Hong Kong Cantonese
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Hong Kong Cantonese

Hong Kong Cantonese
?; ;
Native toHong Kong, Macau and some Overseas Communities
RegionPearl River Delta
EthnicityHong Kong people
Macau people
Written Cantonese
Cantonese Braille
Official status
Official language in
 Hong Kong
Regulated byOfficial Language Division[1]
Civil Service Bureau
Government of Hong Kong
Language codes
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese?
Simplified Chinese?
Hong Kong-style Cantonese
Traditional Chinese?
Hong Kong-Guangdong dialect
Traditional Chinese
Hong Kong-Guangzhou dialect
Traditional Chinese

Hong Kong Cantonese is a dialect of the Cantonese language of the Sino-Tibetan family. It is the official and native language of Hong Kong, China. A similar dialect is also spoken in Macau, China.

Although Hong Kongers refer to the language as "Cantonese" (), publications in mainland China describe the variant as Hong Kong dialect (), due to the differences between the pronunciation used in Hong Kong Cantonese and that of the Cantonese spoken in neighbouring Guangdong Province where Cantonese (based on the Guangzhou dialect) is a lingua franca.

Over the years, Hong Kong Cantonese has also absorbed foreign terminology and developed a large set of Hong Kong-specific terms. Code-switching with English is also common. These are the result of British rule between 1841 and 1997, as well as the closure of the Hong Kong-mainland China border immediately after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.


Before the arrival of British settlers in 1842, the inhabitants of Hong Kong mainly spoke the Dongguan-Bao'an (Tungkun-Po'on) and Tanka dialects of Yue,[] as well as Hakka and Teochew. These languages and dialects are all remarkably different from Guangzhou Cantonese.

After the British acquired Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories from the Qing in 1841 (officially 1842) and 1898, large numbers[quantify] of merchants and workers came to Hong Kong from the city of Canton, the main centre of Cantonese. Cantonese became the dominant spoken language in Hong Kong. The extensive migration from mainland Cantonese-speaking areas to Hong Kong continued up until 1949, when the Communists took over mainland China. During this period, the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong was very similar to that in Canton.

In 1949, the year that the People's Republic of China was established, Hong Kong saw a large influx of refugees from mainland China, prompting the Hong Kong Government to close its border.[] Illegal immigration from mainland China into Hong Kong nevertheless continued.

Movement, communication and relations between Hong Kong and mainland China became very limited, and consequently the evolution of Cantonese in Hong Kong diverged from that of Guangzhou. In mainland China, the use of Mandarin as the official language and in education was enforced. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the medium of instruction in schools, along with written English and written Chinese.

Because of the long exposure to English during the colonial period, a large number of English words were loaned into Hong Kong Cantonese, e.g. "" (/pá:s?:/), literally, "bus". Therefore, the vocabularies of Cantonese in mainland China and Hong Kong substantially differed. Moreover, the pronunciation of Cantonese changed while the change either did not occur in mainland China or took place much slower. For example, merging of initial /n/ into /l/ and the deletion of /?/ were observed.


In modern-day Hong Kong, many native speakers are unable to distinguish between certain phoneme pairs, causing them to merge one sound into another. Although this is often considered substandard and is frequently denounced as "lazy sound" (), the phenomenon is becoming more widespread and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions. Contrary to popular opinion, some of these changes are not recent. The loss of the velar nasal (/?/) was documented by Williams (1856), and the substitution of the liquid nasal (/l/) for the nasal initial (/n/) was documented by Cowles (1914).

