Accessible Published by De Gruyter Mouton January 6, 2016

Facilitation of transference: The case of monosyllabic salience in Hong Kong Cantonese

David C. S. Li, Cathy S. P. Wong, Wai Mun Leung and Sam T. S. Wong
From the journal Linguistics


Drawing on Clyne’s (2003) explanatory framework of facilitation, this study presents evidence of monosyllabic salience in Hong Kong Cantonese. Grounded in the perceptual salience of bilingual speakers of two or more languages (Clyne 1997: 95), facilitation extends Clyne’s earlier work on triggering (1967, 1980), which seeks to explain why linguistic (phonological, lexical, syntactic, semantic, etc.) features of one’s earlier-acquired language(s) may be transferred to languages learned or used later. In a corpus of texts appearing in informal discourse of Hong Kong Chinese newspaper columns in the mid-1990s (Li et al. 2014), a large number of monosyllabic English words, occurring as unintegrated insertions (Muysken 2000), were found. Building on Luke and Lau’s (2008) empirically supported insight that Cantonese verbs and adjectives are more characteristically monosyllabic compared with nouns, we present additional evidence in support of the Monosyllabic Salience Hypothesis (MSH): (i) shorter average word length in Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin, as evidenced in miscellaneous wordlists, including the Leipzig-Jakarta list (Tadmor et al. 2010: 239–241) and the World Loanword Database (WOLD) online (Haspelmath and Tadmor 2009); (ii) the truncation of the first syllable of polysyllabic words embedded in the A-not-A structure; (iii) bilingual punning; and (iv) monosyllabic Romanized Cantonese words (e.g., chok, chur, hea).

1 Introduction

Following the exponential expansion of the Internet and tremendous technological advancement since the 1990s, both the quality and efficiency of electronic communication has been significantly improved. Impact of this development can be felt in many facets of everyday life, for instance, calling someone or sending images – still or animated – over a distance is now much easier. The battle among transnational consortiums and providers of electronic gadgets to win over the hearts of end-users worldwide has been driving one technological breakthrough after another, with enhanced user-friendliness being the ticket to success. As a correlate of English being used as an international lingua franca, for example in marketing campaigns, one linguistic consequence of this development is the growing visibility, and versatility, of the letters i and e. Following the example of e-mail, an initial attempt to replace the longer electronic mail, the transnational corporate giant of e-gadgets, Apple Inc., decided to name its new products strategically with i: iPhone, iPad, iPod and iTunes. In effect, i has become a one-syllable substitute for internet, in the same way that e has taken the place of electronic where linguistic parsimony matters to the speakers/writers and their interlocutors. Among the more recent neologisms involving these two morphemes are e-learning, e-channel, iMedia, and iTouch (hyphen increasingly dispreferred, except when parsing may be a problem, e.g., e-gadget and e-channel).

Since advertising space is costly, marketing professionals are keen for their target clients to remember their products. It is therefore not surprising that marketing experts seek every possible means to get their message across concisely, hence the appeal of monosyllabic words and morphemes like e- and i-, but also compounds and abbreviations such as Facebook and the now defunct ICQ (‘I seek you’). A quick search of IT applications and gadgets – IT itself being another revealing example of this trend – yielded the following functions and product names: app (clipped from application), Chat, Dontalk, Snapchat and Talk. Long expressions tend to be abbreviated (e.g., GB, OS, SMS), especially if this results in an acronym pronounceable as a syllable (e.g., RAM and WAP). As of the time of writing, Samsung promotes a new smartphone function called kill switch, which allows the owner to deactivate the device if it is lost or stolen. All this suggests that monosyllabic English words have a strong appeal among marketing professionals of IT products.

In a corpus of texts collected from written Hong Kong Chinese newspaper columns (Li et al. 2014), which are characterized by adherence to vernacular-style and plenty of Cantonese-English code-mixing, we found a large number of monosyllabic English words (MEWs) which, following Muysken (2000), are mostly insertions into Hong Kong Written Chinese (HKWC, Shi 2006). This study is an attempt to account for the preponderance of MEWs in Hong Kong Cantonese and Written Chinese.

2 Theoretical framework in this study

In light of varying terminologies in research on language contact, we find it useful to adopt a set of terms that would subsume what is elsewhere referred to by various scholars as “code-switching”, “code-mixing”, “code-alternation” and “borrowing”, among others. Toward this end, we will follow Clyne’s (2003) terminological delineation as follows:

A ‘transfer’ is an instance of transference, where the form, feature of construction has been taken over by the speaker from another language, whatever the motives or explanation for this. ‘Transference’ is thus the process and a ‘transfer’ the product.

(Clyne 2003: 76)

Transfer or transference may take place at different levels – lexical, semantic, phonetic/phonological, prosodic, tonemic, graphemic, morphological and syntactic, and any combinations of these (Clyne 2003: 76). They free us from a concern, to what extent the transfers in question have been integrated (partially or fully, the latter being more like borrowings comprehensible to monolingual speakers), or are unintegrated into the recipient language, from ephemeral “nonce loans” that would fail to catch on as a result of low social acceptability in society (see Onysko 2007: 37–38 for a critical discussion), to frequently occurring insertions whose pronunciation approximates that of the source language. This point is especially important as much of the data reported in this study comes from written sources, where the English words inserted into Chinese texts cover a wide range, from “nonce loans” to frequently-occurring switches.

At the heart of Clyne’s (2003) explanatory framework is facilitation, a construct which he considers more precise and less controversial than the earlier concept of “triggering” (p. 162; cf. Clyne 1967, 1980). Clyne (2003) shows convincingly how, in a migration settlement context like Australia, different community languages of European (including via Latin America such as Italian and Spanish) and Asian origin undergo various linguistic changes under more or less the same language contact conditions, with English as the common nexus. Rather than universalist constraints on code-switching (e.g., Equivalence Constraint, Free Morpheme Constraint, Government Constraint, Conjunction Constraint), Clyne (2003: Ch. 3) demonstrates that code-switching data presented in previous models and analyses are more productively seen as strong tendencies resulting from one or more facilitating principles that account for “transversion” (term he prefers to code-switching) at the lexical, tonal/prosodic, and syntactic levels.

With the help of a wealth of data sets involving bilingual and trilingual speakers of various community languages as diverse as German, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Spanish and Vietnamese, Clyne presents solid evidence showing how unintegrated transfers such as proper nouns in the embedded language, and bilingual homophones which have an identical or similar pronunciation as a matrix language counterpart facilitate transversion (Principle 1, “lexical facilitation”, pp. 162–175). Likewise, drawing on bilingual data from Mandarin and the Vietnamese communities, Clyne shows a similar mechanism at work at the tonal-prosodic level, where the matrix language “lexical items in a tonal language whose tone is identified with the pitch and stress of the non-tonal language in contact are liable to facilitate (though not necessarily cause) transversion” (p. 175; Principle 2, “tonal facilitation”, pp. 175–177). At the syntactic level, where syntactic structures occur or where contact-induced syntactic convergence has taken place, the points of convergence are often perceived as “triggers” or sites of switching, which allow the speaker to proceed in any of the languages in the language dyad or triad, thereby facilitating transversion (Principle 3, “syntactic overlap/transference/convergence [secondary facilitation]”, pp. 177–179). One instructive illustration involves “multiple transference” of the collocation for lunch, uttered by a second-generation German-speaker, in what Clyne calls anticipational (as opposed to consequential) facilitation of transversion:

WirhabenausFOR LUNCHgegangen
Homeland Ger.:Wir sind zum Mittag ausgegangen

‘We went out for lunch’

(MGP 161–162; second generation) [52 in Clyne (2003: 178)]

Here, we see evidence of syntactic convergence to English, as shown in the choice of auxiliary haben (haben…gegangen) instead of sein ‘be’ (sind … gegangen), and the preposition aus, which was probably triggered by phonetic similarity with English out in out for lunch. It is termed “multiple transference” since out for lunch is not a single-word switch but a high-frequency collocation (cf. embedded language island, Myers-Scotton 1993). Clyne (2003) notes that syntactic overlap is only partial because the discontinuous structure, aux+participle, is maintained (i.e., it would have been total syntactic transference if the speaker had said Wir haben gegangen aus for lunch). Clyne comments that syntactic convergence and transference “function like other forms of convergence and overlap due to perceptual identification between items in the two languages as a potential facilitator of switching” (p. 178, emphasis in original). Perceptual salience is thus postulated as a theoretical premise behind facilitation. We will come back to this point later.

Additional compelling evidence comes from three data sets obtained from trilinguals: Dutch-German-English (DGE), Hungarian-German-English (HGE), and Italian-Spanish-English (ISE) (Clyne 1997). Under “Trilingual convergence” (Clyne 2003: 105–109), Clyne demonstrates that a strong “tendency for trilinguals to extend to the third language a feature shared by two of their languages is found at the lexical, semantic, syntactic, morphemic, phonological/prosodic levels” (p. 105), a feature characterized as “interlingual identification based on correspondences between two of the languages” (Clyne 1997: 95). Thus at the level of phonology, instead of pronuncia in homeland Italian, ISE trilinguals with Italian as L1 or L2 would pronounce it as pronunciazone, probably under the joint influence of Eng. pronunciation and Span. pronunciación. Similarly, homeland Ger. provinziell gave way to provinzial, aligning with Eng. provincial and Dut. provinciaal (Clyne 2003: 95). Where cognates exist, the prosodic pattern shared by two languages may exert pressure on the third. This is apparently why an HGE speaker pronounced the word for accent in Ger. as [’ɛksɛnt], which deviates from homeland Ger. Akzent [ak’tsɛnt] (compare: Eng.: accent [’aeksent]; Hung.: ékezet [’e:kɛzɛt], p. 108). Morphologically, among the DGE, homeland Ger. fused comparatives (e.g., normalste) gave way to analytic comparatives (e.g., meist normale; compare: Dut. meest normale; Eng. most normal, p. 107). At the syntactic level, to express the meaning ‘to like’, the English of ISE speakers shows a word order preference which is shared by Italian and Spanish, e.g., ‘The garden like it my wife’, where the experiencer (here, ‘my wife’) is placed at the end of the clause rather than being thematized as subject (compare: Il giardino piace a mia moglie; El jardin le gusta a mi mujer, pp. 106–107). Apart from the variety and sheer amount of solid evidence from different language dyads and triads with English as the common nexus, Clyne (2003) demonstrates convincingly that transference, often manifested as transversion (code-switching), is often motivated by overlaps or similarities in the linguistic subsystems of the languages in contact: lexical, tonal/prosodic, and syntactic.

