Learning every language comes with its own set of challenges. If you’ve learnt a Slavic or a Romance language before, you probably had to struggle with many things, but three things that probably stand out are (1) conjugations; (2) word gender; (3) declensions. If you don’t know what these things are, you’re in luck, because in Cantonese, we have none of that! Verbs, for example, only have one form – and today, we’ll get to see the simplicity of that together with the verb “to be”.
(Last Updated: 9th May, 2017.)
S/W/B = Spoken / Written / Both
|to be (written)||是||si6||W|
|Hongkonger||香港人||hoeng1 gong2 jan4||B|
|American||美國人||mei5 gwok3 jan4||B|
|Japanese people||日本人||jat6 bun2 jan4||B|
|British||英國人||jing1 gwok3 jan4||B|
|French people||法國人||faat3 gwok3 jan4||B|
|Canadian||加拿大人||gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4||B|
|Korean||韓國人||hon4 gwok3 jan4||B|
|Golden Retriever||金毛尋回犬||gam1 mou4 cam4 wui4 heon2||B|
|Causeway Bay (a place in Hong Kong)||銅鑼灣||tung4 lo4 waan1||B|
|on top of||上面||soeng6 min6||B|
How to say “I am, he is, she is” in Cantonese
So let’s start with the basics. The word “to be” in Cantonese is
That’s it – plain and simple.
However, because this word is so important, I’ll also distinguish between the written and spoken forms here. 係 is only used in spoken Cantonese. The word used in written Chinese is
Don’t worry too much about using it for now (pretty much you just sub it in when writing for the most part), but if you see it, I hope you’ll be able to recognize it.
Next, let’s dive straight into some examples.
Examples with “I am, he is, she is” in Cantonese
I am a Hongkonger.
ngo5 hai6 hoeng1 gong2 jan4
I am American.
ngo5 hai6 mei5 gwok3 jan4
He is Japanese.
keoi5 hai6 jat6 bun2 jan4
She is British.
keoi5 hai6 jing1 gwok3 jan4
It is a dog.
keoi5 hai6 jat1 zek3 gau2
*Probably a parent saying this to a child.
What about “we are, you are, they are” in Cantonese?
Going from something easier to something more difficult is hard, but the opposite can just be as non-intuitive. So just to drive it home, I’ll repeat it here – there’s absolutely no change for other pronouns or nouns in general.
We are French.
ngo5 dei6 hai6 faat3 gwok3 jan4
They are Canadians.
keoi5 dei6 hai6 gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4
You are Koreans.
nei5 dei6 hai6 hon4 gwok3 jan4
A common mistake in Cantonese: Cantonese adjectives
However, there is one exception that many foreigners learning Cantonese inevitably make when it comes to describing things with adjectives. I think that over the course of posting lessons here, I’ll talk about translation a lot, and one of the things I would recommend that you caution against is transliterating.
For example, in English, you might say something like “she’s tall”. According to what we’ve covered so far, it’s perfectly natural to translate it to
keoi5 hai6 gou1
However, this is wrong!
Please be careful – in Cantonese, adjectives already take on the meaning “to be + adjective”. For example, 高 already means “to be tall” (we’ll discuss adjectives separately in a separate lesson next time, so don’t worry).
So how do we fix this?
We tend to say the following instead
keoi5 hou2 gou1
As you can guess, the formula to say “sb./sth. is + adjective” is pretty simple:
好 + adjective
where 好 means “very”.
Let’s look at some examples.
Examples with Cantonese adjectives
Compare and contrast the two sets of sentences below, where the first phrases take on nouns, and the second of the two sets take on adjectives.
She is a lawyer.
keoi5 hai6 leot6 si1
She is smart.
keoi5 hou2 cung1 ming4
It is a Golden Retriever.
keoi5 hai6 gam1 mou4 cam4 wui4 hyun2
It is lazy.
keoi5 hou2 laan5
As one of my friends loves saying, “important things need to be repeated thrice (for effect)”. I’ll repeat this once more because it’s so important: when describing something or someone, you have to replace the 係 with 好!
This is probably the most important part of today’s lesson.
The easily confused 係 and 喺
In English, there’s only one “to be”.
However, in other languages like Spanish, Japanese and Korean, there are two versions of to be, ser and estar, ある (aru) and いる (iru) 이다 (i-da) 있다 (i-dda). However, the Cantonese 係 (hai6) and 喺 (hai2) are closer to its Asian counterparts than Spanish – 係 means “to be something”, and 喺 means “to be somewhere”.
This is a very important distinction because they are not interchangeable. And because there’s no distinction in English, it’s difficult to distinguish these two by ear. Their tones are also different, so please note that they are different words!
I rarely emphasize on the importance of tones – my stance has always been that tones are important, but they’re not a deal breaker.
But this is one of the rare cases where I must insist that learners get the tones right all the time.
The usage is quite simple though, so we’ll have a look at a few examples to consolidate.
I’m currently in Causeway Bay.
ngo5 ji4 gaa1 hai2 tung4 lo4 waan1.
He’s in France.
keoi5 ji4 gaa1 hai2 faat3 gwok3.
The cat is on the bed.
zek3 maau1 hai2 zoeng1 cong4 soeng6 min6.
(In lesson #4, we’ll talk about Cantonese classifiers, so don’t worry too much about classifiers like 隻 for now. You’ll also notice the Cantonese word order is slightly different. That’s also covered in a later lesson.)
That’s it for today.
Please write some sample sentences in the comments section below to consolidate what you’ve learnt today – I’d love to hear from you.
See you in the next lesson!