The letters page of the SCMP is currently running a debate about the pronounciation of the Cantonese word for "year", following on from the way that it was written in English in SCMP's centenary edition.
Natasha Rogai ("Linguistic tide", November 17) and Hugh Tyrwhitt-Drake ("Linguistic tyranny", November 19) are wrong to have claimed that no one nowadays in Hong Kong would pronounce the word "year" in Cantonese as nin. Such a pronunciation is, as far as I can observe, still very much prevalent in the local Cantonese-speaking community.
The difference between "n" and "l" in the pronunciation of certain Cantonese words is actually one of the salient features of the language, being used to differentiate between many different words.
If these two have really never encountered the word "year" spoken correctly in Cantonese as nin, I suggest that they tune into the local television and radio stations during Chinese New Year. They will hear it said hundreds of times during the festive period.
One of the many challenges facing foreigners who try to learn Cantonese is how to remember the pronounciation of the various Chinese characters. There are many different systems for Romanization (as it's called) and none of them are foolproof, in part because many of the distinctive sounds from Cantonese are impossible to represent accurately. In fact, the initial consonant in many of these "words" is virtually silent, meaning that it hardly matters whether it is represented by an 'l' or an 'n'.
For example, the Chinese word for "you" is traditionally represented as 'neih', but these days it is common to hear it pronounced as 'leih'. However, many Cantonese speakers will not acknowledge that there is any difference between 'leih' and 'neih' and may even switch between the two pronounciations!!
Try using the romanized form of most Hong Kong place names and a Cantonese speaker won't understand what you're saying. We also have the absurdity of announcements on the MTR and KCR in English and Cantonese even when the place names are Chinese - so the English version is Wan Chai, and the English is something more like "Wan Ji". On the KCR the last station before the China border is Sheung Shui in English and "Song Soy" in Cantonese.
Listening to visitors trying to say "Tsim Sha Tsui" can be excruciating, but that's because they are trying to pronounce it as if it were an English word. If you listen to a local, it's more like "Jim Sa Joy", but you'd be unlikely to guess that from the 'English' name.
Then there is Mong Kok. Apparently the first part of the Chinese name was changed from Mong (busy) to Wong (prosperous) but they left the English name the same, so a Cantonese speaker calls it something like "Wong Gok".
There's more - when I first took Cantonese lessons, I had the misfortune to have a very old-fashioned teacher who insisted on speaking the language "correctly" rather than following common usage. This included teached us that 3.15 was "saam dim yat go gwat" (literally one quarter past three) whereas today almost everyone would say "saam dim saam".
And I haven't even mentioned tones...
I'm afraid I'm still a long, long, way from being fluent in Cantonese.