Penang Hokkien

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Penang Hokkien
檳城福建話 (Chinese)
Pin-siânn Hok-kiàn-uā (Tâi-lô)
Pin-siâⁿ Hok-kiàn-ōa (POJ)
Hokkien Pulau Pinang (Malay)
Native toMalaysia
RegionPenang, parts of Kedah, Perak and Perlis
Latin (Modified Tâi-lô & Pe̍h-ōe-jī, ad hoc methods)
Chinese Characters (Traditional)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Penang Hokkien
Traditional Chinese檳城福建話
Tâi-lôPin-siânn Hok-kiàn-uā
Alternative name
Traditional Chinese庇能福建話
Tâi-lôPī-néeng Hok-kiàn-uā

Penang Hokkien (traditional Chinese: 檳城福建話; simplified Chinese: 槟城福建话; Tâi-lô: Pin-siânn Hok-kiàn-uā; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Pin-siâⁿ Hok-kiàn-ōa) is a local variant of Hokkien spoken in Penang, Malaysia. It is the lingua franca among the majority Chinese population in Penang, as well as the neighbouring states of Kedah, Perlis and northern part of Perak. This Chinese dialect is spoken as a mother tongue by up to 63.9% of Penang's Chinese community.[1] It is also spoken by some members of Penang's Indian and Malay communities.[2]

Penang Hokkien is a subdialect of Zhangzhou (漳州; Hokkien: Chiang-chiu) Chinese, together with widespread use of Malay and English loan words. It is said that it most closely resembles that spoken in the district of Haicang (海滄) in Longhai (龍海; Hokkien: Liông-hái) county and in the districts of Jiaomei (角美) and Xinglin (杏林) in neighbouring Xiamen prefecture. In Southeast Asia, similar dialects are spoken in the states bordering Penang (Kedah, Perlis and northern Perak), as well as in Medan and North Sumatra, Indonesia. It is markedly distinct from Southern Peninsular Malaysian Hokkien and Taiwanese Hokkien.


Penang Hokkien is largely a spoken language: it is rarely written in Chinese characters, and there is no official standard romanisation. In recent years, there has been a growing body of romanised Penang Hokkien material, however topics are mostly limited to the language itself such as dictionaries and learning materials. This is linked to efforts to preserve, revitalise and promote the language as part of Penang's cultural heritage, due to increasing awareness of the loss of Penang Hokkien usage among younger generations in favour of Mandarin and English. The standard romanisation systems commonly used in these materials are based on Tâi-lô and Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ), with varying modifications to suit Penang Hokkien phonology.

The Hokkien Language Association of Penang (Persatuan Bahasa Hokkien Pulau Pinang; 庇能福建話協會) is one such organisation which promotes the language's usage and revitalisation. Through their Speak Hokkien Campaign they promote a Tâi-lô-based system modified to suit the phonology of Penang Hokkien and its loanwords. This system is used throughout this article and its feautures are detailed below.

The Speak Hokkien Campaign also promotes the use of traditional Chinese characters derived from recommended character lists for written Hokkien published by Taiwan's Ministry of Education.

Most native-speakers are not aware of these standardised systems and resort to ad hoc methods of romanisation based on English, Malay and Pinyin spelling rules, e.g. Char Kway Teow (炒粿條 Tshá-kúe-tiâu). These methods, which are more intuitive to the average native-speaker, are the basis of non-standard romanisation systems used in some written material.



Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless
Nasal m [m]
名 (miâ)
n [n]
爛 (nua)
ng [ŋ]
硬 (ngēe)
Stop Unaspirated p [p]
比 (pi)
b [b]
米 (bi)
t [t]
大 (tua)
d [d]
煎蕊 (tsian-doi)
k [k]
教 (kau)
g [g]
牛 (gû)
- [ʔ]
影 (iánn)
Aspirated ph [pʰ]
脾 (phi)
th [tʰ]
拖 (thua)
kh [kʰ]
扣 (khau)
Affricate Unaspirated ts [ts]
姊 (tsi)
j [dʑ]
字 (ji)
Aspirated tsh [tsʰ]
飼 (tshi)
Fricative f [f]
s [s]
時 (si)
sh [ʃ]
h [h]
喜 (hi)
Lateral l [l]
賴 (lua)
Approximant r [ɹ]
y [j]
捎央 (sa-yang)
Labialized w [w]
我 (wá)
  • Unlike other dialects of Hokkien, coronal affricates and fricatives remain the same and do not become alveolo-palatal before /i/, e.g. 時 [si].
Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal consonant -m [m]
暗 (àm)
-n [n]
安 (an)
-ng [ŋ]
紅 (âng)
Stop consonant -p [p̚]
答 (tap)
-t [t̚]
殺 (sat)
-k [k̚]
角 (kak)
-h [ʔ]
鴨 (ah)
Syllabic consonant
Bilabial Velar
Nasal m [m̩]
毋 ()
ng [ŋ̍]
霜 (sng)


Front Back
Simple Nasal Simple Nasal
Close i [i]
伊 (i)
inn [ĩ]
圓 (înn)
u [u]
有 (ū)
unn [ũ]
羊 (iâunn)*
Close-Mid e [e]
o [o]
蠔 (ô)
Open-Mid ee [ɛ]
下 (ēe)
enn [ɛ̃]
嬰 (enn)
oo [ɔ]
烏 (oo)
onn [ɔ̃]
嗚 (onn)
Open a [a]
亞 (a)
ann [ã]
餡 (ānn)
Diphthongs & Triphthongs
Diphthong Triphthong
ai [ai]
愛 (ài)
ia [ia]
椰 ()
io [io]
腰 (io)
iu [iu]
油 ()
ua [ua]
話 ()
iau [iau]
枵 (iau)
au [au]
後 (āu)
ia [iɛ]
燕 (n)*
ioo [iɔ]
娘 (niôo)*
ui [ui]
為 ()
ue [ue]
鍋 (ue)
uai [uai]
歪 (uai)
  • In the Tâi-lô system for Penang Hokkien, vowels are nasalised using final ⟨-nn⟩, while POJ uses superscript ⟨◌ⁿ⟩. For most speakers who are not aware of the standard romanisation, nasalisation is commonly indicated by putting an ⟨n⟩ after the initial consonant of a word. This is commonly seen for the popular Penang delicacy Tau Sar Pneah (豆沙餅 Tāu-sá-piánn).
    In other instances, nasalisation may not be indicated in the spelling of a word such as in the common last name Ooi (黃 Uînn).
  • The nasalised vowel ⟨unn⟩ is only found as part of ⟨iaunn⟩, it does not exist in Hokkien as a final or in isolation.
    The rime ⟨iaunn⟩ is a variant pronunciation of ⟨ionn⟩. The two may be used interchangeably in Penang Hokkien, e.g. 張 tiaunn/tionn, 羊 iâunn/iônn.
  • When ⟨ia⟩ is followed by final ⟨-n⟩ or ⟨-t⟩, it is pronounced [iɛ], with ⟨ian⟩ and ⟨iat⟩ being pronounced as [iɛn] and [iɛt̚] respectively.
    In speech, these sounds are often reduced to [ɛn] and [ɛt̚], e.g. 免 mián/mén.
  • When ⟨i⟩ is followed by final ⟨-k⟩ or ⟨-ng⟩, it is pronounced [iɪ], with ⟨ik⟩ and ⟨ing⟩ being pronounced as [iɪk̚] and [iɪŋ] respectively.
    In speech, these sounds are often reduced to [ek̚] and [eŋ], e.g. 色 sik/sek.
  • ⟨ioo⟩ is a variant of ⟨io⟩ which is only found with the initial ⟨n-⟩, e.g. 娘 niôo.
Non-native vowels (used in loanwords)
Tâi-lô IPA Example Note
er [ə] ber-lian Occurs in Quanzhou accented varieties of Hokkien such as those spoken in Southern Malaysia and Singapore.
Used in Malay and English loanwords.
y [y] 豬腸粉
Used in Cantonese loanwords, may be pronounced as ⟨i⟩.
ei [ei] 無釐頭
Used in Cantonese loanwords.
eoi [ɵy] 濕濕碎
An alternate pronunciation of ⟨ue⟩ due to Cantonese influence.
Used in Cantonese loanwords, may be pronounced as ⟨ue⟩.
oi [ɔi] 煎蕊
Used in Malay and Cantonese loanwords.
Replaces ⟨ol⟩ in Malay loanwords, e.g. botol (瓿瓵 bo̍t-toi), cendol (煎蕊 tsian-doi).
ou [ou] 大佬
Used in Cantonese loanwords.


