Growing up in a Hong Kongese family that had recently immigrated to the US was always confusing. I had really only just grasped enough Cantonese to function in a Chinese kindergarden before being transplanted to an English one in the states. Combining this with an even younger sister meant that conversation our household was a hodge-podge of English in the Chinese word order, misused Chinese phrases, and so forth. Looking back on it now, it’s very interesting sifting through our heritage vocabulary and phrasing to trace the roots of our family.

First of all, it’s undeniable the Britishism that have pervaded throughout Cantonese in general. Words like 𨋢 (lip1: “lift, elevator”), 天拿水 (tin1 naa4 seoi2: “[paint] thinner”) and 啤牌 (pe1 paai4: “playing cards”) are some that I didn’t recognize were English loans until recently. Another weird quirk not apparent while growing up, was that my father ended the alphabet with the letter “iset”. It wasn’t until later I realized he was trying to pronounce the British English “zed”; but couldn’t because of Cantonese phonotactics without an initial Z or a terminal D.

Finally there are two words that my mother often used have baffled me for a long time: “Nem” and “Yor”. Neither sounded Cantonese and referred to weird cured meats. I later discovered that both of those types of meats are of Vietnamese origin, and it just so happens that my mother’s mother spent quite a bit of time teaching in Vietnam. “Nem” was easy to track down, but the other one was actually called “Chả lụa” in Vietnamese. A bit more digging revealed that this particular sausage is known as “mu yo” (หมูยอ) in Thailand where it’s further shortened to “yo”. Now, The mystery to uncover is: How did a Thai word end up in our family’s parlance?

Written on Jun 8, 2015 about Language.