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Written Cantonese is the written form of Cantonese, the most complete written form of Chinese after that for Mandarin Chinese and Classical Chinese. Written Chinese was originally developed for Classical Chinese, and was the main literary language of China until the 19th century. Written vernacular Chinese first appeared in the 17th century and a written form of Mandarin became standard throughout China in the early 20th century. While the Mandarin form can in principle be read and spoken word for word in other Chinese varieties, its intelligibility to non-Mandarin speakers is poor to incomprehensible because of differences in idioms, grammar and usage. Modern Cantonese speakers have therefore developed new characters for words that do not exist and have retained others that have been lost in standard Chinese.
With the advent of the computer and standardization of character sets specifically for Cantonese, many printed materials in predominantly Cantonese-speaking areas of the world are written to cater to their population with these written Cantonese characters.
Before the 20th century, the standard written language of China was Classical Chinese, which has grammar and vocabulary based on the Chinese used in ancient China, Old Chinese. However, while this written standard remained essentially static for over two thousand years, the actual spoken language diverged further and further away. Some writings based on local vernacular speech did exist but these were rare. In the early 20th century, Chinese reformers like Hu Shih saw the need for language reform and championed the development of a vernacular that allowed modern Chinese to write the language the same way they speak. The vernacular language movement took hold, and the written language was standardised as vernacular Chinese. Mandarin was chosen as the basis for the new standard.
The standardisation and adoption of written Mandarin pre-empted the development and standardisation of vernaculars based on other varieties of Chinese. No matter which dialect one spoke, one still wrote in standardised Mandarin for everyday writing. However, Cantonese is unique amongst the non-Mandarin varieties in having a widely used written form. Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong used to be a British colony isolated from mainland China before 1997, so most HK citizens do not speak Mandarin. Written Cantonese was developed as a means of informal communication. Still, Cantonese speakers must use standard written Chinese, or even literary Chinese, in most formal written communications, since written Cantonese may be unintelligible to speakers of other varieties of Chinese.
Historically, written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese. However, its popularity and usage has been rising in the last two decades, the late Wong Jim being one of the pioneers of its use as an effective written language. Written Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, instant messaging, and even social networking websites; this would be even more evident since the rise of localism in Hong Kong from the 2010s, where the articles written by those localist media are written in Cantonese. Although most foreign movies and TV shows are subtitled in Standard Chinese, some, such as The Simpsons, are subtitled using written Cantonese. Newspapers have the news section written in Standard Chinese, but they may have editorials or columns that contain Cantonese discourses, and Cantonese characters are increasing in popularity on advertisements and billboards.
It has been stated that written Cantonese remains limited outside Hong Kong, including other Cantonese-speaking areas in Guangdong Province. However, colloquial Cantonese advertisements are sometimes seen in Guangdong, suggesting that written Cantonese is widely understood and is regarded favourably, at least in some contexts.
Some sources will use only colloquial Cantonese forms, resulting in text similar to natural speech. However, it is more common to use a mixture of colloquial forms and standard Chinese forms, some of which are alien to natural speech. Thus the resulting "hybrid" text lies on a continuum between two norms: standard Chinese and colloquial Cantonese as spoken.
A good source for well documented written Cantonese words can be found in the scripts for Cantonese opera. Readings in Cantonese colloquial: being selections from books in the Cantonese vernacular with free and literal translations of the Chinese character and romanized spelling (1894) by James Dyer Ball has a bibliography of printed works available in Cantonese characters in the last decade of the nineteenth century. A few libraries have collections of so-called "wooden fish books" written in Cantonese characters. Facsimiles and plot precis of a few of these have been published in Wolfram Eberhard's Cantonese Ballads. See also Cantonese love-songs, translated with introduction and notes by Cecil Clementi (1904) or a newer translation of these by Peter T. Morris in Cantonese love songs : an English translation of Jiu Ji-yung's Cantonese songs of the early 19th century (1992). Cantonese character versions of the Bible, Pilgrims Progress, and Peep of Day, as well as simple catechisms, were published by mission presses. The special Cantonese characters used in all of these were not standardized and show wide variation.
A Hong Kong billboard in Written Cantonese with a mixture of English words in the typical code switch style of Hong Kong speech.
