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.
|Wòhng Suet Fōng:||Néih hóu.|
|Daaih Wáih:||Néih hóu.|
|Wòhng Suet Fōng:||Ngóh haih Wòhng Suet Fōng. Néih giu māt'yéh mèhng a?|
|Daaih Wáih:||Ngóh giu Daaih Wáih.|
|Written form||Yale||Part of speech||English|
|係||haih||(verb)||to be (copula)|
|叫||giu||(verb)||to be called|
|呀||a||(part)||(required particle to soften tone of question)|
|黃雪芳||Wòhng Suet Fōng||Suet Fong Wong (female name)|
|Wòhng Suet Fōng:||Kéuih haih-m̀h-haih néih ge pàhngyáuh a?|
|Daaih Wáih:||Haih, kéuih haih Máh Leih, haih Méihgwokyàhn.|
|Wòhng Suet Fōng:||Néihdeih dou haih Méihgwokyàhn àh?|
|Daaih Wáih:||M̀h'haih, ngóh haih Yīnggwokyàhn.|
|Wòhng Suet Fōng:||Òh, ngóh haih Hēunggóngyàhn. Hóu gōuhing yìhngsīk néihdeih.|
|Written form||Yale||Part of speech||English|
|唔||m̀h||(adv)||not (negates verbs)|
|你哋||néihdeih||(n suffix)||you (plural)|
|吖||àh||(part)||(indicates speaker expects agreement)|
|Suet Fong Wong: Hello.|
|Suet Fong Wong: I'm Suet Fong Wong. What is your name?|
|David: My name is David.|
|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.|
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
- Kéuih giu Wòhng Suet Fōng.
- She is called Suet Fong Wong.
||Note that in Cantonese you do not need the helping verb "to be" to use other verbs as in English. While the sentence is translated as "She is called Wong Suet Fong", it would be incorrect to say "佢係叫黃雪芳". If you saying so, it would have the implication of confirmation.|
S + 係 + O
係 haih, the equational verb "to be", can be translated in English as "is", "am", or "are". The meaning is best summed up as "equals".
- Ngóh haih Wòhng Suet Fōng.
- I am Suet Fong Wong. (I = Wong Suet Fong)
- Ngóh ge mèhng haih Daaih Wáih.
- My name is David. (My name = David)
- Kéuihdeih dou haih Méihgwokyàhn
- They are both Americans. (They = Americans)
S + 唔係 + O
係 (haih) is negated when preceded by 唔 m̀h.
- Ngóh m̀h'haih Méihgwokyàhn.
- I am not American.
- Kéuih m̀h'haih Máh Leih.
- She is not Mary.
V + 唔 + V / Yes-No
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).
- Kéuih haih-m̀h-haih néih ge pàhngyáuh a?
- Is she/he your friend?
- Haih, kéuih haih ngóh ge pàhngyáuh.
- Yes, She/he is my friend.
- Néihdeih haih-m̀h-haih Méihgwokyàhn a?
- Are you Americans?
- M̀h'haih, ngóhdeih haih Yīnggwokyàhn.
- No, we are British.
- Néih sīk m̀h'sīk Máh Leih a?
- Do you know Mary?
- Sīk, ngóh sīk Máh Leih.
- Yes, I know her.
||Note that you must use the same verb in the question as in your answer. It would be incorrect to respond to the question 你識唔識瑪麗呀？with 係.|
乜嘢 māt'yéh / What...?
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.
- Kéuih giu māt'yéh mèhng a?
- What is her name? (=She is called by what name?)
- Kéuih giu Máh Leih.
- She is called Mary
- Néih sīk góng māt' wá?
- What languages do you speak? (=You know speak which languages?)
- Ngóh sīk góng Gwóngdōngwá.
- I know Cantonese.
Note when spoken at a fast or natural pace, 乜嘢 is often pronounced mī'yéh.
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?").
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:
- Say the word "sing" slowly. Notice how the back of your tongue touches the back of your mouth at the end of the word.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
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:
- 十 sahp ten
- 國 gwok country
- 識 sīk know
- 乜 māt what
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: 詩 sī poetry
- High Rising: 史 sí history
- Mid Level: 試 si test
- Low Falling: 時 sìh time
- Low Rising: 市 síh city
- Low Level: 事 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: 色 sīk color
- Mid Clipped: 錫 sik tin
- Low Clipped: 食 sihk eat
- Introduce yourself to your language partner. Make sure to say your name and your nationality.
- Ask your partner if they know one of your friends.
- Ask your partner their name and nationality. Let them know how happy you are to meet them.