Many Cantonese speakers from Malaysia and Singapore have to endure teasing by native Hongkongers for the “funny” way they speak. Besides the dated vocabulary, Hongkongers are quick to ridicule the many non-Cantonese loanwords in Southeast Asian Cantonese, such as baai for “number of times”, borrowed from Hokkien; somaa for “all”, borrowed from the Malay semua; baanlaai for “clever”, from the Malay pandai; and so on.

It isn’t as if the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong doesn’t contain loanwords – see dor bare lei (“strawberry”) is an example of Hongkongers using a foreign word when a native term (tsoh mui) for the object exists – but there aren’t many of them.

The higher incidence of loanwords found in all languages (not just Cantonese) in Malaysia and Singapore is a corollary of the multi-ethnic demographic make-up of the Malay Peninsula, especially in the past 200 years, where people speaking different tongues live cheek by jowl. The situation is different in Chinese- and Cantonese-dominant Hong Kong.

Sporadic periods of non-Han Chinese invasion and occupation in northern China, and foreign rule of the entire country during the Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, have bequeathed the Chinese language with many loanwords. And Buddhism, which entered China from India in the first century AD, introduced not only foreign words but a new way of looking at this world and the next.