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Cantonese Proverbs in One Picture (writecantonese8.wordpress.com)
141 points by leephillips on Nov 2, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments

Cantonese native speaker here. Just want to state that the definitions for the expression 飛象過河 (An elephant flies across the river)

1. To break a rule 2. To reach across the table for food

are both a reference to a rule in Chinese chess stating that 象 (elephant) is a defensive piece and cannot cross the river, with the latter being more of a metaphor to describe someone who reaches across the table for food, which is considered a bad table manner.

Pieter Bruegel - Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)


I don't speak Chinese at all, but my understanding is that the writing is common, only the sounds vary from Mandarin to Cantonese. So how does a piece of writing like this help to preserve Cantonese? I would think that would take a song or spoken prose or something audible to maintain the Cantonese dialect. In five hundred years, if Cantonese speaking people have disappeared, will Mandarin speakers be able to read this graphic?

Not quite. A simple example: "冇" (meaning "don't have") is not present in Mandarin. You can find a list here:


Cantonese speaker here. These are Cantonese (the region) proverbs much like "Bob's Your Uncle" is a quintessentially British saying that Americans wouldn't understand.

On another note, mainland China (including Canton) actually uses simplified Chinese writing (which came out from the Deng Xiao Ping era) whereas Hong Kong specifically maintians the traditional writing. The difference is literally less strokes and simplification of the characters. The infographic here uses the traditional writing. Personally I feel the two writings are mostly close enough that people should be able to guess what the other means. And AFAIK, it's a 1-to-1 mapping anyway.

In the meantime, Taiwan maintains traditional Chinese writing while using Mandarin for speech. Table for clarity:

   Simplified + Mandarin -> Mainland China
   Traditional + Cantonese -> Hong Kong, Macau
   Traditional + Mandarin -> Taiwan

It's actually a many-to-one mapping - going from traditional to simplified loses information, and people have to resort to natural language processing algorithms (mainly n-grams) when going back the other way.

Also, many of the "simplifications" are based on Mandarin pronunciations, and were quite incomprehensible to me as a Cantonese speaker when I set foot into mainland China for the first time years ago.

Some of these proverbs are known in mainland China however. 隔墙有耳 for example is a Mandarin saying as well (though perhaps derived from original Cantonese?).

I want to make a correction. It's actually Mao Zedong and not Deng Xiao Ping, which held power much later.

Hilariously effective education. It's also a great display of the Cantonese' history, culture, and (wise) humor. Wonderful!

I remember my mom teaching me the phrase "like dragging a cow up a tree" when I was little, and I was never sure whether she was serious. I was very excited to see it captured here! Mom, I'm sorry for not trusting you.

Here is an example of a plausible conversation in Mandarin and a plausible conversation in Cantonese to show how different the two languages are, with different words (not cognate, and thus not written with the same Chinese character) in places even where you would expect English and German, or Spanish and French, to be cognate. I checked the example dialogues against dialogues posted online by native speakers of each of the languages, both for accuracy in transcribing the Chinese characters and for natural idiomatic expression in each language.

How you might write the conversation

"Does he know how to speak Mandarin?

"No, he doesn't."



in Modern Standard Chinese characters contrasts with how you would write

"Does he know how to speak Cantonese?

"No, he doesn't."



in the Chinese characters used to write Cantonese. As will readily appear even to readers who don't know Chinese characters, many more words than "Mandarin" and "Cantonese" differ between those sentences in Chinese characters.

Chinese characters still represent SPEECH (not ideas or abstract concepts) and do so in a way that is specific to the particular Chinese (Sinitic) language that one speaks. The long story about this can be found in the books The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy[1] or Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems[2] by the late John DeFrancis or the book Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning[3] by J. Marshall Unger. The book Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention[4] by Stanislas Dehaene is a very good book about reading in general, and has a good cross-cultural perspective.

Many other examples of words, phrases, and whole sentences that are essentially unreadable to persons who have learned only Modern Standard Chinese can be found in texts produced in Chinese characters by speakers of other Sinitic languages ("Chinese dialects"). Similar considerations apply to Japanese, which is not even a language cognate with Chinese, and also links Chinese characters to particular speech morphemes (whether etymologically Japanese or Sino-Japanese) rather than with abstract concepts.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Language-Fantasy-John-DeFranci...

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Visible-Speech-Asian-Interactions-Comp...

[3] http://www.amazon.com/Ideogram-Chinese-Characters-Disembodie...

[4] http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/intro.htm

Great examples. I recall back when I was grade school in Hong Kong, we learned to read and write Chinese the standard "Mandarin" way. It is like formal speak. But in everyday conversation, people speak the "Cantonese" colloquial way. It is quite weird when I think about it now how everyone speaks "Cantonese" when it's never taught in school. It's like us learning regular English in school but everyone speaks Shakespeare or something (of course it's not that dramatic of a difference).

The written system in Hong Kong uses the standard "Mandarin" saying. Most serious Hong Kong newspapers (business, etc) "speak" the standard "Mandarin" way.

