I am a third generation Singaporean born to a Cantonese family on my dad’s side and a Teochew family on my mum’s. Growing up, I was surrounded by these languages (I hate calling them ‘dialects’!), but because my paternal grandparents were more insistent on “handing down” the ability to speak Cantonese, I grew up with a pretty good grasp of the language. My mum worked closely with the Hong Kong branch at her old office; so, with some help from my dad, she picked up Cantonese along the way as well. She tells me that taxi drivers would sometimes assume we were from Hong Kong. This piece thus comes, in many ways, from the heart. I hope to give a concise but informative introduction to Cantonese and its presence in Singapore. By the end of this piece, I hope readers will find – or begin to find – Cantonese interesting, cool, and relevant.

1. Introduction

For the sake of concision, I will continue to refer to Cantonese (and other Southern Chinese varieties like Hokkien and Teochew) as ‘dialects’, even though they are really languages in their own right. In fact, some linguistic analyses have shown certain Chinese varieties differ more from each other than between European languages like English, Dutch and German! We can thus see that there is no clear-cut or definite distinction between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’, and our common view of ‘languages’ and ‘dialects’ is a result of the interactions between various complex historical factors. In addition, I will use ‘Chinese’ to refer to Standard Chinese, which is the standardized register of Mandarin (itself a ‘dialect’!) that is taught to people of Chinese-speaking world in school.

A. Varieties of Chinese languages, and Cantonese’s place within them

The linguistic diversity of Chinese (or Sinitic) languages is popularly divided into seven groups:

  1. guan (Mandarin varieties)
  2. wu (includes Shanghainese and the Wuxi dialect)
  3. min (includes Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese)
  4. xiang (spoken in Hunan)
  5. gan (includes the Nanchang dialect)
  6. 客家 kejia (Hakka)
  7. yue (includes Cantonese)

Of these, perhaps the least well-known in Singapore are the 湘 and 赣 dialect families. But we are interested in Cantonese. Cantonese is known by several names: 广东话, 粤语, 白话, 广州话, and (this is what I am used to calling it) 广府话. After Chinese, Cantonese arguably has the most developed and standardized written and spoken form amongst all other dialects. Hong Kong definitely takes the credit for this.

A common (but as yet unproven) story that Cantonese speakers love to tell is that it almost became the official language of China. It is said that when the leaders of the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty (the last dynasty of China) gathered to decide on the new official language of the republic, Cantonese lost out only by a few votes. In a parallel universe, we could all be speaking Cantonese now, calling it ‘Chinese’, and relegating Mandarin to a mere northern dialect! Today, Cantonese, in its more standardized form, is spoken in many parts of Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and various overseas Chinese communities in the US and Europe.

B. Features of Cantonese

Cantonese, along with many other southern dialects, preserves many features of Middle Chinese (the Chinese spoken in the time of the Tang dynasty, and also the language that everyone’s favourite Tang poems were composed in) that have been lost in modern Chinese. It is thus in many ways more ‘archaic’ than Chinese. It has 6 tones, and includes words with -p, -t, and -k endings (入声 ru sheng, or checked tones), and -m endings, all of which are not found in Chinese. It also uses a completely different set of grammatical particles, which are arguably the most important words for the beginning Cantonese learner to grasp. Some of the more common examples include:

Chinese
(Pinyin)
Cantonese
(Jyutping*)
Function
(English Equivalent)

de

ge
Possessive particle
-no equivalent-

shi

hai
Copula
(is/are/was/were)
沒有
mei you

mou
Negation of existence
(do not have)

bu

m
Negative particle
(is/are/was/were not)

*I have modified the Jyutping used in this piece very slightly to help readers guess at what it sounds like more accurately. The main modification would be to convert the ‘j’ and ‘jy’ in Jyutping into ‘y’ to more closely reflect what they sound like.

2. Singaporean Cantonese

When I speak about a ‘Singaporean’ Cantonese, I believe I speak more for my ‘Chan family’ Cantonese. There is no standardized ‘Singaporean’ Cantonese, but I can point out some features I have observed:

Singaporean Cantonese evolved separately from Hong Kong Cantonese. The majority of Cantonese speakers/families in Singapore can trace their ancestry to Cantonese speakers in Malaysia, and ultimately, from Guangzhou. There are two major differences, in my opinion:

1. ‘Lazy’ pronunciation (懒音 lan yin). Hong Kong Cantonese is notorious for its distortions of what some intellectuals and linguists consider the ‘proper’ way to pronounce certain words (notorious enough to spark a 正音正读 – roughly equivalent to ‘Pronounce Words Correctly’ – movement in Hong Kong). For example:

  • ‘ng’ sounds are often omitted. E.g. 我 is pronounced ‘o’ instead of ‘ngo’.
  • n’ sounds are often confused with ‘l’ sounds. E.g. 难 is pronounced ‘laan’ instead of ‘naan’.
  • w’ sounds are often omitted in ‘gw’ or ‘kw’ initials. E.g. 国 is pronounced ‘kok’ instead of ‘kwok’.

With the exception of the third type of ‘lazy’ pronunciation stated above, Singaporean Cantonese tends to lack these “mispronunciations”, and spoken words are closer to their “actual” pronunciations. The ‘n’/ ‘l’ interchangeability still exists, however, to a small extent. One thing that Singaporean Cantonese speakers do not pronounce well, though, is the “oe” diphthong, found in words like 香,两,长 (hoeng, loeng, zoeng respectively). We often pronounce them as heong, leong, zeong instead.

