Aspects of the Meixian Dialect of Hakka

Translation © Dylan Sung 2001

The Hakka language 客家話 is found in eight of China's provinces, GuangDong 廣東, GuangXi 廣西, Fujian 福建, JiangXi 江西, Hunan 湖南, SiChuan 四川, HaiNan 海南 and Taiwan 臺灣. There is a great deal of similarity between the Hakka dialects of each province, but each Hakka dialect also has its differences in the phonology, vocabulary and grammar.

When someone speaks of Hakka, they will often mean the Meixian dialect 梅縣話. Usually Meixian dialect is considered the representative dialect. In the phonology, Meixian retains [m n N p t k] ending rhymes, two entering tones, and displays regular correspondences with ancient Chinese phonology. Below we take the phonology, vocabulary and grammar in a simple way to show the main points of Meixian Hakka.

1. Aspects of MeiXian Phonology

1.1 Initials

1. Ancient fully voiced initals 古全濁聲母字, irrespective of level or oblique tones 不論平仄, that are obstruents 塞音 or affricates 塞擦音, are now pronounced as aspirated unvoiced initials 送氣清音. For example:

並母 p'o11 奉母 p'uN11 定母 t'au11 從母 ts'ui53 邪母 ts'i11 邪母 ts'ia53 澄母 ts'oN11 崇母 ts'oN11 禪母 ts'u11 群母 k'iu44

Only a few other characters for example

並母 pan31 並母 pun53 並母 pin44 / pien44 從母 tsien53 澄母 tsui53 群母 ki11

2. Ancient 非 initial characters have both [f v] labiodental sounds 齒唇音 and [p p' m] bilabials 雙唇音 readings. For instance:

非母 fu44 fun21 fung44 pi53 pu21 puk1
敷母 fi53 fui53 fun44 fung44 p'u21 pung21
奉母 fu53 fong11 fut5 p'i11 p'u11 p'ung11
微母 vu44 vi53 van53 mi44 mun44 mat1

Bilabial readings form a stratum of older readings, labiodentals initials were a later development. There are times when one character may have two readings, indicating a difference of use. For instance "發" [pot11] and [fat11] both readings are listed below

[pot] [fat]
發病 pot1 p'iang53 發酵 fat1 kau53
發癲 pot1 tien44 發冷 fat1 lang44
發風落雨 pot1 fuN4 lok5 i21 發寒發燒 fat1 fon11 fat1 sau44
發大水 pot1 t'ai535 sui21 發熱氣 fat1 Niat5 hi53
發性 pot1 siaN53 發譴 fat1 k'ian21
發火 pot1 fo21 發火 fat1 fo21
發財 pot1 ts'oi11 發財 fat1 ts'oi11

The final two need some explanation. Both 發火 and both 發財 are written exactly the same, but relies on the leading syllable to distinguish the exact meaning. The former 發財 is a 'pleasant' 美稱 rendering, which some people would place 財 with the illness radical 病.

3. Ancient 精 見 曉 initials are divided into 尖團 composed of dental silibants (jianyin 尖音) and alveolo-palatal affricates / fricatives (tuanyin 團音). When there is a rhymes with -i- as a medial 齊齒呼韻母, ancient 精 initial characters are now read [ts ts' s] initials, ancient 見曉 initial characters are now read [k k' h].

酒雀 [ts] 趨槍 [ts'] 修想 [s]
九腳 [k] 區腔 [k'] 休響 [h]
(曉 is unlisted... Dylan)

1.2 Rhymes

1. Ancient 魚虞 rhymes with 精 initials are now read [i], ancient 知章 initials characters are now read [u]; 莊 initial characters now read [i.]; 摸 rhyme characters with 精 initials characters are also read [i.].

ts'i11 si53 ts'i21 ts'i53 si44
知章 tsu21 ts'u11 ts'u53 su44 su53
tsi.21 ts'i.11 ts'i.53 si.44 si.44
tsi.21 ts'i.44 ts'i.53 si.44 si.53

