Hai ya, si dan and hor, some key Canto phrases that will have you speaking the lingo like a local
Since simplifying daily conversation for sake of convenience is widely practised in Hong Kong, it is easy for non-Cantonese speakers to pass themselves off as competent with a few local abbreviations and interjections
Hongkongers love to mix the English alphabet into everyday conversation, mostly for the sake of convenience but also to showcase the city’s eclectic “East-meets-West” vibe. If you are new to the city, you may have cottoned on to the popular ones, but here are a few more to get you knee-deep in the local lingo and for those who have lived here longer, consider this a refresher session.
Some of the more commonly used abbreviations are MK, which stands for Mong Kok, to describe a person or a certain style that has a “Mong Kok feel”. It is an indirect way to denigrate someone or something that is of a lower quality.
When you see two Hongkongers arguing it’s almost certain you will hear them hurl Cantonese insults at each other with the occasional insertions of “PK”. This is a very common phrase to tell someone to drop dead (I’m sure you have already guessed what it stands for. If not, ask your nearest Cantonese-speaking friend or colleague). There is also a local favourite of using “KO”, an abbreviation of knockout; its usage is self-explanatory.
I have once heard a Hong Kong expatriate cop string a sentence together peppered with abbreviations. It went something like this, “I was at PHQ (police headquarters) last week and bumped into Matt from CCB (Commercial Crime Bureau) who told me he just got promoted to CIP (chief inspector) after being transferred from TKO (Tseung Kwan O) to PHQ.”
To everyone else at the time, myself included, it might have sounded like an encrypted language, but it’s just local cop lingo.
Since simplifying our daily conversation for the sake of convenience is widely practised in the city, it got me thinking that it could be quite easy for non-Cantonese speakers to pass themselves off as competent Canto speakers if they can pick up a few local abbreviations and then add some Cantonese interjections in their conversations.
Hongkongers like to display their emotions and show instant reactions in their speech, so the use of interjections is rather common.
If you want to sound local and fit in; here are a few tips.
Add “hai yah”, “hai bor”, and “hai wor” (yeah) in a sentence as a casual response or an emphasis to acknowledge or agree with someone. But don’t confuse it with “ai yah” which doesn’t have a specific meaning and is used as an exclamation to express surprise or annoyance.
You may use “meh ah” to express doubt and this is equivalent to “pardon me” in English. But if you say it in a playful manner, it could mean, “What do you want?” or “What’s up?”.
There is “hor”, which can be tagged at the end of a sentence as a way to gain approval in what you have just said. It is similar to saying “Do you agree?” or “What do you think?”.
Then there is “lor”, a subtle way to express doubt but being non-committal at the same time.
You can also inject “hai lah”, which means “yes, I agree” or “OK” and “si dan” (whatever) but do make sure you end it with a drawl to sound convincingly native.
Interestingly, in the old days, Cantonese people who didn’t know English learnt to pick up a few essential English words so that they could converse with foreigners with the help of the Chinese almanac or Tung Shing, which in Chinese means the “All-knowing Book”.
The Tung Shing has a glossary to teach English by having words transliterated into Chinese characters.
If you can’t get your hands on a copy of Tung Shing just yet, then you can consider this column a handy alternative for the time being.
“Joi gin” (farewell) and see you next week “hor”.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post