Hong Kong Cantonese
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Hong Kong Cantonese

Hong Kong Cantonese
?; ;
Native toHong Kong, Macau and some Overseas Communities
RegionPearl River Delta
EthnicityHong Kong people
Macau people
Written Cantonese
Cantonese Braille
Official status
Official language in
 Hong Kong
Regulated byOfficial Language Division[1]
Civil Service Bureau
Government of Hong Kong
Language codes
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese?
Simplified Chinese?
Hong Kong-style Cantonese
Traditional Chinese?
Hong Kong-Guangdong dialect
Traditional Chinese
Hong Kong-Guangzhou dialect
Traditional Chinese

Hong Kong Cantonese (Chinese: ?) is a dialect of the Cantonese language commonly spoken in Hong Kong, as well as Macau and a few of neighbouring areas in Canton. Although the Hong Kong people largely identify this variant of Chinese with the term "Cantonese" (), a variety of publications in Mainland China describe the variant as Hong Kong speech ().

There are slight differences between the pronunciation used in Hong Kong Cantonese and that of the Cantonese spoken in the neighbouring Guangdong Province, where Cantonese (based on the Guangzhou dialect) is a main lingua franca.

Over the years, Hong Kong Cantonese has also absorbed foreign terminology and developed a large set of Hong Kong-specific terms. These differences from the Guangzhou dialect are the result of British rule between 1841 and 1997, as well as the closure of the Hong Kong-China border immediately after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.


Before the arrival of British settlers in 1842, the inhabitants of Hong Kong mainly spoke the Dongguan-Bao'an (Tungkun-Po'on) and Tanka dialects of Yue,[] as well as Hakka and Teochew. These languages and dialects are all remarkably different from Guangzhou Cantonese.

After the British acquired Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories from the Qing between 1841 (officially 1842) and 1898, large numbers[quantify] of merchants and workers came to Hong Kong from the city of Canton, the main center of Cantonese. Cantonese became the dominant spoken language in Hong Kong. The frequent migration between Hong Kong and mainland Cantonese-speaking areas did not cease up until 1949, when the Communists took over Mainland China. During this period, the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong was very similar to that in Canton.

In 1949, the year that the People's Republic of China was established, Hong Kong saw a large influx of refugees from different areas of mainland China. The Hong Kong Government closed the border[] to halt the massive influx, but illegal immigration from Mainland China into Hong Kong continued. Because of this, the correspondence between language and ethnicity may generally be true though not absolute, as many Chinese who speak Hong Kong Cantonese may come from other areas of China, especially Shanghai or non-Cantonese regions of Guangdong where Hakka and Teochew prevail.

Movement, communication and relations between Hong Kong and mainland China became very limited, and consequently the evolution of Cantonese in Hong Kong diverged from that of Guangzhou. In Mainland China, the use of Mandarin as the language of official use and education was enforced. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the medium of instruction in schools, along with written English and written Chinese.

And because of the long exposure to English during the colonial period, large number of English words were loaned into Hong Kong Cantonese, e.g. "" (/pá:s?:/), literally, "bus". Hong Kong people even started to calque English constructions, for example, "? (?) make sense" (literally, "it still does not make sense."). Therefore, the vocabularies of Cantonese in Mainland China and Hong Kong substantially differed.

Moreover, the pronunciation of Cantonese changed while the change either did not occur in mainland China or took place much slower. For example, merging of initial /n/ into /l/ and the deletion of /?/ were observed. Due to the limited communication between Hong Kong and mainland China, these changes only had a limited effect in mainland China at that time. As a result, the pronunciation of Cantonese between Hong Kong and mainland China varied, and so native speakers may note the difference when listening to Hong Kong Cantonese and mainland China Cantonese.

Hong Kong-based Cantonese can be found in Hong Kong popular culture such as Hong Kong films and Hong Kong pop music (Cantopop). Hong Kong people who have emigrated to other countries have brought Hong Kong Cantonese to other parts of the world.


