San Francisco Cantonese

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From Charles Belov:

While riding the 22 Fillmore bus through the Mission District in San Francisco today, I overheard a conversation in Cantonese. It was nearly 100% in Cantonese, not the Cantlish* that I rarely also hear. What surprised me, though, was when one of the elderly speakers said "Hong Kong" they used the English pronunciation, not the Cantonese one. Aside from those two words, it was all in Cantonese.

And my Cantonese is so minimal that I know nothing of the topic of their conversation aside from the words "faan heui," to return-go, shortly after which the words "Hong Kong" occurred. Not that it would be any of my business – I don't care what people say; I just care how they say it.

Just so you know, the Mission District is mainly known as a Latinx area – I also heard Spanish there on my walk today – although there have been Chinese businesses in the area for many years and it has also seen quite a bit of gentrification in recent years.


*"Cantlish" is the Cantonese learner’s equivalent to "Chinglish" (e.g., when you use English word order with Cantonese words). (source)


From the Cantonese 香港 (hoeng1 gong2, “Fragrant Harbor”), the former name of a settlement in what is now Aberdeen on the southwest side of Hong Kong Island.



Mandarin to IPA Translator

香 /ɕjɑŋ55/ 港 /kɑŋ21˦/, /xʊŋ51/


Selected readings



  1. Eugene Anderson said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 9:13 pm

    I've heard a lot of this, and I love it. I love the mx you are presumably intending by "Cantlish." Note that "Hong Kong" for Heung Kong may be dialect, not English influence; it's Hong Kong in boat dialect and some other dialects of Cantonese. I suspect the British got the spelling from talking to boat people.

  2. Chas Belov said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 12:45 am

    @Victor Mair: If "'Cantlish' is the Cantonese learner’s equivalent to "Chinglish" (e.g., when you use English word order with Cantonese words)." then I used the wrong word. I was referring to something like a native Cantonese speaker using a construction like "Closed-jó" (closed [completed action marker]) upon encountering a closed restaurant or dropping random English words into an otherwise Cantonese sentence.

    @Eugene Anderson: Thank you. I didn't know that there was a separate dialect for the boat folks.

  3. Allen Kamp said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 3:50 pm

    When I entered Berkeley in 1960, I found that most of my fellow students of Chinese descent were from families who have lived in the San Francisco area since the 1860s. Their ancestors had come over from Canton to build the railroads. When I asked whether they spoke Mandarin, I got a haughty response that was basically “Us speak Mandarin ? Heaven help us!”
    And linguist once told me that Cantonese was the first type of Chinese spoken in the US and that many Chinese names such as “dim sum” were actually Cantonese. Now with the change in US immigration law, Mandarin is more common.

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 7:57 pm

    Does some Yue variety have aspirated /kʰ/ in 'port'? That would be surprising…

    While the answer could be code-switching (including to the OP's Hong Kong English [hɔŋ˥ kʰɔŋ˥]), IMO "Hong-Kong" said in Cantonese ([hœːŋ˥ kɔːŋ˧˥ or sth.) can be close to indistinguishable from an English version depending on factors… e.g. while the first vowel is represented [œ] it often doesn't sound dramatically so (to me), so if you don't understand a whole lot but pick out this one word, it might seem like a code-switch but not be.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 7:57 pm

    should be "often doesn't sound dramatically front"

  6. V said,

    April 4, 2024 @ 2:10 am

    I once mistook Albanian with Hungarian in a noisy bus.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 4, 2024 @ 4:25 am

    … and I once mistook Schweizerdeutsch for Dutch/Flemish, but having made that mistake once I now ask if I am the least unsure …

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 4, 2024 @ 8:38 am

    Probably not relevant, but Polish Americans tend to do treat proper names according to English syntax/morphology when speaking (American) Polish (along with other heritage-language features); thus, no inflection, in particular for English names. I don't think it would apply to Polish names though, so the parallel is probably not there…

  9. tsts said,

    April 4, 2024 @ 10:36 pm

    @Jonathan Smith: Toisanese would pronounce the 'port' part of Hong Kong with a k, and the first syllable would be something like heang, so overall somewhat similar to Hong Kong in English. (Or at least some forms of Toisanese as there are some local variations.) Toisanese is usually grouped under Yue, though it seems to share a lot with Ping.

    @Allen Kamp: Strictly speaking, Toisanese might be the first Chinese spoken in the US, as most of the early immigrants came from there.

    At least in NYC, there is still a very significant Toisanese community, even among recent arrivals. Though some may be hard to distinguish from Cantonese when they are not among other Toisanese.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    April 4, 2024 @ 11:06 pm

    @Jonathan Smith: I believe I'm good at distinguishing the English o in "Hong" and the Cantonese oe in 香, and the speaker definitely said the English o. I don't have quite the confidence in distinguishing the English k in Hong from the Cantonese initial in 港, although there is supposed to be a difference, and definitely not for the vowels in the second word if there is a difference; that said, I hear the initial in 港 as a g, not a k, and the speaker sounded like they were saying k.

  11. PeterB said,

    April 8, 2024 @ 1:39 pm

    I wonder if the speaker might have been using the name a local establishment rather than the city. Hong Kong East Ocean Seafood, across the bay in Emeryville, is especially popular, but Google Maps turns up many, many others.

  12. V said,

    April 10, 2024 @ 11:40 pm

    Philip Taylor : It was a long bus ride, several hours, and the couple a few seats behind me were speaking a language I could not identify. When we were taking off, I asked them what language they were speaking, and I guessed Hungarian. They were indignant and replied no, we are speaking Albanian.

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