Hong Kong English (traditional Chinese: æ¸¯å¼è±èª, æ¸¯å¼è±æ, é¦æ¸¯è±èª, é¦æ¸¯è±æ) may refer to two different concepts. The first is the variation or dialect of the English language used in Hong Kong. The second concept is the accent and elements as a result of its use by Cantonese speakers. For the first meaning, Hong Kong predominantly uses British spellings. Pronunciations and words are also predominantly British, although influences from American, Canadian and Australian English do exist as a result of large numbers of returnees. But there are also words not from the British Isles, such as 'chop', 'shroff', 'nullah' and 'godown'. These vocabularies are usually of Indian or Malay origins, following expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century. The second meaning, which is also called Cantonese English, in theory, refers to the accent and characteristics of English spoken by native Hong Kongers and other Cantonese speakers. Overall, it is primarily spoken by native Cantonese speakers. Therefore, although it is called as Hong Kong English, it is not only spoken in Hong Kong. People, such as people who come from Macau, Canton (now commonly known as Guangzhou) or those whose first language is Cantonese, speak it. It is often considered, especially by the locals, as the Hong Kong variant of Chinglish. Since many of the 'characteristics' in Hong Kong English are perceived as erroneous, the term is often used by locals as a disparagement rather than to describe a linguistic identity. The majority of Hong Kongers and Macau people with English proficiency tend to follow British English, American English or a mixture of the two.
English is one of the official languages in Hong Kong, and is used widely in the Government, academic circles, business and the courts. All road and government signs are bilingual and English is as equally valid as Chinese on legal and business standings. In contrast to multi-cultural Singapore where English is the first language of 70% of ethnic Chinese and 25% of Malays and Indians, Hong Kong's population is 95% ethnic Chinese and is a predominantly Cantonese-speaking society. Most shops located in districts seldom visited by foreign visitors have signs in Chinese only, and, in locally owned enterprises, written communications are in English with all other work conducted in Chinese.
Under this backdrop, most Hong Kongers regard English as a foreign language, used primarily for formal communications, particularly in writing. There is little exposure to the English language, and this is increasingly the case since the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997. Since that year, the government has been pushing very hard to make sure that government-funded Chinese-as-a-medium-of-instruction (CMI) schools use English only to teach English language as a subject, and not as the medium of instruction for other subjects; English-as-a-medium-of-instruction (EMI) schools are not subjected to such limitation. Only a handful of other government primary and secondary schools are now allowed to use English as the medium of instruction in Hong Kong such as the English Schools Foundation and other international schools. Many independent fee-charging schools continue to use the English as the medium of instruction. An educational reform in 2010 loosened this restriction on CMI schools. Nonetheless, being able to use English with native-level fluency is uncommon.
People with higher education, past experience of living in English-speaking countries, or who constantly interact with Hong Kong's English-speaking expatriate communities, generally speak an acquired form of English. Accent and spelling preference may vary from person to person, depending on the people they have interacted with and the country they have studied in. For most ordinary local Hong Kongers however, the English spoken is generally typical of foreign language learners: Cantonese-influenced pronunciation with some acquired Received Pronunciation characteristics, and with vocabularies and sentence structure generally more formal than those of native speakers. For instance, contractions and slang are not used, and many idioms are alien to Hongkongers as they do not pertain to English-speaking countries' cultures. The falling English proficiency of local English teachers has come under criticism. In response, the Education Bureau has required English teachers without English language undergraduate degrees to submit to an assessment, called "LPAT", to ensure that their English was of sufficiently high calibre. Those failing LPAT are no longer permitted to teach English. Unless hired by the government, even native English speakers were to undergo LPAT screening. Few opted to retire to avoid the LPAT process, while others failed the test.
Voicing of consonants
- Consonants in Cantonese are all voiceless except nasals and semivowels; as a result, [d], [z], and [dÊ'] are pronounced [t] (unaspirated), [s], and [tÊ] (unaspirated).
- There is a tendency for [Î¸] to undergo fronting and become [f], so through may be pronounced as [f(É¹)u], and three may be [f(É¹)i]. However, this is variable, so some speakers pronounce thin as [Î¸Éªn] while others pronounce it as [fin].
