Cantonese/Lesson 1

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黃雪芳 Wòhng Suet Fōng is a Hong Kong university student who is meeting David (大偉 Daaih Wáih) and Mary (瑪麗 Máh Leih) for the first time. In Dialogue I she introduces herself to them. In Dialogue II, David introduces Mary and they state their home country.

Dialogue I[edit]

黃雪芳: 你好。
Wòhng Suet Fōng: Néih hóu.
大偉: 你好。
Daaih Wáih: Néih hóu.
黃雪芳: 我係黃雪芳。你叫乜嘢名呀?
Wòhng Suet Fōng: Ngóh haih Wòhng Suet Fōng. Néih giu māt'yéh mèhng a?
大偉: 我叫大偉。
Daaih Wáih: Ngóh giu Daaih Wáih.


Vocabulary[edit]

Written form Yale Part of speech English
néih (pro) you (singular)
hóu (adj) good
ge (part) (indicates possession)
haih (verb) to be (copula)
giu (verb) to be called
乜嘢 māt'yéh (pro) what
mèhng (noun) name
a (part) (required particle to soften tone of question)
ngóh (pro) I, me

Proper Nouns[edit]

Written Form Yale English
黃雪芳 Wòhng Suet Fōng Suet Fong Wong (female name)
大偉 Daaih Wáih David

Dialogue II[edit]

黃雪芳: 佢係唔係你嘅朋友呀?
Wòhng Suet Fōng: Kéuih haih-m̀h-haih néih ge pàhngyáuh a?
大偉: 係,佢係瑪麗,係美國人。
Daaih Wáih: Haih, kéuih haih Máh Leih, haih Méihgwokyàhn.
黃雪芳: 你哋都係美國人吖?
Wòhng Suet Fōng: Néihdeih dou haih Méihgwokyàhn àh?
大偉: 唔係,我係英國人。
Daaih Wáih: M̀h'haih, ngóh haih Yīnggwokyàhn.
黃雪芳: 哦,我係香港人。好高興認識你哋。
Wòhng Suet Fōng: Òh, ngóh haih Hēunggóngyàhn. Hóu gōuhing yìhngsīk néihdeih.

Vocabulary[edit]

Written form Yale Part of speech English
kéuih (pro) she/he
m̀h (adv) not (negates verbs)
朋友 pàhngyáuh (noun) friend
yàhn (noun) person
你哋 néihdeih (n suffix) you (plural)
dou (adv) both
àh (part) (indicates speaker expects agreement)
(part) (indicates understanding)
hóu (adv) good
高興 gōuhing (adj) happy
認識 yìhngsīk (verb) meet

Proper Nouns[edit]

Written Form Yale English
瑪麗 Máh Leih Mary
美國 Méihgwok America
英國 Yīnggwok Britain
香港 Hēunggóng Hong Kong

English translation[edit]

Dialogue 1[edit]

Suet Fong Wong: Hello.
David: Hello.
Suet Fong Wong: I'm Suet Fong Wong. What is your name?
David: My name is David.

Dialogue 2[edit]

Suet Fong Wong: Is she your friend?
David: Yes, she's Mary, an American.
Suet Fong Wong: You are both Americans, right?
David: No, I am British.
Suet Fong Wong: Oh, I'm a Hong Konger. Nice to meet you.

Grammar[edit]

Basic Sentences[edit]

The sentence structure of Cantonese is very similar to that of English in that they both follow the pattern of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). Unlike many languages, verbs in Chinese aren't conjugated and noun and adjective endings don't change. They are never affected by things such as time or person. However, in the case of perfect tense, as an aspectual language, the word "咗" should be added after the verb to reflect the completion of the corresponding action.

S + V + O[edit]

Example 1

佢叫黃雪芳。
Kéuih giu Wòhng Suet Fōng.
She is called Suet Fong Wong.

S + 係 + O[edit]

haih, the equational verb "to be", can be translated in English as "is", "am", or "are". The meaning is best summed up as "equals".

Example 1

黃雪芳。
Ngóh haih Wòhng Suet Fōng.
I am Suet Fong Wong. (I = Wong Suet Fong)

Example 2

我嘅名大偉。
Ngóh ge mèhng haih Daaih Wáih.
My name is David. (My name = David)

Example 3

佢哋都美國人。
Kéuihdeih dou haih Méihgwokyàhn
They are both Americans. (They = Americans)

S + 唔係 + O[edit]

係 (haih) is negated when preceded by 唔 m̀h.

Example 1

我唔係美國人。
Ngóh m̀h'haih Méihgwokyàhn.
I am not American.

Example 2

佢唔係瑪麗。
Kéuih m̀h'haih Máh Leih.
She is not Mary.