2. Ancient 蟹攝 rhymes first division open syllable 一等開口 characters are now read [ai] or [oi], not restricted to any condition (labial initials like 艾埃 characters not taken into account), but those characters read [ai]. and those characters read [oi], like other Hakka dialects (like Hakka dialects of Fujian YongDing 福建永定 and Sichuan ChengDu TanSi 四川成都潭寺) are mostly the same.

tai44 待怠殆態太泰 t'ai53 戴帶 tai53 nai44 奈耐 nai53 lai53 災栽 tsai44 宰載 tsai21 tsai53 ts'ai44 蔡在 ts'ai53 彩采睬 ts'ai21 才材裁 ts'ai11 hai11 ai53 t'oi44 臺苔抬 t'oi11 貸代袋 t'oi53 loi11 tsoi53 ts'oi11 ts'oi44 腮鰓 soi44 soi53 koi44 koi21 蓋丐 koi53 k'oi44 k'oi21 楷溉慨 k'oi53 Noi11 Noi53 hoi21 害亥 hoi53 oi44 po53

Amongst them, 在 has two readings [ts'oi44 ts'ai53], whose readings are not the same, in use they are close, but 在 character is like "活看" in speech, and must be used as a postfix, never as a prefix, that is : 佢還在 (他還活看 he is still around) ki11 han11 ts'oi44.

3. Ancient 梗攝 rhymes have literary and colloquial pronunciations. In the literary reading [@n en] there is a corresponding collqouial reading [aN], and where the literary [in] reading have colloquial corresponding reading [iaN]. For example

Literary Colloquial
程 工程 ts'@n11 程 姓程 ts'aN11
成 成功 s@n11 成 唔成 saN11
生 生活 sen44 生 生死 saN44
爭 斗爭 tsen44 爭 爭食 tsaN44
平 和平 p'in11 平 平地 p'iaN11
命 命令 min53 命 好命 miaN53

"梗" character's literary and colloquial readings depend on the presence of [u] (open/close) and worth noting. 梗 桔梗 literary [ken21], from 廣韻 古杏切 which tallies. 梗 樹梗 [kuaN21] from 廣韻 古猛切.

1.3 Special points about Tones

Meixian dialect tones have some peculiarities. The six tones contain ping 平 and ru 入 tones which have split into yin yang registers with repsect to voicing of a syllable's initial. For the other tones, please refer to the following table. The small characters represents a small number of characters. It will be discussed afterwards.



VoicingModern Tones
-清濁 陰平 44 陽平 11 上聲 31 去聲 53 陰入 1 陽入 5
次濁 拿毛蚊聾 來牛人鄰     
全濁 疲雛駝崎 禾爬圖田     
錶組匪估   海走酒碗    
次濁 馬尾暖呂   雨五兩老    
全濁 社柱舅早     婦部柿腎   
   據蛻片憲 菜豹去劍   
   忌偽悶創 路賣睡飯   
次濁      脈襪虐肉 麥納臘月
全濁       習舌滑直

1. Ancient 平 tone sonorants and fully voiced intial characters, have a few characters today that are read in 陰平 tone, with further investigation, we find that:

摩 mo44 囉 lo44 拿 na44 毛 mau33 援媛 ian44 鱗 lin44 籠聾 luN44 蚊 mun44 于盂 i44 疲裴 p'i44 渠 k'i44 奚兮 hi4 雛疵 ts'i.44 馳 si.44 髯拈 Niam44 藩 fan44 掮 kian4 痕 hen44 鯨 kin44 昂 NoN44

