People keep sending me the L.A. Times article “Cantonese Is Losing Its Voice” by David Pierson, so I might as well post it. As John Emerson put it in his e-mail, it’s “a mix of classic stupidities and interesting information.” Among the former: Cantonese is “a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions”; it “is said to be closer than Mandarin to ancient Chinese” and “is also more complicated” (because it has more tones, you see); and (a particular favorite) “it is far more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules and formulas.” But there’s a lot of the latter too:

Popular phrases include the slang for getting a parking ticket, which in Cantonese is “I ate beef jerky,” probably because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. And teo bao (literally “too full”) describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.
Many sayings are coined by movie stars on screen. Telling someone to chill out, comedian Stephen Chow says: “Drink a cup of tea and eat a bun.”
Then there are the curse words, and what an abundance there is.
A four-syllable obscenity well known in the Cantonese community punctuates the end of many a sentence. [...]
Even quintessential Hong Kong-style restaurants, including wonton noodle shops, now have waitresses who speak Mandarin, albeit badly, so they can take orders. Elected officials in Los Angeles County, even native Cantonese, are holding news conferences in Mandarin.
Some Cantonese speakers feel besieged.
Cheryl Li, a 19-year-old Pasadena City College student whose parents are from Hong Kong, is studying to become an occupational therapist and volunteers at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, where most of the patients are Chinese.
Recently, she was asking patients, in Mandarin, what they wanted to eat. When one man thought her accent was off, he said, “Stupid second-generation Chinese American doesn’t speak Mandarin.”
Li responded angrily, “No! I was born here. But I understand enough.”
“We’re in the minority,” she added, reflecting on the incident. “I’m scared Cantonese is going to be a lost language.”
Still, Li is studying Mandarin.

I suspect the “four-syllable obscenity” mentioned in the article is diu nei lo mo, cited by the esteemed Jimmy Ho in an enjoyable LH obscenity thread.
Addendum. See also Amida’s irritated response to the article.


  1. Just going on anecdotal evidence, it seems to be the case that in large Chinese communities, from Southeast Asia to Canada, are shifting to Mandarin as their first language. In some ways, I’m excited to see the emergence of Mandarin as one of the future’s great languages of commerce and culture.
    The disappearance of Cantonese would be a terrible tragedy, but I suspect that it will always be vibrant thanks to its population base in Hong Kong and Guangdong, not to mention the prolific Cantonese film industry.
    I do find it laudable the way Chinese in general take their identity and language(s) with them overseas.

  2. The ‘four-syllable obscenity’ is almost certainly ‘diu lei lo mo’ (go *cough* your mother).
    The ‘Ta Ma De’ in the older thread is confusing to me. I always learned it as ‘Ni Ma De’ (Your Mother’s something, with the strong implication that the something was the part of your mother that you emerged from.)

  3. “Tamade” might be Hokkien. I heard it in Taiwam, anyway.
    Hokkien is closer to Classical Chinese than Mandarin, and is hard to learn because it has meny tones, does not follow grammatical rules, and has lots of colorful slang that foreigners cannot learn.

  4. But Where is Taiwam, you ask. Ha!

  5. Cantonese is, thank goodness, alive and well in SF. I hear plenty of teenagers and 20-somethings speaking it.
    I studied Cantonese and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I never became fluent. I find Mandarin difficult because of the retroflex consonants. I expect Hokkien would be difficult because of the complex tone sandhi, something which is quite simple in Cantonese.
    I also assumed the 4-word obscenity was “diu nei lo mo.”
    I have had Cantonese-speaking friends report to me having difficulty understanding when going back to HK for visits because of the high production of slang.

  6. “Tamade” is surely Mandarin–”mother” in Hokkien is “niang,” as evidenced by that popular Taiwanese phrase “gan ni niang” (pronounced more like “gan li nia” in Hokkien). Ever notice waishengren in Taiwan will say “cao ni ma” for that? (Yeah, I guess I got cursed out a lot in Taiwan….)
    I blogged this article on amidaworld, too. Stuff like this is really a missed opportunity.

  7. Long term, for Cantonese to survive, Cantonese will have to gain acceptance as a written language, meaning people will have to write as they speak, not just standard written Chinese with pronunciation in Cantonese. I suspect this is what they were referring to in the article when they said things like “dialect full of slang.” Write it down often enough and it’s not slang anymore. (I’m not a real expert, so I welcome corrections…)
    BTW, demographics indicate that the number of Cantonese speakers worldwide has increased, not decreased recently.

  8. I imagine what they mean is not that the total number of speakers is declining but that its use in LA (and by extension Chinatowns all over the US) is declining.
    I think I agree with you that it’s important for Cantonese to develop a true written form, but that’s unlikely as long as the current regime is in power.

