Penang Hokkien

Penang Hokkien
槟城福建话 (Chinese)
Pin-siâⁿ Hok-kiàn-oā (POJ)
Hokkien Pulau Pinang (Malay)
Native to Malaysia
Region Penang, parts of Kedah, Perak and Perlis
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None
Linguasphere 79-AAA-jek

Penang Hokkien (simplified Chinese: 槟城福建话; traditional Chinese: 檳城福建話) 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 borrowed 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.

It is predominantly a spoken dialect: it is rarely written in Chinese characters, and there is no standard romanisation.



VoicelessVoicedVoicelessVoicedVoicelessVoicedVoicelessVoicedVoicelessVoiced VoicelessVoicedVoiceless
Nasal [m]
麵 (mi)
爛 (nua)
藕 (ngau)
StopUnaspirated [p]
比 (pi)
米 (bi)
大 (tua)
教 (kau)
𠢕 (gau)
影 (ʔia)
Aspirated []
脾 (phi)
拖 (thua)
扣 (khau)
AffricateUnaspirated [ts]
姊 (tsi)
Aspirated [tsʰ]
飼 (tshi)
Fricative [f]
時 (si)
字 (ji)
喜 (hi)
Lateral [l]
賴 (lua)
Approximant [ɹ]
Labialized [w]


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]
Level (平) 1頂平 téng-pε̂ⁿ[am˦˦](44)am5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)àm7下去 ε̄-khì[am˨˩](21)ām
Entering (入) 4頂入 téng-jıˈp[ap˨](2)ap8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.

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, [˨˩] (21).

↑ (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.[3]

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 bέ / 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-tn̂g
  • in certain set phrases, e.g. 差不多 chha-put-to rather than *chhɛ-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 -ɛ and -ɛⁿ where Amoy has -e and -iⁿ, e.g. 家 kɛ, 蝦 hε̂, 生 sɛⁿ;
  • The use of -oe where Amoy has -e and vice versa, e.g. 火 hóe, 未 bōe, 地 tē, 細 sè;
  • 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 mix of -iang and -iong in some words 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: bê), 先生 sin-sɛⁿ (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 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 lú, 豬 tu, 魚 hû, etc., where Zhangzhou has lí, ti and hî. 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 wá (Zhangzhou: góa), 我人 wang, 汝人 luang, 伊人 iang (Zhangzhou and Amoy: 阮 gún / góan, 恁 lín, 因 in)
  • The adoption of Amoy and Quanzhou pronunciations like 歹勢 pháiⁿ-sè (Zhangzhou: bái / pháiⁿ-sì), 百 pah (Zhangzhou: pε̇h), etc.

Borrowed words[4]


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 ( can be used 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 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 mī, noodles),
  • sinseh (先生 sin-sɛⁿ, "literally translates to "mister",commonly refers to a traditional Chinese doctor
  • tauhu (豆腐 taū-hū, "tofu")
  • tauke (頭家 thaû-kɛ, "boss")
  • teh (茶 tε̂, "tea")
  • teko (茶鈷 tε̂-kớ, "teapot")
  • Tionghua (中華 Tiong-hôa, "China/Chinese")
  • tukang (廚工)


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.[5] 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

Further reading

  • 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. 


  1. "Dialects and Languages in Numbers". Dialects and Languages in Numbers,. Retrieved 2017-05-05.
  3. "Penang Hokkien Tones"
  4. de Gijzel, Luc (2009). English-Penang Hokkien Pocket Dictionary. George Town, Penang: Areca Books. ISBN 978-983-44646-0-8.
  5. Loh, Arnold. "Shooting to begin for first Penang Hokkien film - Nation | The Star Online". Retrieved 2017-05-06.
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