2. Ancient 上 tone has many sonorant initial characters in the Yin Ping 陰平 tone. For example:

馬 碼 瑪 螞 ma44 惹 Nia44 也 野 ia44 每 美 尾 mi44 ti44 你 汝 爾 ni44 里 理 鯉 呂 鋁 禮 li44 語 Ni44 一 羽 禹 與 乳 i44 姆 me44 我 No44 母 拇 mu44 武 vu44 魯 櫓 鹵 lu44 有 友 酉 iu44 買 mai44 乃 奶 nai44 釐 lui44 累 lui44 卯鉚 mau44 惱 nau44 咬 Nau44 某畝牡 meu44 腩 nam44 冉 Niam44 檁廩 lim44 滿 man44 輓 van44 懶 lan44 研 Nan44 媛 ian44 免 men44 輦攆 lien44 暖 non44 軟 Nion44 尹永 iun44 忍 Niun44 猛蟒 maN44 冷 laN44 領 liaN44 往 voN44 養癢 ioN44 兩 lioN44 冗 iuN44

3. Ancient 上 tone fully voiced 全濁 initials have characters which now have Yin Ping tone readings. For example

社 sa44 下 ha44 被婢 p'i44 雉 ts'i.44 巨拒距徛技妓 k'i44 坐 ts'o44 簿 p'u44 柱苧 ts'u44 臼舅 k'iu44 弟 t'ai44 舐 sai44 在 ts'oi44 浩皓 hau44 稻 t'au44 鰾 p'iau44 淡 tam44 拌 p'an44 辮 pin44 / pien44 斷 t'on44 旱 hon44 鯇 van44 很狠 hen44 近菌 k'iun44 蚌 p'oN44 上 soN44 動 t'uN44 重 ts'uN44

4. Ancient 入 tone unvoiced initials are now YinRu tone, fully voiced initials are now Yang Ru characters, and there is no need for examples. However, for ancient sonorant initial syllable characters, some have become YinRu whilst some have become YangRu, which are now seen in the following:

Ancient sonorant initial Ru tones now read Yin Ru character include:

衲 nap1 攝鑷捏攝 Niap1 粒笠 lep1 蔑襪 mat1 癩 lat1 訖鎳櫱 Niat1 覓陌 met1 域 vet1 劣 lot1 溺 nit1 日 Nit1 囫 vut1 脈 mak1 額 Niak5 膜漠幕瘼 mok1 諾 nok1 虐瘧 Niok1 躍 iok1 木沐目 muk1 祿碌 luk1 六陸 liuk1 肉 Niuk1 育 iuk1

The 攝 character as in "攝影 to photograph", has two readings with ancient initials 書 and 奶 . Today, it is read with 日 initial.

Ancient sonorant Ru tones now read with YangRu tone include:

納吶 nap5 臘蠟鑞 lap5 業 Niap5 葉頁 iap5 立 luo5 入 Nip5 末沫茉 mut5 辣 lat5 月 Niat5 悅閱越曰粵 iat5 滅默密蜜篾 met5 列裂咧冽洌 liet5 捋 lot5 匿 nit5 栗律力歷靂肋勒率慄 lit5 逸翼亦奕弈役疫譯液腋易 it5 麥 mak5 曆 lak5 逆 Niak5 莫 mok5 落洛烙絡酪駱樂 lok5 鄂鱷顎愕萼嶽岳樂噩 Nok5 略掠 liok5 弱 Niok5 若藥浴 iok5 目牧穆睦苜 muk5 鹿麓轆 luk5 綠錄戳 liuk5 玉獄 Niuk5 欲慾辱褥 iuk5

目 can be read with a YinRu and YangRu tone with each having a different usage, meaning 眼睛 (the eyes) when read with YinRu muk1, but 目錄 (catalogue list) has a YangRu tone muk5.

5. 兒 postfix [-e] and its reading depend on the character preceeding it. Please refer to the table below.

