Beware of the dog! The Cantonese word for dog is gau, but it can also mean 9, enough, to teach, old, lump, plastic, to stir, if said in a different tone.
As there are a limited number of syllables in Chinese, tones are used to differentiate words. Tone is one of the trickiest aspects of learning to speak Chinese and can lead to much bewilderment. This is demonstrated whenever Dave, my husband, tries out some Cantonese on my mum. It goes like this:
He annunciates a short phrase (usually food related). She looks at me blankly. I repeat it. She exclaims ‘Ah!’ in recognition, and he says, ‘That’s what I said! – I’m hungry.*’
‘No, Dave. You just told her you have diarrhoea!’ And so it goes on.
So even good pronunciation is hard to understand with incorrect tone.
It’s difficult to hear the tonal variation unless the words are spoken in succession, so here’s some absolute nonsense I made up earlier for the purpose of illustrating the point. This isn’t so much a tongue twister as a tone twister!
**Gau6 si4, gau2 zek3 gau2 hai2 gaau1 ngoi6 gaau2 gaau2 zan3. Ngo5 gaau3 gau2 zek3 gau2 gaau2 gaau1 seoi2. Dang2 keoi5 gaau2 dou3 gau3, gaau1 bei2 ngo5 lei6 gaau1 wun6 gau2 gau6 gaau1.
Translation: Once upon a time, 9 dogs were messing about outside. I taught the 9 dogs to stir glue. When they’d stirred it enough, they gave it to me to exchange for 9 lumps of plastic.
16th February 2018 begins the Chinese New Year of the (earth) Dog. People born in Dog years are thought to be brave, loyal, independent and kind. If you were born in 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, etc, this is your year so make the most of it. For everyone else, you should just be more dog anyway!
Kung Hei Fat Choi
Wishing you joy and prosperity,
Mo and Dave
*ngo5 tou5 ngo6 = I’m hungry. / ngo5 tou5 ngo1 = I have diarrhoea.
**the numbers denote different tones in the Jyutping romanisation system for Cantonese:
1 high, flat / 2 mid, rising / 3 mid, flat / 4 low, falling / 5 low, rising / 6 low, flat