Written Cantonese contains many characters not used in standard written Chinese in order to transcribe words not present in the standard lexicon, and for some words from Old Chinese when their original forms have been forgotten. Despite attempts by the government of Hong Kong in the 1990s to standardize this character set, culminating in the release of the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS) for use in electronic communication, there is still significant disagreement about which characters are correct in written Cantonese, as many of the Cantonese words existed as descendants of Old Chinese words, but are being replaced by some new invented Cantonese words.
General estimates of vocabulary differences between Cantonese and Mandarin range from 30 to 50 percent. Donald B. Snow, the author of Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular, wrote that "It is difficult to quantify precisely how different" the two vocabularies are. Snow wrote that the different vocabulary systems are the main difference between written Mandarin and written Cantonese. Ouyang Shan made a corpus-based estimate concluding that one third of the lexical items used in regular Cantonese speech do not exist in Mandarin, but that between the formal registers the differences were smaller. He analyzed a radio news broadcast and concluded that of its lexical items, 10.6% were distinctly Cantonese. Here are examples of differing lexical items in a sentence:
|Gloss||Written Cantonese||Standard Written Chinese|
|is||係 hai6||是 si6 (Mandarin: shì)|
|not||唔 m4||不 bat1 (Mandarin: bù)|
|they/them||佢哋 keoi5-dei6||他們 taa1-mun4 (Mandarin: tāmen)|
|(possessive marker)||嘅 ge3||的 dik1 (Mandarin: de)|
|Is it theirs?||係唔係佢哋嘅？
hai6-m4-hai6 keoi5-dei6 ge3?
Si6-bat1-si6 taa1-mun4 dik1?
The two Chinese sentences are grammatically identical, using an A-not-A question to ask "Is it theirs?" (referring to an aforementioned object). Though the characters correspond 1:1, the actual glyphs used are all different.
There are certain words that share a common root with standard written Chinese words. However, because they have diverged in pronunciation, tone, and/or meaning, they are often written using a different character. One example is the doublet 來 loi4 (standard) and 嚟 lei4 (Cantonese), meaning "to come." Both share the same meaning and usage, but because the colloquial pronunciation differs from the literary pronunciation, they are represented using two different characters. Some people argue that representing the colloquial pronunciation with a different (and often extremely complex) character is superfluous, and would encourage using the same character for both forms since they are cognates (see Derived characters below).
Some Cantonese words have no equivalents in Mandarin, though equivalents may exist in classical or other varieties of Chinese. Cantonese writers have from time to time reinvented or borrowed a new character if they are not aware of the original one. For example, some suggest that the common word 靚 leng3, meaning pretty in Cantonese but also looking into the mirror in Mandarin, is in fact the character 令 ling3.
Today those characters can mainly be found in ancient rime dictionaries such as Guangyun. Some scholars have made some "archaeological" efforts to find out what the "original characters" are. Often, however, these efforts are of little use to the modern Cantonese writer, since the characters so discovered are not available in the standard character sets provided to computer users, and many have fallen out of usage.
In Southeast Asia, Cantonese people may adopt local Malay words into their daily speech, such as using the term 鐳 leoi1 to mean money rather than 錢 cin2, which would be used in Hong Kong.
Cantonese particles may be added to the end of a sentence or suffixed to verbs to indicate aspect. There are many such particles; here are a few.
- 咩 – "me1" is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate disbelief, e.g. 乜你花名叫八兩金咩？ Is your nickname really Raymond Lam?
- 呢 – "ne1" is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a question, e.g. 你叫咩名呢？ What is your name?
- 未 – "mei6" is placed at the end of a sentence to ask if an action is done yet, e.g. 你做完未？ Are you done yet?
- 吓 – "haa5" is placed after a verb to indicate a little bit, e.g. 食吓 Eat a little bit; "haa5" is used singly to show uncertainty or unbelief, e.g. 吓？乜係咁㗎? What? Is that so?
- 緊 – "gan2" is placed after a verb to indicate a progressive action, e.g. 我食緊蘋果。 I'm eating an apple.
- 咗 – "zo2" placed after a verb to indicate a completed action, e.g. 我食咗蘋果。 I ate an apple.
- 晒 – "saai3" placed after a verb to indicate an action to all of the targets, e.g. 我食晒啲蘋果。 I ate all the apples.
