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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Cantonese accent again

I have, uncharacteristically, written two posts about Chinese phonology, especially Cantonese accents and how modern speakers of Cantonese have a tendency to drop certain word-initial consonants e.g. /ng/. I was just having a chat with a mate on whatsapp and a comment of his inspired me to look further. We were having a friendly argument about the utility of linguistics (this is a big debate and another blog on this in due course) and when he was finally persuaded by my arguments, he wrote this:

Gum 你又arm

I appreciate that this is total gibberish to non-Cantonese speakers, so let me explain. It is common practice in China to use western alphabet to represent Chinese characters, since it is much easier and more convenient to type western letters than Chinese characters, which are a pain to type on electronic devices (especially on computers). There is hence a wealth of online data for western phoneticization of Chinese, and while Mandarin speakers use pinyin, the standard phonetic form of Mandarin Chinese learnt by all literates in mainland China, local vernaculars use many idiosyncratic alphabetic forms to represent the local dialect. What my mate intended to say was this:

咁     你     又    啱

Gam nei  yau  ngaam

Thus you also correct

‘If so, you are also right i.e. I guess you have a point.’

In this short little phrase, we already encounter the usual suspects in Cantonese sloppy speech, namely word-initial /n/ > /l/, which I have restored in my transcription here for ‘linguistic correctness’- I am sure my mate meant to say /lei/ just to annoy me (!), and the disappearance of word initial /ng/, as seen in my mate’s use of ‘arm’ in his phonetic spelling for 啱. I have explained the various uses of 啱 before, which is a bitch of a word with multiple (unrelated) meanings. Looks like the phonology of 啱 is also tricky, since, as mentioned last time, it is not always straightforward to decide whether to restore word-initial /ng/ in modern Cantonese or not, unless one knows how to apply the comparative method on Chinese dialects and reconstruct earlier stages of Chinese. In this particular example, however, this is possible, since the Mandarin etymological cognate for Cantonese 啱 is 岩 yan, which has a word-initial consonant /y/. We should, therefore, reconstruct a word-initial consonant for Cantonese 啱 (ng)aam, which indicates another interesting phonemic correspondence between Mandarin and Cantonese, namely Mandarin /y/ vs Cantonese /ng/. Last time I mentioned that Cantonese /ng/ corresponded to Mandarin /w/ by applying the same comparative method. Now it seems that there is a many-to-many relation between Cantonese and Mandarin phonemes and that one particular phoneme in one dialect may correspond structurally to more than phoneme in another dialect and vice versa. This makes the phonemic distribution of Chinese dialects EXTREMELY complex and difficult to reconstruct. Never knew that chatting informally with mates on social media/platforms could be so inspiring and educational, not in terms of the content of our conversation, which is mostly useless chatter (!), but in terms of linguistic information, as low registers are often more valuable for linguists than formal standardised literature. Looks like this is reason for reading trash every now and then (or perhaps all the time, especially if you are a linguist…!). See you all next time.

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