After reviewing various language processing models to date, Clyne (2003: Ch. 6) draws implications and concludes that:

Each language constitutes a network. The networks are connected through items that are linked because such items (lexemes, tones) are (perceived to be) part of, or employed in, more than one language. Thus, using any item from a particular network is sufficient to activate the network (language) of which it is part or with which it is identified. There is also a secondary facilitation, where activation according to a similar procedure is further assisted by overlap in, and convergence of, grammatical structures that are the same. Transversion may be facilitated by anticipating a trigger-item or in consequence of one. (Perceived) overlaps in the lexicon and also in the prosody and syntax of the languages function as gateways to another network.

(Clyne 2003: 211–212)

Clyne’s hypothesis of tonal/prosodic facilitation (Clyne 2003: 175–177) is based essentially on the data sets collected from second-generation and young first-generation Mandarin-English bilinguals and first-generation Vietnamese-English bilinguals. In both cases, a strong correlation was found between the pitch level of the words immediately before a switch to English (Viet.: 85.46%; 33.41% in Tone 1 or high pitch, and 51.95% in Tone 2 or 3 mid pitch; Mand.: 96.49% of switches came after fourth (53, falling), half-third (35, falling then rising; and neutral). Clyne (2003: 175) argues that “[w]ords with these tones bring speakers into the tonal range which is also possible in English, i.e., which overlaps in the two languages”. This appears to facilitate transversion and transference from Vietnamese and Mandarin, respectively, into English.

Clyne’s notion of perceptual salience, the modus operandi behind facilitation of transference across languages, arguably underlies the theories in a few other prominent language contact studies. For instance, perceptual salience, which plays a crucial role in Field’s (2002) critical examination of hierarchies of borrowability based on the morphological typologies of the languages in contact, is subsumed in two complementary principles: Principle of System Compatibility (PSC) and Principle of System Incompatibility (PSI), which he applies to account for the extensive borrowing of Spanish into Modern Mexicano (Nahuatl). Field’s (2002) findings are neatly summarized by Comrie in the foreword as follows:

the borrowing language’s morphological typology – whether it is isolating, agglutinating, or fusional – will constrain the possibility of borrowing features from another language. An isolating language can borrow neither agglutinating nor fusional morphology. An agglutinating language can borrow agglutinating, but not fusional morphology. A fusional language can borrow both agglutinating and fusional morphology.

(Comrie 2002: x)

Facilitation mediated by perceptual salience is also clearly at work in graphic borrowing, which represents the focus of Hansell’s (2002) functional analysis of lexical borrowing. Hansell observes that graphic borrowing “requires not only that both languages be written but that they also share a common script. English can borrow graphically from French but not from Japanese while Japanese can borrow from Chinese but not Arabic, etc.” (p. 156, emphasis in original). Two of Hansell’s illustrations of graphic borrowing or transference are particularly instructive (2002: 157–158). First, the morpho-syllables 社 and 會, which had been borrowed from Classical Chinese into Japanese earlier, were combined to form a Japanese neologism 社會 (shakai) in the late nineteenth century to render the western concept of ‘society’ (written as 社会 in both kanji and simplified Chinese). This bisyllabic word was subsequently re-borrowed into Mandarin (shèhuì) for that modern meaning (compare borrowing of morphemes written in a different writing system: Ger. Automobil < auto- from Greek αυτο- ‘own, self’+Latin mobilis ‘moveable’; Eng. television via Fre. cognate télévision < tele- from Greek τηλε- ‘far away’+Latin vision- ‘sight’; Hartmut Haberland, p. c.). Second, Eng. boycott was transliterated in Hong Kong Cantonese as 杯葛 bui1 got3, [1] but the two morpho-syllables were later borrowed into Mandarin, albeit pronounced differently: bēigĕ. These examples lend strong support to Hansell’s view that the sharing of a common script facilitates or “expands the possibilities for interaction between languages, especially lexical borrowing” (2002: 154).

We believe Clyne’s (2003) twin postulate of perceptual salience and facilitation lends itself very well to explaining a large number of MEW (monosyllabic English word) insertions in Hong Kong Cantonese, which is arguably due to a community-wide perception of MEWs being functionally akin to Cantonese morpho-syllables. This claim logically entails linguistic evidence of the perceptual salience of the Cantonese morpho-syllable. Below, we will first present a list of MEWs separated by word class in our 1990s corpus of written data collected from informal sections of the Hong Kong Chinese quality press (Li et al. 2014). Then, to contextualize how MEWs are used in Hong Kong Chinese newspapers, we will outline the findings of a survey of reader response to one comic strip containing MEWs. Our key research question is: Roughly one in five English words inserted into Hong Kong Cantonese is monosyllabic, suggesting that MEWs are treated on par as Cantonese morpho-syllables. What linguistic evidence is there to facilitate transference?

3 MEWs in Hong Kong Cantonese mixed code: Corpus data in the 1990s

The preponderance of MEWs in Cantonese first came to our attention when processing data consisting of mainly Hong Kong Chinese newspaper columns collected in the mid-1990s – when the Internet was just beginning to become popular, and Chinese word-processing was technically rather difficult. The size of the corpus is about 600,000 Chinese characters. Data came from three main sources: Hong Kong Economic Times (香港經濟日報), Hong Kong Economic Journal (信報), and Ming Pao (明報). These sources may be broadly characterized as “quality press” (as opposed to “popular press”) material. A column typically contains no more than 400 characters, and the topic is usually thought to be of interest to readers (e.g., personal commentary on a recent news story) or within the columnist’s expertise. The columns, in the form of clippings, were collected randomly as they came to the attention of the first author; they were selected usually because there were one or two points of linguistic interest, of which one had to do with the insertion of some English element in Chinese. The clippings were sorted according to their points of interest. They were inputted into a database only recently. Since columns and other soft genres like adverts, cartoons and infotainment news stories are usually outside the scope or target of large-scale databases such as Linguistic Variation in Chinese Speech Communities (LIVAC, Tsou et al. 2011;, our data is qualitatively different from mainstream Chinese databases in that, by virtue of text type and content, Hong Kong columnists are usually able to draw on vernacular-based norms more freely without meeting with editors’ disapproval. This makes for an interesting writing style, and space, where vernacular-based writing proliferates (Snow 2004). Such a writing style has a precursor dated from the 1950s known as saam1 kap6 dai2 (三及第, origin related to “imperial examination’s three top honours”, Cheung and Bauer 2002), where modern Chinese is blended creatively, sometimes unexpectedly and humorously, along with elements from classical Chinese and Cantonese (Wong 2002). This is the background against which insertion of English words of various lengths is seen by Hong Kong Cantonese speakers and readers as perfectly natural, which is rather different from prevailing norms for hard news stories.

With the help of two research assistants, who were instructed to proofread each other’s typed drafts by cross-checking the original clippings, all the monosyllabic English word (MEW) types and tokens were entered into an Excel file. Table 1 gives an overview of the word types listed alphabetically according to word class (Table 1; those bolded in red appear in five different texts or more).

Table 1:

List of monosyllabic English words: 156 Noun types, 66 Verb types, and 40 Adjective types.

MEW Noun types (n=156)MEW Verb types (n=66)MEW Adjective types (n=40)
air (footwear), aunt, ball (dancing party), band (education), band (music), bass, beat, belt, bench, bit, blues, board (committee), boss, booze, bow (tie), brick, brie, brunch, call (incl. call 機, ko1 gei1 ‘call-machine’), case (incident), cast, class, client, cloves, club, coke, cost, course (learning), course (dining), court, crowd, crude, cruise, cult (fashion), cut, dance, dip, dorm, drive (car), earth, grunge, face, fact, fan(s), fax, fear, feel, file (stationery), flames, folk, fool, form, friend(s), fun, funk, fur, gag, games, gays, gold, golf, good, grade, graph, grunge, guest(s), guide, guts, gym, haves (counterpart of not-haves), hip, home, hong, horn (car), house, in (fashion: a state of being ‘in’), jazz, job, key (musical sense, ‘啱 key’ aam1 key, literally ‘of the same key’, metaphorically ‘can get along’), king, kitsch, lab, lift, line (e-communication), live (object of the verb 唱 coeng3 ‘sing’: singing performance), look, lounge, lunch, man, mass, Miss (term of address for female teachers or adults in general), mood, mug, myth, nude, pain, pair, part, pets, phone, plaid, plot, plus, point(s), post, pub, punk, queen, quote, rap, ring, rock (music), role, roots, rose, sake, sales (salesperson), sand, say, scoop, sculpt, sell (embedded in ‘sell 屎’, sel1 si2, salesperson), set, shirt, shot (cinema/photography), show (performance), shorts, Sir (term of address for male teachers and officers of disciplinary forces), size, skill, snacks, speed, sport, start, stick, stool, strength, stripe, swing, tack, taste, tense (grammar), tips, touch, trash, trend, trust, van, vest, waif (fashion), wine, wire, wit, work, world, zoneact, ban, beat, book, call, care, charge, check, cut, do, drive, gel (one’s head, used as verb), choke (pipe in a car), fax, fit, fight, firm (confirm), flirt, get, go, guard, hint, hold, hug, hurt, jam, jump, keep, like, list, love, meet, mind, miss, naked, own, pay, plan, play, plug, pop (e.g., cough syrup), port (complain), print, quit, quote, sale (used like the verb ‘sell’), say, see (imperative: See!), sell, sense, serve, set, show, soft (so1 fu4 ‘have a good time’), spend, spit, study, sue, talk, tick, touch, win, work

(Three phonetic loans used as verbs: good [onomatopoeia gut2, in imitation of the sound of drinking, e.g., water]; high/hi [homophone of the Cantonese verb haai1 揩: ‘to touch’, ‘to get involved in’ but also psychological, e.g., ‘high 咳水’haai1 kat1 seoi2, ‘get high by abusing cough syrup’]; and wet [wet1, to have a good time, typically in the evening, e.g., at a sleazy party])
bare, blue, bold, both, camp (fashion), cheap, cool, crude, cult, cute, fine, firm, fit, friend (‘friendly’), gay, grunge, high (excited), hip, in, light, lone, loud, low, live (performance), mass, mod (recent fashion/style), pain, rave, sad, shot/short (both ‘deranged’, probably via Japanese), sick, slim, smart, spoil (used like ‘spoiled’), stuck, talk (hot [gossip]), top, tough, trash, yeah (trendy)

Below are six examples of MEWs, two each from three word classes (N.: band, Line; V.: call, Talk; and Adj.: cool, HIGH – upper or lower case as in original), showing how they appeared in our Chinese corpus.


張以式說:「好聽的 melody, 全在腦中, 夾 band 不需睇譜的!」

CheungYeeSiksaidpleasantNOM [2]MELODYallinhead

‘Cheung Yee Sik said, “pleasant melody, it’s all in the head; playing in a band, [there’s] no need to read musical notes!”’



