Penang Hokkien Made Easy
provides the basic information and foundation to help you learn to read and write Penang Hokkien in the new tone-numbered writing system. Take your time and get to know this language at your own pace. Stop anywhere you like and repeat the same paragraph until they become familiar to you.
In mid 2013, a new romanised writing system or orthography was created for Penang Hokkien. This new writing system is a complete departure from how Hokkien was traditionally romanised. This new writing system is designed with the intention of making Penang Hokkien easy for all Malaysians to learn and also to communicate with one another using present day telecommunication devices such as computers and smartphones.
The traditional romanised system Pe̍h-ōe-jī and its derivative, the Taiwanese Romanisation System, are found to be cumbersome and are difficult to use on present-day telecommunication devices, as they use diacritic marks that are hard to reproduce on modern telecommunication decices such as computers, tablets and smart phones without downloads, installations or plug ins. Moreover, the splitting of Hokkien tones to seven classes makes learning Hokkien difficult for most people to learn.
The new Taiji Romanisation System splits each syllable into only four classes, numbered 1, 2, 3/33 and 4. The tones correspond to the four tones in Mandarin, making it easy for Malaysian learners to establish familiarity to Mandarin, a language which is familiar to many. The reduction in the number of tone classes from 7 to 4 also leads to a corresponding simplification of the rule for tone sandhi, or tone change.
Many of the most common words in Penang Hokkien do not have to be respelled when writing the language using the Taiji Romanisation System. They only need to add the tone numbers to make them distinct from other similarly spelled words bearing other tone numbers. Hence, char1 koay1 teow2, ang3pau1 and the ubiquitious lah3 and lah4 remain as they are.
Until now, most people write Penang Hokkien by simply transcribing words based on how these words sound to them. This form of writing, without a common system in place, results in the writer being understood only by someone who speaks Penang Hokkien. As each person writes in his own way, and there is no dictionary to refer to, the likelihood of ambiguities and incomprehension arising is very high.
To support the Taiji Romanisation System, an online Penang Hokkien Dictionary
is made available free and can be referenced from anywhere in the world. Every word entered to the dictionary includes an audio rendition. Words are continued to be examined, analysed and compiled into the dictionary, with input and feedback from native speakers of the language at the Learn Penang Hokkien Facebook Group
This one-lesson article guides you through the basics of Penang Hokkien, assuming no prior knowledge. The recommendation is that you build up your vocabulary starting with the most basic words and phrases, and adding to this more words as you come across them.
All the basic words are introduced so that they form the building blocks for the sentences you wish to create. I cannot expect you to be completely fluent with one lesson, but at least what you have here is the foundation. For a more thorough look into various parts of speech in Penang Hokkien, we refer you to more Penang Hokkien Lessons
in this website. For even more on the language, go to Learn Penang Hokkien
where you will find everything about the language - vocabulary lists, poems, nursery rhymes, etc.
Now, as I usher you into your Penang Hokkien Made Easy lesson, I wish you all the fun in learning this language.
The topics below provides you an overview. You can get more details in the individual chapters at Penang Hokkien Grammar
; however, what I have provided below is sufficient to give you the necessary foundation.
Okay, let's start by learning the personal pronouns in Penang Hokkien. "I/me" is wah4
and "you" is lu4
. He, she and it are all pronounced the same way, but are written differently.
"He/him" is written ie1
, "she/her" is ee1
, and "it" is i1
The first thing you will notice is that every syllable ends with a number. That's a tone number, to show you how you should vocalize the syllable. We shall look into tones in more detail later on. For now, just know that you will see five different numbers behind each syllable namely 1
. When learning a word, memorize its spelling together with the tone number. This will help you recognise the word immediately in future.
The good news about pronouns in Penang Hokkien is that they never change their spelling. So "wah4" is always spelled "wah" whether it appears as subject or object within a sentence. However, it does change its tone number according to usage, as does lu4; this we shall encounter soon, and I shall explain it further in due course.
To create possessives out of the personal pronouns, we simply add -eh2
. Hence, "my/mine" is wah1-eh2
, "your/yours" is lu1-eh2
, "his" is ie1-eh2
, "her/hers" is ee1-eh2
and "its" is i1-eh2
You will notice that, in the regular form, "my" is written as "wah1-eh2" rather than "wah4-eh2". "Wah4-eh2" also exists for "my", in the emphatic form, but for now, let's just stick to the regular form. The same with "lu1-eh2".
