Hong Kong Cantonese

Hong Kong Cantonese (Chinese: 香港粵語) is a dialect of the Cantonese language commonly spoken in Hong Kong, as well as Macau. Although the Hong Kong people largely identify this variant of Chinese with the term "Cantonese" (廣東話), a variety of publications in Mainland China describe the variant as Hong Kong speech (香港話).

There are slight differences between the pronunciation used in Hong Kong Cantonese and that of the Cantonese spoken in the neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong, 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.

Hong Kong Cantonese
香港粵語; 港式廣東話; 香港話
Native toHong Kong, Macau and some Overseas Communities
RegionPearl River Delta
EthnicityHong Kong people
Macanese 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
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6xgng
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese香港粵語
Simplified Chinese香港粤语
Hong Kong-style Cantonese
Traditional Chinese港式粵語
Hong Kong-Guangdong dialect
Traditional Chinese香港廣東話
Hong Kong-Guangzhou dialect
Traditional Chinese香港廣州話


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 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. "巴士" (/páːsǐː/), literally, "bus". Hong Kong people even started to calque English constructions, for example, "噉 (咁) 都唔 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 /ŋ/ 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" (懶音), 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 (/ŋ/) 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 /ŋ/ initial into null initial.
  • Merging of /kʷ/ and /kʷʰ/ initials into /k/ and /kʰ/ when followed by /ɔː/. Note that /ʷ/ is the only glide (介音) in Cantonese.
  • Merging of /ŋ/ and /k/ codas into /n/ and /t/ codas respectively, eliminating contrast between these pairs of finals (except after /e/ and /o/): /aːn/-/aːŋ/, /aːt/-/aːk/, /ɐn/-/ɐŋ/, /ɐt/-/ɐk/, /ɔːn/-/ɔːŋ/ and /ɔːt/-/ɔːk/.
  • Merging of the two syllabic nasals, /ŋ̩/ into /m̩/, eliminating the contrast of sounds between (surname Ng) and (not).
  • Merging of the rising tones (陰上 2nd and 陽上 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 (香港恆生銀行), /hœ́ːŋ kɔ̌ːŋ hɐ̏ŋ sɐ́ŋ ŋɐ̏n hɔ̏ːŋ/, becomes /hœ́ːn kɔ̌ːn hɐ̏n sɐ́n ɐ̏n hɔ̏ːn/, sounding like Hon' Kon' itchy body (痕身 /hɐ̏n sɐ́n/) 'un cold (UN寒 /ɐ̏n hɔ̏ːn/) . The name of Cantonese itself (廣東話, "Guangdong speech") would be /kʷɔ̌ːŋ tʊ́ŋ wǎː/ without the merger, whereas /kɔ̌ːŋ tʊ́ŋ wǎː/ (sounding like "講東話": "speak eastern speech") and /kɔ̌ːn tʊ́ŋ wǎː/ (sounding like "趕東話" : "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 [lekˈkou̯], "Nancy" pronounce [ˈlɛnsi] 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 /ŋ/, 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 /ɔ̄ːi/, but the word is often pronounced /ŋɔ̄ːi/.

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 Cantonese IPA literal meaning actual meaning
食皇家飯 sik6 wong4 gaa1 faan6 /siːk˨wɔːŋ˩kaː˥faːn˨/ eat Royal meal being incarcerated
話知你九七 waa6 zi1 nei5 gau2 cat1 /waː˨t͡siː˥nei˩˧kɐu˧˥t͡sɐt˥/ 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 Cantonese IPA English English pronunciation Mandarin equivalence
巴士 baa1 si2 /paː˥siː˧˥/ bus /bʌs/ 公共汽車/公共汽车
公車 (in Taiwan)
公汽, 公交, 公交车 (in Mainland China)
巴士 is also used in Mandarin, influenced by Cantonese
的士 dik1 si2 /tek˥siː˧˥/ taxi /ˈtæksi/ 計程車 (in Taiwan)
出租车 (in Mainland China)
德士, also a loanword (in Singapore and Malaysia)
的士 is also used in Mainland China, influenced by Cantonese
朱古力 zyu1 gu1 lik1 /tsyː˥kuː˥lek˥/ chocolate /ˈt͡ʃɒklɪt/ 巧克力, also a loanword
三文治 saam1 man4 zi6 /saːm˥mɐn˨˩t͡siː˨/ sandwich /ˈsænwɪt͡ʃ/ 三明治, also a loanword
士多 si6 do1 /siː˨tɔː˥/ store (retail), usually referring to a small convenience store /stɔː/ 店舖/店铺 (archaic, refers to all kinds of shops in Hong Kong)
商店 (refers to all kinds of shops in Hong Kong)
士多啤梨 si6 do1 be1 lei2 /siː˨tɔː˥pɛː˥lei˧˥/ strawberry /ˈstrɔːbəri/ 草莓 (also used in mainland Cantonese)
啤梨 be1 lei2 /pɛː˥lei˧˥/ pear /pɛə/ 梨子
沙士 saa1 si2 /saː˥siː˧˥/ SARS /sɑːz/ 嚴重急性呼吸(道)症候群 (in Taiwan)
非典型肺炎, 严重急性呼吸综合征, 萨斯 (in Mainland China)