- 埋 – "maai4" is placed after a verb to indicate an expansion of the target of action, or that the action is an addition to the one(s) previously mentioned, e.g. 我食埋啲嘢就去。 I'll go after I finish eating the rest. ("eating the rest" is an expansion of the target of action from the food eaten to the food not yet eaten); 你可以去先，我食埋嘢先去。 You can go first. I'll eat before going. (The action "eating" is an addition to the action "going" which is previously mentioned or mutually known.)
- 哇/嘩 – "waa1 / waa3" interjection of amazement, e.g. 嘩！好犀利呀！ Wow! That's amazing!
- 㗎啦 – "gaa3 laa1" is used when the context seems to be commonplace, e.g., 個個都係咁㗎啦。 Everyone is like that.
- 啫嘛 – "ze1 maa3" translates as "just", e.g. 我做剩兩頁功課啫嘛。 I just have two pages of homework left to do.
Some Cantonese loanwords are written in existing Chinese characters.
|Written form of Cantonese||Jyutping||Cantonese pronunciation||English word||English Pronunciation||Written form of Mandarin|
|巴士||baa1 si2||/paː˥ɕiː˧˥/||bus||/bʌs/||公車 (Taiwan)|
公共汽車、公交车 (Mainland China)
|的士||dik1 si2||/tɪk˥ɕiː˧˥/||taxi||/ˈtæksi/||計程車 (Taiwan)|
出租車 (Mainland China)
|朱古力||zyu1 gu1 lik1||/tɕyː˥kuː˥lɪk˥/||chocolate||/ˈtʃɒklɪt/||巧克力|
|三文治||saam1 man4 zi6||/saːm˥mɐn˨˩tɕiː˨/||sandwich||/ˈsænwɪdʒ/||三明治|
|士巴拿||si6 baa1 naa2||/ɕìːpáːnǎː/||spanner (wrench)||/ˈspæn.ə(ɹ)/||扳手|
|士多啤梨||si6 do1 be1 lei2||/ɕiː˨tɔː˥pɛː˥lei˧˥/||strawberry||/ˈstrɔːbəri/||草莓|
非典 (Mainland China)
|拜拜||baai1 baai3||/paːi˥paːi˧/||bye bye||/ˈbaɪbaɪ/||再見|
|菲屎||fei1 si2||/fei˥ɕiː˧˥/||face (reputation)||/feɪs/||面子|
|三文魚||saam1 man4 jyu4||/saːm˥mɐn˨˩jyː˨˩/||salmon||/ˈsæmən/||鮭魚|
|啤牌||pe1 paai2||/pʰɛ́ː pʰǎːi/||poker||/ˈpəʊkə/||樸克|
|(蛋)撻||(daan6) taat1||(/tàːn/) /tʰáːt̚/||(egg) tart||/tɑːt/||(蛋)塔|
|刁時||diu1 si2||[tíːu.sǐː]||deuce||(before the final game of tennis) 平分|
|士碌架||si3 luk1 gaa2||[sīːlók̚.kǎː]||snooker||彩色檯球|
|士撻(打)||si3 taat1 (daa2)||[sīː.tʰáːt̚ tǎː]||starter||啟輝器|
|士啤呔||si3 be1 taai1||[sīː.pɛ́ː tʰáːi]||spare tire||備用輪胎|
Often used to describe people with waist and abdomen fat
|士多房||si3 do1 fong4||[sīː.tɔ́ː fɔ̏ːŋ]||storeroom||貯藏室|
|山埃||saan1 aai1||[sáːn ʔáːi]||cyanide||氰化物|
|叉(電)||caa1 (din3)||[tsʰáː.tīːn]||(to) charge||充電|
|六式碼||luk3 sik1 maa2||[lōk̚.sék̚ mǎː]||Six Sigma||六西格瑪|
|天拿水||tin1 naa4 seoi2||[tʰíːnnȁː sɵ̌y]||(paint) thinner||稀釋劑，溶劑|
|比高||bei2 gou1||[pěikóu]||bagel||過水麵包圈 (Mainland China)
|比堅尼||bei2 gin1 nei4||[pěikíːnnȅi]||bikini||比基尼泳裝|
|巴士德消毒||baa1 si1 dak1 siu1 duk6||/páː.sí tɐ́k̚.siːú.tʊ̀k̚/||pasteurized||用巴氏法消毒過的|
|巴黎帽||baa1 lai4 mou2||[páːlɐ̏imǒu]||beret||貝雷帽|
|巴仙||baa1 sin1 / pat6 sen1||[páːsíːn] / /pʰɐ̀t̚.sɛ́ːn/||percent||百分之
|古龍水||gu2 lung4 seoi2||[kǔː.lȍŋ sɵ̌y]||cologne||科隆香水 (Mainland China)|
|卡式機||kaa1 sik1 gei1||[kʰáː.sék̚ kéi]||cassette||盒式錄音機|
|卡士||kaa1 si2||[kʰáː.sǐː]||1. cast
|甲巴甸||gaap3 baa1 din1||[kāːp̚.páː.tíːn]||gabardine||華達呢|
|他菲亞酒||taa1 fei1 aa3 zau2||[tʰáː.féi ʔāː.tsɐ̌u]||tafia||塔非亞酒|
|冬甩||dung1 lat1||[tóŋ.lɐ́t̚]||doughnut||炸麵餅圈 (Mainland China)|
Cantonese character formation
Cantonese characters, as with regular Chinese characters, are formed in one of several ways:
Some characters already exist in standard Chinese, but are simply reborrowed into Cantonese with new meanings. Most of these tend to be archaic or rarely used characters. An example is the character 子, which means "child". The Cantonese word for child is represented by 仔(jai), which has the original meaning of "young animal".
