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How to Say 'Can' and 'Cannot' in Hokkien

There are three main ways to express the idea of 'Can' and 'Cannot' in Hokkien. Each type of expressions carries different meanings, whether it is to express an ability without a technical skill, an ability with a technical skill, or permissibility.

Ē = Can
Bē = Cannot

The most basic way to express the idea of 'can' and 'cannot' in Hokkien is by using ē and . They connote the ability (or lack thereof) to do something, where the ability in context does not involve a technical skill. Check out the following examples.

  • Goa miacai e toi li khi hitai.
    = I can accompany you to the cinema tomorrow.
  • Akong be khun ing-ui i thama epo lim kopi.
    = Grandpa cannot sleep because he drank coffee this afternoon.

Ēhiàu = Knows how to
Bēhiàu = Does not know how to

Ēhiàu and bēhiàu are also used to describe an ability (or lack thereof), where ēhiau is used to express the idea that someone knows how to do something, and bēhiàu is used to express the idea that someone does not.

However, unlike ē and  as described above, ēhiau and bēhiàu are used only when the ability in context involves a technical skill, such as painting, cooking, or doing math problems. Examples:

  • Andy ehiau siuli tiennau.
    = Andy knows how to fix computers.
  • Hakseng behiau co kongkho.
    = The students does not know how to do the homework.

Ēsài = Allowed to
Bēsài = Not allowed to

To express the permissibility of doing something, use ēsài and bēsài. Examples:

  • Lause kong tan goalang khochek ho liau, esai li thatkiu.
    = The teacher says after we finish the exams, we are allowed to play soccer.
  • Goa e tia besai ho wa chut kau thai am.
    = My dad does not allow me to stay out too late.

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