Learning Cantonese: Hong Kong Newts and their Underwater Plant Nurseries

Photograph: 香港大埔滘:香港瘰螈 Hong Kong Newt, Tai Po Kau, Hong Kong (Thomas Brown on Flickr, 2011)

The wonderful 劉善茗 Lau Sin-ming at RTHK has narrated a whole series of 5-minute videos on Hong Kong’s natural environment, each of them featuring extraordinary camera work. At the risk of appearing to be something of a 瘰螈迷 ló2 yùhn4 màih4 (“Hong Kong newt nut”), I have transcribed the following clip, entitled 石菖蒲幫一把 or “Sweet Flag Lends a Helping Hand”, about the newt’s life-cycle.

The “sweet flag” in the title is a species of water plant, called 石菖蒲 sehk6 chēung1 pòuh4 in Cantonese. You don’t come across the character 菖 very often, but here’s your chance to master it. (Actually, in Chinese terms, it’s quite straightforward: just add the grass radical 艹 to the character 昌 chēung1 = “prosperous; flourishing” and Bob’s your uncle.)

You won’t find anything too curly in the grammar, but there are some minor points worth keeping in mind. The auxiliary verb 會 wúih5 crops up a lot. It basically indicates high likelihood (or predictability) of something happening, and this often extends to notions of “what tends to happen” or “what habitually happens” in a particular situation. How this is handled in English is really quite tricky and only adds to the difficulty of learning to use 會 appropriately. Take the idea of a regular activity like drinking coffee. In the past: I used to drink/I would drink (every morning). In the present: I drink coffee (every morning). In the future: (when I go to Italy) I will drink coffee (every morning). In Cantonese, life is much simpler, at least for present and future actions (I still need to do more work on the use of 會 in the past). Here are some relatively simple examples from the voice-over:

0:31: 佢哋部分嘅葉浸喺溪水裏面 = some of their leaves (tend to/have a tendency to) grow down into the water
3:28: 有啲時候佢哋好心急咁用口撕開抱卵嘅葉 = Sometimes, with their mouths, they anxiously tear open . . .
3:49: 一種可能性係瘰螈食同類嘅卵 = one possibility is that the Hong Kong newt eats (or “has the tendency to eat”) its own eggs

Also interesting is the use of 到 dóu3*2 as a verbal particle to indicate success in an action. (One of the basic meanings of 到 dou3 is “to arrive; to reach”.) English sometimes uses different verbs. For instance, the verbs “to look for” and “to find” are both 搵 wán2 in Cantonese, but since the latter suggests success in the activity (once you “find something, you no longer need to “look for” it), it usually expressed as 搵到. Sometimes, it seems to convey a sense of “managing to do sth.” Here are some examples from the last section of the video, where 到 appears five times:

發現到有啲卵受到刺狀真菌感染 = we find that some of the eggs have been infected … (infection has occurred)
但係受到本能驅使 | 為繁衍下一代付出最大嘅努力 = they are driven by instinct to go to great lengths … (lit. “[they have] received the urgings of instinct”)

Don’t confuse this use with 到 dou3 is commonly seen with location expressions, especially where movement from A to B is involved. For example, it appears at 3:04 in 雌性瘰螈慢慢咁爬到佢啲已經抱卵嘅石菖蒲上面 = “the female newts climb slowly up onto the leaves of sweet flag” and then at 4:06 甚至會蔓延到去旁邊健康嘅卵 = “could even spread to the adjacent healthy eggs”.

There is also an abundance of useful vocabulary. Apart from all the biological terminology, listen out for 育嬰室 yuhk6 yīng1 sāt1 = nursery; 腹大便便 fūk1 daaih6 bihn6 bihn6 = pot-bellied; big-bellied; 四處摸索 sei3 chyúh5 mó2 sok3 = to feel about all around; and 撕開 sī1 hōi1 = to rip open. You’ll also hear the Cantonese word for “jelly”, obviously borrowed from English — 啫喱 jē1 léi1*2 as well as the common verb 喐 yūk1 = to move.

Please scroll down if you want the transcription, notes and English translation. Otherwise, you can view the video here (subtitles in Standard Written Chinese only). And remember, if you want the standard jyutping romanization or to check any of the Chinese in the text, please consult the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.

Other posts on the Hong Kong newt:
● “Cantonese Podcasts: Hong Kong Newts
● “The Good News about Hong Kong Newts

Caption: 石菖蒲幫一把

旁白:入夜之後,森林裏面嘅瘰螈就開始產卵 |瘰螈嘅繁殖 | 其實同一種喺溪邊嘅植物有緊密嘅關係 | 石菖蒲,正名金錢菖 | 佢強而有力嘅根 | 令到佢哋可以抓緊溪邊嘅石頭,喺上面生長 | 佢哋部分嘅葉會浸喺溪水裏面 | 厘啲位置就係瘰螈最佳嘅育嬰室

腹大便便嘅雌瘰螈 | 會爬去石菖蒲葉上四處摸索

● 石菖蒲 sehk6 chēung1 pòuh4 = grassy-leaved sweet flag (Acorus gramineus) | ● 產卵 cháan2 léuhn5/léun2 = to lay eggs; to spawn | ● 繁殖 fàahn4 jihk6 = to breed; to reproduce | ● 正名 jing3 mìhng4 = roughly, “proper name” | ● 抓緊 jáau2 gán2 = roughly, “gripping onto; clutching onto” | ● 育嬰室 yuhk6 yīng1 sāt1 = nursery | ● 腹大便便 fūk1 daaih6 bihn6 bihn6 = cf. 大腹便便 = pot-bellied; big-bellied | ● 雌 chī1 = female | ● 四處 sei3 chyúh5 = all around; in all directions; everywhere | ● 摸索 mó2 sok3 = to grope; to feel about; to fumble

Caption: Sweet Flag Lends a Helping Hand

Voice-over: After nightfall, the forest Hong Kong newts begin to lay their eggs. The reproductive [cycle] of Hong Kong newts is closely entwined with a plant [that grows] by the side of streams — sek cheong pou or [to give it its] proper name, kam chin cheong [both names refer to Acorus gramineus]. Its strong and powerful roots enable them to grip onto stones by the side of streams and to grow on their surface. Some of their leaves grow down into the water. These places [that is, in the leaves dangling down into the water] make a most excellent nursery for the Hong Kong newt.

With her heavy, swollen belly, a female newt climbs onto the leaves of the sweet flag plant groping about in all over.

【1:00】佢哋會喺兩塊葉中間扭動身體 | 喺葉中間產卵 | 由於卵有黏性好強嘅啫喱外層 | 雌瘰螈產卵之後,會用手腳輕輕咁擠壓兩片葉 | 令到有片葉黏住,對喺裏面嘅卵子造成保護

● 扭動 náu2 duhng6 = to wriggle | ● 黏性 nìhm4 sing3 = stickiness; viscidity; viscosity | ● 啫喱 jē1 léi1*2 = jelly | ● 外層 [ng]oih6 chàhng4 = roughly, “outer layer” | ● 擠壓 jāi1 ngaat3 = to extrude; (?) to squeeze | ● 卵子 léun2 ji2 = ovum; egg

They twist about between two leaves, laying their eggs. After the female newt has laid her eggs, she uses her arms and legs to squeeze the two leaves lightly together. Because the eggs have a very sticky jelly-like outer layer, this causes the two leaves to stick together, creating protection for the eggs within.


日光再照到溪流 | 已經忙咗一整晚嘅瘰螈大家族仍然喺度休息 | 只係輕微咁喐一下 ,又或者喐都唔喐 | 直至到秋日嘅太陽開始猛熱 | 瘰螈嘅身體開始暖和起嚟 , 活動就開始

● 大家族 daaih6 gāa1 juhk6 = (?) big family; big clan | ● 喐 yūk1 = to move | ● 秋日 chāu1 yaht6 = an Autumn day| ● 猛熱 máahng5 yiht6 = roughly, “fiercely hot” | ● 暖和 nyúhn5 wòh4 = warm; nice and warm

Once the eggs have been laid, the female newt swims off to have a rest.

When the sun lights up the stream again, the big family of newts is still taking it easy, have worked the whole night through. They just move a little bit, or not at all, until the sun on this Autumn day begins to grow intense and the bodies of the newts begin to warm up and [their] activity gets underway.

【3:00】雌性瘰螈慢慢咁爬到佢啲已經抱卵嘅石菖蒲上面 | 佢哋嘅育嬰室,四處咁聞一下卵 | 好似進行巡視咁 | 有啲時候佢哋會好心急咁用口撕開抱卵嘅葉 | 並且嘗試將某啲卵咬走 | 究竟佢喺度做緊咩?| 一種可能性係瘰螈會食同類嘅卵 | 原因可能係喺水裏面嘅食物不足 | 或者增強自己後代嘅存活率

● 抱卵 póuh5 léun2 = (?) to nurse (eggs) | ● 巡視 chèuhn4 sih6 = to make an inspection tour; to tour | ● 撕開 sī1 hōi1 = to rip open | ● 咬 ngáauh5 = to bite | ● 存活率 chyùhn4 wuht6 léut6*2 = (?) survival rate

The female newts climb slowly up onto the leaves of sweet flag, their nursery, which are already holding their eggs [抱卵]. They sniff the eggs all over, as if carrying out [some kind of] inspection. Sometimes, with their mouths, they anxiously tear open the leaves where their eggs have been laid and also try to bite away certain eggs. What exactly are they doing? One possibility is that the Hong Kong newt eats its own eggs, perhaps because there is not enough food in the water, or that this increases the survival rate [存活率] of the next generation.

【4:00】所謂同類相食現象 | 但係當我哋翻開石菖蒲嘅葉嘅時候 | 發現到有啲卵受到刺狀真菌感染 | 可能係有啲卵子生產嘅時候未受精 | 變成死卵 | 真菌入侵,甚至會蔓延到去旁邊健康嘅卵 | 所以另外一種可能性係 | 瘰螈為咗保護健康嘅卵,唔受到真菌傷害 | 佢哋會為卵子做定期嘅婦科檢查 | 將受感染嘅卵子咬走 | 確保健康嘅卵減小感染機會 | 瘰螈外表冷定定 | 但係受到本能驅使 | 為繁衍下一代付出最大嘅努力 | 確保卵能夠孵化出健康嘅瘰螈蝌蚪

● 刺狀真菌 chi3 johng6 jān1 kwán2 = (?) a kind of echinate fungus | ● 受精 sauh6 jīng1 = to be fertilized | ● 死卵 séi2 léun2 = (?) unfertilized egg (lit. “a dead egg”) | ● 蔓延 maahn6 yìhn4 = to spread; to extend | ● 婦科 fúh5 fō1 = (department of) gynaecology | ● 冷定定 láahng5 dehng6 dehng6 = cool(ly) [I think this is right, but I’m not entirely sure] | ● 驅使 kēui1 sí2 = to prompt; to urge; to spur on | ●繁衍 fàahn4 hín2 = to multiply; to increase gradually in number or quantity| ● 孵化 fū1 faa3 = hatching; incubation

[This is] what is called the phenomenon of “eating one’s own kind”. However, when we open up [翻開] the leaves of sweet flag, we find that some of the eggs have been infected with a kind of echinate fungus [刺狀真菌]. It is possible that some of the eggs were not fertilized at the time they were laid, [thus] becoming infertile eggs [死卵]. The incursion of the fungus could even spread to the adjacent healthy eggs. For this reason, another possibility is that in order to protect the health of the eggs and to avoid [唔受到] be affected by fungus, the Hong Kong newts carry out gynaecological examinations of the eggs at regular intervals and remove infected eggs by biting them away [咬走], [thereby] ensuring that the chance of healthy eggs becoming infected is reduced. [Although] the newts seem cool and calm [冷定定 (?)], they are driven by instinct to go to great lengths [付出最大嘅努力] for the sake of the reproduction of the next generation [繁衍下一代], ensuring that the eggs can incubate healthy newt-tadpoles.

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