The majority of characters used in Standard Chinese are phono-semantic compounds - characters formed by placing two radicals, one hinting as its meaning and one hinting its pronunciation. Written Cantonese continues this practice via putting the 'mouth' radical (口) next to a character pronounced similarly that indicates its pronunciation. As an example, the character 吓 uses the mouth radical with a 下, which means 'down', but the meaning has no relation to the meaning of 吓. (An exception is 咩 mē, which is not pronounced like 羊 (yèuhng, sheep) but was chosen to represent the sound sheep make.) The characters which are commonly used in Cantonese writing include:
|Character||Jyutping||Notes||Standard Chinese equivalent|
|呃||aak1||v. cheat, hoax||騙|
|噉||gam2||function word like this, e.g., 噉就死喇||這樣|
|咁||gam3||function word like this, e.g., 咁大件||這麼|
|咗||zo2||function word indicates past tense||了|
|咩||me1||function word, also a contraction of 乜嘢||嗎|
|嗮||saai3||function word indicates completion, e.g., 搬嗮 moved all, finished moving||掉, 完|
|哋||dei6||function word, indicates plural form of a pronoun||們|
|呢||ni1 / nei1||adv. this, these||這|
|唔||m4||adv. not, no, cannot; originally a function word||不|
|啱||ngaam1 / aam1||adv. just, nearly||剛|
|adv. correct, suitable||對|
|啲||di1||genitive, similar to 's but pluralizing i.e., 呢個 this → 呢啲 these, 快點 = 快啲 = "hurry!"||的, 些, 點|
|喐||juk1||v. to move||動|
|喺||hai2||prep. at, in, during (time), at, in (place)||在|
|嗰||go2||adv. that, those||那|
|嘅||ge3||genitive, similar to 's; sometimes function word||之, 的|
|嘜||mak1||n. mark, trademark; transliteration of "mark"|
|嘢||je5||n. thing, stuff||東西, 事物|
|嘥||saai1||v. to waste||浪費|
|嚟||lei4 / lai4||v. to come; sometimes function word||來|
|嚿||gau6||function word a piece of|
|囉||lo1 / lo3||function word|
|唞||tau2||v. to rest|
|喊||haam3||v. to cry||哭|
|咪||mai5 / mai6||v. not be, contraction of 唔係 m̀h haih, used following 係 in yes-no questions; also other uses||否, 非|
|吖||aa1||final particle expressing consent and denial, liveliness and irritation, etc.||呀|
There is evidence that the mouth radical in such characters can, over time, be replaced by a different one. For instance, 冧 (lām, "bud"), written with the determinative 冖 ("cover"), is instead written in older dictionaries as 啉, with the mouth radical.
Other common characters are unique to Cantonese or are different from their Mandarin usage, including: 乜, 冇, 仔, 佢, 佬, 俾, 靚 etc. The characters which are commonly used in Cantonese writing include:
- 冇 mou5 (v. not have). Originally 無. Standard written Mandarin: 沒有
- 係 hai6 (v. be). Standard written Mandarin: 是
- 佢 keoi5 (pron. he/she/it). Originally 渠. Standard written Mandarin: 他, 她, 它, 牠, 祂
- 乜 mat1 (pron. what) often followed by 嘢 to form 乜嘢. Originally 物也. Standard written Mandarin: 什麼
- 仔 zai2 (n. son, child, small thing). Originally 子.