- [Ã°] tends to become unaspirated [t], so though is [tou] and there is [tÉ]. This is reported to be very widespread, so this is nearly always [tis], and brother is [Ëb(É¹)ata].
Devoicing of final consonants
- Most people do not distinguish between voiced and voiceless word-final stops, making bat and bad homonyms.
- Some do not distinguish [Ê] and [s]; in Cantonese these sounds are allophonic. This new condition does not appear on nearly all the younger, or even the middle-aged Hongkongers.
- Corruption of /tr/ to /tÊ/ often occurs, chain and train are pronounced both [tÍ¡sÊ°eÌÅ], but some speakers pronounce the word train as [tÍ¡sÊ°weÌÅ].
- Like many places in Britain and the US, Hong Kong English is non-rhotic, which means [É¹] is not pronounced except before a vowel. However, with the influence of American programmes shown in TV, young people in Hong Kong have started to pronounce the [É¹] sound as in General American English.
- Some people pronounce [É¹] as [w], except when followed by a consonant other than g or k; rain sounds like wing, and free like fee.
- Some people pronounce [É¹] as [l] before rounded vowelsÂ ; road sounds like low, room like loom etc.
- "Wh" is pronounced as [w], as in English English and most American dialects (not /hw/ as in Scottish English and some American dialects).
- Many Chinese people cannot pronounce [v] as native English speakers do because the [v] sound has no equivalent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and many other Chinese varieties; but, in the case of other Chinese varieties, such as Wu and Hakka, there is an equivalent of the [v] sound; hence, speakers of those varieties have little difficulty pronouncing this sound. Some people read [v] as [w]. (e.g. "Vector" and "Aston Villa"; "Vince" is read as "Whince"; Louis Vuitton, sounding unfamiliar to Chinese, is universally referred to as "LV", pronounced "E'llo-Wee")
- Other [v] becomes [w] or [f] mostly with a consensus yet no obvious pattern (e.g. [f] in "favour", second [v] in "Volvo" and either [f] or [w] in "develop", depending on the speaker).
- Often [n] is changed to [l]. Many people in Hong Kong, particularly the younger generation, mix up the /n/ and /l/ sounds in English because there is a general trend of merging of /n/ into /l/ in Hong Kong Cantonese. In Cantonese the original correct pronunciation of, for example, å¥³ (Jyutping neoi5) meaning lady/female/woman is /nÉµyË¨Ë§/, but is almost always pronounced /lÉµyË¨Ë§/ in modern Hong Kong usage. Also, the correct pronunciation of ä½ (you) is /neiË¨Ë§/, but most people pronounce /leiË¨Ë§/ in Hong Kong.)
- Nasals in English are stronger than in Cantonese.
- l-vocalisation is common: final "dark" l, *[É«], is often realized as [uÌ¯], as in Polish and Brazilian Portuguese, e.g. "bell" becomes [pÉuÌ¯], and "milk" becomes [miuÌ¯k]. This [uÌ¯] is sometimes strengthened and becomes like [ouÌ¯] (e.g. sale becomes [ËseiÌ¯.ouÌ¯]).
- /dÊ'/ is commonly pronounced as [tÍ¡s]. It is less noticeable as there is no contrast in the initial position between /ts/ and /tÊ/ in both Cantonese and English. Many people also merge the sound /dr/ with /dÊ'/, they pronounce both [tÍ¡s].
- A speaker of Hong Kong English differentiates the pronunciations of the words affect and effect, often emphasising the vowel, pronouncing affect as [aËfÉkÌ] and effect as [iËfÉkÌ] (or even [jiËfÉkÌ]).
- Most people realize /Ér/ as [a]; "letter" is pronounced [ËlÉta], "locker" is pronounced [ËlÉ"kÊ°a] etc.
- The sound /Ér/ is realized as [Å"]; "sir" is pronounced [sÅ"], "hurt" is pronounced [hÅ"tÌ] etc.
- Merging /Ã¦/ with /É/; "man" and "men", "mass" and "mess", "guess" and "gas" are pronounced as the same way (with the [É] sound).
- Merging /Éª/ with /iË/; "seat" and "sit" are pronounced both [sitÌ].
- Merging /Ê/ with /uË/; "foot" and "food" are pronounced both [futÌ].