# rhyme ending [-e] reading Character examples
1 m [-me] 蠶兒 ts'am11 me 鉗兒 k'iam1 me
2 n [-ne] 凳兒 ten5355 ne 風停兒 fuN4435 t'in11 ne
3 N [-Ne] 甕兒 vuN535 Ne 病輕兒 p'iaN53 k'iaN4435 Ne
4 p [-pe] 鴨兒 ap1 pe 毛插兒 mau4435 ts'ap11 pe
5 t [-te] 刷兒 sot1 te 禾筆兒 vo11 pit1 te
6 k [-e] 褥兒 iuk5 e 桷兒 kok1 e
7 i [-ie] 溪兒 hai4435 e 來兒 loi11 ie
8 u [-ve] 冒兒 mai5355 e --兒 k'iau5355 ve
9 i. [-e] 梳兒 si.4435 e 狗牸兒 keu21 ts'i.5355 e
10 a [-e/-ve] 架兒 ka5355 e 麻兒 ma11 ve
11 e [-e/-ie] 雞兒 ke4435 e --兒 ke21 ie
12 o [-e/-ve] 靴兒 hio4435 e 石螺兒 sak5 lo11 e

As the table shows, [-e] changes depending on the preceeding syllable ending.

If the preceeding syllable ends in rhyme

  • [m n N p], then [-e] becomes [me ne Ne and pe]
  • [k] [i.], then [e] becomes [e]
  • [t], then [-e] becomes [te], although in a small number of cases [le]
  • [i u], then [-e] becomes [ie ve]
  • [a o], then [-e] becomes [ie] or [ve]
  • [e], then [-e] becomes [ie]
  • 2. Special points in the Meixian dialect vocabulary can be summed the the following three sections:

    1. Meixian dialect personal pronouns 人稱代詞, demonstratives 指示代詞, interrogatives 疑問代詞 are of special interest, please refer to the table below.

    Nai11 n11 ki11
    I you he / she / it
    捱丁人 Nai11 ten4435 Nin11 你丁人 n11 ten4435 Nin11 佢丁人 ki11 ten4435 Nin11
    we you they
    捱兩儕 Nai11 lioN31 sa11 你兩儕 n11 lioN31 sa11 佢兩儕 ki11 lioN31 sa11
    the two of us the two of you the two of them
    捱個 Nai ke53 你個 n11 ke53 佢個 ki11 ke53
    Na44 Nie44 kie44
    Na4435 ke53 Nie4435 ke53 kie4435 ke53
    mine your('s) their('s)
    這個 e31 ke53 那個 ke5344 ke53 哪個 Nai5355 ke53
    ke31 ke53
    this that which
    這兜 e31 teu44 那兜 ke53 teu44 哪兜 Nai53 teu44
    ke31 teu44
    these those which
    這兒 e31 -e 那兒 ke5355 -ie 哪兒 Nai5355 -ie
    ke31 -e
    here there where
    恁兒 an31 -ne 那恁兒 ke5355 an31 -ne 樣兒 NioN5355 -Ne
    like this / this way like that / that way how
    脈個 mak11 ke53 樣般 NioN53 pan44 幾多 ki31 to44
    what how to do how many / how much

    (捱 should be person radical instead of hand radical, and 恁 was not in the original.)

    In the table, some items have alternative pronunciations, for instance 這兒 e31/ke31 -e indicates [e31 -e] and [ke31 -e] readings. 這, 那, 哪, and 樣 characters in "這個, 那個, 哪個, and 樣般" have assigned readings; 兜 and 脈 in 這兜 and 脈個, respectively, are homophone characters.

    "捱個" means "我的 my", altogether, there are three readings. As in "我的書 my book" can be pronounced [Nai11 ke53 su44], [Na44 su44], [Na4435 ke53 su44]. When one wants to say "書是我的 the book is mine" it can be pronounced [su4453 he5355 Nai11 ke53], [su4435 he53 Na4435 ke53], but it is not possible to say [su44 he53 Na44]. Also, "你個", "佢個" in speech is used in a similar fashion to that of "捱個".