玩 Line 好煩, 啲人成日都唔覆機。


‘Playing Line (making phone calls randomly) is troublesome. Others always don’t reply (to you).’



不過講得幾句, 志偉又被睡魔急 call, 頭一歪又想會周公。

bat1gwo3gong2dak1gei2geoi3,Chi Waijau6bei6seoi6mo1
buttalkonlya.fewsentenceChi Waiagainpasssleep.demon
gap1CALL,tau4jat1waai1jau6soeng2wui6Zau Gung
urgentCALLheadonceleanagainwantmeetZau Gung

‘But after uttering a few words, Chi Wai felt being called by a sleep-demon again, leaning his head [to one side] to meet with Zau Gung [Deity of Sleep].’



透過螢光幕與鍵盤與不同的對象 Talk。


‘Talk with various targets through the screen and keyboard.’



齊兄心地善良, 只可惜包裝甚 cool。

Cai Hingsam1dei2sin6loeng4,zi2ho2sik1baau1zong1sam6COOL
Cai Brotherkind-heartedonlypitypackagingveryCOOL

‘Brother Cai is kind-hearted, except that the way he is packaged is so cool.’



這隻「可卡因」吃後十分過癮, 好興奮, 好 HIGH 和 HAPPY。

ze2zek3‘ho2 kaa1 jan1’hek3hau6sap6fan1gwo3jan5,

‘After taking this cocaine, I feel really gratified and excited, very HIGH and HAPPY.’


As shown in Table 2, the ratio of monosyllabic and polysyllabic words is 18: 82 (or 1: 4.56), suggesting that roughly one in four to five inserted English words, including letter words in the corpus is monosyllabic (acronyms pronounceable as single syllables like RAM and WAP are treated as monosyllabic; abbreviations are polysyllabic, e.g., CD and DJ are disyllabic; IBM is trisyllabic).

Table 2:

Number of monosyllabic and polysyllabic English words (word types) and their percentages.

Insertions*Letter words (e.g., A, B, N, CD, DJ, IBM)SubtotalPercentage

Note: *Excluding letter words.

As illustrated in (2)–(7), the vast majority of MEWs (and polysyllabic English words, as in MELODY (2) and HAPPY (7)) occur as unintegrated single-word insertions – bare nouns, verbs or adjectives (Muysken 2000). There is no question that the matrix language in our corpus is Hong Kong written Chinese (HKWC) which, following Shi (2006), is characterized by considerable influence from Cantonese lexis and syntax, and from English to some extent. By virtue of these influences, readers tend to have the impression that HKWC follows the norms of speech (or vernacular style) rather than Mandarin-based standard written Chinese, which is the expected style for writing hard news stories, editorials, feature articles and other formal genres in public discourse.

4 Survey of reader response to a comic strip containing MEWs

As cartoons or comic strips typically feature social interaction in speech, it is not surprising that MEWs also figure prominently. One recent example consists of four panels, each of which contains one or more MEWs, as in (8) (text only; the four panels in the original appeared vertically, see Appendix 1 for the original).

三叔 Sm@rt P@use功能:唔望屏幕時video 會自動暫停播放……以上功能係咪真係咁 smart 呢?試想想當你睇恐怖片嘅時候…三叔驚你 miss 左…就幫你按 pause……等你擰返過嚟先繼續 play 俾你睇…
Panel 1Third Uncle’s Sm@rt P@use function: [if you] stop watching the screen, the video will automatically stop playing. Is the above function really that smart?Panel 2Imagine when you are watching a horror film…“Wow! This part is ultra-horrifying!!”Panel 3“Can’t fall asleep if [I] watch. [I] won’t watch!!” Third Uncle fears that you might have missed [that, and] helps you to press pause.Panel 4When you turn your face to the screen again, [Third Uncle would] continue to play and let you see [it].“RRRAAAWWWRRR”

(‘三叔有幾 smart?’, by Summer&Muu, Headline Daily, 2013–4–8, p. 14)

The first two syllables in the title ‘三叔有幾 smart?’ (Saam1 Suk1 jau5 gei2 smart? ‘How smart is Third Uncle’) is an unmistakable allusion to Samsung, the brand product being thematized (trade mark in Chinese: 三星, saam1 sing1). Samsung is one of the most popular brands for mobile phones in Hong Kong; it is often jokingly referred to by the kinship term Saam1 Suk1 (三叔 ‘Third Uncle’). By tracking the user’s eye movements, apparently the new model of e-gadget would pause if the user is detected as not viewing, and would continue once the e-gadget user’s attention is restored. The cartoonist makes fun of this new function. Of interest to us is the fact that five MEWs are used in addition to video, of which three are verbs (miss, pause, play), one adjective (smart) and one noun (part).

To ascertain whether MEWs such as these are commonly used among Cantonese-English bilinguals in Hong Kong, a survey was carried out with about 400 students studying at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (84%) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (13%) from October to November, 2013. Aged between 18 and 21, the respondents were mainly first-year students (94%, the rest second-year). The gender ratio, female-male, was about 3:1. In terms of their majors, 36% indicated a discipline in the humanities, 35% in business, 23% in social sciences and 6% in science. Nearly two-thirds (74%) of the respondents were born in Hong Kong and the rest (26%) were born outside of Hong Kong. Besides, 82% of all respondents indicated that Cantonese was their first language.

An e-questionnaire was used as instrument to tap into our students’ awareness to what extent such MEWs were familiar to them, and whether they themselves would use them (Appendix 2). It consisted of 12 multiple choice questions. A small-scale pilot was carried out with over 10 students before the actual survey, and their feedback was used to fine-tune the wording of the questions. The survey was conducted in the respective lessons of the authors at the beginning or the end of our classes. The cartoon was first projected on the screen and the purpose and content of the questionnaire were briefly explained before the survey started. The respondents were asked to key in their choices via their mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and netbooks. It took approximately 15 minutes to complete the e-questionnaire. All students were requested to send their completed questionnaire to a designated e-address. A total of 392 valid questionnaires were successfully collected.

After analysing the data using descriptive statistics, two main findings came to light. Firstly, the result shows that most of the respondents (74%) were familiar with the discourse and language use patterns of comic strips in Hong Kong Chinese newspapers such as the one in (8). The use of MEWs in the comic strip (8) did not present any literacy problems, except for the Mandarin-dominant respondents (19%) from mainland China. About half of them mentioned the reason(s) why they did not understand the expressions in the comic strip (e.g., don’t speak/read Cantonese; words are difficult). Interestingly, Cantonese was the cause of literacy problems rather than MEWs. Secondly, 95% of the respondents were able to provide examples illustrating how they themselves would use those MEWs, while 82% replied that the MEWs in the comic strip sounded natural to them in both spoken and written forms. Further, some 77% indicated that they would use those MEWs when communicating in Cantonese in their daily life. In short, the survey results provide empirical evidence that MEWs like those used in the comic strip (8) are indeed commonly found and used by Hong Kong Chinese students in their social interaction with others. The result of the survey suggests that for educated Chinese bilingual speakers, MEWs constitute an additional pool of linguistic resources for meaning-making. In what follows, we will briefly outline the context of Cantonese-English contact, the types of transference reported in the literature and how tightly they are integrated into Cantonese, before presenting evidence in support of the Monosyllabic Salience Hypothesis (MSH) in Cantonese.

5 The context of Cantonese-English contact in Hong Kong

Until 30 June 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony for over 150 years. Since the colonial period, in the formal curriculum English is introduced from primary to the end of secondary levels. In practice, English has been an integral part and, in some residential areas, a selling point of pre-primary institutions to attract pupils. Consequently, all children growing up in Hong Kong learn their ABC and some basic English vocabulary before formal schooling starts at primary. Under the nine-year compulsory education policy (Grade 1–Grade 9), which has been extended to 12 years from September 2012 (Grade 12), all secondary school-leavers have learned English for over 10 years, with those students (roughly 30% of every cohort) receiving English-medium education having considerably more exposure to English. Hence young people in Hong Kong have quite a bit of English as a meaning-making resource in addition to Cantonese. At the tertiary level, in general, English is an important subject and medium of instruction (MoI) for most disciplines in all of the eight government-funded tertiary institutions.

There is some evidence that when conversation topics related to school work and university life are invoked, Hong Kong students find it difficult not to code-switch to English. Li (2011) invited 43 students in Hong Kong and 65 in Taiwan to take part in an experimental study. At a briefing, students were asked to use only their dominant local language for one day (Cantonese in Hong Kong, Mandarin in Taiwan) and to report on “rich” experiences that happened to them. With the help of an e-template for jotting down ‘who speaks what to whom and when’ and expressions that they wanted to use but could not, students wrote a diary up to two pages reflecting on their feelings, giving details of one or two rich events that left them a deep impression. These diaries were then collected and salient events reported were extracted as stimulus material for more in-depth discussion at a two-hour focus group interview attended by students studying the same discipline (cf. Li and Tse 2002). The results revealed evidence of a “medium-of-learning effect” (MOLE); when reference is made to subject-specific content, technical concepts learned in English or school events (for Hong Kong participants in particular), they felt seriously inconvenienced by not being able to use English. As one would expect, the MOLE effect is more marked among Hong Kong students than their Taiwanese peers, probably because English is used less extensively as MoI in Taiwan.

6 Types of transference in Hong Kong

With Clyne (2003), we regard words or linguistic features from English as instances of transfer, irrespective of whether they are invoked following English pronunciation norms and traditionally analyzed as code-switching (some never occurred again – nonce loans), or closely integrated into the recipient language (i.e., loanwords). The process and types of transference may differ. Broadly, depending on the linguistic level, we can distinguish between phonological (including prosodic), lexical, syntactic, semantic, and graphemic transference. All of these types of transference have been reported in Cantonese-English contact research in Hong Kong, including Cantonese-English interaction among university students (Chan 2003, 2009a; Li and Tse 2002), Chinese newspapers (Li 2000a, 2000b), Canto-pop music (Chan 2009b), and transference of the “Sino-alphabet” (Hansell 2002) or letter words (i.e., letter names and abbreviations, Cheung and Bauer 2002; Li 2000a, 2000b) across different print and multimedia genres.