- The letter "z" is generally pronounced [jiËsÉtÌ], [iËsÉtÌ], [iËzÉtÌ] or [jiËzÉtÌ] derived from a British pronunciation /ÉªËzÃ¦d/ now considered archaic elsewhere; the usual pronunciations, /zÉd/ (used in UK and most of the Commonwealth nations) and /ziË/ (used in USA), are not understood by some.
- Multi-syllable words are often differently stressed. For example, while the word "latte" is pronounced /ËlÃ¦teÉª/ in most variants of the English language, it is usually pronounced [laËtÊ°eiÌ¯] in Hong Kong English, with the second syllable stressed instead of the first.
- Omission of entire "r-" syllables in longer words; "difference" becomes [ËtifÉns], and "temperature" becomes [ËtÊ°ÉmpÊ°itÍ¡sÊ°Å"], "friends" becomes [ËfÉns(i)].
- Words beginning with unstressed syllables "con" are generally pronounced its stressed form [kÊ°É"n] with a lower pitch, e.g. "connection", "consent", "condition". Words beginning with stressed syllable "com-" e.g. "competition", "common" and "compromise" are pronounced [kÊ°Çm].
- The schwi tends to be pronounced as [É] in final closed syllables; "ticket" is pronounced [ËtÊ°eÌkÊ°ÉtÌ], and "carpet" is pronounced [ËkÊ°apÊ°ÉtÌ].
- The suffix -age is generally pronounced [eiÌ¯tÊ]; "message" is pronounced [ËmÉseiÌ¯tÊ], "package" is pronounced [ËpÊ°ÉkÊ°eiÌ¯tÊ] etc.
Lack of double consonantal endings
- Due to Cantonese phonology, many Hong Kongers have difficulty pronouncing double consonant endings, except when the second element is fricative. e.g. "think" as "thing", "slamp" as "slem", "white" as "why", "send" and "sent" as "sen". "Sense" is unaffected.
- Finals like /-kt/ are reduced to [-kÌ].
Lack of structure of diphthong+consonant
- In Cantonese, there is no structure of diphthong+consonant. As a result, /eÉªn/ becomes [eÌÅ], /eÉªm/ becomes [Ém], /É"Éªn/ becomes [É"n], /oÊn/ becomes [oÌÅ], /aÊn/ becomes [aÅ], /eÉªk/ becomes [eÌkÌ], /oÊk/ becomes [oÌkÌ], /eÉªl/ becomes [ÉuÌ¯] etc.
- For the case /aÉªn/, /aÉªt/ or /aÉªk/, the ending consonant is generally omitted, resulting in /aÉª/.
- Many Chinese will speak a foreign language with the same characteristic monosyllabic staccato of spoken Chinese, with varying degrees of the natural liaisons between syllables that natives employ. In a similar vein, they often pronounce syllables as if words were transliterated into Cantonese: "Cameron" is pronounced as [ËkÊ°ÉmmalÉ"n] based on its transliteration; "basic" is pronounced as [ËpeiÌ¯seÌkÌ].
- When speaking English, many people tend to assign one of the six tones (or nine, if entering tones are included) of the Cantonese to different words, giving it a Cantonese style. E.g. most Hong Kongers would pronounce "there" and "their" differently, giving a higher pitch to "there" [ËtÉÌ] (tone 1 in Cantonese) and a lower pitch to "their" [ËtÉÌ] (tone 6 in Cantonese).
- Exaggeration of certain final consonants, for example [s] to [siË©] and [d] sounds of the past-tense form of verbs to [tÉtÌË©]).
- Differences or omission in ending sounds, as the ending consonants are always voiceless and unreleased (glotallised) in Cantonese with the exceptions of [m], [n] and [Å], similar to Basel German)
- Pronouncing the silent [w], [h] sounds in words like "Green-wich", "Bon-ham", "Chat-ham", "Beck-ham" are often reflected in the transliteration of the words, for example, Beckham is transliterated ç¢§å'¸ (pronounced [pÉªkÌË¥ haËmË©]).
