One and a half lingual

When your mother tongue is not your mother’s, you grow up with an echo. In our house, English was the official language, the language of information transfer. Cantonese, my parents’ first language, was the language of emotion and of secrets. It was the language of outbursts. Here’s a typical example, an exchange between my mother and her sister at my cousin’s wedding:

Aunt (in English): Hi, how are you doing? Good to see you.

Mom (in English): Fine. How’s your job? Are you working part-time now?

Aunt (in Cantonese): What is going on with your teeth? You’re scaring me to death!

I’ll get to the root of my aunt’s horror, but it’s worth exploring the Cantonese phrase my aunt used to indicate “You’re scaring me to death.” She said, literally:

Hak say!

The two words mean “scare” and “death”. The context, and the tone of accusation in my aunt’s voice, fill in the meaning of who is scaring who. Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese and is a tonal language. Many words are homophones – they sound similar, and meaning must be derived from tone and context. I had heard people in my family say “Hak say!” many times the way my aunt did, usually to mean something like “I’m scandalized!” The Cantonese phrase is etched in my brain.

I was thinking of this in regard to my previous post, To 80s Hong Kong Pop With Love. In it, I wrote about listening to a Cantonese rock and roll tape in a friend’s car, over and over. But I don’t think I conveyed my connection to the music. It was rock and roll, Hong Kong style, as it would inevitably be when Cantonese speakers made it their own. It has a flavor and energy that American rock and roll does not have. Even though I didn’t understand it word for word, it was familiar. I could pick out the occasional hard-wired phrase, and I could recognize emotions and tones.

Tone matters in two ways, in a Chinese language. There is the pitch of the word that identifies the meaning, and then there is the tone of meaning. People whose first language is Cantonese speak English with a recognizable lilt. I’m especially familiar with the Hong Kong version. When I hear it from someone, I have to admit I feel a sense of trust, even though I don’t have that lilt myself. I notice this now because I don’t hear that lilt very often these days.

One distinctive feature in Chinese languages is the ending particle: a word, really only just a syllable, tacked on to the end of someone’s name when addressing or calling them, or at the end of a sentence. It seems to me, though I am not an expert, that Cantonese has a few more of these ending particles than other dialects. Typical example, one could call out to Marjorie:


When I was little, these ending particles did not have a purpose I could explain in English, they simply “felt right” when tacked on. It wouldn’t be Chinese without them. What I’d say now is that these ending particles are little buckets of meaning, of emotion. They allow the speaker to add tone. Many times, for example, I’ve heard a person – typically someone with a rich, resonant voice – use the final particle in this context:

“Listen to me, John-aaa.”

And the tone of the final particle is “c’mon, be reasonable.”

I have of course been called to order by a parent when in trouble: “Margie-a! Get over here!”

Speakers can be very dramatic with the final particle, drawing it out to express chagrin, shock, delight, or disgust. It can be used to plead and whine. And I’ve heard it used to express submission to the person named. It’s a useful verbal variable. Some English words are like that: okay for example can mean “not okay” or “just okay” or “thank goodness we’re okay”, depending on how it is said. Like anything else, though, frequent exercise of a verbal variable makes it stronger and more flexible. I miss hearing the Cantonese end-bucket.

There was a price my parents paid to switch mother tongues. They can joke in Cantonese, I can’t. They can joke in English, but it’s not the same. Above all their personalities come across differently in the two different languages, my mother’s especially. Her language levels are different in the two languages. After living for many years in Canada her English is probably “better” than her Cantonese, but that was not the case when I was young.

It’s a strange thing to grow up with different languages spoken at markedly different levels. Cantonese has a mystique, an air of sophistication. At this point in time. My mother says when I was little I rejected it, like liver.

My aunt, when she said “hak say” was responding to my mother appearing at my cousin’s wedding with four upper front teeth missing. My mother had decided not to bother with false teeth or implants. When my aunt made her outburst, I have to admit I felt vindicated. She’d said what I’d not been able to say. I too was scared to death.

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