Can Hong Kong Cantonese become an international language?

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Hong Kong Code-mixing group

Whenever people come across my meetup group called “The Hong Kong Cantonese Code-mixing Group” that I started on meetup.com recently, they often find it quite intriguing that I am trying to promote Hong Kong Cantonese into a world-class international language, as it sounds like an idea taken to such an extreme that is beyond imagination.  It’s as if I’m giving people an impression such as “Wow!  What a grand vision this is!  I have never imagined Hong Kong Cantonese would become a world-class international language!  By the way, why the extra words ‘world-class’?”  While the words ‘world-class’ could seem a bit redundant at first hand, but if I were to answer this question precisely, I would have to say that I added the words ‘world-class’ because my aim isn’t just to promote Hong Kong Cantonese into an international language, but also one that has a prestigious status like the Queen’s English in the UK.  This may seem laughable and absurd, as there aren’t notably different accents in Cantonese that denote different levels of social class.  But from the perspective of sociolinguistics, we can see that Hong Kong people’s habit of inserting English words into their mother-tongue conversation, known as “code-mixing” in academic terms, nevertheless enacts a de facto concept of social class into the Cantonese language.  So the question is, if code-mixing has enhanced Hong Kong Cantonese to a new distinct variety that incorporates the concept of class, shall we promote this variety to gain a wider recognition, or even to a point where it can achieve a world-renowned status one day?

Cantonese tones
Graphical representation of Cantonese tones (Source: Cantonese Tones)

When people talk about the next most common language of the world nowadays, Mandarin would usually be one of those among the top of the list that people have in mind.  Without even going into the relatively lower difficulty for foreigners to pick up the language compared to Cantonese, Mandarin is the language spoken by the world’s greatest economic power, which means it has a very high practical value for those who conduct businesses.  But what about Cantonese?  What would be the reasons for people learning Cantonese other than to work in Hong Kong or in the southern part of China?  In a recent article that I’ve read on SCMP by Luisa Tam, it seems to highlight the fact that the Cantonese language is not ‘particularly gentle or pleasant on the ear’, which aligns exactly with what a lecturer used to say during my years studying for a bachelor’s degree in Translation.  Basically, it was a very similar retelling of a story about a western person who had come to Hong Kong, listened to the way Cantonese speakers spoke, and then thought, “Why are these people arguing?”  But apart from this, what I found the most amusing about the article was that the journalist gave the analogy that if Mandarin had a singsong tone like classical music, then Cantonese would have to be belted out like rap music.

Korean star Rap Monster
Rap Monster Korean star (Image Source)

So if you’re new to Cantonese and have read up to this point, you might be now wondering whether Cantonese is really worth learning anymore, especially when it seems to have an argumentative tone intrinsically attached to it.  But what if I told you that the English-mixed version of Cantonese is a new distinct variety that is not the same?  In the article that I have written on whether Hong Kong Cantonese has evolved to a new stage, I have mentioned that the younger generation nowadays are incorporating a lot more English words and phrases into their Cantonese conversation than before, and revealed that there are quite concrete explanations as to why people choose to express an item in English rather than in Cantonese instead.  Even though this work is still under progress here,  we can already see that there are many code-mixing usages that have existed for a long time since the past generation, as if they have been hardcoded into the Hong Kong Cantonese language.  In addition to the prime example of ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’ from my previous article, if we were to replace a code-mixing usage such as the English word “present” (verb) with the equivalent phrase in Cantonese ‘匯報’, it would probably sound too old-fashioned and take us a whole century back!

So if code-mixing has become the norm in the development of a language, what would it mean for the status of the language?  Well, in our case, if the usage of English has become well-integrated in Hong Kong Cantonese, we can say that Hong Kong Cantonese has also become more international as it is being influenced by English.  As of now, foreigners may only sense our internationalism through our short English utterances in our mother tongue Cantonese language, but in the years to come, our language may have a chance to evolve into code-switching (the insertion of a foreign language inter-sententially) if we utilise more English words, phrases, and clauses in our increasingly globalised workplaces.  But the question is, will this evolution make Hong Kong Cantonese become more international or the other way around?  That is, when we come to think of it at a deeper level, code-switching at the sentence level may mean that the two languages are becoming more separate than before, rather than one language being influenced and enhanced by another language in the case of code-mixing.  So does that mean Hong Kong Cantonese is in a pretty good spot right now?  No matter what, let’s keep moving forward in our language development and not backwards in time! 🙂

 

Has Hong Kong Cantonese evolved to a new stage?