- Merging the contrast of voiceless/voiced consonants with aspirated/unaspirated if any contrast exists in Cantonese. This is because English voiceless consonants are most often aspirated, whereas the voiced ones are always unaspirated. The stop /p/ becomes [pÊ°] and /b/ becomes [p]; /t/ becomes [tÊ°] and /d/ becomes [t]; /k/ becomes [kÊ°] and /É¡/ becomes [k]; /tÊ/ becomes [tsÊ°] and /dÊ'/ becomes [ts] (except when preceded by s, where the English consonants are unaspirated).
- Merging voiceless/voiced consonants into voiceless if there is no contrast in aspirated/unaspirated in Cantonese. Both [f] and [v] become [f]; both [z] and [s] become [s]; both [Ê] and [Ê'] become [s]; the only exception might be that [Î¸] and [Ã°] are never confused, due to difficulty in pronouncing [Î¸] and [Ã°]: many pronounce [Î¸] as [f], and [Ã°] as [t].
- Confusion between homographs (words with the same spelling but different meanings), e.g. the noun "resume" (c.v.) and the verb "resume" (to continue).
- Omitting articles like "the" and "a".
- Contractions such as "aren't" are almost never used, even in conversations, as English in Hong Kong is used largely for formal writing.
- Confusion with verb tenses and agreement of singular or plural nouns, as they have no direct equivalents in Chinese grammar (Mandarin and Cantonese). Or because that verb tenses are expressed using a preposition or exclamation words at the end of the sentence.
- Use of prepositions: "on", "in" and "at" are often interchangeable. Prepositions are also sometimes omitted after transitive verbs. For example: "I will wait you at my flat," instead of "I will wait for you at my flat."
- Over the phone, "This is [John]" becomes "I am [John]", a direct translation.
- Yes/No confusion: In Cantonese, "yes" represents an agreement, "no" represents a disagreement, whilst in English "yes" represents a positive answer, "no" represents a negative answer. For example: "She isn't pretty, is she?" might attract the answer "No" when the native Cantonese speaker means "I disagree, in my opinion she is pretty".
- "There is/are" becomes "there has/have", a direct translation.
- Plural forms: there are no plural forms in Chinese, so plural and singular forms tend to be confused. The exclamation "Congratulation!" is often heard during expressions of joy for one's achievements.
- "Actually" (also "In fact") is used much more frequently in Hong Kong English than in standard English. The Cantonese equivalent, å ¶å¯¦ ("keih sat"), is used more frequently "actually" is used in standard English.
- Using "lend" and "borrow" interchangeably. e.g. "I will borrow you my car" (real meaning: "I will lend you my car"). In Chinese, the word å is commonly used for both meanings.
- Using "rent" and "let" interchangeably.
- Omitting -ed and -ing. e.g. "He is charm.", "I feel touch." (real meaning: "He is charming.", "I feel touched.")
- Using -ed and -ing interchangeably, e.g. "bored" and "boring". e.g. "I am so boring!" (real meaning: "I am so bored!"). In Chinese, the word ç¡è is commonly used for both meanings.
- Using "win" instead of "beat". e.g. "I win you in the race!" (real meaning: "I beat you in the race!"). In Chinese, the word è´ is commonly used for both meanings.
- Using "hear" instead of "listen". e.g. "I hear the radio" (real meaning: "I listen to the radio"). In Chinese, the word è½ is commonly used for both meanings.
- 10,000: Numbers larger than ten thousand. In Chinese, 10 thousand is read as one myriad (è¬), 100 thousand as 10 myriad, one million as 100 myriad. Even so, most people will not use the English word "myriad" so this type of English is hardly ever seen.
- Fractions: In Chinese, the denominator is read before the numerator, so "three over four" (or three fourth) may wrongly be taken as "four over three". In this example, three-fourths in Chinese is "ååä¹ä¸", literally "out of four portions, three".
- Discounts: the Chinese way of saying 10% off is "90% of the original price". This is often written as 9æ (or ä¹æ) which is understood to mean "discounted to 9/10 of the original price". When two digits are given the divisor is understood to be 100, e.g. 75æ (or ä¸äº"æ) means 25% off.
American/British spelling and word usage
- Both British and American spellings are in common use, with the British variant predominating in official circles.
- When referring to the same thing, British vocabulary is more commonly used, for example: bin instead of garbage can; lift instead of elevator.