For more examples and details, read the chapter on Penang Hokkien Possessives
Plural form of Pronouns
So far, we've learned the singular form of pronouns. It's very easy to form the plural. We just add lang2
to the singular. Hence, "we/us" is wah1lang2
, the plural "you" is lu1lang2
, male "they/them" is ie1lang2
, female "they/them" is ee1lang2
and neutral "they/them" is i1lang2
. Simply add -eh2 to form the possessives of these. The word lang2 on its own means "people", hence "wah1lang2" can be thought of as "we people".
For more examples and details, read the chapter on Penang Hokkien Pronouns
The next group of words we should learn are the demonstratives. They include "this", which is cit1-leh1
and "that", heh1-leh1
. As nouns in Penang Hokkien do not indicate whether something is one or more, you can use cit1-leh1 and heh1-leh1 for both singular and plural, though we often add ka1liau4
, meaning "all" (forming cit1-leh1 ka1liau4, all these
) when we want to show something is more than one.
The is no definite article "the" in Penang Hokkien, so the demonstrative heh1-leh1 serves as the stand-in whenever "the" is mentioned. This is optional, and you can simply drop heh1-leh1 if you wish.
Another group of demonstratives to learn is "here", which you can express using cit1-peng2
. "There" is heh1-peng2
. There is a subtle difference between cit1-peng2 and cit1-lok1, heh1-peng2 and heh1-lok, which you can describe as "on this/that side" and "over here/there", but generally you can use them interchangeably.
For more examples and details, read the chapter on Penang Hokkien Demonstratives
Now let's learn some simple verbs. To start, "live" and "stay" is tua3
, "go" is khee3
, "come" is lai2
, "call" is kio33
, "eat" is ciak1
and "work" is co1kang1
With what we have learned so far, we are now ready to form our first sentences in Penang Hokkien. Most sentences in Penang Hokkien follow the same structure as in English or Malay, so you should have no problem getting used to them.
I live here.
Wah1 tua3 cit1-peng2.
You live there.
Lu1 tua3 heh1-peng2.
She stays here.
Ee1 tua3 cit1-lok1.
He stays over there.
Ie1 tua3 heh1-lok1.
In the above sentences, for now, it doesn't matter whether you use cit1-peng2 or cit1-lok1 for here, and heh1-peng2 or heh1-lok1 for there. I want you to take note instead of the personal pronoun wah4. When it is placed as a subject in a sentence, in the regular form you pronounce it as wah1
. Similarly, when you use lu4 as subject in a sentence, in the regular form you pronounce it as lu1
. This rule applies only to wah4 and lu4.
I call him.
Wah1 kio33 ie1.
He calls me.
Ie1 kio33 wah4.
In the above sentence, you will notice that unlike wah4, ie1 does not change its form when placed as subject of a sentence.
Now let's add some basic nouns to our vocabulary:
- sin3sneah1 : teacher
- ma1ta2 : police, policeman
- pnui33 : rice, meal
Let's put them into sentences.
My teacher lives here.
Wah1-eh3 sin3snaeh1 tua3 cit1-peng2.
The policeman comes here.
Heh1-leh1 ma1ta2 lai3 cit1-peng2.
The sentence, "The policeman comes here," may also be written simply as, "Ma1ta2 lai3 cit1-peng2."
Notice that the word lai2 has changed its tone to lai3
. This tone change is known as sandhi, and we shall learn more about it shortly.
Ie1 ciak3 pnui33.
He eats rice.
In this sentence, the word ciak1 has changed its tone to ciak3
. In regular sentences, the verb sandhis when there is an object or a demonstrative behind it.
To look at various sentences, go to the chapter on Penang Hokkien Sentence Structure
We've learned so far, that every syllable in Penang Hokkien has to be pronounced according to a specific tone. Thankfully there are only four different types of tone you need to remember, and they are 1
. Some syllables are marked 33
, but they are actually pronounced the same way as tone 3
. The four tones are mapped to correspond to those of Mandarin. Every syllable can be articulated in the four tones. Take for example the syllable ma
; all together
To hear even more examples of syllables being articulated, go to the Phonetic Table
For more explanation on tone tones, view this video on Penang Hokkien Intonation
We also saw from the above examples, that wah4, lu4 and lai2 change their tone. We learn that wah4 and lu4 become wah1 and lu1 when they are placed in front of sentences. We also saw that lai2 becomes lai3 and ciak1 becomes ciak3 within a sentence.
The words, before they change, is how you would find them in the dictionary. This original form is called the citation form
or lemma. When it changes its tone, we say that it "sandhis", resulting in the sandhi form
. Therefore, wah4 is the citation form for "I" while wah1 is the sandhi form. Similarly, ciak1 is the citation form for "to eat" while ciak3 is the sandhi form.