In Penang Hokkien, the two Departing tones (3rd & 7th) are virtually identical, and may not be distinguished except in their sandhi forms. Most native speakers of Penang Hokkien are therefore only aware of four tones in unchecked syllables (high, low, rising, high falling), and two Entering tones (high and low) in checked syllables. In most systems of romanisation, this is accounted as seven tones altogether. The tones are:

Penang Hokkien tones, illustrated with the rhymes [am], [ap] [3]
Upper (陰) Lower (陽)
No. Name IPA Contour TL No. Name IPA Contour TL
Level (平) 1 頂平 téng-pênn [am˦˦] (44) am 5 下平 ēe-pênn [am˨˧] (23) âm
Rising (上) 2 上聲 tshiōnn-siann [am˥˧/am˦˦˥] (53/445) ám
Departing (去) 3 頂去 téng-khì [am˨˩] (21) àm 7 下去 ēe-khì [am˨˩] (21) ām
Entering (入) 4 頂入 téng-ji̍p [ap˧] (3) ap 8 下入 ēe-ji̍p [ap˦] (4) a̍p

The names of the tones no longer bear any relation to the tone contours. The (upper) Rising (2nd) tone has two variants in Penang Hokkien, a high falling tone [˥˧] (53) and a high rising tone [˦˦˥] (445). The high falling tone [˥˧] (53) is more common among the older generations while in the younger generations there has been a shift towards the use of the high rising tone [˦˦˥] (445). When the 3rd tone is sandhied to the 2nd tone, the high falling variant [˥˧] (53) is used, however some speakers may sandhi the 3rd tone to the 1st tone [˦˦] (44).[3] As in Amoy and Zhangzhou, there is no lower Rising (6th) tone.

Tone sandhi[edit]

Like in other Minnan dialects, the tone of a syllable in Penang Hokkien depends on where in a phrase or sentence the relevant syllable is placed. For example, the word 牛 in isolation is pronounced with an ascending tone, [˨˧] (23), but when it combines with a following syllable, as in 牛肉 gû-bah, it is pronounced with to a low level tone, [˨˩] (21).

1st 7th 5th
2nd 3rd
↑ (if -h) ↑ (if -h)
4th ↔ (if -p,-t,-k) 8th

The rules which apply when a syllable is placed in front of a connected syllable in standard Minnan, simply put, are as follows:

  • 1st becomes 7th
  • 7th becomes 3rd
  • 3rd becomes 2nd (often sounds like 1st in Penang Hokkien)
  • 2nd becomes 1st
  • 5th becomes 7th

Checked syllables (-h):

  • 4th becomes 2nd (often sounds like 1st in Penang Hokkien)
  • 8th becomes 3rd

Checked syllables (-p,-t,-k):

  • 4th becomes 8th
  • 8th becomes 4th

Although the two departing tones (3rd & 7th) are virtually identical in Penang Hokkien, in their sandhi forms they become [˥˦] (54) and [˨˩] (21) and are thus easily distinguishable.