List of observed shifts:[2]

  • Merging of /n/ initial into /l/ initial.
  • Merging of /?/ initial into null initial.
  • Merging of /k?/ and /k/ initials into /k/ and /k?/ when followed by /?:/. Note that /?/ is the only glide () in Cantonese.
  • Merging of /?/ and /k/ codas into /n/ and /t/ codas respectively, eliminating contrast between these pairs of finals (except after /e/ and /o/): /a:n/-/a:?/, /a:t/-/a:k/, /?n/-//, /?t/-/?k/, /?:n/-/?:?/ and /?:t/-/?:k/.
  • Merging of the two syllabic nasals, // into /m?/, eliminating the contrast of sounds between ? (surname Ng) and ? (not).
  • Merging of the rising tones ( 2nd and 5th).[3]

Today in Hong Kong, people still make an effort to avoid these sound merges in serious broadcasts and in education. Older people often do not exhibit these shifts in their speech, but some do. With the sound changes, the name of Hong Kong's Hang Seng Bank (), /hoe?:? k:? h s n h:?/, literally Hong Kong Constant Growth Bank, becomes /hoe?:n k:n hn sn n h:n/, sounding like Hon' Kon' itchy body 'un cold (un?). The name of Cantonese itself (, "Guangdong speech") would be /k:? t w?:/ without the merger, whereas /k:? t w?:/ (sounding like "": "say eastern speech") and /k:n t w?:/ (sounding like "" : "chase away eastern speech") are overwhelmingly popular.[4]

The shift affects the way some Hong Kong people speak other languages as well. This is especially evident in the pronunciation of certain English names: "Nicole" pronounce [lek'kou?], "Nancy" pronounce ['l?nsi] etc. A very common example of the mixing of /n/ and /l/ is that of the word ?, meaning "you". Even though the standard pronunciation should be /nei/, the word is often pronounced /lei/, which is the surname ?, or the word ?, meaning theory. The merger of (/n/) and (/l/) also affects the choice of characters when the Cantonese media transliterates foreign names.[]

Prescriptivists who try to correct these "lazy sounds" often end up introducing hypercorrections. For instance, while attempting to ensure that people pronounce the initial /?/, they may introduce it into words which have historically had a null-initial. One common example is that of the word ?, meaning "love". Even though the standard pronunciation would be /:i/, but the word is often pronounced /:i/.

Unique phrases and expressions

Hong Kong Cantonese has developed a number of phrases and expressions that are unique to the context of Hong Kong. Examples are:

Table of Colloquial Cantonese Expressions
Colloquial Cantonese Expressions(pronunciation) Literally Colloquially Explanation
(lei4 po2)

Example: ,?!

English: He's an hour late. So outrageous!

depart from the score absurd/outrageous/ridiculous/illogical music score
(jong6 baan2)

Example: ,?

English: He is always so impulsive, no wonder he's got into trouble this time.

conflicting beat make mistakes/get into trouble Beat in Cantonese Opera
? (chuen3)

Example: ?!

English: Do you have to be so harsh?

to string/vulgar harsh/extreme bluntness, lack of tact colloquial usage for police handcuffing, broadened to incorporate harsh expression generally; alternatively, by modification of the tone value for "vulgar"
(si6 daan6)

Example: A? B: !

English: A: Where do you want to go to eat? B: Anything will do!

is/yes but whatever/anything will do/I'm easy

derived from ? (si3 mo4 gei6 daan6, disregard of constraints)

? (dung1 gwa1 dau6 foo6)

Example: ?,!

English: I would be miserable if you died.

winter melon tofu to die votive food offerings at funerals


Life in Hong Kong is characterised by the blending of southern Chinese with other Asian and Western cultures, as well as the city's position as a major international business centre. In turn, Hong Kong influences have spread widely into other cultures. As a result, a large number of loanwords are created in Hong Kong and then exported to mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan. Some of the loanwords have become even more popular than their Chinese counterparts, in Hong Kong as well as in their destination cultures.[]

Imported loanwords

Selected loanwords[5] are shown below.