The frequent contact between English and Cantonese in Hong Kong has brought about the integration of a large number of English loanwords in Hong Kong Cantonese (Wong et al. 2009). These loanwords have led to an influx of “loanword syllables”. According to Bauer and Wong (2010), there exist a total of 78 such syllables in Hong Kong Cantonese, an expansion from 40 in 1997 to 49 in 2006 as documented in Bauer and Benedict (1997) and Bauer (2006) respectively. These loanword syllables are “non-occurring syllables or unused syllables which represent both accidental and systematic gaps in the syllabary” (Bauer and Wong 2010: 7). For example, the loanword syllable [wɛn55], from the English word van, is commonly used in phrases such as [hʊŋ21 wɛn55] and [lʊk22 wɛn55] (literally ‘red van’ and ‘green van’, referring to two types of mini buses in the public transport system). The syllable [wɛn55] did not exist in the Cantonese syllabary, which means that although the individual vowel [ɛ] and consonants ([w] and [n]) are phonemes of Cantonese, the combination of all three as [wɛn55] was not used in any existing Cantonese word, until the loanword [wɛn55] appeared. It figures prominently in the title of a recent Hong Kong film, which is often referred to in infotainment stories elliptically as《糹工 VAN》(hung4 wen1). Similarly, the loanword syllable [khɔ55] used to be an unused syllable. It originated from the English word call and is only used in the loanword noun phrase [khɔ55 gei55] (‘beeper’ or ‘pager’) or as verb, as in [khɔ55 ŋɔ23] ‘call me’.

What is more intriguing is that some of these new loanword syllables do not conform to what is traditionally known as “the labial-dissimilation constraint”. This rule from Cantonese phonotactics predicts that labially articulated vowels do not combine with labially articulated final consonants (Bauer and Wong 2010: 18), but this rule may be relaxed in baby talk, onomatopoeia expressions and loanwords. The three new loanword rhymes that show such a feature are [ɔm], [œm], and [ɔp]. The rhyme [ɔm] can be found in the loanwords [fɔm55] (for ‘form’ as in an application form) or [wɔm55] (for ‘warm’). The rhyme [œm] is used in loanwords such as [fœm55] (for ‘firm’, or ‘to confirm’) or [pœm55] (for ‘permanent’). The third rhyme [ɔp] can be found in loanwords like [pa55 thɔp55] (for ‘bra top’) or [tsɔp55] (for ‘job’).

Research since the 1980s has shown that individual English content words and expressions are often “mixed” into Hong Kong Cantonese and informal written Chinese (Chan and Kwok 1990). Consonant with previous research in other language-contact settings, nouns are more commonly transferred than verbs and adjectives. Most of the reported cases of lexical transfer are insertions (Muysken 2000), but a few verbs would trigger lexico-syntactic transference (Clyne 1991, 2003), where the V-O pattern in English is preferred to the verb-specific O-V pattern in Cantonese. For example, compared with (9), (10) is far more frequently used:




‘I need to upload the photo onto the internet.’


我要 upload 張相上網


‘I need to upload the photo onto the internet.’

Today, since upload has been calqued as soeng6 zoi3 (上載) and become widely accepted, they are treated very much like lexical variants depending on the speaker, interlocutor(s), and the context at large. Similar examples are commonly found with other causative verbs such as undo, unstar, update and upgrade (Li 2000a: 317). The “code-mixed” pattern as in (10) is preferred probably for its simpler valency relations (Clyne 2003: 114), much like in Australia German-speaking migrants gradually shifted to remember(n) in their community language in place of their homeland German counterpart sich erinnern an (reflexive pronoun sich, preposition an, plus accusative). Similar evidence has been found among second-generation Croatian-English bilinguals, where remember is preferred to homeland Croatian sjeam+ACC, which requires a reflexive clitic se, plus the marking of the agent and patient in the nominative and genitive, respectively (Hlavac 2000; cited in Clyne 2003: 114). As Clyne has pointed out, such cases of lexico-syntactic transference may be due to the bilingual’s attempt to maintain grammaticality.

Semantic transference involves mapping the meaning of an English morpheme onto an existing Cantonese morpheme, resulting in expansion in the latter’s semantic scope. For instance, Shi (2006) has found that under the influence of English, the Cantonese verb fan1 hoeng2 分享 ‘share’ may be used in reference to negative experiences, a usage which is considered anomalous in Mandarin (fēnxiăng). Similarly, since the 1990s the morpho-syllable 芒 (mong1, as in mong1 gwo2 芒果, ‘mango’, e.g., ceng1 mong1 青芒 ‘green mango’; graphic variant mon) has been popularly used to refer to the ‘monitor’ (of a computer), resulting in semantic expansion or extension of 芒.

As for graphemic transference, perhaps the best-known example is the letter D (di1, possessive marker or nominalizer in Cantonese), which in informal written Cantonese is often preferred to the homophonous but considerably more complex (including in electronic communication) Chinese character 啲. Other English letters borrowed into Hong Kong Cantonese include B, D, E, K, T, Q, and X (Cheung and Bauer 2002). Still other letters have been found in more recent research (e.g., U for ‘university’, Chan 2011). As electronic communication gradually became more powerful and convenient to use, plenty of innovative examples of graphemic transference in Roman script may be found in all sorts of social media like ICQ and more recently facebook, twitter and whatsapp, for example, Romanized adjectives like hea (he3, ‘laid-back’ or ‘tardy’), chok (cok3, ‘suffocating’) and chur (coe2, ‘hard pressed for time’) (see Section 7.5). These are all Cantonese morphemes, whose written forms are clearly modeled on English (compare: heavy, choked and church). While it may not be easy to trace their origin, it seems safe to assume that such Cantonese morphemes written in Roman script first caught on in speech among young Cantonese-English bilinguals, before being popularized in their e-communication.

There is also some evidence of syntactic transference in Hong Kong Written Chinese (HKWC, Shi 2006). Thus, the pervasive use of the English structure ‘it is time (for someone) to do something’ has led to a widely used Anglicized structure in Hong Kong Chinese media, as in clauses beginning with si6 si4 hau6… (是時候…, ‘it is time to…’), sometimes with a locative expression occupying the subject position, which is not admissible in standard Chinese. For instance:



Hong Kongistimeagainimportlive chickensfp

‘It is time for Hong Kong to import live chickens again.’

(Slightly modified, adapted from Shi 2006: 310)

With regard to the crucial question, whether the patterns of lexical transference are more appropriately seen as code-switching or borrowing, Clyne (2003: 142–152) proposes three parameters to probe into the extent of integration: types, degree and stability. The types of transference outlined above suggest a fairly high level of integration; corroborative evidence may also be found in the two other parameters. In what follows, we will illustrate how tightly knitted MEWs are in Hong Kong Cantonese.

Regarding the degree of integration, sound evidence of close integration may come from the conversion of the source language word into a verb using the regular verb morpheme (e.g., Ger. -ieren: farmerieren ‘to farm’, literally ‘to farmer’; gärtnerieren ‘to garden’ among migrants in Australia, Clyne 2003: 111), or the use of plural or case marking in the recipient language. Cantonese being an isolating language, no such morphological evidence may be found; unintegrated English verbs and adjectives transferred into Cantonese typically appear as bare forms (i.e., free from any tense, person/number, or comparative/superlative marking). A high-frequency noun like fans (often capitalized as Fans) appears to carry the plural morpheme, whereas it is sometimes found in contexts where the number of ‘fans’ being referred to consist of just one person (jat1 go3 Fans, ‘a fans’; compare: Danish en hotdogs, ‘one/a hot dog’ and Ger. Keks (singular) < Eng. cakes, Hartmut Haberland, p. c.). The singular form is dispreferred probably because the word is invariably realized in speech as a bisyllabic word: fen1 si2 (often written as FAN 屎).

Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that English verbs and adjectives are commonly suffixed by aspect markers such as perfective -zo2 (e.g., outzo2 ‘[the ball] is out’), experiential -gwo3 (e.g., passgwo3 ‘has passed’), progressive -gan2 (e.g., rungan2, ‘is running [the program]’), and tentative aspect marked by verb reduplication, typically to soften a request (e.g., m4 goi1 bong1 ngo5 check check aa1, ‘please check [it] for me’). English adjectives may be affixed with the comparative marker di1 (ni1 go3 cheap di1, ‘this is cheaper’) or -gwo3 (nei5 fit gwo3 ngo5, ‘you are fitter than me’) and the superlative (nei5 zeoi3 friend, ‘you are the most friendly’). These illustrations show that MEWs can be inserted into Cantonese like other Cantonese morphemes. Also, the word class of an MEW insertion may shift, as when friend is used like an adjective.

Further evidence of close integration involves polysyllabic English words (PEWs) in syntactic frames such as the A-not-A (yes-no question) structure. For instance, in the Hong Kong white-collar workplace, it is very common to embed the adjective available in this structure (12) (see Section 7.4).


你 aa6 唔 available 呀?


‘Are you available?’

Close integration of MEWs is also evidenced in the common practice of bilingual punning, which is very common in Hong Kong advertising language. MEWs such as fun, high and phone are often blended into Cantonese to create additional semantic nuances (Li 2000a; cf. Li and Costa 2009; see Section 7.3). There is thus strong evidence that for Cantonese-English bilinguals in Hong Kong, MEWs constitute a pool of additional resources with regard to the rhetorical function of punning. Notice that in Cantonese, a syllable is the minimal segmental unit of punning, whatever the linguistic resource. Thus in the wake of the Edward Snowden affairs, a widely reported sub-syllabic pun like ‘Yes, we scan’ by European protesters, in mockery of President Obama’s election campaign slogan ‘Yes, we can’ during his first official visit to Germany in June 2013, cannot be replicated in Cantonese (or Chinese) because Chinese, and Japanese kana, “both permit phonological processing (…), but not of units as small as a phoneme” (Hansell 2002: 152–153).

As for the third parameter, stability, Clyne (2003: 146–147, 210) notes that speakers belonging to tight social networks tend to be more conservative toward maintaining community language norms, an attitude less adhered to when speaking to others. In Hong Kong, thanks to the implementation of 9-year compulsory education for children from primary level (recently extended to 12-year since September 2012), the level of English literacy among young people is quite high. Further, as Hong Kong is in the forefront of and testing ground for new IT gadgets, the use of electronic media is widespread and very popular among young people, from (earlier) ICQ and MSN to facebook, twitter and whatsapp. The ratio of cellular phones per person is also among the highest in the world. Thus linguistic innovations tend to catch on quickly, subject to their perceived trendiness and popularity among members of various networks of bilinguals big and small across different age groups. Thanks to the convenience afforded by various forms of social media and the many channels through which code-switching could be produced, displayed or shared, it usually does not take long for English words embedded in code-switching – pervasive and ubiquitous Hong Kong wide – to stabilize and become linguistic borrowings.