But how are we to remember that ciak3 is the sandhi form of ciak1, and not ciak2 or ciak4? Well, you'd be happy to know that all the syllables follow a specific and very easy to remember rule, and here it is:
Words which are originally tones 1 or 2
in the citation form sandhis to tone 3
words which are originally tones 3 or 4
in the citation form sandhis to tone 1
words which are originally tone 33
in the citation form keeps its tone 33
Based on this rule, it now makes sense why wah4 becomes wah1. It was originally tone 4 in the citation form, but it sandhis to tone 1. Similarly, lu4 becomes lu1, lai2 becomes lai3, and ciak1 becomes ciak3. The word kio33, however, remains kio33. All syllables with tone 33 never change their tone, and the additional "3" is placed to differentiate them from the tone 3 group (which sandhis to tone 1).
How the syllables in Penang Hokkien change their tone can be a very complicated affair, so it's best to approach the issue slowly. Generally speaking, nouns don't change their tones anywhere you place them in a sentence.
I call the teacher.
Wah1 kio33 sin3sneah1.
The teacher calls me.
Sin3snaeh1 kio33 wah4.
Notice however, that wah4 becomes wah1 when it is the subject of the sentence. Penang Hokkien speakers are so used to it that they will make changes in their head, without paying any attention to this, whereas you, as learner, will mispronounce if you keep to the tone you learned.
When you get a word out of the Penang Hokkien Dictionary
, the tone of the word is in the citation form
, that means, as cited in the dictionary. It is in this form when it is the final word of a phrase or sentence. Elsewhere, it changes its form to the sandhi form
It's very easy to remember how the tones change. Tones 1 & 2 in the citation form change to tone 3 in sandhi form; tones 3 & 4 in citation form change to tone 1 in sandhi form; and tone 33 remains 33 in citation and sandhi forms.
For more explanation, listen to this Video on Tone Sandhi
Syllables and Morphemes
Up till here, you have seen me using the term "syllable", but moving forward you will hear another term, "morpheme" coming into frequent use.
You may be more familiar with the term syllable
, which means a string of letters put together to produce a single sound. For example, to say "ah", you open your mouth, say it, close your mouth, done. Some syllables require you to move your mouth when saying the syllable. For example, to say "dog", you mouth is in the process of opening even as the word is issued.
As long as you can string together a bunch of letters to produce a sound, you can call that a syllable. When a syllable, or a combination of syllables, carries a specific meaning, it is known as a morpheme. We put morphemes together to form words. If a morpheme can act as a word on its own, we call it a free morpheme. If it needs to combine with other morphemes to form a word, it is known as a bound morpheme.
The word "cut" is form from a free morpheme which is a single syllable that can stand on its own. The word "uncut" combines two morphemes, un
which is a bound morpheme, and cut
, a free morpheme.
In similar fashion, words in Penang Hokkien are also formed through the combination of morphemes. For example, co3
is a free morpheme that can stand on its own, as a verb meaning "to do"; kang1
is another free morpheme, on its own it is a noun meaning "work". Put them together, we get co1kang1
, a verb meaning "to do work", or simply, "to work".
You will notice that when co3 is combined with kang1, co3 sandhis to co1. Thus, "to do work" is co1kang1, not co3kang1.
Here's another example: ang2
is red, mor2
is hair, and thng2
is sugar. Combine them together, you get ang3mor3thng2
The rule of thumb is that when you form words, all the morpheme within the word sandhis except
the last one. In the above examples, the kang1 in co1kang1 and thng2 in ang3mor3thng2 remain unchanged.
This rule is observed most
of the time (most, not all) but is frequent enough that as a beginner, you can simply adopt it as it is for now.
By now, you may be eager to add even more words into your vocabulary. On this website, you don't have to rush out to buy a dictionary, for the dictionary is available right here and free for you to use. Click Penang Hokkien Dictionary
to open it.