In modern-day Hong Kong, many native speakers are unable to distinguish between certain phoneme pairs, causing them to merge one sound into another. Although this is often considered substandard and is frequently denounced as "lazy sound" (), the phenomenon is becoming more widespread and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions. Contrary to popular opinion, some of these changes are not recent. The loss of the velar nasal (/?/) was documented by Williams (1856), and the substitution of the liquid nasal (/l/) for the nasal initial (/n/) was documented by Cowles (1914).

List of observed shifts:[2]

  • Merging of /n/ initial into /l/ initial.
  • Merging of /?/ initial into null initial.
  • Merging of /k?/ and /k/ initials into /k/ and /k?/ when followed by /?:/. Note that /?/ is the only glide () in Cantonese.
  • Merging of /?/ and /k/ codas into /n/ and /t/ codas respectively, eliminating contrast between these pairs of finals (except after /e/ and /o/): /a:n/-/a:?/, /a:t/-/a:k/, /?n/-//, /?t/-/?k/, /?:n/-/?:?/ and /?:t/-/?:k/.
  • Merging of the two syllabic nasals, // into /m?/, eliminating the contrast of sounds between ? (surname Ng) and ? (not).
  • Merging of the rising tones ( 2nd and 5th).[3]

Today in Hong Kong, people still make an effort to avoid these sound merges in serious broadcasts and in education. Older people often do not exhibit these shifts in their speech, but some do. With the sound changes, the name of Hong Kong's Hang Seng Bank (), /hoe?:? k:? h s n h:?/, becomes /hoe?:n k:n hn sn n h:n/, sounding like Hon' Kon' itchy body ( /hn sn/) 'un cold (UN? /n h:n/) . The name of Cantonese itself (, "Guangdong speech") would be /k:? t w?:/ without the merger, whereas /k:? t w?:/ (sounding like "": "speak eastern speech") and /k:n t w?:/ (sounding like "" : "chase away eastern speech") are overwhelmingly popular.[4]

The shift affects the way some Hong Kong people speak other languages as well. This is especially evident in the pronunciation of certain English names: "Nicole" pronounce [lek'kou?], "Nancy" pronounce ['l?nsi] etc. A very common example of the mixing of (/n/) and (/l/) is that of the word ?, meaning "you". Even though the standard pronunciation should be (/nei/), the word is often pronounced (/lei/), which is the surname ?, or the word ?, meaning theory. The merger of (/n/) and (/l/) also affects the choice of characters when the Cantonese media transliterates foreign names.[]

Prescriptivists who try to correct these "lazy sounds" often end up introducing hypercorrections. For instance, while attempting to ensure that people pronounce the initial /?/, they may introduce it into words which have historically had a null-initial. One common example is that of the word ?, meaning "love". Even though the standard pronunciation would be /:i/, but the word is often pronounced /:i/.

Unique phrases and expressions

Due to Hong Kong's unique historical background, Hong Kong Cantonese has evolved differently from the Mandarin spoken in China, Taiwan and Singapore over the years. Hong Kong Cantonese has developed a number of phrases and expressions that are unique to the context of Hong Kong. These phrases and expressions usually make references to specific things that can only be found in Hong Kong or specific incidents that happened in Hong Kong. Here are a few examples:

Chinese characters Jyutping literal meaning actual meaning
? sik6 wong4 gaa1 faan6 eat Royal meal being incarcerated
waa6 zi1 nei5 gau2 cat1 Who cares about your 1997? Who cares?

Here, the former refers to Hong Kong's status as a British colony, where prisoners are detained on behalf of the Sovereign, and is similar to the English colloquial expression "guest of Her Majesty" / "live at Her Majesty's pleasure". The latter refers to the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The situations alluded to are both unique to Hong Kong.


Life in Hong Kong is characterised by the blending of Asian (southern Chinese in particular) and Western cultures, as well as the city's position as a major international business centre. In turn, Hong Kong influences have also spread widely into other cultures. As a result, a large number of loanwords are created in Hong Kong and then exported to Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan. Some of the loanwords have become even more popular than their Chinese counterparts, in Hong Kong as well as in their destination cultures.

Imported loanwords

Selected loanwords[5] are shown below.

