Day 15:

Thursday, May 6

Today for lunch I went down to a certain "restaurant" I've been hearing about. (I use quotes because they're implied whenever someone who works here talks about the place. It's sole virtue seems to be that you don't have to go out in the Hong Kong swelter to get to it.) It's on the first floor of this 23-story industrial factory/warehouse/office building we're in, and I went all alone, and -- I'm very proud of this -- I actually ordered in Cantonese! I was coached in advance by Mark & Kim, but still, I did it by myself. It felt great. I said "neigh ho" ("hello"), then ordered "golly guy fawn." That's curry chicken & rice. "Golly" (ga-lei), is actually the closest phonetic representation of "curry" that they can make with their limited set of phonemes. "Guy" (gai), is chicken, and "fawn" (fan), is rice. I had to work hard to try to remember the pitch of each word, which is like trying to remember a very uncatchy tune. I had read before coming here that the tone (pitch) of a word spoken is very important, but even so, it still amazes me that Cantonese people will look at you completely stumped (at best) if you pronounce a word perfectly, but use the wrong tone. It's as though they never noticed that "fan?" is somewhat similar to "fan."

But I guess they just grow up with a different concept of similarity than I did. Their language is made up entirely of one-syllable words, and has such a shortage of syllables (only 639) that even after you multiply that number by the six possible intonations, you still can't even come up with 4,000 words, and languages need many times that. English, for instance, has somewhere between 50 and 250 times as many! So each Cantonese word has to double-up on its meaning... and then double-up again, and again, and again... In the end, each word has to stand for dozens of concepts. They keep it all straight by listening intently to the context.

So, when I ordered my curry chicken rice, theoretically, it could have meant many different things. How many different things? Well, here's your chance to find out: Here are interactive lists of things that each of the four syllables of my lunch might have meant; some if I had gotten the tone wrong, but some even if I had gotten it right. Select one meaning from each pop-up menu, and you'll have created something that I might have unwittingly ordered... picture me walking up to the counter, and saying "I'd like...


So, considering the astronomical odds against me, I think I can be pretty proud of walking away unslapped, unpoisoned, and unjailed.

By the way, I didn't make any of this up. I got all these synonyms from an excellent (I hope) online Cantonese dictionary at In discussing this with my Cantonese workmate Chung, he was at first confused, believing that the word "fan" didn't have anywhere near that many meanings. So I showed him in the online dictionary. Suddenly his eyes lit up, and he said, "No, no! I see your mistake. Those are different words! See, this word here is 'fan?', but this one's 'fan.'

My point exactly.