    It's like us learning regular English in school but everyone
    speaks Shakespeare or something (of course it's not that
    dramatic of a difference).
Actually it is a pretty dramatic difference. Cantonese and Mandarin split roughly 1000 years ago, whereas the difference between Shakespearian English (which is considered Early Modern English) and Modern English is only a few hundred years. In addition, Modern English is a descendant of Early Modern English whereas Cantonese and Mandarin are not descendants of one another.

The Chinese writing system tends to obscure these differences because cognates among the different varieties of Chinese are represented using the same characters, even though their pronunciations have diverged considerably. There are vocabulary and grammatical differences as well, though they are not as big.

The difference is more akin to if English speakers had to write in German†, but because they generally don't know how to actually speak German, they would read it using English pronunciation instead. For instance, if you wanted to say "I know that you said that", you might have to write:

    Ich weiß dass du das gesagt hast.
But you would read it "in your own language" as:

    I wit that thou that y-said hast.
This is similar to the current relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin. Cantonese speakers write in Mandarin (i.e. "Standard Chinese") and read it "in Cantonese", even though when speaking, they would really say something almost completely different. When Cantonese speakers actually write in Cantonese, Mandarin speakers generally would have difficulty reading it.

† The difference between English and German actually spans more than 1000 years, but I'm not as familiar with other closer Germanic languages with which to provide a good example.

"Cantonese and Mandarin split roughly 1000 years ago, whereas the difference between Shakespearian English (which is considered Early Modern English) and Modern English is only a few hundred years."

While I think (second hand - I have no deep familiarity with either language) that your broader point holds, this particular bit is weaker than it might be read. While the split happened longer ago, there are more day-to-day attempts to communicate between native speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin than between native speakers of Modern and Shakespearean English. I could see this having an effect on the ongoing development of each language in a way that might leave them closer together than they would otherwise be. (Shakespearean English probably does have some continuing impact on Modern English, but I think we can be fairly confident that there's no influence the other way).

    I could see this having an effect on the ongoing
    development of each language in a way that might leave
    them closer together than they would otherwise be.
Yes, since Mandarin had been established as the Standard Chinese in the early 20th century, there definitely are effects that have ended up bringing Cantonese closer to Mandarin in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

For instance, if I take my previous example further, if such a situation existed with English and German, the words "wit" and "thou" might have ended up being more common in spoken English, or at least considered more formal rather than archaic. Certain grammatical constructions might also end up being more common, such as the continued use of the y- prefix in past participles.

I'm already stretching this analogy more that I should, but hopefully it gives a better idea of the relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin.

I also wanted to add a note that this effects how various Chinese speakers think of Chinese as a language.

Many Mandarin speakers see Mandarin as being equal to "the Chinese language" and often think of Cantonese as being "merely a dialect" of Mandarin because Cantonese speakers appear to read and write the way they do (even though the aforementioned examples show that this is really not the case), and they are not really exposed to the more major differences that would exist if Cantonese speakers actually wrote the way they spoke.

Cantonese speakers are more aware that they don't write the way they speak, but because the Chinese writing system only reflects the lexical and grammatical differences rather than the pronunciation differences (even though most of the differences are in the latter), many Cantonese speakers end up considering the written language as being a "formal" version of their language rather than a different language altogether. For this reason, many Cantonese speakers also consider Cantonese to be a dialect as well; however, they consider both Cantonese and Mandarin to be dialects of "Chinese" rather than Cantonese being a dialect of Mandarin.

Linguistically speaking, because spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are generally completely unintelligible to each other, they should be considered separate languages, but the the writing system ends up obscuring these differences. There are also political implications if Cantonese were considered a separate language because of Chinese nationalism tends to see that as a slippery slope towards separatism.

My wife grew up speaking Taiwanese (Taiwan dialect of southern Min Chinese language) at home, and then attended school entirely in the medium of Mandarin. She says that school pupils used to be fined for speaking Taiwanese in class. The pupils responded by learning sentences that sounded like legitimate Mandarin sentences, but were actually sound-alikes for sentences that made crude insults in Taiwanese. The last time we lived in Taiwan (1998-2001), the government had relaxed its former stringent prohibitions on public use of Taiwanese, and we would see handwritten signs in Chinese characters in markets with obviously Taiwanese vocabulary and phrasing. Similarly, when I have traveled to Hong Kong, I have seen printed official signs that are quite baffling to someone who has only studied standard modern written Chinese, but are perfectly understandable to readers who know how Cantonese is written in Chinese characters.

Those sound clips are killing the page load...

Aside from that this is quite good. I feel like some of these proverbs could be quoted here on HN comment threads.

When I was in elementary school we had one of these for English proverbs. I checked on Google images but don't see anything like it.

"Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. " -Confucius

"Use a little knife to saw down a tree" is wonderful and relevant to the audience here.

I would never have guessed the actual meaning of that. It sounds negative, as if it would mean "using the wrong (underpowered) tool for the job", but I'm guess I'm taking it too literally!

Shaka, when the walls fell.


up vote from hk!

as a Hongkonger here, karma to support

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