- 1 Introduction
- 2 Video lesson
- 3 Vocabulary
- 4 Cantonese adjectives: Difference between Cantonese and English
- 5 The role of 好 in Cantonese before adjectives
- 6 Cantonese adjectives that already contain 好
- 7 Word order with Cantonese adjectives
- 8 Dropping the 嘅
- 9 Modifying your adjectives in Cantonese (how good?)
- 10 Negative modifiers in Cantonese
- 11 Relative clauses in Cantonese
- 12 Non-specific Cantonese relative clauses
- 13 Specific Cantonese relative clauses
- 14 A word on context
Welcome back to another lesson at Cantolounge, I hope you’re doing well. 🙂
Today, we’re going to talk about three very important things:
- A recap of how adjectives work in Cantonese
- Describing the extent of something and their opposites
- Noun phrases – things like “the people who stood there”, “the cabin in which we stayed”
While the first two parts are important – the third part is undoubtedly the most important bit of the lesson. As a matter of fact, it’s so important I think it should span a Cantonese lesson on its own, but as I’ve said before – learning grammar needs to be simplified, not made more complicated – and I’m confident you can pick the basic rules up with the examples listed below.
Today’s lesson isn’t that long either, but it’s one of the most important lessons you’ll learn at Cantolounge. I remember when I first learnt how to form noun phrases in Korean, and it unlocked a new world of understanding and possibilities – it’s not an exaggeration to say this could be one of those lines that, once you cross, will literally help your Cantonese progress to the next level.
Okay, enough ranting on my part, let’s dive straight in.
S/W/B = Spoken / Written / Both
|good (to watch)||好睇||hou2 tai2||S|
|good (to eat)||好食||hou2 sik6||S|
|good (to listen to)||好聽||hou2 teng1||B|
|good (to wear)||好着||hou2 zoek3||S|
|to look forward to||期待||kei4 doi6||B|
|just now||頭先||tau4 sin1||S|
|Hong Kong style restaurant||茶餐廳||caa4 caan1 teng1||B|
|to return to a shop (and shop there)||幫趁||bong1 can3||S|
|to realize||發覺||faat3 gok3||B|
|nickname for Alan Tam, a famous HK singer||校長||haau6 zoeng2||B|
|children||小朋友||siu2 pang4 jau5||B|
|extremely expensive||貴夾唔飽||gwai3 gaap3 m4 baau2||S|
|spicy fish balls||辣魚蛋||laat6 jyu4 daan2||B|
|washing machine||洗衣機||sai2 ji1 gei1||B|
|watch (on your wrist)||錶||biu1||B|
|service attitude||服務態度||fuk6 mou6 taai3 dou6||B|
|scrambled eggs||炒蛋||caau2 daan2||B|
|to study (in a school)||讀書||duk6 syu1||B|
|to move away||搬走||bun1 zau2||B|
|tuna||吞拿魚||tan1 naa4 jyu2||B|
|name of a book||書名||syu1 meng2||B|
|high school||中學||zung1 hok6||B|
|from zero||從零開始||cung4 ling4 hoi1 ci2||B|
|to make (wrap) dumplings||包餃子||baau1 gaau2 zi2||B|
Cantonese adjectives: Difference between Cantonese and English
As a matter of fact, this isn’t the first time we’ve talked about adjectives – we first mentioned (briefly) Cantonese adjectives in the second lesson, covering how to say to be in Cantonese.
Do you still remember the three translations of “to be” for the following sentences?
- I am a Hongkonger.
- Susan is in China.
- The cat is fat.
If your answers were
ngo5 hai6 hoeng1 gong2 jan4.
Susan ji4 gaa1 hai2 zung1 gwok3.
zek3 maau1 hou2 fei4.
You’re absolutely right. 🙂
A quick summary then:
- 係: to be (someone, something)
- 喺: to be (somewhere)
- 好: to be + adjective
The role of 好 in Cantonese before adjectives
This is a fairly trivial point, but I feel that it’s important enough for a brief mention.
好 (hou2), if you aren’t already familiar, can mean “very”. When Cantonese learners learn of this, the following question immediately comes to mind.
“If 好 means ‘very’, and 好 has to come before adjectives in Cantonese, does that mean I’m always describing something as ‘very’ + adjective?”
