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HK Magazine Archive

Ask Mr. Know-It-All: Why does Cantonese pronunciation vary? Is it "nei" or "lei"?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 May, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:42pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
Can you help me with some pronunciation problems? Is “you” meant to be nei or lei? I hear native speakers saying both! – Tone Deaf

Your ears don’t deceive you, Tone Deaf. Cantonese, with its seven (or nine) tones, is tricky enough to the untrained ear without pronunciation varying wildly. But that difference you’re hearing is what’s colloquially called laan yum: “lazy tones.”

Laan yum refers to a shifting in the pronunciation of certain syllables, among those whom the older generations are happy to call the lazy youth of today. The most identifiable of these shifts are a move from “n” to “l,” from “gw” to a straightforward “g,” and when the “ng” sound turns into “m” or “n.”

How does it work? Well, for example, the sentence: 你好,我識講廣東話 means “Hello, I can speak Cantonese.” It’s pronounced “Nei ho, ngor sik gong gwong dong wah.”

With lazy tones, it becomes: “Lei ho, or sik gong gong dong wah.”

Or take ngau nai, cow’s milk: it’s au lai to the lazy-toned. The very name of Cantonese, gwong dong wah (“Guangdong speech”), is often pronounced gong dong wah, which sounds like “speaking the speech of the east.” These shifts—especially from the “n” to the “l” sound—are widespread, and many Cantonese speakers don’t even notice themselves doing it.

But these “lazy tones” aren’t really such a new thing, and it’s not (totally) fair to pigeonhole Hong Kong youth as feckless inconsiderate wastrels. For linguists have observed a gradual shift in the way Cantonese is spoken for at the past 80 years. And as any slightly too enthusiastic linguistics undergraduate will tell you, language is a constantly changing organism and trying to clamp on the brakes is a doomed, artificial approach.

It’s all the more artificial when it comes to a dialect like Cantonese. As a spoken language it’s even more nebulous and changing than anything that’s written down, and Cantonese of all languages espouses colloquialism and slang. A new word learned today is often out of fashion tomorrow.  After all, Cantonese pronunciation has been changing ever since it diverged from its origins in Middle Chinese around 1000 AD. Middle Chinese started with four or five tones: Cantonese now has as many as nine.

Times change, and languages change with them. So is it “nei” or “lei”? “Ngor” or “or”? The truth is, it’s both. With the global spread of Cantonese, the truth is that the correct pronunciation of Cantonese is the one that everyone understands. Failing that, you might just fall back on the time-honored British approach of speaking in your native dialect, JUST MUCH SLOWER AND LOUDER. Don’t knock it—it worked for an empire.

Mr. Know-It-All answers your questions and quells your urban concerns. Send queries, troubles or problems to mrkia@hkmagmedia.com.