Introduction to Hong Kong English

Introduction to Hong Kong English

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, and a de facto city state of some 7 million people, located on the coast of Guangdong province in Southern China. Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 until 1997, at which time the People’s Republic of China re-established sovereignty over the Hong Kong territories, which include Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon peninsula, and the New Territories. 

For much of the colonial era, knowledge of English in the territory was largely restricted to the British colonialists and an educated Chinese elite class, but since the 1960s, knowledge of English has spread throughout the community. In the 2011 Census, some 46% of the population claimed to speak English to varying degrees of proficiency, although, of these, the vast majority are Hong Kong Chinese who speak English as a second language. The history of Hong Kong English can be traced back to the use of Chinese pidgin English, or ‘Canton English’ as it was called. This was a trading pidgin, that is, a simplified form of ‘business’ English mixed with Chinese, which was used as a lingua franca in the port of Guangzhou (Canton) in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Vocabulary

The vocabulary of Hong Kong English has a number of layers, both historical and contemporary. For historical vocabulary, there are words that can be traced to Britain’s early colonization of South and Southeast Asia, with words and expressions imported from India and Malaya. Here are some examples:

  • amah, n. (from Portuguese, first attested 1832) – a wet nurse; a nanny; a female house servant.
  • chit, n. (from Hindi, 1698) – a note or letter.
  • chop, n. (from Hindi, 1614) – a seal or the impression of a seal; an official impress or stamp.
  • godown, n.1 (from Malay, 1588) – a warehouse or other place for storing goods.
  • shroff, n. (from Arabic, 1618) – a banker or money-changer; later also a cashier or a cashier’s office or payment booth, especially at a car park.

Other historical items were derived from Chinese, including:

  • hong, n.(1830) – a foreign company trading in China; later also any successful East Asian company, esp. in Hong Kong.
  • taipan, n. (1834) – a foreign merchant or businessman in China.

In contemporary Hong Kong English, we find a sizeable subset of words borrowed from Cantonese as phonetic loans. Here are some examples:

  • char siu, n. (1952) – in Cantonese cookery: roast pork marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce, typically served sliced into thin strips.
  • daai paai dong, n. (1983) – traditional licensed street stall, typically with a small seating area, selling cooked food at low prices; (now more generally) any food stall of this type.
  • dim sum, n. (1945) – a savoury Cantonese-style snack; a meal consisting of these.
  • kaifong, n. (1857) – an association formed to promote and protect the interests of a neighbourhood.
  • siu mei, n. (1960) – in Cantonese cookery: marinated meat roasted on a spit over an open fire or in a wood-burning rotisserie oven.
  • yum cha, n. (1936) – a meal eaten in the morning or early afternoon, typically consisting of dim sum and hot tea.

Recently, a new variety of contemporary Hong Kong slang has gained attention in the Hong Kong media, and is referred to as Kongish. This is essentially a ‘mixed’ language drawing on both Cantonese and English, or playing with the Hong Kong accent or non-standard grammar for humorous effect. For example:

  • chi sin (from Cantonese) – crazy, silly
  • ho hoi sum (from Cantonese) –   very happy
  • same on you! (representing a pronunciation variant of shame) – shame on you
  • you’re the goodest (non-standard comparative form of adjective) – you’re the best

Interestingly, although Kongish has been presented as something new and rather revolutionary, the use of hybrid Chinese English phrases can be traced back to the beginnings of language and cultural contact between English speakers and Chinese in Canton in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Grammar

Many of the grammatical features of Hong Kong English are related to influence of Cantonese, which does not have verb conjugations or have plural forms for nouns (i.e. the plural and singular form are the same, unlike English). The following grammatical features are characteristic of the speech of Hong Kong Chinese speakers of English:

Missing third person singular –s conjugation

  • He say it is a small problem.
  • She just think the computer is a toy.
  • The student do not have much pressure.

Lack of to be verb

  • I (am) afraid of ghost films.
  • The next morning they (are) still not back.
  • If you (are) alone you feel lonely.

Lack of -ed suffix for past tense

  • I talk with them yesterday.
  • He called me and ask me if I wanted a job.
  • Last year I stay in their home for eight days.

Distinctive multi-word verbs

  • He returned back to the office.
  • He listed out three reasons.
  • They discussed about the presentation.

Double subjects

  • All the people they don’t like the pollution.
  • This man he always come to this restaurant.
  • Those women they’re always complaining.

Use of singular for plural

  • There were many flag on the building.
  • The shop had to buy many supply.
  • I like all my classmate at school.

Mass nouns used as countable nouns

  • The pilot study asked for feedbacks.
  • He gave us some general informations about Hong Kong.
  • He asked for some advices.

These grammatical features are not uncommon, although it should be emphasized that the extent to which such forms are used by individual speakers depends on a variety of factors including education, linguistic proficiency, context, and style of speech.

Pronunciation

View the OED’s pronunciation model and key to pronunciation for Hong Kong English.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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