非典型肺炎 (formal in Hong Kong)

拜拜 baai1 baai3 /paːi˥paːi˧/ bye bye /ˈbaɪbaɪ/ 再見/再见, 再會/再会 or 告辭/告辞 (archaic)

拜拜 is sometimes used in mainland China

BB bi4 bi1 /piː˨˩piː˥/ baby /ˈbeɪbi/ 嬰兒/婴儿 (formal in Hong Kong)
Sir aa3 soe4 /aː˧sœː˨˩/ sir (policeman; teacher (male)) /sɜː/ police: 警察 (in Taiwan, formal in Hong Kong), 公安 (in Mainland China)
teacher: 老師/老师 or 先生 (archaic)
泊車 paak3 ce1 /pʰaːk˧t͡sʰɛː˥/ to park /pɑːk/ 停車/停车, a relative translation, lit. "to stop the car"
泊車/泊车 is also used in Mandarin
菲林 fei1 lam2 /fei˥lɐm˧˥/ film (photographic) /fɪlm/ 膠卷/㬵卷, literally "plastic roll"
菲林 is also used in Mandarin
三文魚 saam1 man4 jyu4*2 /saːm˥mɐn˨˩jyː˩/,
salmon /ˈsæmən/ 鮭魚 (in Taiwan), 大马哈鱼 (in Mainland China)
三文鱼 is also used in Mainland China
部飛 bou6 fei1,
pou6 fei1
buffet (British/Commonwealth pronunciation) /ˈbʊfeɪ/ 自助餐 (formal in Hong Kong)
沙律 saa1 leot6*2 /saː˥lɵt˨/,
salad /ˈsæləd/ 沙拉, also a loanword from English
沙律 is also used in Mainland China
taai1 /tʰaːi˥/ tyre/tire or necktie /taɪə/ tyre/tire: 輪胎/轮胎
necktie: 領帶/领带
梳化 so1 faa3*2 /sɔː˥faː˧/,
sofa /səʊfə/ 沙发, also a loanword

沙發 (formal in Hong Kong, borrowed from Mandarin)

From Japanese

Chinese characters Jyutping Cantonese IPA Japanese Japanese Rōmaji English Mandarin equivalence
卡啦OK kaa1 laa1 ou1 kei1 /kʰaː˥laː˥ou˥kʰei˥/ カラオケ karaoke karaoke 卡拉OK, also a loanword (in Taiwan and Mainland China)
K (in Mainland China)
老世 (usually miswritten as 老細) lou5 sai3 /lou˩˧sɐi˧/ 世帯主 setainushi head of a company/chief/boss 老闆/老板 (boss, also commonly used in Hong Kong)
東主/东主 (old term for company owner)
上司 (superior)
奸爸爹 gaan1 baa1 de1 /kaːn˥paː˥tɛː˥/ 頑張って ganbatte a cheering-on term/Come On 努力 (in this context, keep up the effort)
加油 (Keep up!)
放題 fong3 tai4 /fɔːŋ˧tʰɐi˩/ 食べ放題 tabe hōdai a buffet (mainly Japanese buffet) 自助餐 (buffet, formal in Hong Kong)

From French

Chinese characters Jyutping Cantonese IPA French English Mandarin equivalence
laang1 /laːŋ˥/ laine yarn 紗線/纱线
梳乎厘 so1 fu4 lei4 /sɔː˥fuː˨˩lei˨˩/ soufflé soufflé 舒芙蕾, also a loanword (in Taiwan), 梳芙厘, also a loanword (in Mainland China), 蛋奶酥