7 Evidence of monosyllabic salience in Cantonese

7.1 Truncation of polysyllabic words to monosyllables

To our knowledge, Luke and Lau (2008) is the most comprehensive study that presents solid evidence in support of a strong tendency of monosyllabicity in Hong Kong Cantonese, especially with regard to verbs and adjectives. Earlier research showed that there was a widely postulated bisyllabic minimality constraint bearing on loanwords adapted into Cantonese through some productive processes such as epenthesis and deletion (see, e.g., Yip 1993, 2002), such as those in (13):

Epenthesis: fluke>fuː21lʊk5cream>kei22liːm55
Deletion: broker>pʊk5k’a25freezer>fiː55saː25

Based on an analysis of 1447 loanwords (with 1,833 variant forms) collected from two periods: 1970s–1990s (554 “old loans”, 660 variants, 38.3%), and 1990s- (893 “new loans”, 1,173 variants, 61.7%), Luke and Lau (2008) found that the constraint applies to Cantonese nouns but does not apply to verbs and adjectives. Such an asymmetry is clearly evidenced in their “new loans” subcorpus, which contains 35% more verbs and adjectives than in their “old loans” subcorpus (p. 351). Further, in their “new loans” subcorpus, many more monosyllabic truncated verbs and adjectives were found (44 out of 448, or 9.82%), as opposed to 23 out of 1,298 nouns (1.77%). The figures were shown to be statistically significant. Interestingly, without any exception, all truncated verbs and adjectives are monosyllabic, whereas truncated nouns are mostly bisyllabic (p. 352). This result led Luke and Lau (2008) to conclude that “verbs, as opposed to nouns, are found to be much more prone to undergoing ‘monosyllabic truncation’” (p. 347), and that such a “marked difference between [Cantonese] nouns and verbs suggests a strong relationship between word class status and word length” (p. 352). Luke and Lau (2008) then draw three implications from their analysis, of which the second is especially relevant to our discussion here: when verbs and adjectives undergo truncation, they are almost always reduced to a single syllable (Tables 3 and 4).

Table 3:

Typical verb and adjective truncations (adapted from Table 3, Luke and Lau 2008: 352).

Source wordCantonese adaptationTruncated form
register (v.)>[wɛːk5tʃɐs21taː21][wɛːk5]
professional (a.)>[phow22fɛːt5ʃɵn21noʊ21][phow22]
duplicate (v.)>[tuːp5phɪk1kej21], [tuːp5phlɪk1kej21][tuːp5]
demonstrate (v.)>[tɛːm55mɔːn21stʃwhej21][tɛːm55]
differentiate (v.)>[tiː22fɛːn55ʃiː21ej21][tiː22], [tiː55]
factorize (v.)>[fɛːk55thɔː21waːjs21][fɛːk55]
interview (v.)>[jiːn55th21wiːw21], [jiːn55th21fiːw21][jiːn55]
Table 4:

Typical noun truncations (adapted from Table 4, Luke and Lau 2008: 352).

Source wordCantonese adaptationTruncated form

More interesting still are those English lexemes with identical spelling and pronunciation except for their word class. Luke and Lau (2008) provide seven such examples (see Table 5, p. 353). In each of these (mostly) bisyllabic English words, the adapted loanword nouns remain bisyllabic, while the verb counterparts are truncated.

Table 5:

Noun–verb asymmetry (adapted from Table 5, Luke and Lau 2008: 353).

Source wordVerbNounVerb usage/Noun usage
copy[khɐp55][khɔːp55ph21]to copy/a copy
fail (old loans)[fej21][fej21low25]to fail (an exam)/a fail
major[mej55][mej55tʃoeː21]to major in a subject/a major
minor[maːn55][maːn55naː21]to minor in a subject/a minor
reply[wiː22][wiː22phlaːj55]to reply/a reply
report (old loans)[phɔːt55][wiː22phɔːt55]to report/a report
tips (old loans)[thiːp5][thiːp5si25]to give a tip/a tip (or a piece of advice)

The examples in Table 5 provide strong evidence that phonologically and graphemically identical lexemes – here in their bare forms – are given different truncation patterns, with verbs being reduced to one syllable. Luke and Lau (2008) further tested the Cantonese noun-verb asymmetry by eliciting judgment data from 20 undergraduate or postgraduate students. A total of 36 sentences (9 loanwords×2 word classes×2 realizations) were generated using nine monosyllabic loanwords from the database, each being used as noun or verb and ending with a fricative or consonant cluster, the latter being phonotactically not allowed in Cantonese. Each of the 18 sentences was read out twice, with the target word being manipulated and realized as one syllable (e.g., pass) or two characterized by epenthesis (e.g., paa1 si4). The 20 subjects were forced to choose one realization that was more acceptable. The results were statistically significant, suggesting Cantonese speakers’ preference for monosyllabic forms when the words were used as verbs as opposed to nouns.

To explain the preference for monosyllabic verbs and adjectives in Cantonese, Luke and Lau (2008) translated the 207 words in the Swadesh List, representing “basic vocabulary” or native words that are unlikely to be borrowed from some other language. A colloquial version is used whenever alternative translations existed. The result shows that Cantonese has an average length of 1.09 syllables. Luke and Lau (2008) believe that this finding lends support to their hypothesis that, unlike Mandarin, native Cantonese words are still mostly monosyllabic, although such a tendency is not found in words belonging to three other “periphery” strata (Mandarin words; mimetic words including onomatopoeia and baby talk; and loanwords). Further corroborative evidence comes from an analysis of the 190,000-word Hong Kong Cantonese Corpus (HKCanCor) consisting of Hong Kong Cantonese conversations in the 1990s, where in everyday speech monosyllabic verbs (73.2%) outnumber their bisyllabic counterparts (26.2%) by a ratio of nearly three to one (p. 357).

Luke and Lau (2008) found that regardless of word class, polysyllabic English words tend to be truncated to monosyllables when used as Cantonese verbs or adjectives (e.g., the loanword noun 啤 be1 of 啤酒 be1 zau2 ‘beer’ can function as a monosyllabic verb). This leads the authors to believe that the widely attested bisyllabicity requirement may be true of Cantonese nouns (e.g., cream > gei6 lim1; freezer > fi1 saa2), but not of verbs/adjectives. According to our observation, it is indeed very common for polysyllabic English verbs to be truncated to monosyllables. This may be confirmed by several more recent examples in our field notes. Thus in one recent email (in English), the sender wrote:


The next AB meeting is 15 Jan 2014. Before this, we have to cir the paper to

[name withheld] again for views/endorsement. Here below is the timeline

for your reference…

Like other HEIs (higher-education institutions), whereas emails (especially formal ones) among bilingual Chinese colleagues tend to be written in English, conversation tends to be in mixed code. Here, we believe the writer transferred the norm of speech ([sœ55], truncated as cir, ‘circulate’) to writing. This is a clear example showing how the vernacular-style usage pattern in mixed code is transferred to more or less formal email communication in English.

7.2 The average word length of Cantonese

Luke and Lau’s (2008) findings are consonant with the degree of monosyllabicity in Cantonese. In an experimental study of the relationship between homophony and internal morphological change in Chinese, Tsou (1976: 82) elicited narrative data in Mandarin and Cantonese using two stories: “Confucius Confused” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The results showed that “the proportion of disyllabic types is much greater for Mandarin than for Cantonese”, as exemplified in Table 6.

Table 6:

Disyllabic words in Mandarin versus monosyllabic words in Cantonese (Tsou 1976: 78–79).

Meaning in EnglishMandarinCantonese
to quarrel (v)zhēngchăo 爭吵cou4
to perceive (v)gănjué 感覺gok3
to play (v)wánshuă 玩耍waan2
to say (v)gàosù 告訴waa6
be warm (adj.)nuănhé 暖和nyun5
matter, affair (n.)shìqíng 事情si6

According to Tsou, such findings:

point to a very interesting correlation between the rise of homophony and internal morphological developments in the dialects. Thus while Mandarin has undergone a much greater measure of syllabic simplification than Cantonese, it has, as a compensating factor, developed further in the direction of a polysyllabic or disyllabic language.

(Tsou 1976: 82)

More recently, a basic word list with a stronger empirical grounding, the Leipzig-Jakarta Word List, has been made available by Haspelmath (2008) and his associates (Haspelmath and Tadmor 2009; Tadmor et al. 2010) as one of the outcomes of their World Loanword Database (WOLD) project. They invited scholars to indicate whether the 1,460 word meanings adapted mainly from Mary Ritchie Key’s Intercontinental Dictionary Series are indigenous words or loanwords in the languages they examined. This approach has many advantages compared with a largely intuitive word list. Controlled for meanings from 24 semantic fields (, and analyzed for their borrowability score on a 5-point scale (1=“No evidence for borrowing”; 5=“Clearly borrowed”), each of the 1,460 meanings in the recipient language across 41 language projects generated a composite score to facilitate ranking. On the basis of the composite scores, a top-100 word list was produced (the Leipzig-Jakarta list, Tadmor et al. 2010: 239–241). Other lexicostatistics generated from this large-scale collaborative project include the “ranking of the languages with respect to the proportion of (clear or probable) loanwords in their vocabulary” (Tadmor et al. 2010: 230). Of the 41 languages, Mandarin ranks the lowest (1%) while English ranks fifth (41%). The 41 vocabulary lists, coordinated and maintained by the digital library of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, can be accessed online for easy comparison. The approach in this well-conceived, empirically grounded project has substantially helped complement theory-driven work that focuses on researching linguistic constraints as a paradigm for better understanding factors which impact on the paths (directions) and rates (frequency and speed) of language change.

On the basis of the 2,120 entries on the Mandarin Word List (, we worked out the Cantonese equivalents. When analyzing the Cantonese and Mandarin data, we found that often multiple entries may correspond with a given WOLD meaning (e.g., for meaning 1.212, ‘soil’, three entries are provided for Mandarin: tu3rang3 土壤, tu3di4 土地, and tu3 土). This happens to both Mandarin and Cantonese. For our purpose in this study, we excluded all those meanings in Mandarin and Cantonese with more than one entry, and analyzed only those with one entry. This process yielded 674 items in both languages (46.16% of the 1,460 word meanings on the WOLD list, Appendix 3). Of this subset, Mandarin shows a monosyllabic-polysyllabic (mono-poly) ratio of ca. 2:4 (228:446 > 51:100), while the corresponding ratio for Cantonese is ca. 3:4 (290:384 > 76:100) (Figure 1). A similar trend is found after the top 100 words in the Leipzig-Jakarta list are translated into Mandarin and Cantonese. Of the top 100 word meanings, 88 (mono-poly ratio ca. 9:1) and 73 (mono-poly ratio ca. 7:3) are monosyllabic in Cantonese and Mandarin, respectively (Appendix 3).

Figure 1: Monosyllabic-polysyllabic ratios in Mandarin vs. Cantonese.

Figure 1:

Monosyllabic-polysyllabic ratios in Mandarin vs. Cantonese.

These ratios are consistent with Luke and Lau’s (2008) finding that Cantonese is more characteristically monosyllabic compared with Mandarin. We believe this provides further evidence in support of the Hong Kong Cantonese community’s predilection for monosyllabicity, especially verbs and adjectives.