From English

Chinese Characters Jyutping English
& Other Definitions
Mainland Chinese
aa3 kaan1 account
aau3 giu6 argue
arguments (fights)
baak3 gaa1 ngok6 Baccarat (card game)
? bo1 ball ? ?
(?)(?) baa1 leoi4 ballet (?)(?) (?)(?)
bang1 daai2 bandage
(?)? baa1 bar
be1 zau2 beer
bei2 gin1 nei4 bikini
bou1 taai1 bow tie
bou2 ling4 bowling
bui1 got3 boycott
baak3 gaa1 lei6 broccoli
baa1 daa2 brother
pou6 fei1 buffet
ban6 zyu1 tiu3 bungee jumping
baa1 si2 bus / /?
baai1 baai3 bye
kaa1 lou6 lei5 calorie
gaa3 fe1 jan1 caffeine
? kaat1 card ? ?
kaa1 tung1 cartoon
() go1 si2 dik1 caustic soda ? ?
zi1 si2 cheese
ce1 lei4 zi2 cherry
zyu1 gu1 lik1 chocolate
sai1 daa2 cider
syut3 gaa1 cigar
daa2 kat1 clock in
keoi1 lok6 bou6 club
(?)// gam1 si4 clumsy /? /?
ho2 ho2 cocoa
ho2 kaa1 coca
ho2 kaa1 jan1 cocaine
gaa3 fe1 coffee
kuk1 kei4 cookie
gu1 lei1 coolie
huk6 go1 cougar / /
gei6 lim4 cream
?(?) kuk1 crooked (bent)
bend your knees
winding road ahead
gaa3 lei1 curry
saan1 aai1 cyanide
daa2 ling6 darling
(?)?(?) dip6 dish
/ dou1 lat1 doughnut
() dam2 dump (garbage) (In the dump/dumpster)
database dump
pile dump
dumped by boy-/girl-friend
() ()
fei4 lou2 fail (failure)
fei1 lam2 film
?/ fai1 fight
fight for
/ /
Fan? fen1 si2 fan (fanatic)
fan (machine)
/ de1 di4 daddy (father)
faat3 tang4 frightened (?) (?)
? gou1 ji5 fu1 golf ? ?
git3 taa1 guitar
gat1 si2 guts (courage)
felt like someone just punched you in the gut


/ haa1 lou3 Hello
hon3 bou2 baau1 hamburger)
[calque] aa3 tau2 the head of
heading to (somewhere)
hang1 lei5 honey
[calque] jit6 gau2 hotdog
fu1 laa1 hyun1 hula hoop
syut3 go1 ice-cream
jin1 so1 insure (insurance)
kei4 ji6 gwo2 kiwifruit
? lip1 lift (elevator)
ning4 mung1 lemon
gat1 lei6 lucky (you)
good luck
/ /
mong1 gwo2 mango
? mai1 microphone
mou4 dak6 yi4 model
mo1 dang1 modern
mo1 daa2 motor
mou1 si2 mousse
/ maa1 mi4 mummy (mother)
nei4 lung4 nylon
aa1 pin3 opium
baan1 gik1 pancake
paak3 ce1 parking a vehicle
be1 lei2 pear
? pai1 pie
bing1 bam1 ping-pong
bou3 lam1 plum
baau3 guk1 popcorn
bou3 din1 pudding
? bam1 pump ? ?
saa1 leot2 salad
saam1 man4 jyu2 salmon
saa3 lam1 salute
saam1 man4 zi6 sandwich

saa1 din1 jyu2 sardine
saa1 si2 Sarsaparilla (soft drink)


root beer:


root beer:

SARS: ()

song1 naa4 sauna
si6 gaa1 fu4 scarf
syu4 mat1 schmuck
syut3 lei6 sherry
()? sou1 show (performance) ()?
si1 daa2 sister
so1 daa2 soda
sou1 faa4 sofa
(?) so1 fu4 relaxing (chilling)
("soft", antonym of "firm")
si6 baa1 naa4 spanner (wrench)
si6 be1 spare
si2 dik1 stick
() si6 do1 store
? si6 do1 be1 lei2 strawberry
san1 dei6 sundae
sap6buk1 Support
T-? T- seot1 T-shirt T-? T-?
taap3 lo4 tarot
dik1 si2 taxi