As far as questions go, I think this is an excellent one. Fortunately, when you add 好 in front of an adjective, it doesn’t “force” the sense of “very” with that adjective. In other words, if you’re describing something, you should simply think of 好 as part of the adjective construct – it doesn’t add any meaning of “very” whatsoever – any native speaker will attest to this.
Cantonese adjectives that already contain 好
The second question that usually pops up when it comes to adjectives is:
“What about for adjectives that already contain 好 as part of that adjective? Do you still add 好 before it?”
Some adjectives that fall into this category include words like:
- 好睇 hou2 tai2
- 好食 hou2 sik6
- 好聽 hou2 teng1
- 好着 hou2 zoek3
What do you think?
The answer is simply: yes, you still add 好 before it. An adjective is still an adjective regardless of how many 好’s there are in it – we still add the 好 in front. Here are some examples demonstrating this:
ceot1 hei3 hou2 hou2 tai2, hou2 kei4 doi6 keoi5 dei6 paak3 haa6 jat1 zaap6.
The movie was pretty good, I look forward to them (producers) filming the next one.
tau4 sin1 go2 gaan1 caa4 caan1 teng1 hou2 hou2 sik6, haa6 ci3 jat1 ding6 wui5 zoi3 lei4 bong1 can3.
The restaurant we were just at was really good, I’ll definitely come back again next time.
nei5 jau5 mou5 faat3 gok3 haau6 zoeng2 di1 go1 hou2 hou2 teng1 ne1?
Do you agree that Alan Tam’s songs are really good?
li1 gin6 saam1 hou2 hou2 zoek3, ngo5 hou2 zung1 ji3.
This (piece of) clothing is really comfortable, I like it.
Word order with Cantonese adjectives
So in the above section we covered things like “the kid is smart” by adding 好. What about if you wanted to say things like “they have a smart kid”, if you wanted to put the adjective in front of the noun?
The rule is pretty simple. Compare:
好 + adjective
adjective + 嘅 + noun
(This has applications beyond what we’re talking about here, so I would highly recommend that you remember this pattern.)
So how would we translate the two sentences knowing this?
go3 siu2 pang4 jau5 hou2 cung1 ming4.
keoi5 dei6 jau5 jat1 go3 cung1 ming4 ge3 siu1 pang4 jau5.
To the astute reader, you’ll notice that unlike the 好 construct, there’s no 好 added before the second construct.
That’s exactly right – you don’t need to add the 好 before the adjective if you’re saying things like “a smart kid”, “a difficult book”. But sometimes you will hear people adding 好, and sometimes, you’ll hear people dropping it altogether.
ngo5 tai2 gan2 jat1 bun2 hou2 naa4 ge3 syu1.
I’m reading a difficult book.
keoi5 aam1 aam1 maai5 zo2 jat1 bou6 gwai3 gaap3 m4 baau2 ge3 din6 waa2.
She just bought a really expensive phone.
The fact of the matter is that there’s no reliable way of telling when it’s natural and when it’s unnatural to add 好, or when it’s okay either way. In cases like these, you might want to rephrase your sentence simply using the first construct, like so:
li1 bun2 syu1 hou2 naan4 aa3.
This book is difficult (to read).
bou6 din6 waa2 hou2 gwai3.
The phone is expensive.
Dropping the 嘅
With the second construct
adjective + 嘅 + noun
sometimes it’s actually okay to drop the 嘅. Let’s have a look at some examples:
ngo5 soeng2 maai5 peng4 je5.
I want to buy cheap stuff.
ngo5 gin3 dou2 jat1 zek3 fei4 maau1.
I saw a fat cat.
ngo5 soeng2 sik6 laat6 jyu4 daan2.
I want to eat spicy fish balls.
However, it’s not always acceptable to do so. For example:
ngo5 m4 zung1 ji3 tai2 hau5 ge3 syu1.
I don’t like reading thick books.
ngo5 m4 soeng2 maai5 taai3 gwai3 ge3 sai2 ji1 gei1.
I don’t want to buy a washing machine that’s too expensive.
This then begs the question:
“How do you tell when it’s ok to drop the 嘅 and when it’s not okay?”
Unfortunately, this is another one of the things that can only be confirmed with a native speaker – there’s no rule I’m aware of that can differentiate the two.