The "tone wheel" concept does not work perfectly for all speakers of Penang Hokkien.[4]

Minnan and Mandarin tones[edit]

There is a reasonably reliable correspondence between Hokkien and Mandarin tones:

  • Upper Level: Hokkien 1st tone = Mandarin 1st tone, e.g. 雞 ke/.
  • Lower Level: Hokkien 5th tone = Mandarin 2nd tone, e.g. 龍 lêng/lóng.
  • Rising: Hokkien 2nd tone = Mandarin 3rd tone, e.g. 馬 bée/.
  • Departing: Hokkien 3rd/7th tones = Mandarin 4th tone, e.g. 兔 thòo/, 象 tshiōnn/xiàng.

Words with Entering tones all end with ⟨-p⟩, ⟨-t⟩, ⟨-k⟩ or ⟨-h⟩ (glottal stop). As Mandarin no longer has any Entering tones, there is no simple corresponding relationship for the Hokkien 4th and 8th tones, e.g. 國 kok/guó, but 發 huat/. The tone in Mandarin often depends on what the initial consonant of the syllable is (see the article on Entering tones for details).

Literary and colloquial pronunciations[edit]

Hokkien has not been taught in schools in Penang since the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, when Mandarin was made the Chinese national language. As such, few if any people have received any formal instruction in Hokkien, and it is not used for literary purposes. However, as in other variants of Min Nan, most words have both literary and colloquial pronunciations, and the literary pronunciations still appear in limited circumstances, e.g.:

  • in given names (but generally not surnames), e.g. 安 an rather than uann, 玉 gio̍k rather than ge̍k;
  • in a few surnames, e.g. 葉 ia̍p rather than hio̍h
  • in other proper names, e.g. 龍山堂 Liông-san-tông rather than Lêng-suann-tn̂g
  • in certain set phrases, e.g. 差不多 tsha-put-to rather than tshee-m̄-to, 見笑 kiàn-siàu rather than kìnn-tshiò

Unlike in Taiwan and mainland China, the literary pronunciations of numbers higher than two are not used when giving telephone numbers, etc.; e.g. 二五四 jī-gōo-sì instead of jī-ngóo-sù. Literary variants are generally eschewed in favour of colloquial pronunciations, e.g. 大學 tuā-o̍h instead of tāi-ha̍k.

Differences from other Minnan dialects[edit]

Although Penang Hokkien is based on the Zhangzhou dialect, which in many cases result from the influence of other Minnan dialects.

  • The use of Zhangzhou pronunciations such as 糜 muâi (Amoy: ), 先生 sin-senn (Amoy: sian-sinn), etc.;
  • The use of Zhangzhou expressions such as 調羹 thâu-kiong (Amoy: 湯匙 thng-sî)
  • The adoption of pronunciations from Teochew: e.g. 我 (Zhangzhou: guá), 我儂 wang, 汝儂 luang, 伊儂 iang (Zhangzhou and Amoy: 阮 gún/guán, 恁 lín, 𪜶 (亻因) īn);
  • The adoption of Amoy and Quanzhou pronunciations like 歹勢 pháinn-sè (Zhangzhou: bái/pháinn-sì), 百 pah (Zhangzhou: peeh), etc.

General pronunciation differences can be shown as below:

Penang Hokkien Amoy Hokkien Zhangzhou Dialect Example
8th tone [˦] (4) 8th tone [˦] (4) 8th tone [˩˨] (12)
-e -ue -e
-ee -e -ee hêe
-enn -inn -enn senn
-iaunn -iunn -ionn siāunn
-iang -iong -iang siang
-u -i -i
-ue -e -ue hué
-ua -ue -ua
-uinn -ng -uinn suinn
j- l- j- ji̍p


Due to Penang's rich linguistic and ethnic diversity, Penang Hokkien is in close contact with many other languages and dialects which are drawn on heavily for loanwords.[5] These include Malay, Teochew, Cantonese and English.


