“Hey you, long time no see!” 好耐無見 (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3)! You’ve probably been on the receiving end of this phrase numerous times while bumping into friends in Hong Kong. You might have even thrown it around yourself when meeting up with friends that you know you should have emailed, Facebooked or WhatsApped earlier. It is one of the rare phrases that transitions seamlessly from English to Cantonese and back. One of the only expressions that means exactly the same thing in both languages, word for word. There is no “lost in translation” here.
好耐 – long time ; 無 – not have ; 見 – see
Where did this clear and explicit expression come from? There are two theories on how it was incorporated into the English language; one is partial to a Native American influence on American slang and suggests a Pidgin English influence from the British Far East, which is to say Hong Kong. We may be slightly biased, but there seems to be more evidence supporting the latter pidgin claims.
A stickler for English grammar may dismiss “long time no see” as an incorrect phrase, but in Cantonese it makes perfect sense. Linguists call it a calque – a word or phrase in a language formed by a word-for-word translation of a word in another language. In this case, the translation is from Cantonese to English.
The term has been traced back to the early 1900s by lexicographer Eric Partridge, who in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American shows how members of the British Navy picked it up from Chinese people they interacted with. Even though we now seem to say it without thinking twice, the earliest written forms of “long time no see” in English were by native speakers reporting the speech of non-native speakers. At a time when the British Empire was at its most powerful, not only did British rule influence the culture and practices of the colonies they captured and built, but the English literature produced at the time was heavily imprinted with patterns picked up from afar.
An excerpt from a US Navy publication at the time includes a letter quoting, “Then Ah Sam, ancient Chinese tailor, familiarly known as ‘Cocky,’ after taking one good look at the lieutenant said, ‘Ah, Lidah, you belong my velly good flend. Long time no see you handsome faceey.” About a hundred years later, this tailor still sounds familiar.
From Cantonese to Pidgin English to Chinglish and back, you are just as likely to hear this adopted Canto phrase in an rendition of James Bond 007 as you are to hear it from your local butcher at the wet market – 好耐冇見 woh 靚女! (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3 woh leng3 neoi2)! “Long time no see, pretty girl!” Which probably means you haven’t been buying enough pork recently.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.