語終日 (trans. James Robert Hightower, Han Shi Wai Chuan: Han Ying's Illustrations of the Didactic Application of the Classic of Songs, p. 54). By extension, it also referred to a first acquaintance with someone, as in a proverb quoted in the biography of Zou Yang 鄒陽 in the Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian), "The white-haired are like new, and new acquaintances are like old ones" 白頭如新,傾蓋如故. If this is true, and 傾偈 derives instead from 傾蓋, then we seem to be on safer phonetic ground, since 蓋 is pronounced with a departing tone, just like 偈 as it is currently used in 傾偈. But, again, I'm no expert in Cantonese or historical phonology, so perhaps one of your readers might know which etymology is more plausible, and if there are other factors to consider.

Selected readings


  1. Steve Jones said,

    July 1, 2021 @ 7:22 am

    I like the north Shanxi guada 呱嗒 too

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    Thank you so very much for guāda, Steve. I like it!

    Here are some different ways of writing this catchy expression in Sinographs:

    刮搭 / 刮打 / 呱打 / 呱噠

    guāda guāda

    Love it!

  3. Fen Yik said,

    July 1, 2021 @ 3:38 pm

    I haven't studied this question enough to form a strong opinion on the origin of king1 gai2, but I have some more pieces of data for consideration.

    This article from Local Press HK looks at all three possible origins you mentioned, and suggests that 謦欬 has the most supporting evidence:
    The author happens to give 慶概 (hing3 koi3) as the modern Cantonese pronunciation, which would remove the question of the lost entering tone.

    According to the Chinese University of Hong Kong's online dictionary, the 'laugh' sense of 欬 is pronounced hoi4 in modern Cantonese, also not an entering tone syllable:

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2021 @ 10:49 pm

    From Susan Chan Egan:

    傾蓋 as 傾偈 is not convincing to me, because 蓋is pronounced goi3, or koi3 in Cantonese. Probably a case of 附會。

    Here's an article I found on the Web by a Hong Kong linguist:

    It should be noted that of the three individuals quoted as authorities in the first paragraph, 徐訏 was a native of Zhejiang, 董橋 is an Indonesian-Chinese of 福建晉江 ancestry, 柳存仁 was 北京出生的山東人。

  5. Kai said,

    July 1, 2021 @ 11:37 pm

    In northeast China, we say 唠嗑儿 (lào kēr) for chit chat. 唠 basically means "to chat", and 嗑 means "to crack something between your teeth", like 嗑瓜子 (kè guāzǐ), "cracking sunflower seeds", which is something friends and family enjoy doing when they huddle together and 唠嗑.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2021 @ 6:34 am


    Nice connection between cracking seeds and spending time with others, such that, for example, after the performance of a Peking opera in a traditional theater, the floor will be littered with a layer of seed shells.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2021 @ 10:39 am

    From Susan Chan Egan:

    Here's an article that traces 謦欬 to 莊子。

    "偈" also means "clever ideas" in Cantonese, as in 多偈仔。

  8. John Rohsenow said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 12:52 am

    Here is a comment from a friend, a native Cantonese speaker, born and raised in HK, long resident in the USA, but speaks Cantonese at home and regularly with family and friends:

    " According to the writer, (孔子遭齊程本子於郯之間,傾蓋而語終日) from 韓詩外傳. A similar quote from 史記 《《孔子家語·致思》:“孔子 之 郯,遭 程子 於塗,傾蓋而語終日,甚相親。The last three words 甚相親 implied that Confucius became good friend with Chen Benzi.

    The proverb "白頭如新,傾蓋如故", one of the popular meaning is that ' You might know someone for a long time but you don't really know him, but someone you just met could become a good friend'

    ” So, 傾蓋 has an implied meaning of closeness and friendliness" While it is not the same 傾偈 carries a similar meaning.

    I would agree 傾偈 came from 傾蓋.

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