However, when in doubt, just keep this in mind: it’s okay to go from contraction to adding 嘅, but it’s not okay to assume dropping it is okay.
So the caveat is simple: when in doubt, add the 嘅.
Modifying your adjectives in Cantonese (how good?)
In English, people don’t just say something’s “delicious”, or “good” – that’s pretty boring. Instead, you probably say things like it’s “a fairly good movie”, “it’s super tasty”, “it’s not really that interesting”.
You can modify adjectives and show how much you want to describe something the same way in Cantonese. All you have to do is this:
好 + adjective → modifier + adjective
In other words, you just drop the 好 and add the modifier directly.
Here are some examples:
我最近好好。 → 我最近非常之好
ngo5 zeoi3 gan6 hou2 hou2. → ngo5 zeoi3 gan6 fei1 soeng4 zi1 hou2.
I’m well recently. → I’ve been really good recently.
呢間餐廳啲嘢好好食。 → 呢間餐廳啲嘢真係非常之好食。
li1 gaan1 caan1 teng1 di1 je5 hou2 hou2 sik6. → li1 gaan1 caan1 teng1 di1 je5 zan1 hai6 fei1 soeng4 zi1 hou2 sik6.
The food in this restaurant is pretty good. → The food in this restaurant is fantastic.
隻貓好曳。 → 隻貓超級曳囉。
zek3 maau1 hou2 jai5. → zek3 maau1 ciu1 kap1 jai5 lo1.
The cat is naughty. → The cat is super naughty.
Negative modifiers in Cantonese
One way of negating modifiers is to use the structure
唔係 + modifier + adjective
But as you can see below, it doesn’t always fit this pattern.
(The below are going from a simple adjective to sentences with modifiers – these are not “negations”.)
呢隻錶唔貴。 → 呢隻錶唔係好貴㗎咋。
li1 zek3 biu1 m4 gwai3. → li1 zek3 biu1 m4 hai6 hou2 gwai3 gaa3 zaa3.
This watch isn’t expensive. → This watch isn’t that expensive.
呢度啲服務態度好差。 → 呢度啲服務態度真係認真好差。
li1 dou6 di1 fuk6 mou6 taai3 dou6 hou2 caa1. → li1 dou6 di1 fuk6 mou6 taai3 dou6 zan1 hai6 jing2 zan1 hou2 caa1.
The service here is pretty bad. → The service here is really, just seriously bad.
頭先啲炒蛋有少少鹹。 → 頭先啲炒蛋唔係好鹹啫。
tau4 sin1 di1 caau2 daan2 jau5 siu2 siu2 haam4. → tau4 sin1 di1 caau2 daan2 m4 hai6 hou2 haam4 ze1.
The scrambled eggs just now were a little salty. → The scrambled eggs just now weren’t that salty.
咁樣做唔啱。 → 咁樣做唔係幾啱。
gam2 joeng2 zou6 m4 aam1. → gam2 joeng2 zou6 m4 hai6 gei2 aam1.
It’s wrong to do this. → It’s fairly wrong (maybe slightly morally reprehensible) to do this.
呢隻錶唔貴。 → 呢隻錶一啲都唔貴。
li1 zek3 biu1 m4 gwai3. → li1 zek3 biu1 jat1 di1 dou1 m4 gwai3.
This watch isn’t expensive. → This watch isn’t expensive at all.
Here’s are some common modifiers used in Cantonese:
- 最 zeoi3 the most
- 極之 gik6 zi1 extremely
- 勁 ging6 very, very
- 超級 ciu1 kap1 super
- 太 taai3 too
- 非常之 fei1 soeng4 zi1 really
- 比較 bei2 gaau3 relatively
- 幾 gei2 quite
- 少少 siu2 siu2 a bit
- 啲啲 dit1 dit1 a little bit
Relative clauses in Cantonese
Okay, moving on to the most important part of the lesson yet – relative clauses in Cantonese.
If you don’t already know, a relative clause is a clause that start with a relative pronoun. Relative pronouns are who, whom, where, when, why, which, whose, that.
For example, you might say things like:
- The teacher whom I had as a science teacher in high school really made an impact in my life.
- The bus (that) I was on when going home today was full of people.
- Do you remember the day when we were making dumplings from scratch?