2. Loanwords from other languages. Hong Kong Cantonese incorporates a lot of English vocabulary, due to their history as a British colony, the strong emphasis on English in their education system, and their very Westernised culture. Meanwhile, Singaporean Cantonese incorporates some Malay and Hokkien vernacular. For example:

  •  Instead of 全部 cyun bou, we say soma (a distortion of ‘semua’)
  • Instead of 仲意 zung yi (meaning喜欢), some older speakers will say something like “suka”.
  • Most significantly, our word for ‘want’ is not 要 yiu as in Hong Kong Cantonese, but 愛 oi, likely borrowed from either Hokkien or Teochew’s 愛ai  for ‘want’.

3. Cantonese in Action

A. Hawker Culture

In Singapore, you would most likely hear Cantonese when ordering food from the following types of stalls:

  • Dim sum
  • Wanton noodles
  • Cantonese roast
  • Economical Rice
  • Tze char

The first three are typical Cantonese food stalls (and therefore run by Cantonese people) that you can find in Singapore. The reason you hear Cantonese from the last two types of stalls is because they are often staffed by Malaysian Chinese people. Unlike in Singapore, the “main” dialect in Malaysia (especially in places with a significant Cantonese population like Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh) is not Hokkien, but Cantonese.

B. Singlish

Some Singlish words that we use on a daily basis have their origin in Cantonese:

SinglishMeaningCantonese
(Jyutping)
Kanchiong To be anxious / overly-eager紧张
gan zoeng
Lupsup Dirty, sleazy, or shabby (referring to dressing)垃圾
laap saap
Wok heilit. ‘breath of the wok’, the unique flavour food acquires when stir-fried in a wok镬气
wok hei
Zhor deng To be in the way阻定
zo deng
Lor sor Describes a person who constantly repeats him/herself, usually referring to nagging啰嗦
lo so

C. Singaporean surnames

Did you know that your surname is often how your Chinese surname is pronounced in your dialect? You can often identify someone’s dialect group based on their surname. Some common Cantonese surnames include:

  • Chan 陈 can
  • Wong 黄 wong
  • Leong 梁 loeng
  • Hui 许 heoi
  • Tang 邓 dang
  • Fung 冯 fung
  • Yeong 杨 yoeng
  • Lum 林 lum
  • Ng 吴 ng
  • Ho 何 ho
  • Lee 李 lei

4. Why Learn Cantonese in Singapore

If you are reading this, you perhaps already have your own reasons for learning Cantonese in Singapore. But allow me to offer one more, perhaps more controversial, reason (especially if you are Cantonese): you should learn it because it is your mother tongue. You might say, “hang on. Isn’t my mother tongue Chinese?” I am saying it need not be. The ancestors of Chinese Singaporeans were all from southern China and none of them spoke a single word of Mandarin. Singapore’s linguistic landscape was dominated by only dialects until the Speak Mandarin Campaign of 1979 gradually eroded dialects away. Lee Kuan Yew himself acknowledged that if not for the fact that “no single dialect is the predominant mother tongue in Singapore, […] it would be most difficult to get Mandarin accepted other than as a stepmother tongue”. This points to an awareness of the fact that Mandarin was not our original mother tongue, for Singaporeans first had to accept it. Mandarin is not the language of our forefathers. To be in touch with your dialect is to know your history.

It allows you to communicate with the Cantonese community worldwide, especially in Hong Kong (a global financial centre much like Singapore) and Guangzhou (one out of the four Tier 1 cities in China, alongside Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen).

Learning Cantonese can also improve your Chinese, especially if you learn it through Chinese. Cantonese utilises a lot more Literary/Classical Chinese – Chinese more often seen in formal articles and older literature – in its everyday vocabulary. Hence, learning these words can help improve your Chinese as a whole.

5. Bonus: Cantonese and Chinese Poetry

I would like to illustrate, with a translation and analysis of a poem, my favourite aspect of knowing Cantonese (and southern dialects in general): it makes the reading of classical Chinese poetry a joy – poems rhyme better and sound more beautiful in Cantonese because Cantonese is closer to the original Middle Chinese that these poems were composed in.

Chinese
江雪
(柳宗元)

千山鸟飞绝
万径人踪灭
孤舟蓑笠翁
独钓寒江雪

*****

Pinyin (Hear it here)
Jiang Xue
(Liu Zong Yuan)

qian shan niao fei jue
wan jing ren zong mie
gu zhou suo li weng
du diao han jiang xue

*****

Jyutping (Hear it here)
Gong Syut
(Lau Zung Yun)

cin san niu fei zyut
man ging yan zung mit
gu zau so lap yung
duk diu hon gong syut

*****

English Translation by Hugh Grigg
River Snow

In a thousand mountains, the flight of birds is not seen;
on ten thousand paths, human footprints have vanished.
On a lonely boat, in straw cloak and bamboo hat, an old man,
fishing alone, in the cold river snow.

*****

river snow cantonese mandarin english

This famous Tang dynasty poem has inspired many paintings with its vivid evocation of a scene at a river in the winter. Not only does it sound more beautiful in Cantonese, the presence of 入声 (the above-mentioned ‘checked tones’) at the end of every line, create an auditory effect that more closely matches the meaning of the rhyming words at the ends of lines 1, 2 and 4. 绝, 灭, and 雪 – meaning disappear, extinguish, and snow respectively – are all pronounced with checked tones ending with -t in Cantonese. This creates a sudden stoppage of sound which reflect the finality of disappearing and vanishing, as well as the harshness of the frigid cold and the loneliness of the old man.

Is Cantonese not beautiful?


Contributed by Jason Chan


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