CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


Extracts from a Penang Hokkien Dictionary | China Heritage Quarterly

Extracts from a Penang Hokkien Dictionary

Michael Churchman

Penang Hokkien is a creolised version of Southern Min spoken in Amoy (Xiamen), Taiwan, and the Philippines. It differs from other varieties of Hokkien mainly in its borrowing of Malay function words such as tapi (but), pun (also), and baru (just now), as well as Malay and English loanwords such as jali (finger), kahwin (to get married), start, and try, all of which have become an ingrained part of the language. At present there is still no comprehensive dictionary of this language, but I have been working on one myself for several years now.

There are many words in Penang Hokkien that have an interesting story behind them. Some are historical survivals of terms no longer used in Chinese Hokkien, others mirror the customs and culture of the Peranakan Chinese communities. It is interesting in the manner in which words were constructed for new and unfamiliar things, many of which are completely different from the way in which the same things are expressed in Taiwan or Amoy. Below is a small 'taster' of some interesting Penang Hokkien words and expressions, with notes on their etymologies. I have Romanised them according to the Peh-ōe-jī 白話字 system created by Presbyterian missionaries in the nineteenth century and used in the Hokkien translation of the Bible.

Âng-mô·-tang-cheh 紅毛冬節 —Christmas—literally 'red hair winter solstice'. Many of the words indicating things of western origin or made in a western style are prefixed with Âng-mô·, a seventeenth-century term literally meaning 'red hair' which was also once found in Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese but which has passed out of use almost everywhere except in the speech of the Southeast Asian Chinese. To indicate that something is of origin or Chinese style, Penangites prefix the word with Tng-lâng 唐儂名 meaning 'Chinese', for example, many people have both a Tng-lâng-miâ 唐儂名 —(Chinese name) and an Âng-mô·-miâ 紅毛名 (English name).

Chiáh-hong 食風 — to go on holiday or vacation, to go out for a stroll literally 'to eat wind' this is particularly interesting as a calque or loan-translation from Malay makan angin which is not understood in Chinese or Taiwanese varieties of Hokkien.

Chhiú-tiān 手電 — a mobile phone, short for chhiú ê tiān-ōa 手个電話, a literal translation of the Malaysian English term 'handphone'.

Kong-pan-gê· 公班衙 — government, originally this word was an ingenious transliteration of the English word 'company' and referred originally to the East India Company, and is still used in some place names and in the speech of those who still remember British colonial rule.

Ló-kun-chhia 老君車 — an ambulance. To a China-born Chinese this word would suggest a chariot belonging to the philosopher Lao Tzu, but here the Ló-kun here refers to a doctor, particularly a doctor who practices western medicine. The ultimate derivation of this word is probably the Malay dukun meaning a traditional Malay medicine-man or healer. Presumably those who were used to the medicines prescribed by a Tng-lâng sin-se·ⁿ 唐儂先生 (the name for a doctor of Chinese medicine) considered both dukun and western doctors as much the same thing. An ambulance is also known as an âng-síp-jī-chhia 紅十字車 which literally means a 'red cross vehicle'

Lui 鐳 — This is the common term for money in Southeast Asian Hokkien and it derives from the Dutch duit 'a copper coin' via Malay, in other varieties of Hokkien the word chîⁿ is used, but some of those varieties the term lui refers to a copper coin, rather than money in general

Pàng láu-hióh 放荖箬 — to issue wedding invitations literally 'to release betel' a borrowing of an old Malay tradition, the Chinese Hokkien version of this is pàng-thiáp 放帖

Pé·h-hún-sian 白粉仙 — a drug addict 'a white-powder fairy' pé·h-hún 'white powder' originally referred to cocaine, but has an extended meaning to refer to all sorts of narcotics sian a Taoist immortal, often translated as 'fairy', is often used in

Pài-ang-kong 拜尫公 — to be a Taoist, to worship the Taoist deities, in other varieties of Hokkien ang-kong refers to the statues of deities, rather than the deities themselves

Soaⁿ-pa-kâu 山岜猴 — literally a 'jungle monkey' — used to describe a boorish, uncultivated person

Tng kha-chhuiⁿ 長尻川 — literally 'long-bottomed' — used to describe guests who outstay their welcome

Sin Jamban hó pàng-sái 新jamban好放屎 — literally 'a new toilet is a good place to defecate' – used in reference to a newly-opened restaurant or shop, meaning somewhere that is new and unfamiliar is bound to attract many customers, but whether it will remain popular is another matter. Jamban is a loan from Malay.

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