You can’t write Cantonese!

This is something I’ve heard more than once – usually by people who don’t speak Cantonese (or Mandarin for that matter). The short answer is “Of course you can, silly fucking rabbit! What do you think ’em funky-looking sinograms like 嘅, 唔, 冇, 嘑, 哋, 叻, 攰,  are for?” They sure aren’t for bathroom decoration.

A more elaborate answer would include not just odd sinograms used only in the Cantonese language, but also words that don’t make a lick of sense in Mandarin: 而家, 鍾意, 脷, etc…

There is a form of Cantonese called “Written Cantonese” — basically Standard Written Chinese with a hint of Canto flavour, and pronounced in Cantonese when read. Ugly and not really the Cantonese people speak every day and relate to. The announcements (verbal and written) in the MTR are a good example.

But along this stilted language there’s a vernacular written language that mirrors spoken Cantonese. It’s used in ads, SMS texts, IM chats, casual emails and similar non-formal communications.

“Real” Cantonese in ads may have been around forever and a day, but I have noticed an increase lately. Whether this increase is real or perceived, I don’t have enough background to be sure. This ad I took a picture of in the MTR is a prime example. “我捐嘅錢、下一站會去邊?” (The money I donated, where does it go next?) Run this through Google Translate for a good laugh… The use of 嘅 and 邊 (short for 邊度) makes this sentence a vernacular Cantonese sentence. Written indeed, and plastered all over HK.


3 responses to “You can’t write Cantonese!

  1. Hi,
    I came across your blog by chance. Enjoy reading your blog. But there’s a minor mistake that I want to clarify.
    “basically Standard Written Chinese with a hint of Canto flavour”
    Written Cantonese is also in Cantonese grammar, which has some differences with Mandarin. The following link is a site that teaches HKer to write standard Chinese.
    Usually, Cantonese has different adverb placement and sometimes it has a totally different sentence structure with Mandarin.

    嘅 as genitive case is also used in Hakka and Wu but they write with other characters.
    Cantonese: 我嘅 ngo ge (my)
    Hakka: ngai ge (my), they write “ge” with 个
    Wu: also use 个 and it is pronounced as “gheh” with voiced g.
    Xiang also uses this (but I don’t remember well). Somehow, I even notice Tibetan genitive case looks like this – gi. Since Tibetan is a phonetic language, gi changes to something like ki, kyi after different vowels before it.

    Anyway, I’ve a written Cantonese wikia which I post written Cantonese article regularly.
    The wikia is new so it just has a few articles.
    Also, you can buy a magazine called 新monday, which half of its content is in written Cantonese. The fashion book part of it is in standard Chinese.

  2. Hi sunny. Thanks for your comments. I have noticed various levels of “Cantoneseness” in written language — I tend to read newspapers over people’s shoulders in the MTR 🙂 so I have a large variety of samples — and I noticed that the wider the target of the newspaper, or, to be less nice, the lower the average IQ of the intended readers, the more Cantonese the language is.

    I suspect Hakka’s “ge” could have be influenced by Cantonese. After all many of them live in Guangdong.

    I’ll check out 新Monday. Thanks.

  3. Written Cantonese is like written English in the period when French was the court language in England. Therefore, written Cantonese is barred from being used on documents which deals with harder issues politically and psychologically. There was a period when Japanese and Korean courts only wrote in Chinese and their own native languages were just appeared on lower class reading materials.
    I believe “ge” is from Classical Chinese . Treat Classical Chinese as Latin and all the Chinese languages as Romance languages.
    新Monday is a better gossip magazine because it also mentions a bit politics using written Cantonese.

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