The oldest Chinese dialect, Hokkien

For me, while I can find plenty similarities between Cantonese and Mandarin, I find none between Hokkien and Mandarin. Take my name “Zhang” as an example, it is “Cheung” in Cantonese, different yet close enough. In Hokkien, it is “Teo”. It’s like, what, come again? 

The reason for such a huge difference is that, Hokkien is a much older language, older than Cantonese. It might have descended directly from old Chinese. 

Linguists say that, more than two thousand years ago, during the Qin Dynasty, the Han people in the north started to migrate to Fujian due to the war. Later, during the Jin Dynasty in the fourth century, constant wars in the north continued to sent waves of people to Fujian. Once these war “refugees” settled down, they sort of cut off the communication with the north. Consequently, their ways of communicating is kept alive till today, and is given an overall umbrella name, Hokkien. In fact, there are probably as many different varieties of Hokkien as the number of villages in Fujian. I was told by Fujian natives that neighbouring villages and towns, all speak somewhat different Hokkien dialects.

Hokkien is called Fujianhua (福建话) in Mandarin. From this definition, it seems that it is the dialect spoken in Fujian province. It is actually much more than that. People outside of China also speak it. I found a nice example in Penang Hokkien - English Dictionary (by Tan Siew Imm, published by Sunway University Press), which explains how Hokkien came to Penang, Malaysia, and interestingly enough, just like in Fujian province, Hokkien also branched out into different varieties. 

“Penang was first established as a British port of call in 1786 …… Soon, the Chinese were attracted the to new port and many settled on the island. Many of the overseas Chinese at that time were from the Fujian province. They quickly built themselves a home on the island.” 

The distinction is made between early settlers and later ones in Penang:

“Many of the early settlers began … to differentiate themselves from later arrivals, they termed themselves peranakan and the new immigrants sin-khek (new guests).”

Also the languages: 

“Influenced by the multi-lingual and multi-cultural communities in Penang over the years,…, Penang Hokkien is very different from the other varieties of Hokkien in the south and east Malaysia which remain closer to the Min language in China.”

Not only Hokkien travelled far and wide, but also it continued to evolve. I suspect similar stories happened elsewhere in the world where there are Chinese communities originated from Fujian. 

According to linguists, among the seven major Chinese dialect groups, Hokkien belongs to Min (闽) dialect. The name Min comes from the river Min (闽江), which is a major river in Fujian. Min dialect is widely spoken in Fujian, Taiwan, Hainan, Zhejiang, and so on.

For me, learning Hokkien is hard. I had lived in Fujian province for nearly ten years, and only learned a few scattered words and phrases. One of the reasons is, perhaps, that I have never seen any written script for Hokkien. Everything is phonetic, even in the Penang Hokkien - English Dictionary. It is like learning Mandarin using pinyin only. Phonetics make it very hard for me to ground the meanings in something which can be differentiated. For example, to the sound “khì” (page 156), so many possible meanings are attached: 

  • vapour
  • an instrument
  • go to a place
  • the universal life force
  • an odour
  • anger
  • character
  • good or bad luck
  • a malaria-related effect
  • flavour
  • lose
  • cure a disease or an illness

I guess some of the meanings can be connected to Chinese characters: 气, 器, 去, 字, but not all the meanings. 

If any of the readers of this article have successfully learned Hokkien as a second language, I’d love to hear how it is achieved! 


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