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Penang Hokkien

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Title: Penang Hokkien  
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Collection: Languages of Malaysia, Penang, Southern Min
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Penang Hokkien

Penang Hokkien
Pin-siâⁿ Hok-kiàn-oā
Hokkien Pulau Pinang
Native to Malaysia
Region Penang, parts of Kedah and Perak
Native speakers
(this article does not contain any information regarding the number of speakers)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

Penang Hokkien (Chinese: 槟城福建话; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Pin-siâⁿ Hok-kiàn-oā) is a local variant of Hokkien Chinese spoken in Penang, Malaysia. It is the lingua franca among the majority Chinese population in Penang as well as other northern states of Malaysia surrounding it, and is a subdialect of Zhangzhou (漳州; Hokkien: Chiang-chiu) Chinese, together with widespread use of Malay and English borrowed words. It is predominantly a spoken dialect: it is rarely written in Chinese characters, and there is no standard romanisation. This article uses the Missionary Romanisation or Pe̍h-ōe-jī (白話字) which is common in Taiwan.

Penang Hokkien is based on the variety of Hokkien spoken in the Zhangzhou prefecture of Fujian. 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. In contrast, in Singapore and southern Malaysia, many Hokkien speakers speak a dialect closer to the Amoy (廈門; Hokkien: ε̄-mûiⁿ) standard.


  • Tones 1
    • Tone sandhi 1.1
    • Minnan and Mandarin tones 1.2
  • Literary and colloquial pronunciations 2
  • Differences from standard Minnan 3
  • Differences from the Zhangzhou dialect 4
  • Borrowed words 5
    • Malay 5.1
    • English 5.2
  • See also 6
  • Further reading 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


In Penang Hokkien, there are five tones in unchecked syllables (high, low, rising, high falling, and low 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]
Upper Lower
No. Name IPA Contour POJ No. Name IPA Contour POJ
Level (平) 1 頂平 téng-pε̂ⁿ [am˦] (44) am 5 下平 ε̄-pε̂ⁿ [am˨˦] (24) âm
Rising (上) 2 上聲 chhiơ̄ⁿ-siaⁿ [am˥˦] (54) ám
Departing (去) 3 頂去 téng-khì [am˨˩] (21) àm 7 下去 ε̄-khì [am˨] (22) ām
Entering (入) 4 頂入 téng-jıˈp [ap˨] (2) ap 8 下入 ε̄-jıˈp [ap˦] (4) a̍p

The names of the tones no longer bear any relation to the tone contours, e.g. the (upper) Rising (2nd) tone is actually a high falling tone. As in Amoy and Zhangzhou, there is no lower Rising (6th) tone. As in Zhangzhou, 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 (high, low, rising, high falling).

Tone sandhi

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 gû in isolation is pronounced with an ascending tone, [˨˦] (24), but when it combines with a following syllable, as in 牛肉 gû-bah, it is pronounced with to a low level tone, [˨] (22).

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 usually difficult to tell apart in Penang Hokkien, their tone contours being [˨˩] (21) and [˨] (22), 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.[1]

Minnan and Mandarin tones

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

  • Upper Level: Hokkien 1st tone = Mandarin 1st tone, e.g. 雞 ke / jī.
  • Lower Level: Hokkien 5th tone = Mandarin 2nd tone, e.g. 龍 lêng / lóng.
  • Rising: Hokkien 2nd tone = Mandarin 3rd tone, e.g. 馬 / mǎ.
  • Departing: Hokkien 3rd/7th tones = Mandarin 4th tone, e.g. 兔 thờ / tù, 象 chhiơ̄ⁿ / 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 hoat / fā. 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

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 oaⁿ, 玉 giȯk rather than gėk;
  • in a few surnames, e.g. 葉 iȧp rather than hiȯh
  • in other proper names, e.g. 龍山堂 Liông-san-tông rather than *Lêng-soaⁿ-tông
  • in certain set phrases, e.g. 差不多 chha-put-to rather than *chhε-m̄-to, 見笑 kièn-siàu rather than *kìⁿ-chhiò

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-gơ̄-sì instead of jī-ngớ-sù. Literary variants are generally eschewed in favour of colloquial pronunciations, e.g. 大學 toā-ȯh instead of tāi-hȧk.