- end-word: In informal conversation like instant messengers, sentence-final particles or interjections of Cantonese origin such as ah, lah, law, mah and waw'â"many of these being âflavouring particlesââ"are used at the ends of English sentences.
- "I've eaten dinner law" (âI've had dinnerââ"âlawâ /lÉ"ËË§/ indicates a perfect and makes the sentence more informal)
- "I go lah, bye" (âI'm leaving, bye!ââ"âlahâ /laËË§/ indicates intent and makes the sentence more informal)
Hong Kong vocabulary/expressions
Some words and phrases widely understood in Hong Kong are rare or unheard of elsewhere. These often derive from Chinese, Anglo-Indian or Portuguese/Macanese.
- A 'chop' is a seal or stamp, e.g. a "Company chop" is the seal or stamp of a corporation (It actually originates from colonial Indian English.) It is now used in some other Commonwealth countries as a non-official term
- A Tai-Pan (or 'taipan') is a term used in the early 20th century for a business executive of a large corporation.
- An amah is a term used in the early 20th century for a live-in servant (from Macanese/Portuguese- ama nurse); now supplanted by "[domestic] helper"
- A 'shroff' is a cashier in a hospital, a government office or a car park (parking garage).
- "Godown" is a warehouse From the Malay "gudang".
- Nullah is a concrete-lined canal or an re-enforced creek bed used to contain run-off. Nullah entered the English language from Hindi. The word nullah is used almost exclusively in Hong Kong.
- Lai see means red packets
- 'FILTH'/'Filth' (Failed in London, Try Hongkong) is a slang expression used to refer to people who look for employment opportunities in Hong Kong after being unsuccessful in looking for a job in the United Kingdom
- The word 'seldom' is used instead of 'rarely' in informal English - the word seldom is considered formal in English speaking countries.
- A raffle is invariably referred to as a 'lucky draw'.
- Jetso ("è'æ¸") is sometimes used to mean discount or special offer. Also means pecuniary advantage
- 'Hong Kong foot', a literal translation of the Chinese slang term "é¦æ¸¯è ³" for athlete's foot
Recent academic work is also being done on the generation of new Hong Kong English vocabulary driven by computer mediated communication between bilingual Cantonese and English speakers. Rather than use complicated Chinese character keyboard interfaces, Hong Kong English speakers will text and email English translations to the prevalence that the English word often gains independent usage.
- 'Add Oil': [add oil!] verb, literally to lubricate, is used more as an idiom to encourage a team or person. The term has long been limited to the Chinese " ga yao!" (å æ²¹), after originating as a cheer at the Macau Grand Prix in the 60s, but Hong Kong English speakers are increasingly using the English transliteration.
- 'Locust': [lo-cust] noun, referring to tourists from the mainland and meant to connote both masses and a drain on local resources. The word is derogatory and originated during shortages of powdered milk, which were blamed on mainland parallel traders.
Common mistakes made by the Cantonese-speaking community
- A 'body check' is used to refer to a medical checkup (medical examination), not a contact with an opponent from the front (due to literal translation from Chinese)
- "Outlook" is often (mis)understood as "appearance". The noun "look" or "appearance" ("è¡¨") in Cantonese is commonly preceded by the character for "outer" ("å¤")
- Chinese Pidgin English
- Phonemic differentiation
- Regional accents of English
- Macanese Portuguese
- Hong Kong
- Code-switching in Hong Kong
- Education in Hong Kong
- Hong Kong Cantonese
- Languages of Hong Kong
EL / Further reading
- Dictionary of Hong Kong English: Words from the Fragrant Harbor, a collection of unique local words and senses.
- Innovation in Interlanguage Phonology: Evidence from Hong Kong English â" Part I, Hong Kong English, Dr. Tony T.N. Hung, Hong Kong Baptist University Language Centre
- Unit 2-1: LEXICAL FEATURES, Hong Kong English, Dr. Tony T.N. Hung, Hong Kong Baptist University Language Centre
- "Hong Kongâs English Teaching Conundrum", C.K. Lau, (Summer 2009) Hong Kong Journal
- Caryn Yeo, (23 Feb 2009). "Hong Kong's English, Cantonese conundrum", The Straits Times
- "The cat got your mother tongue? â" The Brits make a linguistic comeback", The Economist (12 June 2008)