About Penang Hokkien

Penang Hokkien is the vernacular language and lingua franca of the Chinese people in Penang. That means, it is understood and spoken not only by the Hokkiens in Penang, but also by the other Chinese dialect groups such as the Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, and others.

Even though it is generally regarded as a dialect, Hokkien is in fact a separate language, as is Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese. Among Chinese languages, Hokkien is closest to Teochew, making it partially intelligible to speakers of the two dialects. Though they may have similarities, they are as different is English is from French.

Although the dialect spoken here is called "Penang Hokkien", that is, a dialect of the Hokkien language (or Minnan), it is similar to the variants spoken throughout northern Malaysia including Kedah, Perlis and as far south as Taiping in Perak. Penang Hokkien also closely resembles the Hokkien spoken in Medan. The term "Penang Hokkien" is used here, rather than "Northern Malaysian Hokkien", to show that this is the dialect of Hokkien spoken in Penang itself, and to allow the dialect spoken elsewhere grow independently. In that way, the people in Taiping may term theirs Taiping Hokkien, those in Alor Setar may have Alor Setar Hokkien and so on.

Hokkien-speakers have settled along the coast of the Kingdom of Quedah (present-day Sultanate of Kedah) long before Penang was established. Over generations, the Hokkien Chinese have assimilated themselves to the local culture, absorbing local words to their syntax, creating a pidgin or creole form of Hokkien that is known today as Penang Hokkien. This language has been in use for at least a century before the founding of Penang by Francis Light, and continued to be the main teaching language among the local Hokkiens until the turn of the 20th century, when Mandarin was promoted to unite the various Chinese subgroups, particularly during the Chinese Revolution under Dr Sun Yat-sen. However, Mandarin is a foreign tongue to the Chinese seafarers who arrived on the Quedah coast in the 17th and 18th century, the majority of whom spoke Hokkien, Teochew and other South China dialects.

Today the position of Penang Hokkien is being threatened by the homogeny brought on by Mandarin. Many young local Chinese grew up unable to speak Penang Hokkien, buying into the idea that as Chinese, they should speak Mandarin. In so doing, they embrace the language of the authorities and the bureaucrats (a language of similar function as English), discarding the language of their forefathers.

Through Penang Travel Tips, I want to check the slide in the knowledge of Penang Hokkien. It is an integral part of Penang heritage. Unfortunately, when many think of heritage, they think only of the tangible - the buildings, for one. Although Penang Travel Tips continues to champion the preservation and appreciation of Penang heritage buildings, at the same time, I do not want its intangible heritage to be neglected, and of these, the most threatened is Penang Hokkien.

There is a difference between Penang Hokkien and Singapore Hokkien. This is because the early Hokkien settlers in Penang came from the port city of Zhangzhou, in Fujian Province, whereas those in Singapore came from a different Fujian city, Amoy (present-day Xiamen), many by way of Malacca.

For more information on the origin of Penang Hokkien, read also my related article: History of Hokkien Language in Penang. In addition, read Identity of the Penang Chinese People to understand how the local Chinese come about.

The deliberate effort of the British, chiefly Robert Townsend Farquhar, the Governor of Penang, to dismantle Malacca and relocate its population to Penang, had the effect of spreading the Hokkien people already in Malacca, across much of the southern part of Peninsular Malaysia, from Klang all the way to Singapore. The result is that the Hokkien people in the southern part of West Malaysia speak a Hokkien that is different from Penang Hokkien, but not so different as to make in not mutually intelligible.

Penang Hokkien borrowed heavily from Malay, and many words existing in Penang Hokkien are derived from the language, including sampah (rubbish), jari (finger), sabun (soap), to name a few. At times, the word evolved in meaning when it was adopted into Penang Hokkien, hence, balu meaning "recently" was derived from the Malay word baru, meaning "new", and mata meaning "police" was derived from mata meaning "eyes".

As a tourist to Penang, you stand on good ground to learn some Hokkien phrases. Naturally the sidewalk vendors, many of whom are Hokkien speakers, will admire your attempt, and your boldness to say a few Hokkien words may help you get more favourable prices.

Beware however, that Hokkien is a tonal language, and if you don't get the right intonation, you may well be uttering something that is either unintelligible, or something different from the intended meaning - hopefully to amusing and not to offensive results. For that reason, I would recommend that you get someone who speaks Penang Hokkien to read the following words to you and learn to follow his pronunciation. As you get familiar with the syntax of Hokkien, you will begin to understand where Malaysian English derived its syntax.

Which Hokkien?

In presenting this lesson on Penang Hokkien, I have to make it very clear that this is the spoken language as used in Penang. Do not compare it with Hokkien used elsewhere. They are different. As far as the people of Penang are concerned, this is an unwritten language. Romanisation of Hokkien or the use of Chinese characters to write it, as found elsewhere outside Penang is inapplicable and not used in Penang, hence they have no place in teaching Penang Hokkien.

The lessons are intended to help visitors to Penang get a glimpse into the vernacular tongue while at the same type apply it to practical usage.

Learn Penang Hokkien with Memrise

Now you can use the most user-friendly tool on the web to learn Penang Hokkien. It helps you to listen, understand and memorise. Go to Memrise, and learn Penang Hokkien at your own pace.

Selected Books related to the Hokkien Language

  1. Taiwan Grammar: A Concise Reference
  2. Koxinga of Taiwan
  3. History of the Thai Chinese

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