Differences from standard Minnan

Most of the differences between Penang Hokkien and Amoy Hokkien exist also in Zhangzhou, e.g.:

  • The use of -uiⁿ where Amoy has -ng, e.g. 門 mûiⁿ, 飯 pūiⁿ, 酸 suiⁿ, etc.;
  • The use of and -εⁿ where Amoy has -e and -iⁿ, e.g. 家 , 蝦 hε̂, 生 sεⁿ;
  • The use of -oe where Amoy has -e and vice versa, e.g. 火 hóe, 未 bōe, 地 , 細 ;
  • The use of -oa where Amoy has -oe, e.g. 話 ōa, 花 hoa, 瓜 koa;
  • The use of -iơⁿ (also pronounced -iauⁿ) where Amoy has -iuⁿ, e.g. 羊 iơ̂ⁿ, 丈 tiơ̄ⁿ, 想 siơ̄ⁿ;
  • The use of -iang where Amoy has -iong, e.g. 上 siāng, 香 hiang;
  • The use of j- in some words where Amoy has l-, e.g. 入 jıˈp, 熱 jȯah, 日 jıˈt;
  • The use of Zhangzhou pronunciations such as 糜 môai (Amoy: ), 先生 sin-sεⁿ (Amoy: sien-siⁿ), etc.;
  • The use of Zhangzhou expressions such as 挑羹 th(i)au-kiong (Amoy: 湯匙 thng-sî)

Differences from the Zhangzhou dialect

Although Penang Hokkien is obviously based on the Zhangzhou dialect, there are some obvious differences, which in many cases result from the influence of other Minnan dialects, e.g.:

  • The lower "Entering" (8th) tone in Penang, which is pronounced high [˦] (4) as in Amoy and many other parts of Fujian, whereas in most Zhangzhou dialects it is low with a slight lilt [˩˨] (12);
  • The use of -u in some words such as 汝 , 豬 tu, 魚 , etc., where Zhangzhou has , ti and . This is a characteristic of dialects in other parts of Zhangzhou and Xiamen prefectures.
  • The use of -iauⁿ instead of the Zhangzhou -iơⁿ, e.g. 羊 iaûⁿ, 丈 tiaūⁿ, 想 siaūⁿ;
  • The adoption of pronunciations from Teochew: e.g. 我 (Zhangzhou: góa), 我儂 uang, 汝儂 luang, 伊儂 iang (Zhangzhou and Amoy: 阮 gún / góan, 恁 lín, [亻因] in)
  • The adoption of Amoy and Quanzhou pronunciations like 否勢 pháiⁿ-sè (Zhangzhou: bái / pháiⁿ-sì), 百 pȧh (Zhangzhou: pε̇h), etc.
  • The use of unique variants such as 何物 (甚麼/甚物) háⁿ-mıˈh (Longhai: áⁿ-mıˈh; Zhangzhou: sáⁿ-mıˈh or siáⁿ-mıˈh).

Borrowed words[2]


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
  • 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 Taiwanese as mena and 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: please
  • 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 bέ-chhia, "horse-cart")
  • bihun (米粉 bí-hún, "rice vermicelli")
  • Jepun (日本 jıˈt-pún, "Japan")
  • loteng (attic; originally 樓頂 laû-téng, "upstairs")
  • kicap (sauce; originally 鮭汁 kê-chiap, "fish sauce")
  • kongsi (to share; originally 公司 kong-si, "company/firm/clan association")
  • kuaci (瓜子 koa-chí, "edible watermelon seeds")
  • kuetiau (粿條 kóe-tiaû, "flat rice noodle")
  • kuih (粿 kóe, "rice-flour cake")
  • mi (麵 , noodles),
  • sinseh (先生 sin-sεⁿ, "traditional Chinese doctor")
  • tauhu (豆腐 taū-hū, "tofu")
  • tauke (頭家 thaû-kε, "boss")
  • teh (茶 tε̂, "tea")
  • teko (茶鈷 tε̂-kớ, "teapot")
  • Tionghua (中華 tiong-hôa, "China/Chinese")
  • jambu: (蓮霧) rose apple/champoo
  • "tukang" 廚工
  • "kuli" 苦力 cheap labor


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.

See also

Further reading

  • , bound with


  1. ^ "Penang Hokkien Tones"
  2. ^

External links

  • Holopedia - WorldHeritage in Peh-oe-ji
  • Online Hokkien Forum (in English)
  • Listen to Penang Hokkien conversations at Penang Hokkien Podcast.
  • Penang Hokkien - English Dictionary
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