Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mandarin does not use these Cantonese characters

In the previous article I wrote - about Chinese people confusing 'he' and 'she' when speaking English - we discussed a very common word that is used in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin. That got me thinking about other characters which similarly appear in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin.

Of course there are many expressions that are used in one and not the other (for example, while Mandarin says 不好看, Cantonese instead says 唔好睇) - after all, they are two different languages. But in this article I'm going to avoid expressions, and rather focus on individual characters that have this feature.

As a cheat - since I don't speak Cantonese :) - my starting point was to search in the MDBG online dictionary for the word 'Cantonese', which gave me 99 results, from which I started to whittle the list down to ones worthy of being included in this article ...
  • : This is the first obvious one which means 'no' or 'not'. In theory it's pronounced wú in Mandarin, but it's only* used in Cantonese where it's pronounced m4. This is extremely common in Cantonese, generally used where Mandarin would use 不 - so for example 'bad' in Mandarin is 不好 whereas in Cantonese it would be 唔好.
  • : In Mandarin it is pronounced mǎo, but in Cantonese it's mou5. The closest Mandarin word to this character might be 没有 (méi​yǒu - which even sounds very similar to mou5). This is another very common character in Cantonese. To be clear, I have never seen this used in Mandarin.
  • : This is he/she/it in Cantonese: keoi5. No need to discuss this one - since I wrote an entire article on it before :-)
  • : This is the Cantonese equivalent of the Mandarin possessive article 的. In Cantonese 嘅 is pronounced ge3.
  • : This character as used mostly in 呢個 to mean 'this' - basically it's the same as 這個 in Mandarin (or 这个 in the simplified system)) and is pronounced ni1.
  • : Similarly, this character is used for 'that' in Cantonese - usually in the word 嗰個, which is pronounced go2go3. Mandarin would use 那個 (Simplified: 那个) instead. 
  • : This is the Cantonese equivalent of 在 (to be at) - and it is pronounced hai2.
  • : This is pronounced me1, and it indicates surprise by turning the sentence into a question. For example, 係咩 (hai6me1) means "Really?"
  • : If you're a foreigner living in HK, you will hear this character every day - part of the word 'gweilo' - this character is actually pronounced lou2. Therefore 'gweilo' actually means 'male ghost' (and not 'old ghost' - which is a common mistake that confuses 佬 with 老).
  • 乜嘢: This is pronounced mat1 je5 in Cantonese, meaning 'what' or 'why'. Since both characters are unique to Cantonese, and since they are commonly used together in this compound word, I just gave them a single entry. It has the same meaning as Mandarin's 什么 or perhaps 东西.
  • : This is pronounced zo2, and puts the sentence into past-tense, in the same way that Mandarin might use 了 or 过 (過).
  • : The character is pronounced gam3, and can mean 'so' (like Mandarin's 这样) or 'very' (like 很).
  • : This is the other 'gam' word of interest, although the tone here is different: gam2. It means 'in that case' or 'and then'. When I'm listening to my colleagues speaking on the phone, I hear this word a lot! (In written Cantonese, this is sometimes just written as 咁, apparently.)
  • : The character is the Cantonese equivalent of Mandarin's 对 (Traditional:對), meaning 'correct'. It is pronounced ngaam1.  (And because you, Dear Reader, are so clever - you probably already worked out by yourself that we can piece together two of these characters to get the Cantonese word for incorrect: 唔啱.)
  • There are a few more that are worth listing here because they are quite common, but I will just group them together: They include  (find, like 找),  (sleep, like 睡),  (gossip),  (tired, like 累),  (to waste),  (to fuck), and finally  (a side dish). 

In the past (before moving to HK), I had been reading Chinese comics which I picked up on my travels, wondering why I was struggling to understand the text so much - and I kept seeing strange characters (like 冇). That is how I originally realised that there are indeed characters which are used in Cantonese and not Mandarin, which explains why at the time I couldn't easily work out what the text was saying.

So now we all know. 冇問題.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A message to my little brother

Hey Bro*

I was sitting in a coffee shop this morning, and realised how often I think about you while I'm learning Chinese.  Here, let me show you …

Take a look at this (poorly-taken) image from the book** that I'm reading at the moment for learning to read ...

I won't bore you with the details, but the method I use basically breaks complex characters into components - then you create an image that uses all those components, which is easy to remember.
  • So you can see that #2279 has two halves - the left half means little brother (uhm, that's YOU!) and the right half (those two lines) means sword/sabre/knife. And you can see on the very right of the page, that overall character means shave. So the methods requires me to create an image of those words … so obviously the image I have in my mind is of YOU shaving with a sword!  (Glad you got rid of that beard!)
  • Similarly #2280 involves YOU and a road - I picture us standing outside [the home where we grew up], on opposite sides of the ROAD (辶 means, in general, 'road'), and you're HANDING OVER something to me. Doesn't matter what you're giving me - it's the process of handing something over. And that's the image.
  • In #2281 I'm stuck in a TREE (that's the 木 character on the left), and YOU are climbing up a LADDER to help me down.

The 'little brother' component is quite common, and you can see it is connected with such different words - but ultimately all those images involve you. So thanks for 'joining me' while I study Chinese. I look forward to your next visit out to Hong Kong.


* Yes I sometimes call him 'Bro'. Don't judge me :-)
** This is from Heisig Book2. You can read my whole collection of Heisig articles here.