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Lost In Translation: Gaa jau, everyone!

Night in Hong Kong
Published by Julia Lane

This blog post was written by former employee and SLC Writing Services Coordinator Hermine Chan.

Cantonese: The offical language of Macau and Hong Kong

With one parent from Macau and one parent from Hong Kong, I'm a proud speaker of Cantonese, the official language of these two Chinese cities.

Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese that originated from Southeastern China, and it is still spoken in the Guangzhou (Canton) region, as well as some Southeast Asian countries. It was introduced to Canada when Chinese workers came over to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. 

One of the most difficult languages

It is also one of the most difficult languages to learn for non-native speakers, mostly because it is not a written language. In Hong Kong and Macau, the traditional writing system is used, which follows Mandarin grammar and not Cantonese grammar, but is read out loud in Cantonese pronunciation.

However, this does not mean that Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually intelligible--for most Cantonese native speakers in Macau and Hong Kong, Mandarin is an additional language that they have to learn in school.

It is difficult and sometimes impossible to write purely in Cantonese grammar and capture all of the sounds and tones, and therefore, it is very rare to find books that are written purely in Cantonese.  

Nine tones, love, and geese

Cantonese is believed to be one of the dialects most similar to ancient Chinese because it has retained nine tones and some complex sounds. While Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has nine of them, and yes, each tone produces a different meaning!

If your pronunciation is a little off, you could be talking about something completely different! One interesting thing is that writing lyrics for songs in Cantonese is quite restrictive because of the tones. For example, if you want to sing “I love you” in Cantonese, you have to match the notes and the tone so that you’re saying 我(ngo5) 愛(ngoi3) 你(nei5). If you’re a bit off, you might be singing “goose outside you”, which is not ideal.

In terms of pronunciations, Cantonese also has some pretty complex sounds. For example, the word for "I" (ngo5) begins with “ng”, a voiced velar nasal sound which is not at all common as a beginning consonant in other languages. It’s not even found in Mandarin Chinese, which has substituted the “ng” sound with an easier to pronounce “w” most of the time. The Mandarin pronunciation for "I" is “wǒ”. In Cantonese, the pronunciation of "country" is 國 (gwok3), which has an ending consonant that was dropped in Mandarin (guó).

Gaa jau! (Keep up the good work)

Anyways, one of the favourite phrases that Cantonese speakers use to encourage each other is 加油 (gaa1 jau2--the 'j' is more like a 'y' sound), and this literally translates into “adding fuel” in English, which makes no sense. But in the same way that you add gas to your car and give it enough juice to keep running, we wish you will feel empowered by our moral support and keep going smoothly.

We say this to our friends before they take a test or go to a job interview. We use it to encourage our friend who wants to ask someone out (completed with a pat on the back). We also shout it at our favourite soccer team during a match.  

With midterm exams going on, now seems a good time to say “Gaa jau, everyone!” Keep up the good work, and have a wonderful day! 


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