Guest Blogger: Hemlock on Cantonese

When my friend Hemlock found out I had to travel out into the non-Cantonese speaking, broadband-less wilds of India for a few weeks he graciously offered to step in and help. Well, okay, promising to pay his tab for a pub cruise in Lan Kwai Fong upon my return was a critical point in the deal. I sure hope he doesn’t bring his friend Odell.

Over the course of this week Hemlock, who’s lived in HK around 20 years, and had been blogging most wisely about it for 5 years or more, will be sharing some of his thoughts on Gwong-dung-wah with the readers of Learning Cantonese. I’m thrilled to welcome him here, ’cause I have been his fan since I first read his dispatches in 2004. So, gok wai, please fun ying Hong Kong’s wittiest and most erudite blogger….


Let’s Have Fun With Transliteration!

Stroll around Macau, the once-sleepy ex-Portuguese enclave that has prostituted itself into Asia’s Las Vegas, and you will notice, near Nam Van Lake, shops with names like Vong, Vai and Vo.  And you will wonder why.  Because you know that Cantonese has no ‘v’ sound, and you well remember a girl in the office whose name was always pronounced Wictoria – or Wicky, for short.  The reason is that the Portuguese have no ‘w’ in their alphabet.  (Today, they do use it in foreign names and loanwords, but their 450-year presence in Macau probably predates this courtesy.)  They could have used the ‘ou’ dipthong in theory, except they never put it at the beginning of a word or before another vowel, so that was out. 

When I am introduced to a Ms Vong from Macau, I always pronounce it ‘wong’ (as I do with Wangs and Huangs from the Mainland or Taiwan).  This is not just because I harbour lascivious thoughts and seek to impress.  Indeed, my main reason is to irritate and confuse fellow westerners, such as my friend Odell, who struggles mightily with the idea that when the Roman alphabet is used to represent other languages, the letters’ values may not be the ones he knows.  Thus Qingdao starts with a ‘ch’ and Qatar with a hard ‘g’. 

So Macau’s Nam Van is in fact Nam Wan, which most people will have little trouble guessing means South Bay. 

After explaining all this, I will lean forward to my friend Odell and say, “So everything’s fine, right?”  And he will mumble about how yes, he thinks he gets it.  And then I will say, “No, you’re wrong, because the average Canto-person in the street pronounces ‘nam’ as ‘lam’.” 


 

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