John Larrysson Column: What Is Hong Kong English? (1 of 2)

Hong Kong English has new words used in proper English sentences. This is different from Chinglish which is an inter-language or creole. Hong Kong English is a modern language variety and is not Chinese Pidgin English. Chinese Pidgin English was a trade creole, used in South East Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries and was a mixture of the Malay, Portuguese, Cantonese, English and Indian languages.

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When people talk about one language, such as Putonghua, being a language and another being a dialect, such as Cantonese, there are rarely any good reasons. In fact the most consistent definition is that languages have an army and a navy. Dialects do not. The exceptions are historical. A modern language is a dialect of a dead ancestor. For example: Latin gave rise to Spanish. Likewise, Hong Kong English is descended from Chinese Pidgin English.

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Hong Kong English is a different language variety, but not different enough to be a dialect. Around the world and even in different parts of the UK there are variations in English. English in Hong Kong has differences from international English, but it is not as obviously different as the Australian or Indian varieties of English. Hong Kong English is an unusual variety of English because it is more international and draws on words from many places.

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The Malay language gave the word chop chop meaning quickly to Chinese Pidgin English and Hong Kong English. Then Hong Kong English used chop chop to create an English word for fai-ji, which is where the word chopsticks comes from. The Hong Kong English word chop chop has even gone on to become a common slang term in British English.

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Many other old Hong Kong English words like godown come from the Malay language. In Hong Kong the word godown is slowly being replaced by the more common international English word warehouse.

What should we call Hong Kong English and what is a language variety? The most consistent definition seems to be that language varieties have their own dictionaries published. Hong Kong University Press has recently published The Dictionary of Hong Kong English so Hong Kong English can be called a legitimate variety of English.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.