The search cell of the dictionary looks like this:
The dictionary provides you the words in the citation form. When you come across a Penang Hokkien word you aren't sure of the meaning, copy and paste it on the search cell, making sure "Penang Hokkien" is selected. The tone number has to be in the citation form. If you are not sure, drop the tone numbers, and the dictionary will still be able to list out possible answers. All entries include audio output, so you get to hear how the word is pronounced. You can also use the dictionary to look up words in Penang Hokkien by typing in the meaning in English or Malay. For more details, watch this video
The rule of creating words from morphemes also work on adjectives, for example, colours. Let's learn a few colours in Penang Hokkien:
- ang2 red
- lam2 blue
- chnae1 green
- paek1 white
- or1 black
"Shirt" in Penang Hokkien is sna1
. We describe its colour this way:
- ang3 sna1 red shirt
- lam3 sna1 blue shirt
- chnae3 sna1 green shirt
- paek3 sna1 white shirt
- or3 sna1 black shirt
Once again, the rule to remember is tones 1 and 2 becomes 3, tones 3 and 4 becomes 1. This is known as the rule of tone sandhi
Adjectives & Modifiers
Tone sandhi works on other adjectives too. "New" is sin1
while "old" (for things) is ku33
- sin3 sna1 new shirt
- ku33 sna1 old shirt
Note that sin1 has become sin3
but ku33 remains unchanged. The tone 33 morphemes are the easiest as they never change their tones, remaining tone 3 throughout the time.
Nouns can also act as modifiers to other nouns. They are placed in front of the noun they modify. As a modifier, they sandhi their final syllable. Let me show it to you, with the sandhied syllable of the modifying noun underlined.
Ie1 ceng3 ang3mor3tan3
He grows rambutan trees.
Wah1 hnua3 Teik1 Kok1 chia1.
I drive a German car.
Next, we learn some numbers. There are two sets of pronunciation for numbers in Penang Hokkien, they are known as the everyday pronunciation
(formally known as "colloquial reading") and the book pronunciation
(formally, "literary reading"). For our introduction into numbers, we shall only look at the everyday pronunciation, and limit ourselves to 0 - 22.
- khong3 zero
- cit1 one
- nor33 two
- snar1 three
- see3 four
- gor33 five
- lark1 six
- chit3 seven
- peik3 eight
- kau4 nine
- cap1 ten
- cap3-it3 eleven
- cap3-jee33 twelve
- cap3-snar1 thirteen
- cap3-see3 fourteen
- cap3-gor33 fifteen
- cap3-lark1 sixteen
- cap3-chit3 seventeen
- cap3-peik3 eighteen
- cap3-kau4 nineteen
- jee33-cap1 twenty
- jee33-cap3-it3 twenty-one
- jee33-cap3-jee33 twenty-two
Numbers in Penang Hokkien is highly regular. The few exceptions include eleven, which is cap3-it3 instead of cap3-cit1. Twenty-one is jee33-cap3-it3, not jee33-cap3-cit1, and the same rule applies for 31, 41, etc. Note also that numbers, like adjective in general, also undergo tone sandhi. Thus, 10 is cap1 but 12 is cap3-jee33, not cap1-jee33.
For more on numbers, go to the chapter on Penang Hokkien Numbers
Classifiers are a common feature in most Asian languages. In Malay it is known as penjodoh bilangan
. Although they are not as common in English, they do appear on occasion:
a piece of bread.
Returning to the first sentence above, "a piece of bread", the indefinite article "a" is expressed with the numeral "cit1"; "piece" is tay3
; "bread" is lo3ti1
The second sentence shows that even in instances where we don't use a classifier in English, the classifier is ever present in Penang Hokkien. In lark3-keng3 chu3, we hard three words, lark1 is six, keng1
is classifier for houses, and chu3
Numbers and classifiers always undergo tone sandhi. The classifer is always hyphenated to the numeral preceding it. Thus "cit3-tay1 lo3ti1" can be regarded as "one-piece bread".
For more details, go to the chapter on Penang Hokkien Classifers
Nouns in Penang Hokkien are regular. They are always spelled the same way, whether singular or plural, and whether they are used as subject or object.
Sin3snaeh1 kio33 hap3seng1.
The teacher calls the student.
Hap3seng1 kio33 sin3sneah1.
The student calls the teacher.
Nouns may comprise words of a single or more morphemes. All morphemes within a noun sandhi except the last one. For example, the noun sin3sneah1
is formed by joining together the words sin1
. In the resulting word, sin1 has sandhied to sin3, while sneah1 remains the same. We have seen earlier, in the section on Syllables and Morphemes, how the word ang3mor3thng2 is created.
Once you are sufficiently familiar with Penang Hokkien and its writing system, you can actually create your own words by stringing morphemes together.
Possessive Particle -eh2
We were introduced to -eh2 in the section on pronouns, where we saw its used in forming possessives such as wah1-eh (my/mine), etc. The possessive particle -eh2 is used to show possession, and can be attached to nouns similar to the apostrophe in English.