Exported loanwords

Into English

English Chinese characters Jyutping Cantonese IPA
dim sum 點心 dim2 sam1 /tiːm˧˥sɐm˥/
kumquat 金橘 gam1 gwat1 /kɐm˥kʷɐt˥/
loquat 蘆橘 lou4 gwat1 /lou˨˩kʷɐt˥/
wonton 雲吞 wan4 tan1 /wɐn˨˩tʰɐn˥/
bok choy 白菜 baak6 coi3 /paːk˨t͡sʰɔːy˧/
long time no see 好耐冇見 hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3 /hou˧˥nɔːy˨mou˩˧kiːn˧/
ketchup 茄汁 ke2 zap1 /kʰɛː˧˥t͡sɐp˥/
kowtow 叩頭 kau3 tau4 /kʰɐu˧tʰɐu˨˩/

Into Mainland Chinese Mandarin

Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin Cantonese Jyutping Cantonese IPA English Other Mandarin synonyms Hanyu Pinyin
买单 mǎidān 埋單 maai4 daan1 /mȁːitáːn/ "Bill/Check, please." (used when calling for the bill at a restaurant) 结账 jiézhàng
搭档 dādàng 拍檔 paak3 dong3 /pʰāːktɔ̄ːŋ/ partner 伙伴 (in ownership and business)
舞伴 (in dancing)
打的 dǎdī 搭的士 daap3 dik1 si2 /tāːptéksǐː/ to ride a taxi 乘出租车 chéng chūzūchē
无厘头 wúlítóu 無釐頭, corruption of 無來頭 mou4 lei4 tau4 /mȍulȅitʰɐ̏u/ nonsensical humour (see mo lei tau) 莫名其妙 mòmíng-qímiào
亮仔 or 靓仔 liàngzǎi 靚仔 leng3 zai2 /lɛ́ːŋtsɐ̌i/ handsome (pretty) boy/young man 帅哥儿
哥们 (in China only)
拍拖 pāituō 拍拖 paak3 to1 /pʰāːktʰɔ́ː/ to date; to court 追求
很正 hěn zhèng 好正 hou2 zeng3 /hǒutsɛ̄ːŋ/ (colloquial) awesome; perfect; just right
搞掂 or 搞定 gǎodiàn or gǎodìng 搞掂 gaau2 dim6 /kǎːutìːm/ "Done!", to complete; completed (when used as an exclamation) 办妥
zuò wán
zuò hǎo
nòng wán

Into Taiwanese Mandarin

Taiwanese Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin Cantonese Jyutping Cantonese IPA English
hóu sāiléi
(from Classical Chinese)
sai1 lei6
hou2 sai1 lei6
great; powerful
very great; very powerful
Hold住[6] hòu zhù Hold住 hou1 jyu6 /hóut͡sỳː/ Hold on; hang in there

Into Japanese

Japanese Kana (Kanji) Japanese Rōmaji Cantonese Jyutping Cantonese IPA English
ヤムチャ (飲茶) yamucha 飲茶 jam2 caa4 /jɐ̌mtsʰȁː/ To drink tea or go to a Chinese restaurant (yum cha)
チャーシュー (叉焼) chāshū 叉燒 caa1 siu1 /t͡sʰáːsíːu/ Roasted pork (literally roasted on a fork char siu)
チャーハン (炒飯) chāhan 炒飯 caau2 faan6 /t͡sʰǎːufàːn/ To stir-fry rice (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 "佢地好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, "至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 (see also "yeah baby" and "aww yeah").

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 記" 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, "噉都唔 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" (肯定) can be used like "你 su1 唔 su1 aa3?" (are you sure?) as if it were its Cantonese counterpart "你肯唔肯定?", 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 "打 collect call" replacing "打一個由對方付款的長途電話", 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 20 January 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. 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 9 August 2006.
  6. ^ "你"Hold住"没"Hold住"?". 学生导报 中职周刊. Archived from the original on 23 October 2011. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  7. ^ "Info" (PDF). www.patrickchu.net.

External links

Standard Mandarin
Hanyu PinyinXiānggǎng yuèyǔ
Yue: Cantonese
Yale RomanizationHēung góng yuht yúh
JyutpingHoeng1 gong2 jyut6 jyu5
Yue: Cantonese
Yale RomanizationGóng sīk yuht yúh
JyutpingGong2 sik1 jyut6 jyu5
Yue: Cantonese
Yale RomanizationHēung góng gwóng dūng wá
JyutpingHoeng1 gong2 gwong2 dung1 waa2
Yue: Cantonese
Yale RomanizationHēung góng gwóng jāu wá
JyutpingHoeng1 gong2 gwong2 zau1 waa2
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