  9. To judge from the Wikipedia articles on topics such as Written Cantonese and Standard Cantonese Pinyin, there are already numerous options for writing real Cantonese — I guess for political reasons though we’re unlikely to see the Chinese government choosing and promoting one as the standard. (That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done de facto by overseas Cantonese speakers, of course, but that has its own problems.)

  10. On ta ma de, ni ma de, cao ni ma, etc., etc.
    Unless I’m mistaken, the ‘full-form’ is supposed to be “cao ni ma de gebi”, i.e., **** your mother’s ****. The rest are basically variations that drop or substitute one element or another.
    For instance, take away the object (i.e., leave it implied) we get “cao ni ma”, or perhaps, “cao ni ma de”.
    Now drop the verb, we get “ni ma”, or “ni ma de”.
    And if, on top of that, we change the person to whom the mother’s **** belongs from 2nd to the 3rd, we get “ta ma” or “ta ma de”.
    (Didn’t we have a long discussion about this not too long ago?)

  11. I speak madarin, and don’t understand cantonese at all. actually those who take madarin as the first language do feel very pround if they are also able to speak/understand cantonese. I want to learn cantonese, for the purpose of understanding&singing cantonese songs :) still a long long way to go…

  12. The problem with Cantonese songs is that they usually use Mandarin vocabulary and grammar (I think), not colloquial Cantonese. I understand that the hip-hop group LMF is an exception.
    A Cantonese coworker once told me that her non-Cantonese Chinese husband could read the news section of San Francisco Chinese newspapers but not the entertainment section, as the entertainment section was written in colloquial Cantonese. If you are browsing through an entertainment magazine and see characters like “D” or “佢哋” then it is probably written in colloquial Cantonese.
    I realize there are different Romanization schemes. The Hokkien version of “diu nei lo mo” I understand to be “kan ni na bu cao cibai.” It occurs a lot in the Singaporean feature film “15.” While I found the film unpleasant generally, it is of linguistic interest for its use of Hokkien vulgarisms. In one scene I found linguistically shocking, a father uses the “knnbcc” phrase over and over while bawling out his son, as if the phrase had no meaning. I asked a Chiuchow friend about this, and he said this was indeed the case, and that his father used the abbreviated “knn” version when cursing him out as a kid.
    In “15″ I also noticed that the father pronounced cibai with the “j” sound while the teenagers pronounced it with the “ch” sound.

  13. Oh the topic of ***s, there’s a Chinese blogger here in Beijing with the nom du web of 按摩乳 who recently wrote a post about Beijingers’ favorite word, “shabi” (傻逼, though the ‘bi’ is actuallly composed of 尸over穴, and isn’t in most IMEs). There’s an English translation with a link to the original article (which is more fun, if you can read Chinese), at
    The article strikes me as “shabi”-ery of the finest order. Standard Mandarin may seem less expressive than Cantonese, but then so will standard anything. I defy anyone to come to Beijing, hang out with a few drunk cab drivers, and come back still saying that Mandarin (or, well, Beijing Mandarin) isn’t wonderfully expressive.

  14. Microsoft’s trad Chinese IME has bi1: 屄
    Excellent point, Brendan. Surely there’s a lot of “cackling” going on in Mandarin amongst that crowd!

  15. Mandarin certainly is edging Cantonmese out in the LA area. The San Gabriel Valley, especially towns like Monterey Park and Alhambra are the epicenter for all Chinese immigration on the West Coast. LA Chinatown is a whole different community.
    All these Chinese immigrant communiites are separate in the same way the earlier European immigrant communities were. In fact they have ben anatgonistic in the past. Apparently there is some kind of blood feud between the Sam Yap area around Guangzhou and the Toisaan area Sei Yap/Hlei Yip, that has come over to California. The HK (Sam Yap) Chinese who came over in the 60′s ran into a buzz saw of dsicrimination from the Sei Yap people who had come over in the Gold Rush and later, and become established. Some ended up forming mutual protection youth gangs like the Wah Ching in self-defense. Modern day Fujian immigration, now in a slump, went all to New York, with almost none to California. And so on.
    Note on the spread of Mandarin in SE Asia – some communities, such as in Malaysi, are Min Nan speakers, some Min Bei, and then there were some Cantonese commuities – Sino-Viets for instance are mostly Cantonese speaking. Mandarin is the natural, neutral choice for a common laguage – considering the proverbial hatred between Cantonese and Fujianese, so bad that if you see any cooperation, it is an fairly reliable indicator of criminal activity. They seem never to go into legitimate business with each other.