From English

Chinese Characters Jyutping English
& Other Definitions
Mainland Chinese
hang1 lei5 honey
daa2 ling6 darling
/ de1 di4 daddy (father)
/ maa1 mi4 mammy (mother)
baa1 daa2 brother
si1 daa2 sister
Baby/BB bi4 bi1 baby


kiu1 Cute
Queue (line-up)

?Mart si4 maat1 smart
Part? paat1 si2 (auto/computer/machinery) parts
Fan? fen1 si2 fan (fanatic)
fan (machine)
?Port sap6 pot1 support
(?)Port() pot1 report
?(?) kuk1 crooked (bent)
bend your knees
winding road ahead
kuk1 kei4 cookie
daa2 kat1 punch card
?Pro hou2 pou3 (very) professional
He's a professional



Pro? pou3 faai1 Provide (services)
Ser? serve (servant)
(?) so1 fu4 relaxing (chilling)
("soft" is the antonym of "firm")
OH! ou1 OH! (surprised reaction) ?! ?!
OK ou1 kei1 OK OK OK
OT ou1 ti1 overtime
aa3 kaan1 account
?(eg ) wui5 would (e.g. He would know) ? ?
aau3 giu6 argue
arguments (fights)
?/ fai1 fight
fight for
/ /
? bo1 ball ? ?
Dump() dam2 dump (garbage) (In the dump/dumpster)
database dump
pile dump
dumped by boy-/girl-friend
() ()
? bam1 pump ? ?
(?)// gam1 si4 clumsy /? /?
wai1 si2 gei6 whisky
syut3 lei6 sherry
sai1 daa2 cider
be1 zau2 beer
(?)? baa1 bar
()boy busser (busboy)
(?)(?) baa1 leoi4 ballet (?)(?) (?)(?)
baa1 bai3 bapre (ya whatever, stop showing-off!)
si6 gaa1 fu4 scarf
si6 baa1 naa4 spanner (wrench)
baa1 si2 bus / /?
dik1 si2 taxi

("" = rental car)

si2 dik1 stick
() go1 si2 dik1 caustic soda ? ?
so1 daa2 soda
do1 si2 toast
() si6 do1 store
? si6 do1 be1 lei2 strawberry
be1 lei2 pear
bou3 lam1 plum
ce1 lei4 zi2 cherry
kei4 ji6 gwo2 kiwifruit
mong1 gwo2 mango
bou3 din1 pudding
san1 dei6 sundae
gat1 si2 guts (courage)
felt like someone just punched you in the gut


(?)Face? fei1 si2 face (dignity)
respect (him)
(?)/ (?)/
Gas? ge1 si2 gas
saa1 si2 Sarsi


root beer:


root beer:

SARS: ()

ci1 sin3 crazy ? ?
gat1 lei6 lucky (you)
good luck
/ /
zi1 si2 cheese
jyu5 lok6 yogurt
mou1 si2 mousse
gei6 lim4 cream
syut3 go1 ice-cream
baan1 gik1 pancake
() dou1 lat1 doughnut
zyu1 gu1 lik1 chocolate
saam1 man4 zi6 sandwich

("" is incorrect)

("" is incorrect)

saam1 man4 jyu2 salmon
saa1 din1 jyu2 sardine
tan1 naa4 jyu2 tuna
song1 naa4 sauna
saa1 leot2 salad
pou6 fei1 buffet
baau3 guk1 popcorn
gok3 lok6 corner
Happy happy
(?)High high (excited)
High tech High tech
Hi Hi
() haa1 lou3 Hallo (Hello)
baai1 baai3 bye
huk6 go1 cougar / /
jyu4 gaa1 yoga
gaa3 lei1 curry
to1 fei2 tong2 toffee
gaa3 fe1 coffee
gaa3 fe1 jan1 caffeine
ho2 kaa1 coca
ho2 kaa1 jan1 cocaine
ho2 ho2 cocoa
? kaat1 card ? ?
kaa1 tung1 cartoon
kaa1 lou6 lei5 calorie
wai4 taa1 ming6 vitamin
git3 taa1 guitar
? pai1 pie
bei2 gin1 nei4 bikini
jin1 so1 insure (insurance)
sou1 faa4 sofa
(?) wai1 faa4 wafer biscuit

wafer (electronics)

wafer biscuit: ?

