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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Cantonese 啱

I have had a tiring day! Wednesday evening is the time when I teach Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), and so today has been a typically tiring day for me. I do enjoy teaching though, since I love communicating with my students about my subject. Today has been another very enjoyable experience, and I look forward to our next lesson next Wednesday.

Today, however, there was a small hiccup. I introduced to my students the Cantonese word 啱 (ngaam), which is a nightmare to explain, since it is so polysemous. To be fair, I took some shortcuts, since I only taught them one particular use of the word, namely its use as an adjective meaning ‘coincidental’ e.g.

咁     啱

gam ngaam

so     coincidental

‘What a coincidence!’

As such, Cantonese 啱 is directly equivalent to Mandarin 巧:

這麼     巧

zheme qiao

so         coincidental

‘What a coincidence!’

This is a simple case of dialectal lexical correspondences. I have mentioned many times before that there are words in Chinese dialects that are functionally and semantically equivalent to other words in other dialects, be they etymologically related or not (another dialectal correspondence here is Cantonese 咁 ‘so’ ~ Mandarin 這麼; another blog on this in the future). However, what is fascinating about Cantonese 啱 is that it does not just mean ‘coincidental’. It has a load of other meanings and uses as well. As an adjective, it can also mean ‘correct’ in the sense of an affirmative response (cf English ‘yes’), and as such it is equivalent to Mandarin 對. It can also mean ‘correct’ in the sense of ‘being (morally/intellectually) correct’ e.g.

你    唔   啱,      我       啱

nei  ng  ngaam  ngoh ngaam

you not correct I         correct

‘You are wrong/mistaken, I am right.’

In this sense, it is equivalent to Mandarin 對 as well:

你    不   對,      我   對

ni    bu  dui        wo dui

you not correct I     correct

‘You are wrong/mistaken, I am right.’

Finally, Cantonese 啱 can also be used as an adverb where it is reduplicated e.g.

我      啱啱                   先至          嚟

ngoh ngaamngaam sin-ji         lai

I           only.then come

‘I have only just come.’

As such, Cantonese 啱啱 is exactly equivalent to Mandarin 剛剛 ‘just now’:

我   剛剛           才              來

wo ganggang cai             lai

I   only.then come

‘I have only just come.’

Cantonese 啱 is therefore a monster of a word with so many diverse meanings. I am so glad that I took a shortcut in today’s lesson, since it would have been a heck of task trying to explain all this in one-go. I am also glad that I have now written this blog in one-go, so that I can refer my students to it in the future without having to take shortcuts. Such joy in writing blogs.

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