7.3 Bilingual punning

MEWs constitute a pool of additional resources for bilingual punning, which is very common in Hong Kong Chinese public discourse, especially advertising. Words such as fun, high and phone are among the most often blended into Cantonese to create additional semantic nuances. For example, biliterate readers have no difficulty reading FUN FUN 鐘, fan1 fan1 zung1, as ‘every FUN minute’, where FUN, homophonous with 分 (fan1), yields the double meaning ‘fun’ and ‘minute’ (compare: 分分鐘, fan1 fan1 zung1, ‘every minute’, Li 2000a: 315; cf. Li and Costa 2009). Similarly, a writer who alluded to the community-wide fad of iPhones wrote i瘋 (ai1 fung1, ‘i crazy’), whose reference to iPhone was unmistakable for Chinese readers (Mandarin fēng, example from Chan 2011). A still more instructive example of bilingual punning is found on the home page of the Development Bureau of the Hong Kong Government:


‘由我建造’ BUILD 升培訓計劃

by1SGconstructBUILD risetrainingprogram

‘“Constructed by me” Build/rise/soar training program’

(Heading/slogan,, see Figure 2)

The creative collocation ‘BUILD 升’ puns on 飆升 (biu1 sing1, ‘soar’), thus conveying an additional nuance that the training program is designed to groom master ‘builders’ and promises a fast track to a rewarding career. This message is reinforced visually by the advert, where the character 升 is artistically stylized like a high-rise building, with the angled first stroke to the top left shaped like an upward-pointing arrow (Figure 2). In the rest of the home page, the program is presented consistently within angled brackets as「Build 升」計劃 ‘Build/rise/soar program’.

Figure 2: Slogan of the Development Bureau, Hong Kong Government, (Accessed 18 April 2013).

Figure 2:

Slogan of the Development Bureau, Hong Kong Government, (Accessed 18 April 2013).

Clyne (2003) notes that bilingual homophones are pivotal points which allow the bilingual to proceed in either the recipient language or the source language. We believe bilingual punning constitutes strong evidence demonstrating not only the speaker-writer’s bilingual awareness, but also a conscious attempt to exploit the semantic potential afforded by bilingual homophones.

7.4 A-not-A structure

In the Cantonese A-not-A structure used for asking yes-no questions, if A is monosyllabic, it is fully reduplicated (e.g., kip1 m4 kip1, ‘[do you] want to keep?’). When a polysyllabic verb or adjective (e.g., happy) is embedded in this structure, A may be reduplicated in full (e.g., hep1 pi2 m4 hep1 pi2?) or partially (e.g., hep1 m4 hep1 pi2? – both meaning ‘happy or not?’). In the latter case, only the first syllable of the word is reduplicated and serves as the exponent of the target word. Polysyllabic English words (PEWs) such as available, comfortable, and interesting are commonly embedded in this structure (see example (12)). In some cases, partial reduplication of a PEW has been conventionalized, such that the first syllable is enough to invoke the longer word. This is the case of interview, whose verb meaning is reduced to in and given high, level tone: in1, but not its noun meaning (16) (cf. Luke and Lau 2008: 353).


今日個 interview, 我未 in1 呀, 你 in1 唔 in1 呀?

todayclfINTERVIEW1sgnot yetin1sfp

‘Today’s interview, I have not interviewed [yet], do you plan to (attend the) interview?’

In (12) and (16), the relative salience of the first syllable of a polysyllabic English verb or adjective in the A-not-A structure appears to provide a syntactic frame which encourages its truncation. We believe it is worth exploring whether there is any causal link between the A-not-A structure and the relative salience of the Cantonese monosyllable. Probably because this structure is more characteristic of bilingual speech, no comparable data has been found in our Chinese newspaper corpora.

7.5 Romanized Cantonese words

Where Cantonese vernacular-style is perceived as acceptable, Romanized Cantonese words, which tend to be monosyllabic and spelled using the Roman script, are fairly common. In a separate corpus of more recent Chinese infotainment news stories and columns in the 2010s, a number of monosyllabic Cantonese morphemes have been collected, e.g., adjectives chok (cok3, ‘suffocating’, in reference to someone posing when photographed; also used as verb, probably inspired by Eng. choke), chur (coe2, ‘extremely busy and hard pressed for time’), hea (he3, ‘laid-back’, ‘tardy’), and the classifier pad (pet6, ‘a patch of’, no written Chinese representation):


頭條日報 No.1 Chok 得喜 分享 Chok 相, 開心驚喜贏勁賞!

Headline DailyNo.1CHOKmeritcheerful

‘Headline Daily, No. 1 in circulation [among free newspapers], merits a CHOK pose for a photo.

Sharing [your] CHOK photos, and be happy and pleasantly surprised to win awesome prizes!’

(Headline Daily, 2011-9-29, p. 47, attention-grabber, one-page advert)


Vivian 呢期好 Chur, 比堅尼上陣撐偶像杜汶澤開騷…「現在接 Job 可以更自主 (…)」

soeng5zan6caang3ngau5zoeng6To Man Chakhoi1sou1
go.into.battlesupportidolTo Man Chaklaunchshow
jin6zoi6zip3JOBho2ji5gang3zi6zyu2 (…)”

‘Vivian is very busy and hard pressed for time recently, supporting her idol To Man Chak to launch his show… “Now [I] can decide [whether I want to] take up a job (…)”.’

(Headline Daily, 2012-12-21, p. 104)


一張很 「Hea」的沙發, 可讓人很舒泰地, 把頭貼近沙發背, 整個人「攤」於沙發上。


‘A very “laid-back” sofa allows one to be very relaxed, with one’s head leaning on the back and the entire body lying on it.’

(Headline Daily, 2010-6-21, p. 39, part of a direct quote from a news story)


不知道面前是一pad 爛泥, 還跟他理論發他脾氣


‘[I] didn’t realize [the person] in front [of me] was a patch of slime, [and I was foolish enough to] still trying to argue with him and throw a tantrum.’

(Sky Post, 2013-11-5, p. 35, columnist expressed frustration when talking to a manager of a 5-star hotel)

Romanized words such as these are clearly Cantonese morphemes. Being monosyllabic in Roman script, they reflect Hong Kong Cantonese speakers’ perceptual salience of monosyllabicity, especially verbs and adjectives for which there are no convenient written representations in Chinese characters that may serve as phonetic loans (Li 2000b). Further, at the receiving end, being biliterate in Chinese and English, Chinese Hongkongers have no problem recognizing these creative Romanized Cantonese words, which helps explain why they catch on so quickly in the local community.

All the linguistic evidence presented above points toward a typological characteristic in Cantonese, namely, monosyllabic salience, whence the Monosyllabic Salience Hypothesis (MSH):

Monosyllabic salience, a typological characteristic in Hong Kong Cantonese, facilitates the borrowing of MEWs as insertions or integrated loanwords, including polysyllabic words of any word class which are truncated to monosyllables and used like Cantonese morphemes.

We hope to have provided sound evidence to make a convincing case for MSH, which we believe merits further empirical investigation intra-linguistically. Typologically, it would be interesting to see whether monosyllabicity plays any role in facilitating contact in other languages. This may well be a worthwhile topic for cross-linguistic research on language contact.

8 Conclusion

Our starting point was the observation that many monosyllabic English words (MEWs) are freely inserted into Hong Kong Cantonese, in speech and informal written Chinese. In a corpus of informal writing collected from Chinese newspapers during the mid-1990s (Li et al. 2014) consisting of 600,000 characters, roughly one in four to five unintegrated insertions is monosyllabic. There is thus prima facie evidence suggesting that MEWs are treated collectively by the Hong Kong Chinese community on par like Cantonese morpho-syllables. This led us to a search in the literature for the theoretical grounding of this phenomenon. After examining Clyne’s (2003) analysis of language contact data in Australia, we believe his notion of facilitation – building on his earlier work on triggering (Clyne 1967, 1980) – lends itself very well as an explanatory framework of the preponderance of MEWs in Cantonese, written as much as spoken.

To argue on the grounds of perceptual salience as the basis for facilitation of cross-linguistic transference begs the question, what linguistic evidence is there to prove that transference is facilitated? Guided by this research question, we found a variety of linguistic evidence that point toward monosyllabic salience of Cantonese as a possible typological feature. These include:

  1. (i)

    a tendency for polysyllabic English words to be truncated to monosyllables (Luke and Lau 2008), especially verbs and adjectives;

  2. (ii)

    a shorter average word length compared with Mandarin (Tsou 1976), which is further evidenced in the World Loanword Database (WOLD, controlled for 1,460 word meanings) involving 41 languages (, Appendix 3), and the Leipzig-Jakarta word list (top 100 words based on WOLD, Appendix 4);

  3. (iii)

    the truncation of the first syllable of a polysyllabic word embedded in the A-not-A structure for asking yes-no questions;

  4. (iv)

    bilingual homophony, which is commonly exploited for bilingual punning, facilitating cross-linguistic transference thereby (Clyne 2003); and

  5. (v)

    the creative coinage of Romanized Cantonese words, which tend to be monosyllabic.

The above conclusion is essentially based on the analysis of unintegrated insertions of MEWs in our written Chinese corpus. We expect the monosyllabic salience of Cantonese to be even more marked when integrated monosyllabic English loanwords, written in Chinese characters, are included for analysis. The picture presented in this study is therefore incomplete. Further research is needed to ascertain the validity of the MSH with regard to the central claim in this study, that monosyllabic salience in Cantonese facilitates transference of MEWs from English into Cantonese. Cross-linguistic comparisons with the borrowing of MEWs into other languages will also help us calibrate the extent of monosyllabicity in Cantonese.

Funding statement: Funding: This work was supported by a special grant of the Hong Kong Institute of Education. The Institute’s support is hereby gratefully acknowledged.


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Appendix 1 Comic strip used in the survey of reader response

Appendix 2 E-questionnaire used for the survey of reader response to a comic strip

Newspaper Language in Hong Kong:A Questionnaire Survey

Please take a close look at the comic strip(漫畫)projected on the screen, and answer the following questions. Your response is non-assessed. It will take about 6–8 minutes. Thank you.

  • 1.

    What language is used in the comic strip?

    • Standard Chinese (標準中文)

    • Cantonese(廣東話)

    • Mixed Code(中英夾雜)

    • Other (Please specify): _________________________

Remark (if any)




  • 2.

    Look at the language use pattern: How natural (i.e. how commonly heard or read) is it?

    • Very natural

    • Quite natural

    • Not so natural

    • Not natural at all

Remark (if any)




  • 3.

    Is it written language or spoken language?

    • Clearly written

    • More written than spoken

    • Half written, half spoken

    • More spoken than written

    • Clearly spoken

Remark (if any)




  • 4.

    How similar is it to the way you use Cantonese?

    • Similar to the way I speak

    • Different from the way I speak

    • Similar to the way I write (e.g., SMS)

    • Different from the way I write (e.g. SMS)

Remark (if any)




  • 5.

