top of page

My Blog (WordPress)

Follow me on Tumblr        or WordPress        or find my related stories on Medium 

  • Tumblr Social Icon

Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese phonology compared- comparative method and dialectal correspondences

Last time I wrote about some very common traits of Cantonese phonology in contemporary Hong Kong, namely the loss of word-initial /ng/ and the change of word-initial /n/ > /l/, as illustrated in the eternally useful phrase ‘I love you’:

我      愛     你

Ngoh oi     nei  (> oh oi lei)

I         love you

‘I love you.’

Those of you who are keen-eyed may have noticed that while the initial /ng/ is lost in the pronoun ‘I’ 我 (ngoh > oh), the word for ‘love’ 愛 remains the same (oi). Some may legitimately ask why 愛 ‘love’ was not ‘ngoi’ (> oi) in the first place, and the reason for this may be found in dialectal comparisons with Mandarin, which shows the distribution of word-initial consonants very clearly:

我   爱    你

Wo ai     ni

I      love you

‘I love you.’

As seen in this Mandarin example, the pronoun ‘I’ 我 has an initial consonant (wo) whereas the verb ‘love’ 爱 does not (ai), which, following the Comparative Method, signals a phonemic correspondence between Cantonese /ng/ and Mandarin /w/, at least in word-initial position (e.g. pronoun ‘I’ 我 : Mandarin /wo/ ~ Cantonese /ngoh/). The word for ‘love’ 愛, on the other hand, does not have a word-initial consonant in Mandarin (ai), which suggests that there never was a word-initial consonant in the word for ‘love’ 愛 in the first place. The correct Cantonese pronunciation for 愛 ‘love’, therefore, should be /oi/ and not */ngoi/. Incidentally, Cantonese /ngoi/ 外 ‘outside’ corresponds to Mandarin 外 /wai/, in which there is a word-initial consonant which further attests to the phonemic correspondence between Cantonese /ng/ and Mandarin /w/, even though 外 is nowadays commonly simplified as /oi/, the sloppiness of which really annoys me. A phonemic comparison between Chinese dialects does reveal some striking simiarities.

A caveat, however, since the linguistic reality of Chinese dialects is not always as neat as theoretical abstractions make them out to be (which is a universal rule in scientific hypothesis-making, since empirical data is ALWAYS more complex and unpredictable than theoretical models postulated by man, which is why the latter are always open to falsification). There are two contexts in which Cantonese 愛 ‘love’ may be pronounced with word-initial /ng/: 1) hypercorrection as an indication of formality, since we Cantonese speakers are acutely aware of our sloppy tendency to lose word-initial /ng/ and so we often insert it, correctly or not, to all initial-consonant-less words just to sound more formal and posh (I certainly do this a lot, especially in formal settings where I need to assert my social/professional identity, word-initial /ng/ comes in very useful; we may be surprised by how sensitive we are to these small sociolinguistic cues and gestures- pronouncing an extra phoneme could save you your life…!) 2) lexical differentiation, which, in the case of 愛, has given rise to two lexical items in modern Cantonese, namely 愛 /oi/ ‘love’ and 愛 /ngoi/ ‘want/yearn intensely’, the former is the standard, default usage, whereas the latter is common in Cantonese nursery speech for children to express their desires e.g.

你   愛      唔     愛     呢   件  玩具 呀?

you love NEG love this CL toy  INTERROGATIVE.PARTICLE

‘Do you want this toy?’

我 (唔)  愛

I    NEG love

‘I (don’t) want it.’

In this usage, 愛 is commonly pronounced with initial /ng/ as /ngoi/, which may be an onomatopoeic/affecctive usage of the original meaning of the word ‘love’. Pretty cool.

3 views0 comments


bottom of page