    2. Meixian dialect's "個" apart from being used as a classifier or measure word 量詞, maybe used in the same way that (Mandarin) Beijing dialect 北京話 uses "的". For example: 大個, 細個, 肥個, 瘦個, 紅個, 白個, 買個, 食個, 捱個, 你個, 做工個, 做生意個, ... , etc.

    3. Meixian dialect is spoken by overseas Chinese and when those settled abroad return to their ancestral villages, they also bring home words that have entered the vocabulary of Hakka from these other countries after living there for a long while. For example "繫喇西" ke5355 la11 si44 (to wear or tie a tie 打領帶, in Indonesian it is 領帶 is "dasi"), 食羅帝 s@t5 lo11 ti53 (each biscuits or eat bread, Indonesian call biscuits and bread "roti"), 短硈兒 ton31 kat5 -e (拐杖 walking stick in Indonisian is "tong kat").

    3.Mexian Grammar can be discussed by looking at three main points:

    1. MeiXian dialect "兒" [-e] postfix can follow a preceeding component as summarised in the following seven cases:

    A. "Noun + 兒" 兒 [-e] is used similarly to Beijing dialect use of 兒 {er} as a postfix to nouns. For example:

    桃兒 [t'au11 -ve] peach
    侄兒 [ts'@t5 -te] nephew, neice
    刀兒 [tau4435 -ve] knife
    凳兒 [ten5355 -ne] chair, stool

    B. "Noun + 肚/兜 + 兒" 兒 [-e] is used similarly to Beijing dialect use of {li} = inside, and "肚 兜" in speech is optional. For example:

    鄉兒 [hioN4435 -Ne] in the village
    鄉肚兒 [hioN4435 tu31 -ve] in the village

    城兒人 [saN11 -Ne3 Nin11] people in the town
    城肚兒人 [saN11 tu31 -ve Nin11] people in the town

    水兜兒 [sui31 teu4435 -ve] in the water

    手兜兒 [su31 teu4435 -ve] in one's hand

    C. "Verb + 兒" There are two uses. Then first occurs when [-e] is added to a verb to form a noun; the second occurs when [-e] is added to a verb, which for the most part is like Beijing dialect placing 了 {le} after a verb, at which place the reading '了' is used. For example

    夾兒 [kap1 -pe] forceps
    刨兒 [p'au1 -ve] wood-plane
    鑿兒 [ts'ok5 -e] chisel

    去兒 [hi5355 -ie] gone
    寫兒 [sia31 -e] written
    轉來兒 [tson31 loi11 -ie] returned, came back

    D. "Noun + Verb + 兒" to form a noun. For example:

    燈罩兒 [ten4435 tsau5355 -ve] lamp shade
    筆套兒 [pit1 t'au5355 -ve] pen set
    耳爬兒 [n31 p'a11 -ve] ear pick

    E. "Verb + Noun + 兒" has two forms, and used differently. (I) "Verb + (Noun + 兒)", creates a Verb-Object construct 造成動賓結構. (II) "(Verb + Noun) + 兒" forms a Verb-Object contruct plus 了, indicating the action has been completed, this 兒 is often written as 了. For instance:



    F. "Verb + 等 + 兒" indicates that an action is currently ongoing, for the most part it is similar to Beijing dialect addition of 著 to verbs, which must be followed immediately by an object 賓語. For example:

    食等兒飯 [s@t5 ten31 -ne fan53] is eating a meal
    看等兒書 [k'on5355 ten31 -ne su44] is reading a book

    Meixian "等兒" can also be prounced "町地" t'aN5355 t'i53, this is not usually written down, so we guess "町地" is the spelling. 食等兒飯 would then be 食町地飯 s@t5 t'aN5355 t'i53 fan53. 町地 t'aN5355 t'i53 is used in Meixian speech , but it rarely seen in other dialects.