  16. A very informative comment — thanks, Jim!

  17. A lot of American Cantonese, besides having been Americanized for over a century, is non-standard Cantonese (not Hong Kong, not Guangdong). In Portland OR it was Chaozhou.

  18. Mandarin is the languge of instruction in Chinese schools in Malaysia, and many of the students speak it with their friends. But they mix it with Cantonese and switch back and forth often, sometimes within a sentence. As I think I’ve mentioned before, when most Chinese in Malaysia speak Mandarin, they sound like the Chinese who live in Guangdong (from where many of them originally came…there and Fujian).
    Here in Guangdong, I’ve been learning plenty of mandarin. But I think I need to learn some Cantonese too, because that’s the language you need to speak if you’re out shopping and don’t want to get ripped off.

  19. I can’t remember where, but I saw someone argue that Cantonese, Hokkien, etc., aren’t dialects, but languages. The real dialects are Cantonese Mandarin, Hokkien Mandarin, etc. For example, in Taiwan shi and si are not differentiated by most speakers, which causes occasional problems and probably changes use of vocabulary somewhat.
    Chinese language policy is in a class by itself. As far as I know, there has always been a single official spoken form of Chinese — even during periods of disunity, both sides remain fairly close to one another to the extent possible. So major languages like Cantonese and Hokkienese, with tens of millions of speakers, have gone for centuries without being “real languages”, since they’ve never has the “flag and army”. (In conquest regimes, and to a degree even today, there’s always recognition of non-Han languages of China.)
    On top of that, until 1911 the official spoken language was a messy archaic form of Mandarin (Li Bo for Li Bai, etc.), and the official written language was even more archaic.

  20. “In Portland OR it was Chaozhou. ”
    That is a fascinating bit of information, quite an anomaly. It really all depends where the labor contractors were able to drum up business a hundred years ago.
    “but I saw someone argue that Cantonese, Hokkien, etc., aren’t dialects, but languages. ”
    They are quite distinct, and often the difference is due to substratum effects. This may also be the source of a lot of the inter-ethnic frcition. In Han times and before the area from where Shanghia now is southward was called Bai Yue – Hundred Yue. That suggests a welter of small states differentiated by who knows what. The area may have been the equivalent of California, or the whole West Coast for that matter. Canton Cantonese shows obvious signs of Zhuang (Tai) influence, there is Hmongic influence in Fuzhou – Min Bei langugae, and there were probably knots of Austronesians up and down the coast. The Hmongic and Tai states may have been scattered all over discontinuously too. And they still all hate each other to this day.
    There was a good article somewhere tracing the Hmongic substratum in the Hubei dialect area – lots of lexical stuff. That is pretty far north, but it gets better. It’s pretty well accepted that at an early stage there was a lot of borrowing by Chinese from some Tai language, way up in the Shaanxi heartland, enough to bring in a load of vocabulary and maybe enough to flip the sentence structure to SOV and some other effects.

  21. “So major languages like Cantonese and Hokkienese, with tens of millions of speakers, have gone for centuries without being “real languages”, since they’ve never has the “flag and army”.”
    Quite right. Another thing to consider, and perhaps the main consideration, is the lack of a unique written form for most of those languages. That’s the single reason someone confidently stated to me that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language. However, I daresay it is indeed a separate language.
    This makes me wonder, though: what about the languages of Xinjiang and other parts of China where the people and their cultures are very different from the Han? Are their languages also merely called dialects? Uygur, for example, is somewhat similar to Turkish and even uses a script that doesn’t look even remotely Chinese. Several different scripts can be seen on Chinese money, and I was surprised to discover they’re all scripts used within China (I had originally thought the Chinese were just putting Arabic, etc. on their bills as a show of goodwill to other countries). Quite interesting!

  22. Uighur, Tibetan, and Mongol are recognized as languages of China, whereas Cantonese and Hokkien, etc., really aren’t. To the Chinese government China is the nation, whereas what we call the Chinese proper are “Han”.
    Some Chinese flags have five stars for five peoples, with the Han star much bigger. I’ve never been sure what the fifth star was, nor do most Chinese seem to know. It’s “Man”, which probably means Manchu (an extincy language) but one person thought it might be a different Man lumping the southern non-Han peoples.

  23. Flag
    Flag interpretation is very postmodern, as you will see; there areat least three semi-official explanations of the stars.
    But “Man” seems clearly to be the Manchus, who are totally assimilated now,

  24. I was under the impression that the four word obscenity is “nei ma go hai” (your mother’s c***). I notice that one coming out of a lot of cantonese speakers… ;)

  25. What dialect did Li Bai speak?and where was he from?

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