So in English, a relative clause follows the pattern:
object + relative pronoun + relative clause
Getting rid of the grammar jargon
the thing it describes + who / whom / when, etc. + description (of the thing)
Think about how many things we say everyday that follow a similar pattern.
Can you see why it’s so important now?
Let’s have a look at two types of relative clauses in Cantonese.
Non-specific Cantonese relative clauses
By non specific, I mean things that you’d refer to with “a / an”, as with the following examples.
- I study in a school that’s in Switzerland, but I am about to move away.
- We are going to a restaurant that is famous for its seafood.
- I have a cat who really hates tuna.
Relative clauses, despite their importance, are surprisingly easy to translate once you’re used to the ordering of sentences.
Remember the pattern we used earlier for adjectives?
adjective + 嘅 + noun
Relative clauses actually follow the same pattern:
relative clause + 嘅 + object
Again, away with the grammar jargon:
description + 嘅 + thing it describes
Let’s have a look at how we’d translate the above three sentences then:
I study in a school that’s in Switzerland, but I am about to move away.
ngo5 hai2 seoi6 si6 ge3 jat1 gaan1 hok6 haau6 duk6 syu1, daan6 hai6 ngo5 zau6 faai3 jiu3 bun1 zau2 laa3.
Some might be confused about the word order here in Cantonese, but here’s a quick recap of the previous lesson:
Subject + Time + Manner + Place + Verb
Applying this in the sentence, we have
Subject + Place + Verb
And we have a relative clause describing the place:
seoi6 si6 ge3 jat1 gaan1 hok6 haau6
We are going to a restaurant that is famous for its seafood later.
ngo5 dei6 zan6 gaan1 heoi3 jat1 gaan1 sik6 hoi2 sin1 hou2 ceot1 meng2 ge3 caan1 teng1 sik6 faan6.
Underlined would be time and place,
jat1 gaan1 sik6 hoi2 sin1 hou2 ceot1 meng2 ge3 caan1 teng1
and the relative clause and the thing it describes.
I have a cat who really hates tuna.
ngo5 jau5 jat1 zek3 hou2 zang1 sik6 tan1 naa4 jyu2 ge3 maau1.
This is just a simple sentence.
Specific Cantonese relative clauses
As you can probably guess, specific relative clauses are ones that have “the” in them. For example, the few examples we gave earlier all had “the”. Well, in Cantonese, the structure is also fairly simple:
relative clause + 嗰 + classifier + object
(Do you see the importance of learning Cantonese classifiers early now? :))
Could you send me the name of that book (that) you were talking about earlier?
嗰個 send畀我？nei5 ho2 m4 ho2 ji5 zoeng1 nei5 tau4 sin1 gong2 go2 bun2 syu1 meng2 send bei2 ngo5?
The teacher whom I had as a science teacher in high school really made an impact in my life.
ngo5 duk6 zung1 hok6 ge3 si4 hau6 go2 go3 fo1 hok6 lou5 si1 deoi3 ngo5 jan4 sang1 jau5 zung6 daai6 ge3 jing2 hoeng2.
The bus (that) I was on when going home today was full of people.
ngo5 gam1 jat6 faan1 uk1 kei2 daap3 go2 gaa3 baa1 si2 mun5 saai3 jan4.
Do you remember the day when we were making dumplings from scratch?
nei5 gei3 m4 gei3 dak1 ngo5 dei6 cung4 ling4 hoi1 ci2 baau1 gaau2 zi2 go2 jat1 jat6?
A word on context
Remember, these phrases aren’t always as specific as the examples above. Sometimes, they can be vague (I’m not talking about non-specific clauses, I’m talking about phrases where the meaning isn’t entirely clear).
le2, aam1 aam1 hai2 caan1 teng1 go2 go3 jan4 aa1 maa3.
You know, ?
The question mark could mean many things. Here are some possibilities:
- the guy who was in the restaurant
- the waiter who was in the restaurant
- the guy you met in the restaurant
- the guy you saw earlier near the restaurant
among many more possibilities. Which interpretation depends largely on context, so don’t forget to look for clues when listening to what people are saying.
Alright, that’s about it for this lesson, thanks for reading as usual, and if you found this helpful, please consider sharing this on Facebook with friends who’re learning Cantonese! 🙂