wafer (electronics):

wafer biscuit: ?

wafer (electronics):

faat3 tang4 frightened (?) (?)
?gweh se4 gwe1 scared (of)
syu4 mat1 schmuck
fei4 lou2 fail (failure)
gu1 lei1 coolie
bui1 got3 boycott
taap3 lo4 tarot
pe1 paai2 poker
? mai1 microphone
mo1 daa2 motor
? lip1 lift (elevator)
?(?) zaa1 ce1 to drive ?(?) ?(?)
paak3 ce1 to park
(?)? taai1 tire (tyre)
si6 be1 spare
bou1 taai1 bow tie
? taai1 tie
bang1 daai2 bandage
ban6 zyu1 tiu3 bungee jumping
jau4 teng5 yachting (yacht)
bou2 ling4 bowling
bing1 bam1 ping-pong
? gou1 ji5 fu1 golf ? ?
quali ko1 li2 qualification (qualify; have a say)

fu1 laa1 hyun1 hula hoop
(?)?(?) dip6 dish
baak3 gaa1 lei6 broccoli
baak3 gaa1 ngok6 Baccarat (card game)
keoi1 lok6 bou6 club
mou4 dak6 yi4 model
mo1 dang1 modern
()? sou1 performance show ()?
nei4 lung4 nylon
syut3 gaa1 cigar
saan1 aai1 cyanide
aa1 pin3 opium
fei1 lam2 photographic film
saa3 lam1 salute
?Sir aa3 soe4 sir

(Male policeman)
(Male teacher)


teacher: /


teacher: /

Sure sure (confirm) / /
lou5 lap1 rob
we have a robber on our hands
T-? T- seot1 T-shirt T-? T-?
(?)Cash? ke1 syu4 (pay by) cash (?) (?)
alright o1 waai1 alright ? ?
Cheap cip1 cheap
hon3 bou2 baau1 hamburger (burger)
(calque) jit6 gau2 hotdog
(calque) aa3 tau2 the head of
heading to (somewhere)

From French

Chinese Characters Jyutping French English Mainland Chinese
so1 fu4 lei4 soufflé soufflé
gu2 lung4 cologne perfume
?(?) laang1 laine yarn

From Japanese

Chinese Characters Jyutping Japanese Japanese R?maji English Mainland Chinese
OK kaa1 laa1 ou1 kei1 ? karaoke karaoke OK OK
lou5 sai3 setainushi chief (CEO)
the Head (of a company)
gaan1 baa1 de1 ? ganbatte Keep up! (studying)
Come on! (cheering)
fong3 tai4 ? tabe h?dai buffet
long6 maan6 / r?man romantic

Exported loanwords

Into English

English Chinese Characters Jyutping
add oil gaa1 yau2
bok choy baak6 coi3
char siu caa1 siu1
chop chop (hurry up) chuk1 chuk1
chop suey (?) zaap6 seoi3
chow mein caau2 min6
choy sum coi3 sam1
dim sum dim2 sam1
gai lan gaai3 laan2
har gow haa1 gaau2
hoisin sauce hoi2 sin1 zoeng3
jook ? zuk1
kung fu gung1 fu1
lo mein lou1 min6
longan lung4 ngaan5
lychee lai6 zi1
keemun () kei4 mun4
kowtow kau3 tau4
kumquat / gam1 gwat1
loquat () lou4 gwat1
nunchaku loeng5 zit3 gwan3
oolong wu1 lung2
Pai gow paai4 gau2
pekoe () baak6 hou4
shu mai siu1 maai6
typhoon toi4 fung1
wok ? wok6
wonton wan4 tan1
yum cha jam2 caa4

Into Mainland Chinese Mandarin

Mandarin Cantonese Jyutping English Mandarin synonyms
maai4 daan1 (Can we please have the) bill?
paak3 dong3 partner (in ownership and business)
(in dancing)
daap3 dik1 si2 to ride a taxi ?
, corruption of mou4 lei4 tau4 nonsensical humour (see mo lei tau)
newbie who knows nothing
/ leng3 zai2 handsome boy

(in China only)
paak3 to1 dating
hou2 zeng3 (colloquial) awesome; perfect; just right
/ gaau2 dim6 Is it done yet? (It's) Done!
It has been taken care of!