Posted on Categories CantoneseTags , , , , , , , 5 Comments on Has Hong Kong Cantonese evolved to a new stage?

Hong Kong code-mixing

Code-mixing, an academic term that refers to the insertion of foreign words into one’s mother-tongue conversation, has always had a bad rap in the eyes of educators. Yet, it is an emerging trend among the younger generation nowadays due to globalisation at workplaces and the abundance of English learning resources and media in English medium on the internet. Not only do people code-mix words nowadays, but phrases and clauses are also beginning to be more common in Hong Kong Cantonese speech. So can we now say that English is well integrated into Hong Kong Cantonese such that it is now imperative that you should know how to code-mix English words into your Cantonese conversation as a Hong Kong person? And if our new form of Englishised Cantonese is representative of who we are as Hong Kongers, how shall we convince other nations that it is indeed ‘the language’ that we speak?

linguistics pic

In the realm of linguistics, all languages are equal. As long as the popularity of a language rises to a point where there are enough language users, a language can become nativised and turn into a new distinct variety of its own. An exemplar of this would be Singaporean English, where it has not only become nativised, but also a part of people’s everyday life conversation. So this begs the question: Can a code-mixed language become nativised? This question may seem absurd and laughable, but there are countries where code-switching (switching between languages at the sentence level) has become a part of people’s everyday lives, such as the Philippines. However, compared to code-switching, code-mixing may only seem like a mere embellishment of a language, especially when the language user is only utilising English to display a high social class. In other cases, it could even just be as result of necessity at the globalised workplaces in Hong Kong today. Nonetheless, it has become quite the trend of the way young people speak nowadays and if this defines who we are as Hong Kongers from a linguistics perspective, should this code-mixed language be promoted to gain a wider recognition, or even taken further for development to incorporate even more English words and phrases?

Hong Kong code-mixing dictionary

If we were to imagine that our code-mixed Cantonese language became a legitimate kind of language, one that would be used in formal writing or even in government documents, what would it look like? First of all, there would need to be grammarians, linguists, and other language experts to come up with rules and constraints of using this language. In addition, we would have our own dictionary with entries on how to code-mix each English word into our Cantonese language, as well as precise descriptions on the inferred meaning which should be different from the same thing being expressed in Cantonese entirely. This could be hard, especially when the speaker is merely code-mixing English words to display a high social class, and sometimes, code-mixing could only be as a result of language deficiency of the speaker not knowing how to say something in Cantonese entirely. But is it worth taking a look at this language phenomenon anyway, as there have already been code-mixing phrases brought down to our Hong Kong Cantonese language from our past generation since the colonial days?

Hong Kong code-mixing lingua franca

While one could say that the Hong Kong Cantonese language was just largely due to the influence of the English culture, we can see that there are words taken from the English language in order to maximise communicative efficiency, as Hong Kong is a fast-paced urban city. For example, we use generic words such as ‘suppose’ and ‘expect’ to take the meaning of different Chinese verbs, and nouns such as ‘case’ and ‘project’ to take the meaning of different Chinese nouns. Moreover, there are features that are exclusively available in English that can make the speaker sound more formal and indirect. For example, the word ‘prefer’ can allow the speaker avoid from saying ‘I like this item more’ directly, the adverb ‘somehow’ can allow the speaker avoid from saying “I don’t know why” to save face in a formal situation, and the verb ‘depends’ can also make the speaker sound more formal and seem less hesitant in making a decision. Nonetheless, code-mixing is still a very complex phenomenon, as the speaker’s intention for incorporating English words into their mother-tongue conversation can be different every time, depending on the context. But the question is, how shall we explain to foreigners that our Englishised Cantonese language is not merely due to the influence of the English culture, but also has a degree of logic and pragmatism, and most importantly, matches our cultural identity as Hong Kong citizens? This may not be that difficult, if we gather our strengths to analyse as many code-mixing samples as possible, in order to uncover the existence of a code-mixed language.

* For my latest project on code-mixing in Hong Kong, please go to: https://www.megaexplorer.net/hkdict.html