    How similar is it to the way you use Putonghua/Mandarin?

    • Similar to the way I speak

    • Different from the way I speak

    • Similar to the way I write (e.g. SMS)

    • Different from the way I write (e.g. SMS)

Remark (if any)




  • 6.

    How often do you use these words when using Cantonese?

    • I rarely speak Cantonese

  • 7.

    How often do you use these words when using Putonghua/Mandarin?

    • I rarely speak Putonghua/Mandarin

  • 8.

    Please give a concrete example how you’d use these words. (In each case, please tick ‘writing’ and/or ‘speech’ where appropriate.)

    • smart

    • Speech

    • Writing





□ Speech

□ Writing





□ Speech

□ Writing





□ Speech

□ Writing





□ Speech

□ Writing




  • 9.

    Is the language use pattern in this comic strip typical of other comic strips in Hong Kong?

    • Yes

    • No

If ‘Yes’, can you give an example (Title of comic strip, newspaper or magazine)?




  • 10.

    Is there any expression in this comic strip that you do not understand? If so, please indicate.

    • Panel 1

    • Panel 2

    • Panel 3

    • Panel 4









  • 11.

    Please use two adjectives to describe the language used in this comic strip.



  • 12.

    Imagine you were a teacher, would you encourage your students to use language as in this comic strip? Why or why not?

    • Yes

    • No

    • Do not intervene









  • 13.

    Any other comments (if any)










Personal Info

(Your responses will be kept in strictest confidence and will be used for research purposes only.)


□ Male

□ Female






□ CityU


□ PolyU

□ Other (Please specify) ________________________

Major discipline

  1. Humanities

  2. Chinese

  3. English

  4. Translation

  5. Language Studies

  6. Other (Please specify) ________________________

  7. Social Sciences

□ Science / Engineering

□ Business

□ Other (Please specify) ________________________

Place of Birth

□ Hong Kong

□ Other (Please specify) ________________________

How long have you been living in Hong Kong?

_________________ years and _________________ months

Language Profile (Self-estimate)

‘L1’=first language or mother tongue, usually a home language

‘L2’=second language

‘FL’=foreign language

Putonghua / Mandarin
Written Chinese
Other (Please Specify)_____________

In each of the boxes below, which number (1–7) is true of you?

1: Beginner 4: Intermediate 7: Native-like

Putonghua / Mandarin(Listening)
Putonghua / Mandarin(Speaking)
Written Chinese(Reading)
Written Chinese(Writing)

Appendix 3 674 Cantonese equivalents of Mandarin entries for the World Loanword Database of 1,460 word meanings (WOLD,