("" = rental car)

? taai1 tie
(?)? taai1 tire (tyre)
do1 si2 toast
to1 fei2 tong2 toffee
tan1 naa4 jyu2 tuna
wai4 taa1 ming6 vitamin
(?) wai1 faa4 wafer biscuit

wafer (electronics)

wafer biscuit: ?

wafer (electronics):

wafer biscuit: ?

wafer (electronics):

wai1 si2 gei6 whisky
?[e.g. ] wui5 would (e.g. He would know) ? ?
jau4 teng5 yachting (yacht)
jyu4 gaa1 yoga
jyu5 lok6 yogurt

From French

Chinese Characters Jyutping French English Mainland Chinese
so1 fu4 lei4 soufflé soufflé
gu2 lung4 cologne perfume
?(?) laang1 laine yarn

From Japanese

Chinese Characters Jyutping Japanese Japanese R?maji English Mainland Chinese
OK kaa1 laa1 ou1 kei1 ? karaoke karaoke OK OK
lou5 sai3 setainushi chief (CEO)
the Head (of a company)
gaan1 baa1 de1 ? ganbatte Keep up! (studying)
Come on! (cheering)
fong3 tai4 ? tabe h?dai buffet
long6 maan6 / r?man romantic

Exported loanwords

Into English

English Chinese Characters Jyutping
add oil gaa1 yau2
chop chop (hurry up) chuk1 chuk1
kowtow kau3 tau4
typhoon toi4 fung1
ketchup ke4 zap1

Into Mainland Chinese Mandarin

Mandarin Cantonese Jyutping English Mandarin synonyms
maai4 daan1 (Can we please have the) bill?
paak3 dong3 partner (in ownership and business)
(in dancing)
daap3 dik1 si2 to ride a taxi ?
, corruption of mou4 lei4 tau4 nonsensical humour (see mo lei tau)
newbie who knows nothing
/ leng3 zai2 handsome boy

(in China only)
paak3 to1 dating
hou2 zeng3 (colloquial) awesome; perfect; just right
/ gaau2 dim6 Is it done yet? (It's) Done!
It has been taken care of!

Into Taiwanese Mandarin

Taiwanese Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin Cantonese Jyutping English
(?) (hóu) s?iléi (?) hou2 sai1 lei6 (very) impressive
Hold?[6] hòu zhù Hold? hou1 jyu6 hold on
hang tight (hang in there)

Into Japanese

Japanese Kana (Kanji) Japanese R?maji Chinese Characters Jyutping English
? () yamucha jam2 caa4 yum cha
() ch?sh? caa1 siu1 char siu
() ch?han caau2 faan6 fried rice

Code-switching and loanword adaptation

Hong Kong Cantonese has a high number of foreign loanwords. Sometimes, the parts of speech of the incorporated words are changed. In some examples, some new meanings of English words are even created. For example, "?yeah", literally "the most yeah", means "the trendiest". Originally, "yeah" means "yes/okay" in English, but it means "trendy" when being incorporated into Hong Kong Cantonese (Cf. "yeah baby" and French "yé-yé").

Semantic change is common in loanwords; when foreign words are borrowed into Cantonese, polysyllabic words and monosyllabic words tend to become disyllabic, and the second syllable is in the Upper Rising tone (the second tone). For example, "kon1 si2" (coins), "sek6 kiu1" (security) and "ka1 si2" (cast). A few polysyllabic words become monosyllabic though, like "mon1" (monitor), literally means computer monitor. And some new Cantonese lexical items are created according to the morphology of Cantonese. For example, "laai1 ?" from the word "library". Most of the disyllabic words and some of the monosyllabic words are incorporated as their original pronunciation, with some minor changes according to the Cantonese phonotactics.

