Sunday, June 16, 2013

Luke, SHE is your father

I'm sure you've noticed, when talking English with native-Chinese people, that they sometimes mistakenly interchange 'he' and 'she'. And although I noticed it in China, it is certainly more common in Hong Kong.

In Mandarin, 'he' (他) and 'she' (她) are both pronounced 'tā'  (same sound and same first tone). And I had convinced myself that because the two words sound the same, that in the mind of Chinese people it must be easy to confuse the translation into English.

But there were two things that kept bothering me ... (1) I figured Chinese people were more likely to think in terms of characters than pronunciations (since so many words sound the same), and (2) Why was the confusion of he/she so much more common in Hong Kong than mainland China?

Clearly, this wasn't the explanation I was looking for.  (*)

And it was only a couple of weeks ago that I found out!  Which surprises me since I've been living in HK for nearly three years already.

It turns out that in Cantonese they actually use the same word for 'he' and 'she' - 佢. In Mandarin, this is pronounced , and in Cantonese it's pronounced keoi5.  Yes you can find both 他 and 她 in a Cantonese dictionary (both pronounced 'taa1'), but it's not the one they use. So now we know.

佢 ... Yes, the force is strong with this one. (*)


  1. 'Tā' (他 'he' and 她 'she') are usually explained to have the same sound and tone, but in reality in Putonghua/Mandarin 'she' is ever so slightly longer if we pay very close attention to the speech. But that doesn't matter, since Chinese is a topic/context-driven language that most European languages are not.

    As a native Cantonese speaker myself, the Cantonese 佢 'keoi' (or 'kui' in true Hong Kong-style Cantonese transliteration) are exactly equal in sound and tone. Again, the speaker and listener have no trouble differentiating he vs. she because of the conversation's opening/staging context.

  2. Hi there - and thanks for dropping in. Great comments ...

    I have not heard of 她 being slightly longer-lasting than 他 - interesting. I will listen more carefully, and will speak with my Chinese friends, and compare notes.

    And yes, I agree that context is important in Chinese - with a limited number of pinyin syllables, context certainly plays a big role.

    Thanks again - very interesting comments.