Basic Questions[edit]

V + 唔 + V / Yes-No[edit]

Most statements can quickly become a yes-no question in Cantonese through the V + 唔 + V structure. The simpliest way to answer such a question is either by repeating the verb (affirmative) or prefixing the verb with 唔 m̀h (negative).

Example 1

佢係唔係你嘅朋友呀?
Kéuih haih-m̀h-haih néih ge pàhngyáuh a?
Is she/he your friend?
係,佢係我嘅朋友。
Haih, kéuih haih ngóh ge pàhngyáuh.
Yes, She/he is my friend.

Example 2

你哋係唔係美國人呀?
Néihdeih haih-m̀h-haih Méihgwokyàhn a?
Are you Americans?
唔係,我哋係英國人。
M̀h'haih, ngóhdeih haih Yīnggwokyàhn.
No, we are British.

Example 3

你識唔識瑪麗呀?
Néih sīk m̀h'sīk Máh Leih a?
Do you know Mary?
識,我識瑪麗。
Sīk, ngóh sīk Máh Leih.
Yes, I know her.

乜嘢 māt'yéh / What...?[edit]

The question word 乜嘢 (māt'yéh), or simply 乜, make statements into questions without changing the order of the sentence. To make one, simply substitute 乜嘢 in the place the subject would be in the answer. Notice how the word order does not change when you answer the question.

Example 1

佢叫乜嘢名呀?
Kéuih giu māt'yéh mèhng a?
What is her name? (=She is called by what name?)
佢叫瑪麗。
Kéuih giu Máh Leih.
She is called Mary

Example 2

你識講乜話?
Néih sīk góng māt' wá?
What languages do you speak? (=You know speak which languages?)
我識講廣東話。
Ngóh sīk góng Gwóngdōngwá.
I know Cantonese.

Note when spoken at a fast or natural pace, 乜嘢 is often pronounced mī'yéh.

Particles[edit]

Cantonese has a number of sentence final particles which expresses the speaker's tone and sometimes changes the sentence type. The 呀 (a) is a particle which only affects the tone of the sentence. It softens a question and is a required component of normal questions. The 吖 (àh) indicates the speaker expects agreement with the statement. Because the speaker expects a confirmation, this particle gives the sentence a questioning tone. This is similar to English when we state a fact while using a rising intonation (e.g. "You're going home?").

Exercises[edit]

Pronunciation Drills[edit]

Initials[edit]

Although most of the Cantonese initials are familiar sounds to English speakers, the ng initial in the pronoun 我 ngóh often frustrates beginners. Actually the sound is also in English, but it simply never falls at the beginning of the word. Here's an exercise to help you produce this sound word-initially:

  1. Say the word "sing" slowly. Notice how the back of your tongue touches the back of your mouth at the end of the word.
  2. Say the word "sing" slowly again. But this time draw out the "ng" sound at the end of the word. Try see how long you can hold this sound.
  3. When you say "sing" this time, hold the "ng" sound and add an "o". The word will sound like "sing--o" at first. Practice this a few more times until the "ng" and "o" are produced together.
  4. Finally, say the word again but this time whisper the "si" sound. Keep repeating the word until you can say it without the "si". With enough practice you see'll you are able to say 我 ngóh with little difficulty.

This is a good time to point out one of the sound changes that is undergoing in modern Hong Kong Cantonese. The ng initial sound is being dropped in young people's casual speech. If you listen closely, you may find your your Cantonese friends seem to say 我 óh when having informal conversations. It appears that this sound change will likely become complete in the coming decades. This will mean that the word initial ng will no longer exist in Cantonese. However, it is still worth practicing this sound! Dropping the ng is not yet considered standard speech by many people and has even been negatively labelled as "lazy speech."

Finals[edit]

The syllables that end with one of the final stops p, t, or k are much shorter than the other syllables without stops. In addition, it is important that the stop is "unreleased." This means there is no "puff of air" at the end of the syllable. For instance, say the English word "cup" without opening your lips at the end. Note how there is no puff of air. Practice this with the following words:

sahp ten
gwok country
sīk know
māt what

Tones[edit]

The list below shows all the tones in the traditional reading order (high to low). Memorizing this list is an excellent way to improve your tone production and recognition.

High Level: poetry
High Rising: history
Mid Level:si test
Low Rising:sìh time
Low Falling:síh city
Low Level:sih matter

The clipped tones are the are virtually the same as the high, mid, and low levels tones. The only difference in these syllables is they are rather short in duration.

High Clipped:sīk color
Mid Clipped:sik tin
Low Clipped:sihk eat


Grammar Drills[edit]

Conversation Practice[edit]

  1. Introduce yourself to your language partner. Make sure to say your name and your nationality.
  2. Ask your partner if they know one of your friends.
  3. Ask your partner their name and nationality. Let them know how happy you are to meet them.