I arrived in Hong Kong thinking that I didn’t know a word of the local language – Cantonese. However with English being peppered with loanwords it turns out there are a plethora of common words with their origins in Cantonese. These include wok (the Chinese cooking utensil) and foods you might see on a Chinese menu such as bok choy, chop suey, dim sum, hoisin (sauce), lo mein and wonton. These might seem obvious, but there are some foods with unexpected Cantonese names including cumquat, lychee and ketchup. The phrase chop chop (hurry up) and the word kowtow (bowing – used literally or figuratively) both originate in Cantonese. Some items that originate in the area still bear their Cantonese names such as the Shar Pei breed of dog (e.g. Rolly from the Purex toilet paper advertisements) and the martial art kung-fu.
A different Chinese dialect (Mandarin) is widely spoken in mainland China. English also features Mandarin loan words such as tofu, the drinking expression ‘chin chin’ and the terms brainwashing, gung-ho and ‘no can do’. The game Mahjong still bears its Mandarin name as does the concept ‘yin-yang’.
Other words with their origins in Chinese dialects include ginseng and tea, the weather phenomenon typhoon, Eastern concepts of Feng shui and ch’i and the expressions chow (food) and ‘long time no see’. I was practically fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin!
In reality, I was so unfamiliar with the sounds that it took a little time just to get an ear for English spoken with a Hong Kong accent. Cantonese, Mandarin and English are often used for public announcements and with time I began to hear the difference between the rapid fire syllables of Cantonese and languorous drawn out sounds of Mandarin.
In Hong Kong, I haven’t found that I need to speak Cantonese as I can get by quite well with English. Even when colleagues at work speak Cantonese to each other, the conversation is peppered with English words, particularly technical terms, giving a rough indication of the topic of conversation. With Cantonese having 9 tones (or ways in which the syllables can be pronounced) and a word having different meanings depending on the tones, I haven’t made great strides with learning Cantonese. In addition to the names of various dim sum dishes, I have learned a few Cantonese words and phrases which I try to use as much as possible; jo-san (good morning), lay-ho (hello), ng-goy-sai (thank you very much) and for taxis my address, li-do (stop here) and ng-sai-zaau (‘keep the change’ – though with incorrect intonation this sounds like ‘wash your hands’ – not quite the tip I was hoping to give) . The most useful (and fun to say) Cantonese expression is the expression of frustration – ‘ai-yah!’
Our doorman taught us the Cantonese greeting ‘sick fan may?’ literally ‘have you eaten rice yet’ but used in place of ‘how are you’. There are two potential responses ‘may sick’ – ‘I have not eaten yet’ and ‘sick jo’ – ‘I have eaten’. He also taught me ‘lok jyu’ – ‘raining’ so we have the following conversations when I leave on rainy mornings:
Doorman “Have you eaten rice yet?”
Me “I have eaten, thank you. Have you eaten rice yet?”
Doorman “I have eaten, thank you”
Me (pointing outside) “raining, ai-yah!”
Whilst I can speak a few words of Cantonese, I am absolutely lost when it comes to Chinese characters. There is pretty much only one I recognize as I see it everywhere I go and the characters somewhat equate with the meaning. It is ‘Exit’ which I think of as fire exit because it looks to me like a candelabra and a door.
Exit (Image courtesy of sroeder @Flickr)
Some Cantonese speakers replace an n sound with an l sound if it begins the world, so I have learned to answer to both Nina and Lina, which I think of as my Cantonese name. Hong Kongers tend to have both a Chinese and an English name and I had never before come across some of the English names that Hong Kongers go by. Some of the unusual names that have brought a smile to my face are:
- Fruits such as Apple, Pear and Berry
There are also sisters named Chlorophyll and Photosynthesis – their Dad was a botanist.
Perhaps the reason for these unusual names is that in the past non-English speaking parents would not tend to give their child an English name. The first time this was required was when taking English language classes at school, where teachers insist upon use of English names, resulting in some unique name choices by the primary school students. Contemporary parents now tend to give their child both a Chinese and English name, and lock these in by putting them on the birth certificate so these unusual names may become less common in the future.
Encountering these names made me wonder if there were any English names that Cantonese or Mandarin speakers found unusual or amusing. A quick poll of my colleagues didn’t reveal any names but I discovered that the custom of giving a father and son the same first name with the elder called Senior and the younger called Junior was considered odd. Counter-intuitively it is considered disrespectful to give a son the same name as his father.
A quick peek into my company address book revealed, two Jackie Chans and another three Jacky Chans. In Hong Kong the martial artist and actor is known as Jackie Chan Kong-sang, so the Jackie/Jacky Chans probably don’t consider that they share their name with a celebrity.
Image Courtesy of bump @Flickr
For other expat’s take on names in Hong Kong see the following articles: