Listen to Podcast | Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?
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Podcast Transcript | Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?
Hello! I’m Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and thank you for tuning into our How Do You Say Podcast. Oh wait, did you notice that for the first time, we did not specify if this podcast is focused on Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese? Well, that’s because, to conclude year 2019, we have a very special finale episode for you.
Now, have you ever wondered why the surnames or last names of Singaporean Chinese are spelt differently in English, even though the Chinese character used is the same? Through the English spelling of the surname, are you then able to make a good guess of someone’s dialect group?
So yes, today’s topic is about the common Chinese surnames in Singapore. Whether you are learning Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese, we think that this post will be equally helpful. In fact, the aim of this episode is to help you make an educated guess of a person’s dialect group and more importantly, get a conversation going. It is a simple guide and by no means exhaustive as there are always exceptions, so let’s get going!
Why do we have different English spellings for the same Chinese surnames? In short, this is due to our unique ancestry as well as the pronunciation differences by each dialect group. To illustrate, we have identified some common Chinese surnames in Singapore. We will use these as examples to point out their similarities and differences across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.
First, we recognize that there are some surnames which are spelt the same in English across all three languages. For example, my surname in Chinese is pronounced as li (李) and spelt in English as L-E-E (Lee). This is a common way to spell, no matter whether you are a Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese or even Hakka, as per Singapore’s first prime minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.
Notwithstanding the above, Hokkien and Teochew belong to the same language group. So if you are a Cantonese, there is a high possibility that your English surname is spelt differently from your Hokkien or Teochew friends with the same Chinese surname. I can give you two examples here – 林 and 陈. 林 is pronounced in Cantonese as lum while in Hokkien and Teochew, it is pronounced as lim. As such, in English, Cantonese speakers will spell their surname as L-A-M or L-U-M, whereas Hokkiens and Teochews will spell it as L-I-M. Similarly, Cantonese pronounce the Chinese surname – 陈 – as chan (陳). Hokkiens and Teochews pronounced it as tan. Hence, can you guess what will be the English equivalent? Yes, Cantonese will spell it as C-H-A-N, while Hokkiens and Teochews will spell it as T-A-N. You get the drift now?
The next Chinese surname – 黄 – is an interesting one. It can either be different across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese or similar between just Hokkien and Teochew. Here’s a quick hack for you! If the surname is spelt in English as W-E-E (Wee), O-E-I (Oei) or O-O-I (Ooi), the person will be of Hokkien descent. If it is spelt as N-G (Ng), then he or she may be a Hokkien or Teochew. In contrast, the Cantonese tend to spell it as W-O-N-G (Wong), a rather clear distinction from the rest.
Last but not least, 王 is one of the Chinese surnames that has a unique spelling across all 3 languages. Traditionally, 王 is spelt as O-N-G (Ong) by Hokkiens, H-E-N-G (Heng) by Teochews, and W-O-N-G (Wong) by the Cantonese.
Oh wait, did you notice that Cantonese spell both Chinese surnames 黄 and 王 as W-O-N-G in English? Again, this is because the pronunciation of these Chinese characters in Cantonese are similar – namely, wong.
So there you go! In this short How Do You Say Podcast, we have covered some common Chinese surnames in Singapore. We highlighted how some are spelt the same in English across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese as well as how some surnames are spelt entirely different.
Here’s a tongue-in-cheek summary for you: Meet a Lee, ask him or her directly. Meet a Wee, Oei or Ooi, Hokkiens fit the name nicely. Meet a Wong, a Cantonese possibly won’t go wrong. But if you meet the rest, it’s time for an educated guess!
Well, did we cover your surname? If not, leave a comment and share with us your dialect group as well as your surname in both Chinese and in English. We love to find out more about different spellings across Chinese dialects in Singapore. My name is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and hope to hear from you soon!
Love what you are reading? We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!
Firstly, I just want to thank you for creating this channel! It’s very heartening to find another fellow younger generation Singaporean who’s appreciative of our Chinese heritage and am keen to learn more and to share as well, our roots including our dialects, surnames etc.
Upon listening to this particular episode within your podcast though, my inquiry hasn’t been answered and was wondering if you’re able to help me out!
You see, I’m attempting to address a senior colleague in a more casual way by calling him my elder brother in mandarin. However, his surname is Png. From what I’ve sought out so far, chances are that the surname Png (like Pierre Png the actor) is essentially a variation of the chinese character ‘Fang’. However, for fear of mispronouncing his name should I address him as ‘Fang Ge’ when it should’ve been some other word, instead of appearing more endearing, I would risk a possibility of offending him.
Would you be able to find out on your end if I’m correct? For what it maybe worth, I understand that he belongs either to the dialect of either Teochew or Hokkien. Besides that, I really cannot think of any others.
Would appreciate it if you could attempt finding out from your end or at least notifying me through a reply that you aren’t able to so that I’ll react accordingly thereafter.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Happy Lunar New Year in advance!
With Earnestness & Respect,
Happy Chinese New Year!
On your question, there is a high probability that addressing him as “Fang ge” in Mandarin is correct, especially if he is either Teochew or Hokkien. That said, within the context of Singapore, there are many possibilities as to how a person can derive an English written surname, which may or may not be linked to their dialect group. For example, when the first generation of Singaporeans were giving their names for their IC, the office-in-charge may be of a different dialect group and hence trans-literate incorrectly. As such, if you are worried that an honest mistake might risk offending him, I would recommend that you check with him up front. Who knows? It might open up a topic for conversation as well 🙂
Apart from the above, if you would like to address him as an elder brother (to show respect) in Hokkien/Teochew, we will say it as “Ah hia” as local Hokkiens/Teochews use 兄 (hia) instead of 哥 (a more modern term comparatively).
Hope this help! Do let us know once you manage to find out his Chinese name!
新年快乐! – Sin nee kuai lok (Hokkien) / Sing ni kuai lak (Teochew) / San nin faai lok (Cantonese)!
You covered my surname.My English surname is Lim.My surname in Chinese is 林.