Into Taiwanese Mandarin

Taiwanese Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin Cantonese Jyutping English
(?) (hóu) s?iléi (?) hou2 sai1 lei6 (very) impressive
Hold?[6] hòu zhù Hold? hou1 jyu6 hold on
hang tight (hang in there)

Into Japanese

Japanese Kana (Kanji) Japanese R?maji Chinese Characters Jyutping English
? () yamucha jam2 caa4 yum cha
() ch?sh? caa1 siu1 char siu
() ch?han caau2 faan6 fried rice

Code-switching and loanword adaptation

Hong Kong Cantonese has a high number of foreign loanwords. Sometimes, the part of speech of the incorporated words are also changed, like "friend", translated into English as "they are very 'friend'", means "they are good friends". The word "friend" is changed from a noun into an adjective. In some examples, some new meanings of English words are even created. For example, "?yeah", literally "the most yeah", means "the trendiest". Originally, "yeah" means "yes/okay" in English, but it means "trendy" when being incorporated into Hong Kong Cantonese (Cf. "yeah baby" and French "yé-yé").

Semantic change is common in loanwords; when foreign words are borrowed into Cantonese, polysyllabic words and monosyllabic words tend to become disyllabic, and the second syllable is in the Upper Rising tone (the second tone). For example, "kon1 si2" (coins), "sek6 kiu1" (security) and "ka1 si2" (cast). A few polysyllabic words become monosyllabic though, like "mon1" (monitor), literally means computer monitor. And some new Cantonese lexical items are created according to the morphology of Cantonese. For example, "laai1 ?" from the word "library". Most of the disyllabic words and some of the monosyllabic words are incorporated as their original pronunciation, with some minor changes according to the Cantonese phonotactics.

Incorporating words from foreign languages into Cantonese is also acceptable by most Cantonese speakers. Hong Kong Cantonese speakers frequently code-mix although they can distinguish foreign words from Cantonese ones. For instance, " make sense", literally means "that doesn't make sense". After a Cantonese speaker decides to code-mix a foreign word in a Cantonese sentence, syntactical rules of Cantonese will be followed. For instance, "sure" () can be used like "? su1 ? su1 aa3?" (are you sure?) as if it were its Cantonese counterpart "", using the A-not-A question construction.

In some circumstances, code-mixing is preferable because it can simplify sentences. An excellent example (though dated) of the convenience and efficiency of such mixing is "? collect call" replacing "?", i.e. 13 syllables reduced to four.[7]

See also


  1. ^ "Official Language Division, Civil Service Bureau, Government of Hong Kong". Government of Hong Kong. 19 September 2008. Retrieved 2012.
  2. ^ To, Carol K. S.; Mcleod, Sharynne; Cheung, Pamela S. P. (2015). "Phonetic variations and sound changes in Hong Kong Cantonese: diachronic review, synchronic study and implications for speech sound assessment". Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics. 29 (5): 333-353. doi:10.3109/02699206.2014.1003329. hdl:10722/214685. PMID 25651195.
  3. ^ Bauer, Robert S.; Cheung, Kwan-hin; Cheung, Pak-man (2003). "Variation and merger of the rising tones in Hong Kong Cantonese". Language Variation and Change. 15 (2): 211-225. doi:10.1017/S0954394503152039. hdl:10397/7632.
  4. ^ Together Learn Cantonese, see middle section.
  5. ^ "A list compiled by lbsun". Archived from the original on 20 August 2006. Retrieved 2006.
  6. ^ "?"Hold?"?"Hold?"?". ? ?. Archived from the original on 23 October 2011. Retrieved 2011.
  7. ^ "Info" (PDF). www.patrickchu.net.

External links

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