Counting in Cantonese: A short lesson

HK Taxi

Yesterday I came across a cab driver who couldn’t speak or understand any English at all. While cabbies not being able to speak English is a fairly regular occurrence in Hong Kong, most can at least understand the names of major roads and numbers in English. Names of smaller streets are more of a challenge, and for some reason they frequently confuse the numbers three, five and eight.

I followed my usual modus operandi – googled the Chinese name of the street that I wanted to go to, on my phone, and showed it to him. Then, to give him the exact address, I said “Lok sup sahm”. He looked around with a big smile on his face, nodded his head vigorously, and took me to my destination.

I had just given him the number 63, and the reason I was able to do that was thanks to a lesson in counting in Cantonese, given to me by my aunt almost 25 years ago (who knew then, how useful that lesson would turn out to be!).

So I got thinking that passing on this knowledge may be in order.

Here goes:

1 – ‘yuht’ (the t is not pronounced fully. The word is cut off just at the t)

2 –  ‘yee’

3 – ‘sahm’ (the m sound is short and quick)

4 – ‘sayi’

5 – ‘ng’ (kinda like mm)

6 – ‘lok’ (k sound is short and quick)

7 – ‘tchut’ (the t is not pronounced fully. The word is cut off just at the t)

8 – ‘baht’ (the t is not pronounced fully. The word is cut off just at the t)

9 – ‘gow’

10 – ‘sup’

Cantonese is a very tonal language (there are 6 to 9 tones in Cantonese and a word can have a completely different meaning depending on the tone). Hence listening to this short video, or better yet, this slightly longer one, would be rather helpful.

Once you memorize 1-10, counting onwards to 99 is a piece of cake.

11 = 10 & 1 => ‘sup yuht’

12 = 10 & 2 => ‘sup yee’

and so on…

19 = 10 & 9 => ‘sup gow’

20 = 2 & 10 => ‘yee sup’

21 = 20 & 1 => ‘yee sup yuht’

and similarly,

38 is ‘sahm sup baht’; 57 is ‘ng sup tchut’; 99 is ‘gow sup gow’

Try it next time you are in a Cantonese speaking region! It’s more fun than simply sticking up fingers to convey numbers and risking distracting the driver 🙂

P.S. If you are hungry for more, hundred is ‘bahk’ (k sound is short and quick). 100 is ‘yuht bahk’. 138 is ‘yuht bahk sahm sup baht’. 786 is ‘tchut bahk baht sup lok’… and thus, following this logic, you can count up to 999.  Now you can bargain in Shenzhen, and show the aggressive salesperson that you know what you are talking about, when you counter-offer (in Cantonese) with less than half their originally quoted price.

P.P.S. If you are still not satisfied, thousand is ‘tcheen’ and now you can go up to 9999. You high achiever, you! But are you sure you have the right street address? And don’t overpay for that handbag! ;-p