“Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” Song by The Police or Cantonese tongue twister?

Nine plastic dogs is enough!

Since Chinese New Year, I’ve been studying Cantonese with a small group of beginners. Our class consists of a few Brits, a few Dutch, a token American (me) and a token Beijinger.

As our instructor has guided us through a check-list of basic topics — taxi directions, food, shopping, family relationships, the weather, colors, etc. — the more distractible and deviant members of the group have slowly collected enough Cantonese homonyms to devise a mini-tongue twister:

九個膠狗够嘅 !

“九個膠狗够嘅 !” is pronounced like this in Cantonese: “Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” (with Jyupting tone markings: gau2 go3 gaau1 gau2 gau3 ge3). The meaning of this tongue twister is: Nine plastic dogs are enough!

Sticklers, please forgive us, we’ve picked a generic and imprecise measure word for “dog” but we did it in keeping with the spirit of the tongue twister’s “g” sound. Are there other errors? Please let me know!

This side-game has firmly stuck six Cantonese words in my mind and (I think) helped me to understand one Cantonese final particle — ge — more clearly.

Here is another Cantonese tongue twister that fills in a few more Canto vocab blanks: Go go go go gou gwo go go go go (click through for Youtube video).

Neither of these short sentences, however, can match the famous Classical Chinese tongue twister, “Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” which uses the sound “shi” and only the sound “shi” (with varying tones) for 10 straight lines of poetry.


 “Shī Shì shí shī shǐ”

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
“Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den”
In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

Do you study languages? Any great tongue-twisters or word games to share? Do you think The Police tune, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” was really just a secret Cantonese tongue twister?

Related posts:

My Cantonese is improving thanks to the NRA
My accidental Chinese language partner, the telemarketer
Getting into language character, or: I’ll wear a half-shirt if it will help my Chinese
Mini-bus language angst. To speak or not to speak…in Cantonese.
Milestones in a Foreign Language: “I went from talking like an evil baby to talking like a hillbilly”
Language Fails. My own failures of communication in French, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.
China’s Pearl River Delta = Woe for the Chinese Language Student

24 responses to ““Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” Song by The Police or Cantonese tongue twister?

    • I still not sure who has it harder: you Russian students have to figure out all sorts of conjugations and genders that we can completely ignore.

  1. I’m risking disclosure of my age with a tongue twister (actually, it isn’t – it’s a wag) from the 1970s:

    ICUC (I see, you see)
    UCIC (you see, I see)
    I no C, U no C

    ICAC = Interruption of Chinese Ancient Customs

    Protip: Don’t say this to older ICAC officers – they’d get seriously upset with this (because they know the back story).

  2. You impress me. A friend of mine who’s been living in HK for about six years is taking a class like that. Seems like she’s made quite a bit of progress. I dated a guy in HK while I was there (thought we could work in the long run, but alas…), and listening to him talk and then switch to English amazed me. I got very much used to the sounds of Canto, but never found a way to make them myself. The grammar is so different…

    Anyway, you go girl!

    • Don’t be too impressed. I can tell the taxi driver to go straight, turn left, turn right, stop, and also amuse him with two Cantonese tongue twisters.

      • That’s about what I used to be able to do in Mandarin in Taiwan. Lol. And then I moved to Hong Kong and gave up. 😛

  3. I would never think to learn tongue twisters as part of learning languages, but I guess it’s a good way to understand the language and intonations deeply. My dad loves to listen to 相聲,which is like two people having a comic dialogue (think, “Who’s on first?”) Those guys love doing tongue twisters, like


    Monks carry soup up the Buddhist pagoda,
    the pagoda was slippery, and the soup spilled everywhere, scorching the Buddhist pagoda

    that’s one of my favorites – short and sweet…and you have to admit, there aren’t many tongue twisters with monks in them. Amaze and stupefy your friends!

    • I don’t know how much it helps in language study (especially since I can barely say anything of value in Cantonese), but it is a fun distraction.

      I can just picture you and your Dad sitting around the computer looking up 相聲 on Youtube right now. A cosy evening in Taiwan? 😉

      Thanks for sharing another good tongue twister. I’ve converted to pinyin to help me (and others) remember the tones:

      hé shàng duān tāng shàng tă
      tă huá tāng sā tāng tàng tă

      • I used tongue twisters a lot when I taught ESL. It helped students hear the difference in sounds (Spaniards have a hard time with “-ih” and “-ee” pronouncing “shit” and “sheet” the same) and learn to move their mouths to the correct positions. It was also greatly amusing to me. Having people pecking peppers, selling sea shells down by the sea shore or telling me about woodchucks chucking kept me smiling on many a long day.

  4. This is indeed very funny, especially the way you tell it. I’m often amazed by you laowai’s seemingly unlikely ability to crack Chinese humor (or tongue twister). For instance, that “Shī Shì shí shī shǐ” “poetry” is hard even for a Chinese to comprehend let alone laowai with casual language experience. I often wonder if Chinese language is really that difficult as it appears, or perhaps it’s only difficult for Chinese but not for laowai?

    • You are far too kind. There is no doubt that Chinese is a very tricky nut to crack! As for tongue twisters and the “Shi poem,” foreigners might find them even more entertaining than Chinese natives because they “shine a light” on how many complex sounds and tones there are to master.

  5. I think the Shi poem would pose more of a challenge for Mandarin speakers (and listeners) since all the words are phonetically similar with subtle tonal shift in between when spoken in Mandarin. In Cantonese some of the same words sound quite different phonetically and therefore can be more easily identified.

    Furthermore the poem was written in old classical literary form where sentences were usually condensed with few words which make it even more difficult to comprehend verbally. This would no doubt stump even native speakers.

  6. This is insane. I’ve heard of the shi tongue twister, but you’ve made up your own twister in Cantonese! Impressive! And all I can say to that is “Gah!”

  7. Pingback: Will the real Chinese Tongue-twister please stand up? | sim-family.net·

  8. Hello there!
    I can’t believe I only discovered your blog now!
    This post made me laugh because I love The Police and still struggle with the Cantonese tones.
    Let me go say this tongue twister to my husband and see if he understands!

    nifftypiffty.wordpress.com | life in Hong Kong is pretty nifty

    • After a two year Canto hiatus (one year spent on Mandarin in anticipation of a move to Shanghai and another year spent on a surprise move to Netherlands…both long stories) I am back studying again. Glad we’ve connected!

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