The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules, or Trying to Learn Cantonese

Now, I asked for it by signing up and paying for the classes, and as an English teacher I should know a bit about contrary and irregular languages, but learning Cantonese is a slog and a half…

For those who don’t know, Cantonese is the official language of Hong Kong, southern China (Guangdong) and around. It’s also, apparently, the third most common language in the USA. It’s a tonal language i.e. the meaning of a sound changes depending on whether it’s a rising tone, or falling tone, or a falling then rising tone – there are nine of them…

So, for a few months now I’ve been going to class once or twice a week and getting on OK – I can say where I come from and negotiate my way successfully off a minibus – but during my last lesson I realised just how willfully odd this language is. It’s either twistedly awkward or laughably simple. Two examples:

1) The Cantonese for ‘buy’ is maaih, with a rising tone. The Cantonese for ‘sell’ is maaih, with a flat tone. They had all the sounds in the world to choose for two opposing verbs, yet chose the same one. Still, it must make the Hong Kong stock-exchange a lively place to work.

2) But, if that’s over-complicating things, then you can take comfort in the fact that the Cantonese for ‘university’ is dai hohk, literally ‘big school’, and the Cantonese for ‘camera’ is seung gei: ‘photograph machine’…

And, on that note, I’m hitting the syu as I’ve got a haauh si in this bizarre language on Wednesday.


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