Like other dialects in Malaysia and Singapore, Penang Hokkien borrows heavily from Malay, but sometimes to a greater extent than other Hokkien dialects, e.g.:

  • almari: wardrobe (probably originally from Portuguese)
  • anting: earring
  • balai: police station
  • balu (baru): new(ly), just now
  • bangku: stool (probably originally from Portuguese)
  • batu: stone
  • berlian: diamond
  • binatang: animal
  • bunting: pregnant
  • cilaka (celaka): damn it
  • campur : to mix (usable in conjunction with bei as in bei campur)
  • jamban: toilet
  • gatai (gatal): itchy
  • geli: creepy; hair-raising
  • kawin (kahwin): marry
  • kisien (kesian): pity
  • lampin: nappy/diaper
  • loti (roti): bread (via Malay from Sanskrit)
  • macam-macam: what a fuss
  • mana: as if?, since when? (also to be found in Teochew with the same meaning)
  • manik: bead
  • mata: police (from Malay mata-mata; also present in Teochew)
  • pasar: market, originally from the word Bazaar
  • pinggang: waist
  • puluk: bolster
  • pun: also
  • rasa: to feel
  • sabun: soap (via Malay from Portuguese; also present in Taiwanese)
  • sampah: garbage
  • sayang: to love; what a pity/waste
  • sombong: snobbish
  • suka: to like (via Malay from Sanskrit)
  • tapi: but
  • tolong: help
  • tongkat: walking stick
  • tuala: towel (via Malay from Portuguese)

There are also many Hokkien words which have been borrowed into Malay, sometimes with slightly different meanings, e.g.:

  • beca (trishaw; originally 馬車 bée-tshia, "horse-cart")
  • bihun (米粉 bí-hún, "rice vermicelli")
  • Jepun (日本 Ji̍t-pún, "Japan")
  • loteng (attic; originally 樓頂 lâu-téng, "upstairs")
  • kicap (sauce; originally 鮭汁 kê-tsiap, "fish sauce")
  • kongsi (to share; originally 公司 kong-si, "company/firm/clan association")
  • kuaci (瓜子 kua-tsí, "edible watermelon seeds")
  • kuetiau (粿條 kué-tiâu, "flat rice noodle")
  • kuih (粿 kué, "rice-flour cake")
  • mi (麵 , noodles)
  • sinseh (先生 sin-senn, literally translates to "mister", commonly refers to a traditional Chinese doctor)
  • tauhu (豆腐 taū-hū, "tofu")
  • tauke (頭家 thâu-kee, "boss")
  • teh (茶 têe, "tea")
  • teko (茶鈷 têe-kóo, "teapot")
  • Tionghua (中華 Tiong-huâ, "China/Chinese")
  • tukang (廚工 tû-kang, "craftsman")


Penang Hokkien has also borrowed some words from English, some of which may have been borrowed via Malay, but these tend to be more technical and less well embedded than the Malay words, e.g. brake, park, pipe, pump, etc.


In recent years, a number of movies that incorporate the use of Penang Hokkien have been filmed, as part of wider efforts to preserve the dialect's relevance.[6] Among the more recent movies are The Journey, which became the highest-grossing Malaysian film in 2014, and You Mean the World to Me, the first movie to be filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Douglas, The Rev. Carstairs (1899) [1873]. Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy, with the Principal Variations of the Chang-chew and Chin-chew Dialects (2nd corrected ed.). London: Publishing Office of the Presbyterian Church of England. ISBN 1-86210-068-3., bound with Barclay, The Rev. Thomas (1923). Supplement to Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy. Shanghai: Commercial Press Ltd.
  • de Gijzel, Luc (2009). English-Penang Hokkien Pocket Dictionary. George Town, Penang: Areca Books. ISBN 978-983-44646-0-8.