Incorporating words from foreign languages into Cantonese is acceptable to most Cantonese speakers. Hong Kong Cantonese speakers frequently code-mix although they can distinguish foreign words from Cantonese ones. For instance, " make sense", literally means "that doesn't make sense". After a Cantonese speaker decides to code-mix a foreign word in a Cantonese sentence, syntactical rules of Cantonese will be followed. For instance, "sure" () can be used like "? su1 ? su1 aa3?" (are you sure?) as if it were its Cantonese counterpart "", using the A-not-A question construction.

In some circumstances, code-mixing is preferable because it can simplify sentences. An excellent example (though dated) of the convenience and efficiency of such mixing is "? collect call" replacing "?", i.e. 13 syllables reduced to four.[7]

Short-text adaptations


Abbreviations are commonly used in Hong Kong and have flourished with the use of short messaging over the Internet. Some examples:

Table of Abbreviation
Original term Abbreviated term Explanation
Cantonese?(ng4 zi1) English: do not know 5G (ng5 G)

Example: ? ?5G

English: A: Do you know who is Peter? B: I don't know (5G).

The "5" here is not pronounced as "five" but in Cantonese "ng5", which is the Chinese word "?" (ng5). Since "?"(ng5) and "?" (ng4), "?" (zi1) and "G" are having similar pronunciations, we used 5G to replace the Cantonese term", which carries the meaning of don't know. (Sometimes "idk" is more often to express "I do not know".)
Cantonese:(zung1 ji3) English: Like ?2 (zung3 ji6)

Example: 2!

English: I like (?2 zung3 ji6) him so much!

Due to similar pronunciation, the "2" here is pronounced as the Chinese "?" (ji6) rather than "two". Combining this number with the Chinese character "?" (zung3), it carries similar pronunciation as ""(zung1 ji3) but the structure of this martian language term is much simpler.
Cantonese:(si1 naai1) English: Housewife C9

Example: C9?

English: You dress like a housewife(C9).

The word C9 should be pronounced in English "C nine", which is very similar to Cantonese si1 naai1. It is an easier form of typing the word "" without changing the meaning in Cantonese. The two characters are already on the keyboard so it is much simpler to type.
7-Eleven (7-11) Se-fun(?:)/ Chat1 Jai2()

Example: /

English : Let's go 7-Eleven (Se-fun ) to buy some drinks.

"Chat1" is the Chinese word of seven and "Jai2" is son or boy
Take Away() Haang4 Gai1() (literal: walk on the street)

Example: !

English: Fish Ball Noodles for take-away! (Haang4 Gai1 )

This abbreviation is often used in Hong Kong-style cafés for take-away.
Uh-huh 55

Example: ? ?:55

English: A: Do you need to attend school today? B:Yea.(55)

Homophonic for "ng ng" () which indicates agreement or understanding.
Post (/) po

Example: ?po

English: I posted (po) a photo.

example of common omission of final consonant (not naturally occurring in Cantonese)

See also


  1. ^ "Official Language Division, Civil Service Bureau, Government of Hong Kong". Government of Hong Kong. 19 September 2008. Retrieved 2012.
  2. ^ To, Carol K. S.; Mcleod, Sharynne; Cheung, Pamela S. P. (2015). "Phonetic variations and sound changes in Hong Kong Cantonese: diachronic review, synchronic study and implications for speech sound assessment". Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics. 29 (5): 333-353. doi:10.3109/02699206.2014.1003329. hdl:10722/214685. PMID 25651195.
  3. ^ Bauer, Robert S.; Cheung, Kwan-hin; Cheung, Pak-man (2003). "Variation and merger of the rising tones in Hong Kong Cantonese". Language Variation and Change. 15 (2): 211-225. doi:10.1017/S0954394503152039. hdl:10397/7632.
  4. ^ Together Learn Cantonese, see middle section.
  5. ^ "A list compiled by lbsun". Archived from the original on 20 August 2006. Retrieved 2006.
  6. ^ "?"Hold?"?"Hold?"?". ? ?. Archived from the original on 23 October 2011. Retrieved 2011.
  7. ^ "Info" (PDF). www.patrickchu.net.

External links

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