Is this authentic Cantonese?

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A decade or so ago, we often had discussions about whether or not what was alleged / claimed to be Cantonese writing really was.  Now it is good to see native speakers asking the same questions.

From a post of Wan Chin, a controversial scholar/ cultural critic in Hong Kong.

The photograph shows a multilingual (Japanese, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean) notice affixed to a temporary construction wall (wéibǎn 圍板 ["hoarding" — a word I didn't know before writing this post]) at the Kansai International Airport (Osaka) that tells people not to lean against the wall.

From a Chinese correspondent:

Wan Chin's political stance is always ambiguous and mysterious. He moves between anti CCP, pro "traditional cultural Chinese heritage", pro western conservative, classical liberal, anti neo-liberal, and so on and so forth. 

Nevertheless, his "scholastic" insights are quite worth noting. His book "中文解毒‘’ (Chinese detox) has received quite a good reception.

In this particular case, my reaction is basically a laugh. Yet, I also share his feelings that some written Cantonese is not that Cantonese, as in this case – 唔好靠係堵牆上.

So let's hear from LL readers who are familiar with written Cantonese what their opinions are.

While we're at it, what do you think of Wan Chin's book, "Zhōngwén jiědú 中文解毒" (Chinese detox)?  I think that I came across this book about 10-15 years ago and my impression was that the author complained of how impure and contaminated written Chinese had become.  If you've read the book and have an opinion about it, add a comment below.

Selected readings

"Token Cantonese" (5/16/15)

"The interplay between Cantonese and Mandarin as an index of sociopolitical tensions in Hong Kong" (4/30/23)

"Cantonese novels" ()8/20/13)

"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)

Snow, Don. 2004. Cantonese as Written Language, The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.  Appendix 1 of this remarkable book gives 14 Cantonese texts, each of which Snow carefully analyzes for the degree to which it adheres to the norms of spoken Cantonese rather than of written Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM). The 14 texts, which cover a wide range of genres, date from around the 17th century to the contemporary period. It is striking that the percentages of overtly marked Cantonese (and Snow is referring here not just to special Cantonese characters) in these 14 texts range from only 3% to 36%: 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 20, 23, 23, 23, 28, 32, 36, for an average of 17%.

Kwan-hin Cheung and Robert S. Bauer, "The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters",  Journal of Chinese linguistics: Monograph series (18); Project on Linguistic Analysis, University of California, 2002.

"Colloquial Cantonese and Taiwanese as mélange languages" (3/15/21)



20 Comments

  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 26, 2024 @ 4:24 pm

    IDK but would postposition soeng6min6 上面 or classifier bung6 埲 bring this closer to the colloquial register?

    Whatever the case, clearly users of Cantonese find this to qualify as such… and a central message of earlier LL has been the tendency towards register mixture in "written Cantonese."

    And FWIW this guy also says that the "Chinese" on this sign is not "通用中文" (OK it is indeed awkward/colloquial)

    "係" should be "喺" in the post body

  2. ycx said,

    February 26, 2024 @ 5:50 pm

    Not a Cantonese speaker so I can't speak for that, but I personally don't see anything wrong with the Chinese. It feels no more awkward than the English version, both are on the level of a passable machine translation. Since the point is to warn travellers, this translation is sufficient and fit for purpose.

    Considering that it's likely that the phrases were all machine translated and that I'm a native Chinese/English speaker, I would bet that to an actual native Cantonese (or Korean) speaker, the other translations would be completely understandable and equally unremarkable.

    "complained of how impure and contaminated written Chinese had become."

    This gives off the exact same vibe as terminally online linguistic prescriptivists complaining about "literally" or "them" (vs him/her).

  3. Hilário de Sousa said,

    February 26, 2024 @ 8:16 pm

    I think this is beyond the usual question of what can be considered Written Cantonese. I find the sentence 唔好靠喺堵牆上 unacceptable along the entire continuum between Written Chinese and written colloquial Cantonese.

    (By "Written Chinese", I mean the Written Standard Chinese used by people of Chin Wan's/my mother's generation who were educated in HK/Macau. Evidently the Mandarin sentence 不要靠在这堵墙上 also did not pass Chin Wan's bar for "通用中文"; this is not the Written Chinese familiar to him.)

    I guess the Cantonese sentence was machine translated from the Mandarin sentence 不要靠在这堵墙上. Translating búyào 不要 and zài 在 as m4hou2 唔好 'don't' and hai2 喺 'at' respectively are OK. Knowing that bare [CLF+noun] can have a definite meaning in Cantonese is good. Kaau3 靠, in the physical sense of 'to lean', is slightly literary, but is perhaps still OK in colloquial Cantonese.

    As for 堵, I did not even know that dou2 堵 can be used as a classifier. My feeling is that HK Written Chinese would use the classifier fuk1 幅 or min6 面 for coeng4 牆 'wall'. In Cantonese the classifier for wall is bung6 埲 (as mentioned by Jonathan), or fuk1 幅.

    The postposition soeng6 上 is problematic in this case. In colloquial register, the 'above' postposition would usually be disyllabic, e.g. soeng6min6 上面, soeng6gou1 上高. In the more formal registers, some people might use the monosyllabic soeng6 上, but hai2 coeng4 soeng3 喺牆上 (at wall above) sounds like either a person or something literally above the wall, or a message/drawing on the wall, not a person against a wall.

    One Cantonese translation I can offer is m4hou2 aai1 hai2 bung6 coeng4 dou6 唔好挨喺埲牆度 (NEG.IMP lean at CLF wall place), with dou6 being a postposition which is spatially less-specified.

