Manipuri and Chinese Language(s): Cantonese Connection?

James Oinam *

In response to my article "On Probable Origin of the Letter 'Atiya'", a Chinese-Australian Vincent Chen, who has command over major languages of China, e-mailed me to highlight similarities between Chinese languages, particularly Hakka, Cantonese, and Chaozhou, and Meetei/Meitei language (hereafter Manipuri). A series of to and fro e-mails began.

I am reproducing parts of the messages as I feel they might be of general interest. Instead of a Chinese language (with a lot of dialects), many people feel that saying Chinese languages (in plural) would be closer to the truth. What is generally referred to as Chinese language is basically Mandarin. Although the written form binds them together, they are quite different to be called dialects.

First, I am reproducing two of his mails below:

Mail 1: I saw your article on the website ( Probable Origin of the Letter 'Atiya'

I saw Meitei in other articles. I made the following Chinese comments: (I explained that I speak Chinese Hakka, and also speak Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese)

Meiteilon中只有四个描述性的亲属术语。它们是:1。Ima(阿妈)'mother' 2. Ipa(阿爸)'father' 3。Iku(阿公或者是阿舅)Grandfather or mother's brother / ikubok(阿公婆或者是阿舅婆) grand mather or mother's brother's wife,4。inem / inembok'婆婆'(Inem和中国广东省兴宁客家话叫"阿nem"相近,'inembok''也就是"阿nem婆"奶奶的意思,nem是奶的意思。)

There are only four descriptive relative terms in Meiteilon. They are: 1. Ima (mother) 'mother' 2. Ipa (a father) 'father' 3. Iku (阿公或者是阿舅)Grandfather or mother's brother) / ikubok (阿公婆或者是阿舅婆) grand mather or mother's brother's wife. 4. Inem / inembok 'mother' (Inem and Xingning, Guangdong, China Hakka dialect "Anem" is similar, 'inembok'' is also "Anem Po" mean grandmather。

Mail 2:

"There are 7 major language groups in China's current Han nationality. Hakka, Cantonese, Chaozhou language and common Mandarin are arranged in the same order. In addition, there are 55 other ethnic groups in China and another 55 languages. I believe that your language is an independent language, but I guess there are some things in common between our languages. This is where I am interested.

In addition, I also guess that your language may be one of the languages of ancient China. ... Because the national culture around you is quite different from yours [ours], I see that there are some cultural differences between us. As both sides like dragons and so on. The culture of both of us has developed for few thousands of years, even if it used to be in the same place. As in China in Guangdong Province, people speak three languages used to come from same place of central China's Henan, but now everyone still speaking different languages, but we were able to find the same thing in the different language at same Province."

The above mails brought back my interest in Manipuri language. In my other article on this website, I have highlighted the similarities between the numbers among languages belonging to the same language families (Situating Manipuri in Proto-Sino-Tibetan Family).

So I started digging the YouTube again to see how the three languages mentioned by Vincent Chen pronounce the numbers one to ten, and here is what I have found. (Search for 'Chaozhou' numbers gave results for 'Teochew' numbers on YouTube. So I used Teochew instead.

Vincent Chen wrote this for Teochew: 'In addition, Teochew comes from Fujian Minnan dialect. Fujian also has different languages, but Minnan dialect is the representative of Fujian dialect and is the same as Taiwanese Minnan dialect (Taiwanese). Usually called Hokkien.')

I found that in all the three languages, number 8 has sounds comparable to Manipuri word for eight, 'nipan'. (Although in the images, we see them spelt with the letter 'b', but curiously they have 'p' sound.)

 Learn Cantonese
 Learn Cantonese
 Learn Cantonese

Teochew words for 5 and 6 are comparable to Manipuri words for them, manga and taruk.

Largest 'hits' can be seen in Cantonese. The words for 2, 5 and 6 are a lot similar to Manipuri words, ani, manga and taruk. Not only that, the YouTube video for Cantonese numbers brought up two Cantonese/Chinese words that are uncannily similar to Manipuri words.

According to the YouTuber, the Cantonese word for 'junk food' is 'leigh-shae/jae' (zero-eat). The word 'shae/jae' (for to eat) sounds pretty similar to Manipuri word 'chai/chaba' (to eat).

I pointed out this to Vincent Chen. In a reply mail, he corrected me. Below is his mail:

You gave me the picture, I watched it from YouTube and found that she has an error. The Cantonese said that there was no eaten. The answer was not "0食" (Lin Si), is"未食"(mai si),"未"(mei)是 "still no yet" , "snacks" (not 0 food), "not eaten", "not" was "still no yet" , correct word are"零食"(lin si) (meaning "between-meal nibbles, snacks"), not "junk food" .... Her Cantonese is good, but she make the mistakes above. Chinese have "未食"(mei si) "still no eat", "零食"(lin si) (meaning "between-meal nibbles, snacks"), don't use "0食" (Lin Si).

According to the Cantonese number YouTuber, in Chinese culture, the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds like the Chinese (Cantonese) word for death, 'Sei' (stressed towards the end). The word is similar to Manipuri word 'shi/shiba' (to die). Vincent Chen pointed out two more words (sword and spear) that are similar as below:

Sword in Ancient China--棠溪Tangxī (Mandarin pronunciation): Ancient sword, also known as the sword. 溪Xi(The "brook"), so you can call it directly 棠Tang (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka is basically the same for this word). The Chinese are now called swords is 剑(Jian), not to be called棠(tang), but the traces of history are still there:

Spear in Ancient Chinese ----- -锬---Tan (Mandarin)---Ancient weapons, is Long spears.

One may note that words like to eat or to die were probably some of the earliest words to be invented because they are of common/natural occurrence, in contrast to man-made and hence of a later period. (For example, early men must have eaten regularly or seen someone die long before say the word 'letter/mail' was needed in their vocabulary. It is little wonder that the word for mother is so similar across languages and even language families-Latin 'mater' and Hindi 'mata' for instance.)

Also, recent archaeological finds in Germany are indicating that battles with swords, spears and horses probably even took place during the Bronze Age ('Europe's Earliest Battle?- The Mystery of the Tollense Valley', History Time, YouTube). My point is if Chinese and Manipuri words for e-mail (later invention) sound the same, it may not indicate any interchange between the languages in the ancient past. But if words that were probably invented long time ago in history sound the same, it may point to a shared language history.


Words mutate and grammar and usage change with time when separated into geographical (and political?) spaces. In looking for similarity, one might notice that Chinese words are mostly single syllable whereas Manipuri words have more than one. But in Manipuri, one 'root' syllable is important and the additional syllable helps with the tense or to help it connect with other words in the sentence.

For example, in the word 'chaba', 'ba' can be changed to 're' ('chare') to indicate past. However, the root syllable 'cha' is similar to 'shae/jae' as noted above. Chinese is a tonal language and various kinds of stress are used to make different words. That might be one reason why Manipuri words need to have more syllables to create different words. For example, without stress the number 4 and word for death will become indistinguishable.


Learn Cantonese - 0-10:
How to count to 10 in Chinese Hakka:
Learn about number one to ten in Teochew language:

* James Oinam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on July 11, 2019.

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