Handbook of the Swatow Vernacular

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Handbook of the Swatow Vernacular  (1886) 
by Lim Hiong Seng

Known to Chinese researchers as 《汕頭話讀本》.

於此基之矣爰為之誌 潮州林雄成著集












All Rights Reserved.


Introductory, Lesson I-III 1-6
A List of Introductory Verbs, Lesson IV 006
Exercises, Lesson V 014
A List of Introductory Adjectives, Lesson VI 020
Exercises, Lesson VII 026
Numeral, Lesson VIII 037
Tones, Hyphens, Lesson IX 040
Grammar, Lesson X 042
Time generally, Lesson XI 049
A Building &c, Lesson XII 053
Human Body &c, Lesson XIII 060
Household Furniture &c, Lesson XIV 065
Garden, Lesson XV 080
A List of Words used in Cooking, Lesson XVI 083
Provisions, Fish, Vegetable and Fruit, Lesson XVII 086
On Dress, Lesson XVIII 099
Nautical, Lesson XIX 102
Medical, Lesson XX 108
Commercial, Lesson XXI 114
Commercial, Piece-goods, Lesson XXI 114
Commercial, Mineral &c, Lesson XXI 116
Commercial, Miscellaneous Articles, Lesson XXI 117
Commercial, Carpentry, Lesson XXI 121
Commercial, Tailoring, Lesson XXI 122
Commercial, Accounts, Lesson XXI 124
Commercial, Monetary, Lesson XXI 126
Commercial, A List of Words Used in Commerce, Lesson XXI 129
Commercial, Weights and Measures, Lesson XXI 135
Judicial, Lesson XXII 137
Hostilities, Lesson XXIII 143
Religious, Lesson XXIV 145
Relationships, Lesson XXV 146
A List of Animals and Birds, Lesson XXVI 154
A List of Classifiers, Lesson XXVII 157
Notes—Nautical, Lesson XXVIII 159
Notes—Medical, Lesson XXIX 161
Notes—Commercial, Lesson XXX 163
Notes—Judicial, Lesson XXXI 165
Notes—Hostilities, Lesson XXII 167
Notes—Religious, Lesson XXIII 168
A Dictionary of some of the more important words in the Swatow dialect.


The present work differs in one respect from all other works on the Swatow language previously published, as it has been compiled by one to whom it is a mother tongue and who has learned English, instead of by a European who has learned Chinese, so that it has been possible to confine the sentences strictly to the colloquial form. It is almost impossible for a European to compile any such aid so as to be entirely colloquial, because he commences his first study of the language by engaging a Chinese teacher and acquires his knowledge of Chinese principally from that class. These teachers are in the habit of importing into their speech a certain number of “bookish” words, that is, words which are only used in the written language, and are never used in the colloquial, and are not therefore understood by the people in general. To acquire the pure colloquial it is better to start with the early study of the language from another class rather than from a pedant like the teacher class. Learned men indeed add a few polite or pedantic phrases, but these are only used on certain occasions and are mere excrescences.

The chief disadvantage of inserting book words in phrase books is that the student after discovering that a certain number of words given therein when used are not understood by the people, is led to doubt whether some other words used would be understood. Thus the student has to enquire and ascertain those words which may seem to him doubtful before he uses them. Readers of the present work will be able to use every word occurring throughout the whole volume without having any doubt of its being understood.

The following is the system of orthography employed.


a as a in far, never as in man.
e as e in they
i as i in machine, not as in tin, sin.
o as aw in law
u as u in rude
as ü in Trübner


In all the diphthongs each vowel is heard distinctly with its own proper sound.

ai as y in fly
au as ow in cow
oi as oy in boy
ou nearly as ou in four
ua as wa in war
ui as wee in weed


Most of the consonants are pronounced as in English, or very nearly so.

ch—always as in cheese.

g—is always hard.

h—is always pronounced, except when final.

j—always as in judge.

ng—as in king, cut off ki will leave the exact nasal sound of ng.

s—as in song, never as in choose, lose.

z—always as ds or dz; never as in zeal, zone.

k, p, and t,—as final consonants are pronounced without the slightest emission of vocal breath as there usually is in pronouncing English.
m and ng—will be found written without any vowel (e. g. n̂g, m̄, ḿ); often also preceded by a consonant (e. g. sng, hñg, kng) “The nature of these syllables without a distinct vowel becomes at once unmistakable in singing, as at such a word all clear vocal sound at once ceases, and nothing is heard but a dull nasal murmur.

“The Aspirated Consonants are a very remarkable feature in all the languages of China, and require very special attention. They are kh, ph, th, chh, and tsh. The sounds are the same as those indicated by the same notation in the languages of India, being formed by a real distinct aspiration pronounced after the respective consonants………………The sounds are almost the same as those often used by Irishmen when pronouncing with a strong brogue such words as come, pig, &c.; they are also often heard in the mouths of the Scottish Highlanders.

“kh—may be thus described:—Pronounce……………look here! rapidly and clearly, cut off loo- and -re, and you have the Chinese “khi.”

“ph—might be illustrated in a similar manner;—e. g. say loophole very rapidly and sharply, cut off loo- and -le from the two ends, and there remains the Chinese “pho.”

“th—must not be confounded with the English th, which is really a simple sound. The Chinese th is a clear distinct t followed by the aspirate. Thus the Chinese “thau” may be carved out of out-house or hot-house.

“chh—is formed in a similar way from the ch of church. Take such a word as watch-house or coach-house, remove the wa- or coa- from the beginning and the -se from the end, and something very near the Chinese “chhau” remains.[1]

tsh—is almost the same as chh, the slight difference it has is that there is not so much sound of h as in chh.

ch—is not an aspirated consonant as explained above, it is always pronounced as in cheese.
A small ⁿ written above the line at the end of a syllable indicates that the whole syllable becomes nasal.

From the various dialects in the Swatow region that of the Departmental city known as Ch’ao-chow-foo, (or Tie-chiu-hu in this dialect,) has been chosen, although that of the department of Theng Hai is more extensively spoken in Singapore and perhaps in Swatow also. This work makes no pretence of being more than introductory, and the sentences are such as may be heard from the lips of the native in every day use, while the little dictionary attached to it will undoubtedly be found useful. For many English words there are several Chinese colloquial equivalents, and in the little dictionary two or more of these are frequently given. But there are, no doubt, others which have been inadvertently omitted, and in case of doubt as to any word which does not appear, the student will have no difficulty in ascertaining whether the word that is omitted is in common use, as he can enquire from any one who speaks the dialect, however uneducated he may be.

In conclusion the author has to thank the Rev. J. A. B. Cook for aid in bringing out the work.


Singapore, February, 1886.

  1. From Dr. Carstairs Douglas's Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular, which dialect is closely allied to that of Swatow. This admirable work has been an invaluable assistance to students of the Swatow Vernacular.