  4. Chas Belov said,

    February 26, 2024 @ 11:37 pm

    @ycx and @Hilário de Sousa: I am curious as to where machine translation into Cantonese can be found. Google only offers Chinese (sic) which I presume is Mandarin.

    Apple offers Cantonese transcription via microphone input, but I find its English transcription, at least in Voice Control, so poor that I haven't tried it with my wretched Cantonese.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 6:50 am

    From Apollo Wu:

    This kind of written Cantonese rarely appears in HK. Most HK Chinese notices in HK are written in standard Chinese. Written Cantonese is considered vulgar as 不登大雅之堂!

  6. Weh said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 7:18 am

    @Chas Belov, Microsoft Translator https://www.bing.com/translator has Cantonese, and 唔好靠喺堵牆上 is exactly what you get if you try to translate Mandarin 不要靠在这堵墙上.

  7. Quntin said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 7:39 am

    @Victor

    "wéibǎn 圍板 ["hoarding" — a word I didn't know before writing this post]"

    Do you mean that you didn't know the Chinese vocabulary “圍板” ?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 9:10 am

    @Quntin

    I knew the Chinese term, but not the English one.

  9. Chris Button said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 9:38 am

    Any machine translation (if used) wasn't coming from the original Japanese since that one doesn't mention "wall". It just says "no leaning please".

  10. samathāna said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 10:00 am

    According to this news report from HK (i-cable news in Chinese), some netizens think Hong Kong people should be ashamed of it:

    https://www.i-cable.com/新聞資訊/201389/網絡熱話-關西機場貼廣東話告示-網民-應覺得?utm_source=icable-web&utm_medium=referral

  11. Zhaofei said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 3:28 pm

    It is common for us to say "请勿靠墙" for the meaning of "Do not lean against the wall". This expression, "唔好靠係堵牆上" in its specific wording, is not a common idiom or phrase in standard written Cantonese. Characters like 唔, 係, are not typically used in standard written Cantonese. We use 不 and 是. Also, I think the simplified Chinese "不要靠在这堵墙上" is common Mandarin Chinese but sounds a little bit weird when I say it. It's more common to say "不要靠墙" for spoken Mandarin, or "请勿靠墙" as in Cantonese for written Mandarin.

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 4:30 pm

    well the fact that there are people who feel HKers should instead feel "called out / targeted" and thus offended is rather hilarious (samathāna's link)

    TBH the same sign in a Chinese context would probably not even call this kind of barrier a qiang2 "墻" let alone "這堵墻" where the classifier du3 gives a 立體 vibe… just write "請勿依靠" or sth

  13. jñrāpāmi said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 9:01 pm

    @Victor

    How would you say this kind of "wall" in the past without knowing the word "hoarding"?

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 9:26 pm

    @jñrāpāmi

    I probably say "partition" — it depends precisely on what type of dividing wall it is.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 6:45 am

    Jñrāpāmi — your question interests me, because I have known the word "hoarding" for over 70 years (it was first attested in that sense in 1823). But if I look at it from the perspective not of time but of linguistic ability and familiarity, then I would seek for a circumlocution, something that I am frequently forced to do when speaking a language for which I have a less-than-native speaker vocabulary. So for "hoarding" I might paraphrase the OED and say "A temporary fence made of boards enclosing a building while in the course of erection or repair; often used for posting advertisements".

  16. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 8:17 am

    Pretty sure 'hoarding' in this sense is extremely marginal in US English — I only recall having heard it from UK commentators for the advertising panels/banners surrounding soccer~football fields… IDK what insiders call these stateside but I would guess not 'hoarding'.

  17. Calvin said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 4:44 pm

    I think the most succinct explanation between 堵/面/道 can be found here:

    You can distinguish them like this :

    “堵” is a three-dimensional concept. 他用砖砌了一堵墙。(一堵墙)

    “面” is a two-dimensional concept.
    他粉刷了一面墙。(一面墙壁)

    If the wall is very long, you can use “道”,
    一道围墙
    一道城墙
    他们筑起了一道人墙。

    I never heard people use 一堵墙 or 一道墙 in Cantonese, instead they would use 埲, 幅 (or maybe 面).

    BTW, a common Chinese translation for Reagan's famous "Tear down this wall!" line is "推倒這堵牆!"

  18. Guy H said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 4:06 am

    I think this is best characterised as a well-meant attempt to machine translate Cantonese & I applaud Kansai Airport for giving it a go. But frankly, neither the Mandarin or Cantonese translation sound idiomatic here.
    Something simple but literary like 禁止倚靠 would have worked fine and is acceptable to both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. Cantonese usage exists along a spectrum from literary to colloquial and its a mistake to assume only something written with "non-Mandarin characters" can be regarded as authentic for Cantonese speakers.

  19. Chas Belov said,

    March 6, 2024 @ 5:34 am

    @Wen thank you for the resource

    @Zhaofei I've seen 請勿 in the on signs in Chinatown, San Francisco, which is a Cantonese neighborhood. When I tried many years ago to use 請勿 in writing with a Singaporean friend who spoke Mandarin and Hokkien, he objected to that usage. I'm guessing there are regional differences as to the acceptability of 請勿.

  20. Vampyricon said,

    March 13, 2024 @ 4:04 pm

    Seconding Hilário de Sousa's final translation, as a native Cantonese speaker, but to a lot of my friends it is probably perfectly acceptable. Pan-Siniticism at work!

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