- 佬 lou2 (n. guy, dude). Originally 獠.
- 畀/俾 bei2 (v. give). Standard written Mandarin: 給
- 靚 leng3 (adj. pretty, handsome). Standard written Mandarin: 漂亮
- 晒/嗮/曬 saai3 (adv. completely; v. bask in sun)
- 瞓 fan3 (v. sleep). Originally 困. Standard written Mandarin: 睏, 睡
- 攞 lo2 (v. take, get). Standard written Mandarin: 拿
- 拎 ling1 (v. take, get). Standard written Mandarin: 拿
- 脷 lei6 (n. tongue). Standard written Mandarin: 舌
- 癐/攰 gui6 (adj. tired). Standard written Mandarin: 累
- 埞 deng6 (n. place) often followed by 方 to form 埞方. Standard written Mandarin: 地方
The words represented by these characters are sometimes cognates with pre-existing Chinese words. However, their colloquial Cantonese pronunciations have diverged from formal Cantonese pronunciations. For example, 無 ("without") is normally pronounced mou4 in literature. In spoken Cantonese, 冇 mou5 has the same usage, meaning, and pronunciation as 無, except for tone. 冇 represents the spoken Cantonese form of the word "without", while 無 represents the word used in Classical Chinese and Mandarin. However, 無 is still used in some instances in spoken Cantonese, such as 無論如何 ("no matter what happens"). Another example is the doublet 來/嚟, which means "come". 來 loi4 is used in literature; 嚟 lei4 is the spoken Cantonese form.
Though most Cantonese words can be found in the current encoding system, input workarounds are commonly used both by those unfamiliar with them, and by those whose input methods do not allow for easy input (similar to how some Russian speakers might write in the Latin script if their computing device lacks the ability to input Cyrillic). Some Cantonese writers use simple romanization (e.g., use D as 啲), symbols (add a Latin letter "o" in front of another Chinese character; e.g., 㗎 is defined in Unicode but will not display if not installed on the device in use, hence the proxy o架 is often used), homophones (e.g., use 果 as 嗰), and Chinese characters which have different meanings in Mandarin (e.g., 乜, 係, 俾; etc.) For example,
|Gloss||you||being||there||good||(final particle),||thousand||pray||don't||mess with||he/she||(genitive particle)||things/stuff.|
|Translation||You'd better stay there, and under no circumstances mess with his/her stuff.|
- Snow, Donald B. Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong University Press, 2004. ISBN 962209709X, 9789622097094.
- Mair, Victor. "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language".
- e.g., (Snow, 2004)
- Snow, Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular, p. 49.
- A list compiled by lbsun
- Wikipedia:粵語本字表 - 維基百科，自由嘅百科全書
- Zhifu Yu. 粵講粵過癮[細路]. Foshan TV. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
- Cheung, Kwan-hin 張系顯; Bauer, Robert S. (2002). The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters. Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series. 18. Chinese University Press. JSTOR 23826027. OCLC 695438049.
- Li, David C.S. (2000). "Phonetic Borrowing: Key to the vitality of written Cantonese in Hong Kong". Written Language & Literacy. 3 (2): 199–233. doi:10.1075/wll.3.2.02li.
- Snow, Donald (1991). Written Cantonese and the culture of Hong Kong: the growth of a dialect literature (PhD thesis). Indiana University. OCLC 1070381666.
- ——— (1993). "A short history of published Cantonese: what is dialect literature?". Journal of Asian Pacific Communication. 4 (3): 127–148. ISSN 0957-6851. OCLC 43573899.
- ——— (2004). Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-962-209-709-4.
|Cantonese edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia|
- Chinese and English phrase book : with the Chinese pronunciation indicated in English by Benoni Lanctot(published in 1867)
- Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect: Chinese words and phrases by Robert Morrison (missionary), published in 1828
- S. L. Wong's A Chinese Syllabary Pronounced according to the Dialect of Canton, by the CUHK
- A Chinese Talking Syllabary of the Cantonese Dialect: An Electronic Repository, by the CUHK
- Modern Standard Mandarin and Cantonese conversion, by the CUHK
- Learn Cantonese! Cantonese learning, including Cantonese characters