Ah3 Hock3-eh3 chia1.
Ah Hock's car.
Note that -eh2 sandhies to -eh3 in between the possessor (Ah3 Hock3) and the item possessed (chia1).
The possessive particle -eh2 is also used in constructions expressed with "of the" in English.
The leg of the chair.
In English, the order of the possessor and item possessed is inverted. In Penang Hokkien, the order is unchanged, with the possessor (kau3ie4), -eh2 then item possessed (kha1).
Regular and Emphatic Sentences
In the sentence, "I told him that that
is bad", the second "that" is italiced to show emphasis.
In Penang Hokkien, there are regular sentences and emphatic sentences. In regular sentences
, all words that ought to be in the sandhi tone are likewise toned. In emphatic sentences, specific words can be emphasized or stressed by changing the sandhi tone to the emphatic tone. The emphatic tone is the same tone as the citation tone.
Wah1 ciak3 pnui33.
I eat rice.
1) Wah4 ciak3 pnui33
2) Wah1 ciak1 pnui33.
3) Wah4 ciak1 pnui33.
In the first emphatic sentence, the emphasis is on the doer (I and not someone else eat rice). In the second sentence, the emphasis is on the action (I eat and not do something else to the rice.) In the third sentence, both the doer and action are emphasised.
In Penang Hokkien, you can create emphatic sentences with the personal pronouns wah4 and lu4, and with certain verbs. As the emphatic form sounds the same as the citation form, some learners may wrongly regard that it is easier to simply keep the words they learn in the citation form. Doing so creates awkward-sounding sentences where you appear to be emphasizing every word unnecessarily. So, learn to sandhi words properly.
There are two main ways to form questions in Penang Hokkien: by using Question Words
and by adding Interrogative Particles. The question words in Penang Hokkien are:
- ha1mik1 what
- ha1mik1 su33 why
- cui33-cui33 who
- cui33-cui33 lang2-eh2 whose
- ta1lok1 where
- ti33si2 / ki33si2 when
- kui1 tiam4 what time
- cui33-cui33 who
- an1cnua4 / an1cnua1nyau3 how
Questions are formed by replacing the subject or object in the sentence with the question word.
Ie1 khee1 ok3tng2.
He goes to school.
Cui33-cui33 khee1 ok3tng2?
Who goes to school?
Ie1 khee1 ta1lok1?
He goes where? (Where does he go?)
Note that in Penang Hokkien, the sentence structure is always subject-verb-object. It is never inverted as in the English "where does he go?"
Ie1 ceh33 bas1 khee1 ok3tng2.
He takes the bus to school.
Ie1 an1cnua1 khee1 ok3tng2?
He how goes to school? (How does he go to school)
Ie1 ceh33 ha1mik1 khee1 ok3tng2?
How does he go to school? / What transport does he take to school?
Ie1 lark3-tiam1-pnua3 khee1 ok3tng2.
He goes to school at six-thirty.
The usual location for time within a sentence is immediately after the subject.
Ie1 ti33si2 khee1 ok3tng2?
When does he go to school?
Ie1 kui1 tiam4 khee1 ok3tng2?
What time does he go to school?
Aspects of Time
In Penang Hokkien there are no tenses (thank goodness!) Particles are used to relate to the flow of time. These are usually placed before or after the verb. The particles are:
- a1boey3 have not done
- tua1 doing
- liau4 done
Wah1 a1boey3 ciak1.
I haven't eaten.
Wah1 tua1 ciak1.
I am eating.
Wah1 ciak1 liau4.
I have eaten.
In addition to question words, you can also form questions using Interrogative Particles. These are for affirmative questions, to verify a statement, and to seek the yes/no answers. There is a whole list of these which you can view in the chapter on Penang Hokkien Particles
. Here's a sample of a few.
Wah1 mui33 ie1.
I asked him.
Lu1 mui33 ie1 nia2?
Did you ask him?
Ie1 tua3 heh1-peng2.
He lives over there.
Ie1 tua3 heh1-peng2 meh4?
Does he live there? / He lives there, doesn't he?
Wah1 lim3 ko3pi1.
I drink coffee.
Lu1 lim3 ko3pi1 boh2?
Do you drink coffee? / You drink coffee, don't you?
The above examples provide you a basic grounding to how Penang Hokkien works. For more detailed lessons, please refer to the various chapters in Penang Hokkien Grammar
. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me
. Thank you and enjoy learning Penang Hokkien!
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
- Taiwan Grammar: A Concise Reference
- Koxinga of Taiwan
- History of the Thai Chinese
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