Not Quite As Easy As ABC

How do you address your mother in Teochew?

Ma-Ma (媽媽) or Ah-Ma (亞媽)? If you are slight older, perhaps Ah-Bho (亞母), Bho-Cing (母親), Lao-Bho (老母), Ah-Ai (亞嬡), Ah-Ne (亞姈), Ah-Ni (亞妮) or Ah-Nie (亞娘)?

We know of some who call their mother Ah-Yee (亞姨)—reportedly out of superstition, but this has been disputed—and have also learned that other aunt equivalent terms, such as Ah-M (亞姆), Ah-Sim (亞嬸), Ah-Gim (亞妗) and Ah-Gou (亞姑), are used as well. Less commonly, some Teochews even call their mother Ah-Ze (亞姐), meaning elder sister.

Entry on "mother" in Vocabulary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Swatow  (1883) by William Duffus.


Finding the proper Teochew terms to help 3-year-olds pick up a basic vocabulary in the language is surely as easy as ABC. This was what we told ourselves when we set out to create Wa Si Teochew Kia—My First 120 Teochew Expressions Multimedia Flashcards 精选一百二十潮语词语》- 多媒体早教图卡), a set of educational flashcards with animated videos developed specially for babies and toddlers to learn their mother tongue together with their parents. But from the numerous ways we call “mother”, we realised that there is more to ponder over than expected.  

To keep our flashcards simple, we decided to display only Ah-Bho (亞母) and Ah-Ma (亞媽), but we do encourage you to teach your children the terms your family is most comfortable with.

Our project was realised through the generous funding of more than 100 backers from 14 different countries on Kickstarter last year. When we created a sample video for our Kickstarter campaign, we used Ong An (擁伢) as the expression for baby. It is spoken by many elders in Singapore and mimics the cries of an infant. It also conforms to a pattern in the Teochew language of converting sound words into the nouns of living things, such as Ghu (牛) for cow, Gao (狗) for dog and Ngiou (猫) for cat. However, a friend from the UK reflected that she had never heard of Ong An. After reconsidering and researching the dictionaries, we added the term Eng Ji (嬰兒), which we initially wrongly assumed to be an expression derived from Mandarin.

It was the opposite when a Kickstarter backer in Canada alerted us after he received his flashcards that the term we had for doll, Wa-Wa (娃娃), was not authentic Teochew and the correct expression is Ang-Kia (翁仔). This had us scratching our heads for a while as Wawa is commonly spoken in Swatow, at least in current times. Apparently, we had a case of “infiltration” from Mandarin that we had not realised. We will make the appropriate amendment when the opportunity comes to make a second print.

Owing to the rise of mass schooling and the imposition of Mandarin as the “national” language of the Chinese people, the Teochew language has inevitably been subjected to change as we absorb more and more words and phrases from the former into our vocabulary. But when does a loanword become our own, so to speak?

This sparked a little “heated” argument within our team when we had to choose whether to include the expression Ge-Ciu (舉手) for the basic action, “raise hand”, with knowledge that the actual Teochew expression is Ki-Ciu (起手). Ge-Ciu is now widely spoken by the younger generations of Teochews in “motherland”, but is this enough to qualify it as Teochew?  This is debatable. In the end, a decision was made to exclude it on the basis that its adoption into the Teochew speech is fairly recent and is limited to mainland China. Choosing otherwise may compel us to replace what our forefathers have spoken for generations with rather awkward-sounding terms of Mandarin origin being used in China, such as Ya-Ya (爷爷) for grandfather, Mang-Gue (芒果) for mango, Zo-Chiu (左手) for left-hand and Iu-Chiu (右手) for right-hand. Ki-Ciu, if you agree!

Some people may be puzzled by our display of the term Lo-Dih (羅蒂)—from the Indian loanword roti—for bread, alongside Mi-Bao (麵包). In this instance, we included Lo-Dih because it, firstly, refers to an item of non-Teochew origin, this is to say it does not replace a Teochew expression. Secondly, it has practical usage as it is spoken in daily life for communication with non-Teochews in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

For the same consideration, our flashcards have for soap, Sab-Bhung (雪文), which comes from Arabic sabun (صابون) as well as its Malay, Indonesian, Thai and Khmer variants, even though there is a Teochew equivalent, Bia-Ioh(餅藥). Curiously, the Handbook of the Swatow Vernacular compiled by Lim Hiong Seng of Singapore in 1886 stated that Bia-Ioh (written here as 丙藥) was the name of a kind of Chinese soap, whereas foreign soap was called, not Sab-Bhung, but Huan-Káng (番港), which appears to have fallen out of use.

The Chinese character Huan (番) can be an adjective to describe things that are “foreign” (i.e. non-Chinese), although it may also apply in a narrow sense to only Southeast Asia. However, we are mystified as to why soap was called Káng (港), which means “port”, “harbour” or “river tributary”? Lim Hiong Seng could have used the wrong Chinese character, but if you have the answer, do drop us a comment!

Here’s another fun fact we learned: balloons are not only called Ki-Giu (氣球, literally “gas ball”) in Teochew,  just like Mandarin, but also Goi-Gui (雞胿), which is the chicken crop. For the uninformed, this is an organ of the chicken that acts like a storage sack that holds its feed before the feed is slowly released to the gizzard. As you might guess, it inflates and deflates, like a balloon.

Through the course of conceptualising our flashcards and videos, another issue that we encountered was the need to strike a balance between our desire to teach as much as possible and to ensure their design keeps with the way children like to learn.

We were asked on several occasions if we could include Peng'im (or Pinyin, i.e. romanisation) in the flashcards and videos. This was something we thought about, but decided against for a few reasons. For one, we did not want a visual clutter on our cards that already display written English, Teochew and Mandarin. Secondly, there isn’t a Teochew romanisation system that is widely in use or universally accepted. Teochew dictionaries written in China in recent years adopt a standard developed by the Guangdong Provincial Education Department in 1960, but its phonic sounds differ from English and Mandarin Pinyin and this creates a burden for parents and children to learn even more things.

Thirdly, many Teochew words and expressions have varied pronunciations due to regional differentiation. Teaching through Peng’im will inevitably and artificially impose a standard pronunciation, which threats the richness of our language. We strongly believe there is a need to respect and preserve the equal right of every Teochew to speak our mother tongue the way his/her family has always done so.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we are convinced that the most natural and effective way for any person to pick up a language is through repeated listening and speaking. Simply observe how the young children around you. No child learns to speak his first words through reading. We dare say even into adulthood, 99% of fluent Teochew speakers do not know Peng'im at all.

Wa Si Teochew Kia—My First 120 Teochew Expressions is The Teochew Store’s first in-house product, and as far as we know, the only one in the market for helping little ones in our global Teochew community learn to speak Teochew. If you have any idea or suggestion of how to make it better, do contact us to let us know.

To purchase Wa Si Teochew Kia—My First 120 Teochew Expressions, please click here.

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