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Keith Tse


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Meaning of numbers (3)- dialectal homophonies

In previous posts, I have outlined some basic principles of our Chinese numerical superstitions. Some of them are pan-Chinese, like the homophonies between the number eight 8 (八) and prosperity (發) and between the number four 4 (四) and death (死). Others, however, are particular to certain dialects (e.g. Cantonese) but have somehow entered our folklore e.g. the homophony between the number ten 10 (十) and the adverb 實 ‘definitely, certainly’, which is derived from Old Classical Chinese and is no longer found in mainstream Mandarin but only in certain dialects like Cantonese. Mandarin and Cantonese (and all Chinese dialects) differ phonologically (please browse my homepage for some of my blogs on Chinese dialectal differences/correspondences). It is hence not surprising that there should be homophonies in certain dialects but not in others. In this blog, I would like to point out more cases of homophony which only work in Cantonese but not in other dialects, namely the numbers one 1 (一), 2 two (二) and 100 hundred (百). In Cantonese, number one 1 (一) is pronounced ‘yat’, which sounds similar to the word 得 ‘dak’ meaning ‘fine, OK’ (=Mandarin 行). The number eleven 11 (十一), for instance, is pronounced ‘sap yat’, which sounds similar to 實得 ‘sat dak’ meaning ‘definitely fine’. The number two 2 (二), on the other hand, is pronounced ‘yi’, which is homophonous with the adjective/adverb 易 ‘yi’ meaning ‘easy/easily’. The number twenty-one 21 (二十一), therefore, is pronounced ‘yi sap yat’, which sounds similar to 易實得 meaning ‘easily definitely fine’. Finally, the number hundred 100 (百) is pronounced ‘baak’, which sounds similar not only to the number eight 8 (八) ‘baat’ but also to the noun ‘prosperity’ (發) ‘faat’. A very prosperous number, therefore, would be 888 (八百八十八) ‘baat baak baat sap baat’, which sounds similar to ‘faat faat faat sat faat’ meaning ‘prosper prosper prosper definitely prosper’. A monstrously prosperous number, which is not bad when one is feeling down. All these homophonies only work in Cantonese and related dialects, since in Mandarin 得 does not have the same meaning as in Cantonese and the numbers two 2 (二) ‘er’ and hundred (百) ‘bai’ do not resemble any words of religious superstition. Fascinating.

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