daai6 gaa1 hou2 (Hello, world!)

Nighttime picture of Hong Kong
Photo by Sean Foley on Unsplash

I’ve been learning Cantonese off & on for the past few years. It’s been mostly “off” during the pandemic, but one of my goals this year is to become conversational in the language.

To follow along, there’s a few things we need to cover first. First, what is Cantonese? It’s a language, spoken in parts of China. When people say “Chinese” they usually mean Mandarin as a spoken language. Check out Wikipedia for a description of the many languages spoken in China. Another analogy might be that Hindi is the “official” language of India, but there are many languages, and large parts of the country where Hindi is not the primary language spoken (if at all).

So that’s the spoken language. There are also the written language. Basically, Mainland China encourages using Simplified Chinese Characters, (CHS), versus places like Hong Kong, or Taiwan, which use Traditional Chinese Characters (CHT)

PlacePrimary LanguageCharacter Set
ShanghaiShanghaineseSimplified Chinese
BeijingMandarinSimplified Chinese
Hong KongCantoneseTraditional Chinese
TaiwanTaiwanese MandarinTraditional Chinese

For now, I’m focused just on the spoken language. Thus, I’m using Jyutping, which is a way of using English phonetics to sound out words.

Let’s look at the title of this article: daai6 gaa1 hou2. Figuring out how to pronounce “daai” is something that just takes a bit of practice. Listen to the phrase, and over time the patterns for the phonetics become clearer. The other aspect is the tone. Cantonese is a tonal language, which means that you can say literally the exact same thing, but it has a completely different meaning depending on the pitch of the word. You can search for “cantonese tones” for more info, or here’s a good starting point. Here are the rules for Jyutping:

Tone 1High, steady
Tone 2Mid, rising to High
Tone 3Mid, steady
Tone 4Mid, falling to Low
Tone 5Low, rising to Mid
Tone 6Low, steady

The tones are both more subtle than you think, but also extremely important. It’s especially hard to unlearn the “raising your tone to ask a question” reflex in English.

How do you think daai6 gaa1 hou2 is pronounced? Give it a shot, then check out the video on https://cantolounge.com/ to see how it’s pronounced.

Anyways, I’ll try to post a new phrase every day with something I’ve learned (and will try to incorporate into my every-day conversations).