    G. "單音形容詞重疊 Monosyllabic adjective overlap + 兒" used to form the predicate 謂語 and adverbial (-modifier) 狀語. Examples regarding in the formation of the predicate:

    面紅紅兒 [mien5355 fuN11 fung11 -Ne] rosy cheeked, red faced
    葉兒嫩嫩兒 [iap5 -pe nun5355 nun5355 -ne] the leaf was soft and tender

    Examples regarding in the formation of the adverbial:

    慢慢兒行 [man5355 man5355 -ne haN11] walk slowly
    定定兒想 [t'in5355 t'in5355 -ne sioN31] thought purposefully

    2. Meixan dialect clause with 有 characters in, '有' can be used in verbs or verb-object constructs as a prefix, and also may appear after a verb or within a verb-object construct, an equivalent designation of "已成 has completed". For example:

    [Nai44 iu44 sia31 sin53 pin44 ki11]
    I have written a letter to him.

    [ki11 iu44 loi11 tien5355 fa53]
    I have been telephoned.

    [n11 iu11 fa53 ki11 ti44 mo11]
    Have you let him know yet?


    [Nai11 sia31 iu44 sin53 pin44 ki11]
    I wrote him a letter.

    [ki11 mai44 iu44 muk1 ka4435 -e]
    I bought the guava.

    [n11 tso53 iu44 sam4435 fu53 mo11]
    Have you made some clothes yet?

    3. Mexian dialect comparatives 比較語 can be summed in three points:

    A. Using "比" and "過" to indicate comparison. For example:

    [Nai11 pi31 n11 kuo53 voi5355 sit5]
    I, compared to you, am better at eating.

    [tso44 tau5355 -e sit5 pi31 kau31 k'i44 tau5355 -e sit5 kuo53 hau31]
    Sitting down to eat is better than standing to eat.

    [Nai11 ke53 vuk1 mo11 pi31 n11 vuk1 kuo53 hau31]
    My house is not as fine your house.

    B. Using "過" to indicate conparison. For example:

    [ni5355 moi53 kau4435 kuo5355 t'ai5355 moi53]
    Second sister is taller than eldest sister.

    [Nai11 haN11 lu5355 kuai53 kuo5355 n11]
    I am walking this road faster than you.

    [n11 p'ui11 kuo5355 ki11 hau31 to44]
    You are a lot fatter than he is.

    C. Using "當 [toN53] ... 唔得" or "當得 ... 到" to indicate comparison. For example:

    [lau31 voN11 tso5355 su5355 toN5355 a44 k'ioN11 m11 tet1]
    Old Vong's working habits does not surpass A Kiong.

    [n11 toN5355 ki11 it1 pan5355 m44 tet1]
    You aren't half of what he is.

    [Nai11 ke53 pun31 su53 nai5355 toN5355 n11 tau31]
    My ability cannot compare to yours.


    This original in Chinese traditional characters can be found on pages 16 - 22 from 梅縣方音詞典 Meixian Dialect Dictionary edited by 李榮 Li Rong and 黃雪貞 Huang XueZhen, 1995, 江蘇教育出版社 JiangSu Educational Publishers.

    I've kept as much of the linguistic terms in as possible, but as I am self taught in Chinese, my translation may be a little laboured at times. Some background in phonology is required and also traditional Chinese philology especially the She rhymes and initials.

    In syllables with tone sandhi, they are given with four numbers, for example; 樣兒 NioN5355 -Ne, the first syllable has four numbers after it. The first two numbers represent the original tone, whilst the latter represents the tone after sandhi, in effect, the tone can be though of as the first and last digits of the four digit tone contour. The following syllable is not given a tone, and can be thought of as being unstressed.

    The piece neglects to explain why there are ancient Qu syllable characters in modern Shang Sheng in Meixian. In other sources, it merely states that for the most part, modern Qu tone characters retain their correspondence with the ancient Qu tones. I will need to have a look at this.


    © Dylan W.H. Sung

    This page was created on Saturday 18th August 2001.
    It was recently updated on Wednesday 22nd August 2001.