MandarinWOLD glossCantonese
shi4jie4the world世界
shan1gu3the valley山谷
dao3the island
shui3the water
hai3the sea
hai3yang2the ocean海洋
jiao1shi2the reef礁石
hai3jiao3the cape半島
di1chao2the low tide潮退
zhao3ze2the swamp沼澤
pu4bu4the waterfall瀑布
di4zhen4the earthquake地震
tian1kong1the sky
shan3dian4the lightning閃電
lei2dian4the bolt oflightning雷電
guang1the light
hei1an4the darkness黑暗
ying3zithe shade orshadow
kong1qi4the air空氣
feng1the wind
wu4the fog
yu3the rain
xue3the snow
bei3ji2guang1the arctic lights北極光
tian1qi4the weather天氣
huo3the fire
huo3yan4the flame火焰
yan1the smoke
zheng1qi4the steam蒸氣
hui1the ash
hui1jin4the embers灰燼
zhao2huo3to burn(2)著火
dian3ran2to light
huo3chai2the match火柴
chai2huothe firewood
mu4tan4the charcoal
ren2the person
nan2ren2the man男人
nan2hai2the boy男仔
xiao3huo3zithe young man後生仔
nü3hai2the girl女仔
jie2hun1to marry結婚
li2hun1the divorce離婚
fu4mu3the parents父母
er2zithe son
nü3erthe daughter
xiong1di4the brother兄弟
ge1gethe older brother阿哥
di4dithe younger brother細佬
jie3mei4the sister姐妹
jie3jiethe older sister家姐
mei4meithe younger sister細妹
zu3xian1the ancestors祖先
nü3xuthe son-in-law(of a man)女婿
nü3xuthe son-in-law(of a woman)女婿
ji4fu4the stepfather繼父
gu1er2the orphan孤兒
gua3fu4the widow寡婦
guan1fu1the widower鰥夫
qin1qi1the relatives親戚
zan2menwe (inclusive)我地
wo3menwe (exclusive)我地
dong4wu4the animal動物
mu4ren2the herdsman牧羊人
niu2the cattle
jian1niu2the ox閹牛
mu3niu2the cow牛乸
ye3zhu1the boar野豬
mu3zhu1the sow豬乸
zhu1the pig
gong1shan1yang2the he-goat山羊公
gao1yang2the kid羊仔
ma3the horse
mu3ma3the mare馬乸
jia1qin2the fowl家禽
e2the goose
ya1the duck
niao3the bird
hai3ou1the seagull海鷗
lao3ying2the eagle麻鷹
jiu4the vulture禿鷹
Ying1wu3the parrot鸚鵡
wu1ya1the crow烏鴉
ge1zithe dove白鴿
mao1tou2ying1the owl貓頭鷹
ju4zui3niao3the toucan巨嘴鳥
gou3the dog
tu4zithe rabbit兔仔
mao1the cat
fu4zi3dai4shu3the opossum負鼠
yu2the fish
sai1the gill
bei4ke2the shell貝殼
sha1yu2the shark鯊魚
hai3tun2the porpoise ordolphin海豚
jing1yu2the whale鯨魚
hong1the stingray黃貂魚
lang2the wolf
shi1zithe lion獅子
hu2lithe fox狐狸
lu4the deer鹿
luo4tuothe camel駱駝
kun1chong2the insect昆蟲
ti3shi1the body louse蝨乸
tiao4zao3the flea跳蚤
xie1zithe scorpion蠍子
ma3yi3the ant
mi4feng1the bee蜜蜂
huang2feng1the wasp黃蜂
cang1yingthe fly烏蠅
wen2zithe mosquito
xia1the prawns orshrimp
bai2yi3the termites白蟻
she2the snake
an1chun2the quail鵪鶉
huan4xiong2the raccoon浣熊
song1shu3the squirrel松鼠
xun4lu4the reindeer/caribou馴鹿
hai3li2the beaver水獺
dai4shu3the kangaroo袋鼠
bao4zithe jaguar美洲豹
ying2huo3chong2the firefly螢火蟲
wo1niu2the snail蝸牛
e4yu2the crocodile oralligator鱷魚
mo4the tapir
rou4the flesh
tou2fathe hair頭髮
mao2the body hair
yin1mao2the pubic hair陰毛
lei4gu3the rib
jiao3the horn
tou2the head
lian3the face
yan3jingthe eye
yan3pi2the eyelid眼皮
jie2mao2the eyelash
er3chui2the earlobe耳珠
er3shi3the earwax耳屎
bi2kong3the nostril鼻哥窿
bi2ti4the nasal mucus鼻涕
zui3chun2the lip嘴脣
she2touthe tongue
ya2yin2the gums牙齦
jiu4chi3the molar tooth大牙
jian2bang3the shoulder膊頭
suo3gu3the collarbone鎖骨
shou3wan2zithe wrist手腕
shou3the hand
shou3zhang3the palm of the hand手掌
shou3zhi3the finger手指
mu3zhi3the thumb手指公
zhi3jia1the fingernail指甲
da4tui3the thigh大髀
tui3du4zithe calf of the leg腳瓜
jiao3the foot
jiao3wan4zithe ankle腳踭
jiao3gen1the heel腳踭
jiao3zhi3the toe腳趾
chi4bang3the wing
yu3mao2the feather羽毛
qi2the navel肚臍
wei4the stomach
yao1the waist
jian4the sinew or tendon
he1qian4to yawn打喊路
ke2souto cough
da3pen1ti4to sneeze打乞嗤
ou3tu4to vomit
yao3to bite
liu2kou3shui3to dribble流口水
zuo4meng4to dream發夢
sheng1huo2the life生活
yan1si3to drown沉死
chu4ti3the carcass死屍
jia3zhuang4xian4zhong3the goitre/goiter甲狀線腫脹
ji2bing4the disease
shang1kou3the wound or sore傷口
xue4zhong3the bruise瘀傷
yang3the itch
shui3pao4the blister
nong2the pus
yao4the medicine
xiu1xito rest
he1to drink
ji1huang1the famine饑荒
kao3to bake
lu2zithe oven
wan3the bowl
bei1zithe cup
die2zithe saucer
qian2zithe tongs
can1the meal
gua1to scrape
mian4bao1the bread麪包
sheng1mian4tuan2the dough生麪團
mian4fen3the flour麵粉
rou4the meat
tang1the soup
shu1cai4the vegetables
shui3guo3the fruit生果
wu2hua1guo3the fig無花果
gan3lan3the olive橄欖
you2the oil
la4jiao1the chili pepper辣椒
feng1mi4the honey蜜糖
tang2the sugar
niu2nai3the milk
ji3nai3to milk揸奶
feng1mi4jiu3the mead蜂蜜酒
pu2tao2jiu3the wine葡萄酒
pi2jiu3the beer啤酒
jiu3the fermented drink
chuan1to put on
yi1futhe clothing orclothes
cai2fengthe tailor裁縫
bu4the cloth
yang2mao2the wool羊毛
mian2hua1the cotton棉花
zhan1the felt
fang3to spin紡織
feng2to sew
zhen1the needle(1)
zhui1zithe awl
xian4the thread
ran3to dye
da4yi1the cloak斗篷
pi1jian1the poncho披肩
lian2yi1qun2the (woman’s) dress連身裙
chen4shan1the shirt裇衫
ling3zithe collar
qun2zithe skirt
cao3qun2the grass-skirt草裙
ku4zithe trousers
wa4zithe sock or stocking
xie2zithe shoe
xie2jiang4the shoemaker鞋匠
mao4zithe hat or cap
mian4sha1the veil頭紗
niu3kou4the button
jie4zhithe ring戒指
xiang4lian4the necklace頸鍊
zhu1zithe bead珍珠
er3huan2the earring耳環
wen2shen1the tattoo紋身
mao2jin1the towel毛巾
shu1zithe comb
shua1zithe brush
bian4zithe plait/braid
ti4dao1the razor鬚刨
you2gao1the ointment藥膏
fei2zao4the soap番鹼
jing4zithe mirror
xue3di4xie2the snowshoe雪鞋
zhu4to live
fang2zithe house
xiao3wu1the hut茅屋
ting2zithe garden-house花園
zhang4pengthe tent帳幕
ting2yuan4the yard or court花園
zhu4zithe doorpost
yao4shithe key鎖匙
chuang1huthe window
qiang2bi4the wall
huo3lu2the stove火爐
yan1cong1the chimney煙通
ti1zithe ladder
chuang2the bed
zhen3touthe pillow枕頭
zhuo1zithe table
la4zhu2the candle蠟蠋
wu1ding3the roof屋頂
mao2cao3wu1ding3the thatch茅屋頂
dong4liang2the ridgepole
chuan2the rafter
zhu4the post or pole
gong3xing2the arch拱門
sha1jiang1the mortar(2)石屎
zhuan1pi1the adobe泥磚
diao4chuang2the hammock吊牀
shui3tian2the paddy水田
li2gou1the furrow
wa1jue2to dig
tao4suo3the lasso套索
zhong3zithe seed
lian2dao1the sickle or scythe鐮刀
da3gu3to thresh打穀
da3gu3chang2the threshing-floor打穀場
xiao3mai4the wheat小麥
da4mai4the barley大麥
hei1mai4the rye黑麥
yan4mai4the oats燕麥
zhi2wu4the plant植物
zhong4to plant
shu4zhi1the branch樹枝
xiang4shu4the oak橡樹
shan1mao2ju3the beech山毛櫸
hua4shu4the birch樺樹
song1shu4the pine松樹
shan1shu4the fir杉樹
xiang4zithe acorn橡果
chou1yan1to smoke食煙
yan1dou3the pipe煙斗
shu4dun1the tree stump樹樁
shu4gan4the tree trunk樹幹
shu4pi2the bark樹皮
shu4ye4the sap樹液
ye1zithe coconut椰子
xiang1jiao1the banana香蕉
rong2shu4the banyan菩提樹
mu4shu3the cassava/manioc木薯
hu2luthe gourd葫蘆
zhu2zithe bamboo
gan1zhethe sugar cane
qian2ma2the nettle蕁麻
mo2guthe mushroom蘑菇
luo4ye4song1the larch落葉松
zuo4to do
zuo4to make
gong1zuo4the work工作
jie3kai1to untie解開
lian4tiao2the chain
sheng2the rope
jie2the knot
qiao1to pound
kan3to cut down
jian3dao1the scissorsor shears鉸剪
ca1to wipe
la1chang2to stretch拉長
la1to pull
gua4to hang up
xi3to wash
sao4zhouthe broom掃把
mu4jiangthe carpenter木匠
wa1kong1to hollow out挖空
ding1zithe nail
duan4gong1the blacksmith鐵匠
chui2da3to forge打鐵
tie3zhen3the anvil鐵砧
tie3the iron
qian1the lead
xi1the tin or tinplate
nian2tu3the clay黏土
bo1lithe glass玻璃
xi2the mat
di4tan3the rug地氈
wang3dou1the netbag網袋
shan4zithe fan
shan1shan4zito fan撥扇
diao1ke4jia1the sculptor雕刻家
zao2zithe chisel
fei1biao1the boomerang回力標
da3shui3to draw water打水
zhuang1the peg營釘
mo2dao1shi2the whetstone磨刀石
dong4to move
juan3to wrap
gun3to roll
diu1to drop
chan2rao4to twist
diao4to fall
di1to drip
liu2to flow
chen2to sink
fei1to fly
tiao4to jump
ti1to kick
tiao4wu3to dance跳舞
bo3to limp跛下跛下噉行
lai2to come
hui2lai2to come back返唻
zhui1to pursue
dai4to carry
bei4to carry on shoulder
ding3to carry on head
jia1to carry under the arm
ji4to send
dai4ling3to lead
kai1che1to drive揸車
qi2to ride
lu4the road
xiao3lu4the path
qiao2the bridge
che1the cart or wagon
lun2zithe wheel
zhou2the axle
e4the yoke
xue3qiao1the sledge/sled雪橇
chuan2the ship
du2mu4zhou1the canoe獨木舟
wei2gan1the mast桅桿
fan1the sail
mao2the anchor
deng1lu4to land上岸
you3to have
na2to take
zhua1to grasp揸住
dong1xi1the thing
gei3to give
jiu4to rescue
zhao3to look for
zhao3dao4to find搵到
qian2the money
qi3gai4the beggar乞兒
jie4to lend
jie4to borrow
qian4to owe
fu4to pay畀錢
shui4the tax
mai3to buy
mai4to sell
shi4chang3the market
shang1dian4the shop/store舖頭
fen1xiang3to share
cheng1zhong4to weigh
zai4 … li3mian4in喺…裡便
zuo4to sit
zhan4to stand
sheng4xiathe remains淨返嘅
jian3qi3to pick up執起
dui1to pile up
lian2to join
fen1kai1to separate分開
jian1the top
di3the bottom
jin4tou2the end(1)
bian1the edge
zhong1xin1the middle中間
gou1zithe hook
jiao3the corner角落頭
shi2zi4the cross交叉
dong4the hole窿
yi1bai3a hundred一百
yi1qian1a thousand一千
shu3to count
bu4fenthe part部分
ban4the half
san1ci4three times三次
chi2dao4to be late遲到
kai1shi3to begin開始
tian1the day(2)日頭
hou4tian1the day aftertomorrow後日
qian2tian1the day beforeyesterday前日
yue4the month
nian2the year
dong1tian1the winter冬天
chun1tian1the spring(2)春天
xia4tian1the summer夏天
qiu1tian1the autumn/fall秋天
wen2qi3lai2to smell(1)聞起唻
wen2to sniff
wen2dao4to smell(2)聞到
chang2qi3lai2to taste試起唻
ting1dao4to hear聽到
ting1to listen
shan3guang1to shine發光
mo1to feel
xiao4to laugh
wei1xiao4to smile微笑
wan2to play
ai4to love鍾意
bao4qian4to regret or be sorry後悔
ku1to cry
yan3lei4the tear
du4ji4the envy or jealousy妒忌
xiu1chi3the shame羞恥
hai4pa4the fear恐懼
wei1xian3the danger危險
yuan2liang4to forgive原諒
cuo4wu4the mistake
zhi3ze2the blame指摘
xin1the mind
xiang3to think(1)
cai1to guess
mo2fang3to imitate
jiao4to teach
xue2xiao4the school學校
wang4ji4to forget唔記得
huai2yi2the doubt懷疑
shi4to try
han3to shout
er3yu3to whisper咬耳仔
du1nangto mumble吟沉
chui1kou3shao4rto whistle吹口哨
jian1jiao4to shriek尖叫
jiao4to howl
chen2mo4to be silent唔出聲
wen4to ask(1)
hui2da2to answer
ju4jue2to refuse拒絕
jin4zhi3to forbid唔畀
jiao4to call(2)
xuan1bu4to announce宣布
wei1xie2to threaten威脅
xie3to write
zhi3the paper
shu1the book
gu3the drum
zhu3ren2the master主人
jie3fang4to liberate解放
di2ren2the enemy敵人
lin2ju1the neighbour隔籬鄰舍
zhu3ren2the host主人
yin1mou2the plot陰謀
he2ping2the peace太平
jun1dui4the army軍隊
bang4the club
zhan4fu3the battle-axe戰釜
dan2gong1the sling彈弓
jian4the arrow
jian4the sword
qiang1the gun
kui1jia3the armour盔甲
tou2kui1the helmet頭盔
sheng4li4the victory勝利
shi1bai4the defeat失敗
che4tui4to retreat撤退
tou2xiang2to surrender投降
jing3wei4the guard守衛
zhan4li4pin3the booty戰利品
mai2futhe ambush埋伏
yu2gou1the fishhook魚鈎
yu2wang3the fishnet漁網
xian4jing3the trap陷阱
pan4jue2the judgment判決
fa3guan1the judge法官
yuan2gao4the plaintiff原告
bei4gao4the defendant被告
shi4yan2the oath誓言
zhi3kong4to accuse指控
xuan1pan4 Xyou3zui4to convict判佢有罪
xuan1pan4 Xwu2zui4to acquit判佢冇罪
cheng2fa2the penaltyor punishment懲罰
fa2kuan3the fine罰款
tong1jian1the adultery通姦
zong4huo3the arson縱火
zong1jiao4the religion宗敎
jiao4tang4the church敎堂
qing1zhen1si4the mosque清眞寺
chong2bai4to worship
tian1tang2the heaven天堂
mo2gui3the demon魔鬼
xian1nü3the fairy or elf仙女
yu4zhao4the omen預言
ge1li3the circumcision割禮
shou1yin1ji1the radio收音機
dian4shi4the television電視
dian4hua4the telephone電話
mo2tuo1che1the motorcycle電單車
huo3che1the train火車
fei1ji1the airplane飛機
dian4chi3the battery電芯
sha1che1to brakebik6 lik1
ji1qi4the machine機器
yi1yuan4the hospital醫院
yao4pian4the pill or tablet藥丸
yan3jing4the spectacles/glasses眼鏡
zheng4fu3the government政府
chu1sheng1zheng4the birth certificate出世紙
you2piao4the postage stamp郵票
xin4the letter
ming2xin1pian4the postcard明信片
yin2hang2the bank銀行
long2tou2the tap/faucet水龍頭
chuang2dian4the mattress牀褥
luo2si1the screw螺絲
qi3zithe screwdriver螺絲批
tang2guo3the candy/sweets
zha4dan4the bomb炸彈
gong1chang3the workshop工場
xiang1yan1the cigarette煙仔
bao4zhi3the newspaper報紙
dian4ying3the film/movie
yin1yue4the music音樂
cha2the tea
ka1fei1the coffee咖啡
shi4to be

Appendix 4 Cantonese and Mandarin equivalents of the Leipzig-Jakarta word list (top 100 word meanings based on WOLD)

English (meaning)MandarinCantonese
to go
[2SG pronoun you]你/您
to come
[1SG pronoun I]
to do/make做/造做/造
to say講/話/噏
[3SG pronoun he/she/it]他/她/它
to hit/Beat打/抽/郁/揈
to drink
to stand
to bite
child(kin term)孩子/小孩/兒童細蚊仔/細路仔/小朋友/細路哥/細佬哥/仔女
to give
to burn燒(掉)/著火燒着/著火
to know知到知(到)
to laugh
to hear聽到聽到
to hide躲/藏
to suck吸(取)/吸吮/吮吸吸/啜
to carry帶/拿/背/頂/夾帶/攞/揹/頂/夾
to take
to eat食/喫/刷
to blow颳(風)
to run走/跑
to fall
to cry/weep
to tie紮/綑/縛/結/繫/綁/拴札/綁/打綟
to see(看)見見/睇/望
to crush/grind磨/撚磨/研
Published Online: 2016-1-6
Published in Print: 2016-1-1

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton