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.

The Good News about Hong Kong Newts

Here is another fascinating video on the Hong Kong (warty) newt or 香港瘰螈 Hēung1 Góng2 ló2 yùhn4, put together by RTHK. (Please remember that the correct measure word or classifier for this noun is 條 tìuh4 or 隻 jek3!) In it, 劉彥芹 Anthony Làuh4 Yihn6 Kàhn4, now a professor at Lingnan University, talks about his research into the newts and provides some good news about their current flourishing.

On the whole, Lau is a clear speaker and, despite the occasional 噉 gám2 at the beginning of sentences, there is very little else in the way of fillers or sentence particles.

Of course, much of the vocabulary involves the natural world and environmental protection: listen out for 蠑螈 wìhng4 yùhn4 = salamander; 幼體 yau3 tái2 = larva; 蝌蚪 fō1 dáu2 = tadpole; 遷徙 chīn1 sáai2 = to move; to migrate; 溪澗 kāi1 gaan3 = mountain stream; 無線電嘅追蹤器 mòuh4 sin3 dihn6 ge3 jēui1 jūng1 hei3 = radio tracking device; and 棲息地 chāi1 sīk1 deih6 = habitat. The pièce de résistance for me is the expression 碩果僅存 sehk6 gwo2 gan2 chyuhn4, which means a “rare survival” in the ecological context. The Far East Chinese-English Dictionary offers these following alternative translations: “the only remaining of the great (sic)” or “the only one of its kind to have survived”.

Other must-learn items include 得出結果 dāk1 chēut1 git3 gwó2 = to obtain a result; 匿埋 nēi màaih = to hide; 頑强 wàhn4 kèuhng4 = tenacious; and 九成九 gáu2 sìhng4 gáu2 = 99 percent.

On the grammar front, this video provides a timely opportunity to review the main uses of 啲 dī1. These include:

1. A plural marker for countable nouns: 將啲樹斬嗮

Interestingly, nouns considered to be uncountable or abstract in English can also take 啲 dī1 in Cantonese: 之前就有啲研究就發現咗 = previously, research [which probably implies “various items of research”] had discovered that

2. As a comparative marker with adjectives: 嗰啲生存率、存活率係高啲嘅 = the rates are higher

3. Used to form the common demonstrative adjectives and pronouns these, those, some [一啲] etc.: 嗰啲族群 = those groups; 當地嘅一啲有尾目; 放一啲無線電嘅追蹤器; 嗰啲澗入 = those mountain streams; 嗰啲BB仔 = those baby (newts); 嗰啲樹林 = those forests

As it happens, there is no use of 呢啲 = “these” in this video.

I have included some discussion about the aspect markers 返 fāan1 and 住 jyuh6 with the relevant passages. Another small but important point is the use of the verb “to come” 嚟 làih4/lèih with time expressions. For example, the reporter uses 多年嚟 = for many years. Basically, 嚟 here creates a time expression that is open (on-going up to the time of speaking) and of some duration (that is, not a point in time).

You will also come across various helpful structures, such as: 除咗 . . . 之外 = in addition to; 除非 = unless; and 嗮 = all; complete, e.g. 以前嗰啲樹林差唔多斬嗮嘅時候呢 = previously, when those forests had all but been chopped down

This video has recently (September 2021) been removed from the RTHK website. However, you can listen to the audio here:


Series Title: 生態人 / People of the Ecology

Caption: 尋找香港瘰螈的足跡 / In Search of the Footprints of the Hong Kong Newt

劉彥芹:我叫劉彥芹呀 | ah 浸會大學生物系嘅一個講師呢 | 我本身係一個生態學家 | 主要研究就係 eh 兩同埋爬蟲類 | 分別對佢嘅保育同埋生態比較有興趣

● 劉彥芹 Làuh4 Yihn6 Kàhn4 = Anthony Lau Yin-Kun | ● 兩棲 léuhng5 chāi1 = amphibian | ● 爬蟲類 pàah4 chùhng4 leuih6 = reptile

Lau Yin-Kun: My name is [Anthony] Lau Yin-Kun | I am a lecturer in the biology department of Hong Kong Baptist University

劉彥芹:主要 project 就係 eh 想研究香港嘅瘰螈嗰啲族群 | 究竟有冇真菌病係會影響佢哋 | 真菌病呢,就喺世界其他地方被引入之後呢 | 就對當地嘅一啲有尾目呢,造成好大嘅傷害 | 之前就有啲研究就發現咗 | 深圳個族群呢,就係有呢種病,但係又好似受到影響 | 噉我就想知道呢種病究竟喺野生嘅蠑螈入便 | 究竟有幾普及喇 | 同埋佢哋點解唔會受到嗰病影響 | 得出結果呢,就有可能會幫到【1:00】其他地方 | 受到呢種病影響嗰啲有尾目

● 族群 juhk6 kwàhn4 = (?) group | ● 真菌病 jān1 kwán2 behng6 = (?) fungal infection | ● 引入 yáhn5 yahp6 = to introduce from elsewhere | ● 有尾目 yáuh5 méih5 muhk6 = caudate | ● 野生 yéh5 sāng1 = wild | ● 蠑螈 wìhng4 yùhn4 = salamander | ● 普及 póu2 kahp6 = to spread

Note: Sometimes, the idea of “from” can sometimes be expressed in Cantonese by 喺 hái2 rather than the usual 由 yàuh4, hence the phrase就喺世界其他地方被引入 = were introduced from other parts of the world.

Lau Yin-Kun: An important project is to try to find out a bit more [想研究吓] about that cohort [(?) 族群] of Hong Kong newts, and to see whether [究竟有冇] they have been affected by fungal diseases or not. After fungal diseases were introduced from other parts of the world, they have been very damaging to the caudates of this part of the world. Previously, research had discovered that the cohort of [newts] in Shenzhen had contracted this kind of disease, but did not seem to have been affected by it. So, what we would like to know is how widely spread [究竟有幾普及] this disease is among [Hong Kong] newts born in the wild, and why they have not been affected by it. The results we obtain could be of help to caudates in other places affected by this disease.

劉彥芹:拎住 sample 返去實驗室嗰度喇,跟住就會做一個基因嘅測試咁樣嘅 | 睇吓每一個族群入便 | 大概有幾多成嘅瘰螈係帶有嗰種病 | 或者冇帶有嗰種病 | 噉另外, 都想研究吓天氣因素啦、又或者水嘅溫度呀 | 會唔會對嗰種病嗰個普及程度 | 有冇影響呢

Lau Yin-Kun: [We] take a sample back to the laboratory, and then we do a genetic test [基因嘅測試] to see approximately how many Hong Kong newts in each cohort [族群] are carrying this disease or not carrying it. In addition, [we’d] like to find out a bit more about whether weather factors and the temperature of the waters has any effect on the degree to which that disease spreads.

同事: 重量 10.5 gram

Colleague: Weight, 10.5 grams

記者:劉彥芹 Anthony 係香港瘰螈嘅專家 | 除咗呢個關於真菌嘅研究之外 | 亦都進行緊另一個香港瘰螈幼體嘅研究

● 幼體 yau3 tái2 = larva; the young cf. 成體 sìhng4 tái2 = adult (newt)

Reporter: Lau Yin-Kun (Anthony, in English) is an expert on the Hong Kong newt. Apart from this research on fungal diseases, he is also doing research on the larvae [幼體] of the Hong Kong newt.

劉彥芹:香港瘰螈嘅幼體同成體個樣係唔一樣呀 | 就係 *jai 佢好似一條蝌蚪咁樣 | 但係就有手有 | 蝌蚪同埋有個 eh 外鰓咁樣喇 | 點解開始我會對呢樣有興趣呢 | 因爲我成日喺嗰啲澗入便捉蠑螈 | 噉可能就會見到好多蠑螈呢 | 但係就唔會見到好多【2:00】BB仔呀 | 噉我就覺得係唔係嗰啲BB仔全部都匿埋喇 | 噉但係之前我都偶然發現 | 如果喺實驗室養佢哋時候呢 | 佢哋會 eh 食佢哋嘅同類嘅 | 噉我就想研究吓係唔係因爲冇嘢食 | 先會令到佢食同類呢 | 定係其實 eh 食同類根本 係佢進化上嘅 | 其中一個重要嘅功,功能 | 就係 *jai 冇嗰樣嘢 | 佢哋就絕大部分都唔會變到中成體

● 蝌蚪 fō1 dáu2 = tadpole | ● 外鰓 ngoih6 sōi1 = external gills |● 匿埋 nēi màaih = to hide| ● 偶然 [ng]auh6 yìhn4 = accidental; fortuitous; chance | ● 同類 tùhng4 leuih6 = one’s own kind; of the same species | ● 進化 jeun3 faa3 = evolution | 中成體 jūng1 sìhng4 tái2 is not listed in my dictionaries, but it does appear on the internet with the sense of an intermediate stage in the life-cycle, midway [中] between larva and adult.

Note: I have noticed that when 佢 is used to refer to non-human subjects, speakers tend to switch between plural 佢哋 and singular 佢 without much regard for consistency.

Lau Yin-Kun: The larvae of the Hong Kong and the adult form [成體] look different. They are like a tadpole, but a tadpole with arms and legs as well as having external gills. Why did I get interested in this in the beginning? The reason is, I spent a lot of time [成日] catching newts [蠑螈] in mountain streams, and I might see a lot of them, but I wouldn’t see many babies. I wondered [我就覺得] whether the babies all hid themselves away. However, previously, I made the chance discovery [偶然發現] that baby newts tended to eat one another when reared in the laboratory. And so, I wanted to find out a bit more about whether they only ate one another because they didn’t have anything [else] to eat or because in fact it was fundamentally an important function in their evolution. That is, without this, the majority of them would not turn into adult [newts].

劉彥芹:香港蠑螈係一種以香港命名嘅動物喇 | 亦都係香港唯一種有尾目 | 噉我覺得佢係非常之獨特喇 | 另外,佢嗰個生活習性我都覺得係幾有趣 | 一般人會諗,遷徙嘅動物就會諗起雀仔喇 | 但係 *dai 其實蠑螈都係一種會遷徙嘅動物 | 佢都係 eh 季節性咁樣會遷徙呢 | 呢樣嘢我覺得非常之特別 | 佢哋分佈,其實,非常之廣 | 但係九成九嘅香港人可能都唔知咩叫【3:00】香港蠑螈 | 其中原因就係 ah 好少見到佢哋 | 就係 *jai 除非特登會找去佢哋溪澗嗰度 | 因爲佢有「香港」呢個名呢 | 亦都係一個好頑强嘅動物嚟㗎 | 以前嗰啲樹林差唔多斬嘅時候呢 | 佢都可以碩果僅存呀 | 噉而家嗰啲樹林開始返返嚟喇 | 佢個數量跟住再上升返 | 我覺得係一個比較好嘅一個例子呀

● 生活習性 sāng1 wuht6 jaahp6 sing3 = (life) habits & characteristics | ● 遷徙 chīn1 sáai2 = to move; to migrate; to change one’s residence | ● 季節性 gwai3 jit3 sing3 = seasonal | ● 廣泛 gwóng2 faahn6 = extensive; wide-ranging; widespread | ● 九成九 gáu2 sìhng4 gáu2 = 99 percent | ● 溪澗 kāi1 gaan3 = mountain stream | ● 頑强 wàhn4 kèuhng4 = indomitable; staunch; tenacious | ● 斬 jáam = to cut (for firewood) | ● 碩果僅存 sehk6 gwo2 gan2 chyuhn4 = rare survival | ● 數量 sou3 leuhng6 = quantity; amount

Note: Firstly, the aspect marker 返 fāan1 is used a few times here in ways that seem a bit tautological. In the first instance, it is added to the verb 返, which already means “to go back”, in the phrase 嗰啲樹林開始返返嚟喇, where it reinforces the idea of the “regeneration” of the forests. 返 is also used in 再上升返 = “are rising again”, where 再 also gives the meaning of “again”. There is also the case of 計返佢嗰個平均距離 = “calculating the average distance for a newt”, which appears in the final paragraph. Literally, this means “to calculate back” and perhaps has the sense of working through the numbers to get back to an average distance. It is a reminder that 返 fāan1 may sometimes have rather idiomatic meanings. Secondly, 特登 dahk6 dāng1 is a common Cantonese colloquialism that means “purposely; on purpose; deliberately; intentionally; specially; especially”.

Lau Yin-Kun: The Hong Kong newt is a creature named after Hong Kong [以香港命名嘅] and it is Hong Kong’s only type of caudate. I think that it is extremely special. Furthermore, its life habits and characteristics are, I feel, quite interesting. Now your average person [一般人] thinks, [when it comes to] animals that move around, of birds, but in fact newts are also animals that move about. They move according to the season [季節性]. This I feel is something extremely special. Their distribution is, in actual fact, extremely extensive, but 99 percent of Hong Kong people have no idea what a Hong Kong newt is [都唔知咩叫香港蠑螈]. One reason for this is that [people] seldom see them unless [they] make a special [特登] trip to look for [one of] their mountain stream[s]. Because it has “Hong Kong” in its name, it is also a very tenacious creature. Previously, when those forests had all but [差唔多] been chopped down, they managed to be [可以] a rare survival. Now these forests are beginning to come back and along with this its numbers are rising again. I think that this is a pretty good example.

記者:Anthony 口中「比較好嘅例子」 | 係指喺香港多年嚟嘅保育工作中 | 香港瘰螈係難得有比較好消息嘅動物

Reporter: What Anthony calls “a pretty good example” refers to [the fact that], in the work done over many years to protect Hong Kong’s environment, the Hong Kong newt is one creature for which there has been that rare thing: quite good news.

劉彥芹:大概喺我七年嘅時間 | 兩個我研究族群 | 都差唔多 ah 增加咗大概五十至到八十嘅 percent 咁樣 | 應該同嗰個森林嘅恢復度有關呢 | 我哋發現森林比較完好嘅地方 | 或者成熟森林嘅地方呢 | 嗰啲蠑螈【4:00】嗰啲生存率、存活率係高啲嘅 | 差唔多高升二十至三嘅 percent,比起嗰啲樹林冇緊密嘅地方

● 森林 sām1 làhm4 = forest | ● 恢復度 fūi1 fuhk6 douh6 = (?) degree of recovery/restoration/regeneration | ● 完好 yùhn4 hóu2 = intact; whole; in good condition | ● 生存率 saang1 chyùhn4 léut6*2 = (?) the number of individuals in existence | ● 存活率 chyùhn4 wuht6 léut6*2 = survival rate | ● 緊密 gán2 maht6 = usu. “close together”; perhaps “dense” in this context

Note: I am not sure whether the terms 生存率 and 存活率 refer to different things, or both mean “survival rate”. Observe, too, how “thirty” is expressed by 三 sāam1 alone in the phrase 差唔多高升二十至三嘅 percent; the context is enough to make it clear!

Lau Yin-Kun: Roughly over the course of my seven years, the two cohorts that I have been studying have, roughly, increased by approximately fifty to eighty percent. [This] ought to be connected with the degree of recovery in the forests. We discovered that the numbers and the survival rate of Hong Kong newts is higher in places where the forests are relatively intact or are mature by 20 to 30 percent in comparison to those places where the forests are not dense.

記者:香港瘰螈雖然有半年繁殖期 | 不過每條瘰螈大概只會留喺水入便 | 一個至個半月 | 噉其他時間會去咗邊呢?

● 繁殖期 faahn6 jihk6 kèih4 = breeding period/season | ● 一個至個半月 yāt1 go3 ji3 bun3 yuht6 = one to one and a half months

Reporter: Although the Hong Kong newt has a breeding season of six months [半年], each newt only stays in the water for one to one and a half months. Where does it go for the rest of the time [其他時間]?

劉彥芹:之前會放一啲無電嘅追蹤器喺啲蠑螈入便 | 噉就每日就去追蹤佢哋 / / 行 / / | 呢個表其實就係代表住 | 我哋嗰陣時揾到嗰啲蠑螈離開水個距離喇 | 揾咗一百一十七隻 | 計返佢嗰個平均距離喇 | 九十五嘅 percent 嘅瘰螈呢 | 都係喺 within 溪澗大概一百二十米嘅距離 | 譬如你想保育呢種物種嘅棲息地 | 咁你就要離開溪澗呢段距離 | 係唔會受到人爲因素影響 | 或者將啲樹斬嗮

● 無線電嘅追蹤器 mòuh4 sin3 dihn6 ge3 jēui1 jūng1 hei3 = radio tracking device cf. 追蹤 = to follow the trail of; to track; to trace | ● 物動 maht6 júng2 = a species | ● 棲息地 chāi1 sīk1 deih6 = habitat | ● 人爲因素 yàhn4 wàih4 yān1 sou3 = man-made factors; human factors

Note: 代表住 presents a less obvious use of the aspect marker 住 jyuh6. Its basic meaning seems to be one of insistence or persistence of an effect after an initial act. I remember reading somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) that its basic function can be seen in the case of the verb 掛 gwaa3 = to hang. In a simple act of short duration, a picture is hung on the wall, but as a result of this action, it continues to 掛住 “hang” on the wall. The basic meaning of 代表 doih6 biu2 is “to represent”. Perhaps the sense of it is that, once the chart is drawn up, its meaning persists as an enduring after-effect. Earlier in the video, Lau Yin-Kun uses the aspect marker 住 jyuh6 in the phrase 拎住 sample 返去實驗室嗰度. The verb 拎 ning1/ling1 = carry or hold with a hand; lift up. When 住 jyuh6 is added, the effect of the action is extended: from the initial “seizing”, there comes a “holding” or “carrying”. Maybe for this reason 住 jyuh6 also seems to imply in some situations a taking “hold” or getting a firm “grip” on something.

Here are some other examples I came across recently in a clip about the Pak Tai Temple on Cheung Chau:

● 哦,噉所以佢哋呢,就踩住蛇同龜 | 噉就係代表住「邪不能勝正」| 踩住 = to step or tread on; 代表住 = to represent
● 彩擋係做咩呢? | 啫,擋住呢污穢嘅嘢啦  | 擋住 = to obstruct or ward off; here again, the initial positioning of the 彩擋 or “coloured screen” in the temple has a persistent after-effect
● 大家 / / 見到一個老人家呢,就揸住水桶 | 揸住水桶 = to hold/carry a bucket of water
● 就將自己身上嘅佩劍呢,/ / 掟咗落海 / / 鎮壓住啲風浪喎 | 鎮壓住 = to suppress (the wind and the waves). In English, the sense of a persistent after-effect is built into the basic meaning of the verb.

Lau Yin-Kun: Previously, [we] placed radio tracking devices in the newts and tracked [UNCLEAR] their movements every day. This chart actually represents what we found [about] the newts’ distance away from water at that time. [We] found that 117 [UNCLEAR] . . . Calculating the average distance for a newt, 95 percent of them were within approximately 120 metres of a mountain stream. So, for example if you wish to protect the habitat of this species, you must [ensure] that there are no effects from human factors [人爲因素影響] or clearing of trees [將啲樹斬嗮] in this zone bordering the mountain stream.

● Another interesting video on this subject from HK Apple Daily can be viewed here with a rough transcription and English translation:
引水道困死香港瘰螈 水務署仲未知點算?》

Cantonese Podcasts: Hong Kong Newts

Thomas Browne_Hong Kong Newt Tai Po Kau

When I was living in the village of Cheung Shue Tan back in the late 1990s, I would often walk up to 大埔滘 Tai Po Kau just to unwind a bit. If you sit down beside one of the mountain streams up towards the picnic area and watch the crystal-clear water patiently, eventually you will catch a glimpse of the schools of small fish strong enough to hold their own against the current. Once or twice, to my surprise, I also saw small creatures with legs like lizards moving through the water in slow-motion like space-walking astronauts. What I saw, perhaps, was the Hong Kong newt.

This newt (or 香港瘰螈 Hēung1 Góng2 ló2 yùhn4 in Cantonese) was once thought to be unique to Hong Kong and so for a time served as an animal-totem or mascot of the Region. In her book Hong Kong (1988), Jan Morris includes it in her list of “esoteric wildlife” to be found in the Colony: “there were also crab-eating mongooses, an unusual variety of newt, 200 kinds of butterfly and thirty-two kinds of snake” (18).

Although specimens of Paramesotriton hongkongensis have been since discovered in coastal areas in Guangdong province, concerned individuals such as 陳文灝 Henry Chàhn4 Màhn4-houh6 and the self-effacing Ah Sam continue to make efforts on behalf of this threatened animal in Hong Kong. In this short video, made in 2016, the problem of catchwaters is outlined, as well as the impact these have on the newts, which prefer the waters of mountain streams in which there are large rocks to soften the force of the flow.

There is plenty of useful vocabulary here for eager students of Cantonese, including 陷阱 haahm6 jehng6 = trap; 生猛 sāang1 máahng5 = full of life; lively; 栖息 chāi1 sīk1 = to inhabit; and 耗費 hou3 fai3 = to expend (energy). As for grammar, there are some noteworthy uses of classifiers or measure words, 條 tìuh4 being the measure word for “newt”. In addition, we are treated to a couple of instances of 嗮 saai, a “particle of quantification” (see Intermediate Cantonese by Yip and Matthews) ; several uses of 啫 jē1 (“merely; only”), that very handy downplaying final particle; and one example of 冇得, a verbal structure that seems to indicate a general inability to do something.

You can watch the video here, but if you would like to see the Cantonese transcription with a rather patchy (my apologies!) English translation, then please read on.

To check anything you’re not sure about, please refer to the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary for further help.

Finally, there’s a very moving and heart-lifting video about 陳文灝 Henry Chan Man-hou in Cantonese here. Unfortunately, it has no English subtitles, but the man’s passion for animal protection comes through pretty clearly, nonetheless!

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


Headline: 引水道變奪命深淵:近危動物死路一條

● 引水道 yáhn5 séui2 douh6 = a catchwater ● 奪命 dyuht6 mihng6 = a life plucked away; a life taken away by force ● 深淵 sām1 yūn1 = abyss ● 近危動物 káhn5 ngàih4 duhng6 maht6 = (?) endangered animal

Catchwaters Become Deadly Abysses: A Death Road for an Endangered Animal


A year ago, we ran a report

(About how) the walls of catchwaters in non-urban areas

● Note: The noun 郊區 gāau1 kēui1 is a bit of an interesting problem. Dictionaries such as Sheik Cantonese give the meaning as “suburban district; suburbs; outskirts”, but since country parks in Hong Kong are known as 郊野公園, the meaning in this context virtually equates with “non-urban areas”, that is, areas where wildlife is still able to flourish.

Continue reading “Cantonese Podcasts: Hong Kong Newts”