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

The words shared between languages show us how the people speaking those languages interact. Hong Kong English shows us how English speaking people in Hong Kong interact. In the old 18th and 19th century Chinese Pidgin English most words were related to business. Chinese Pidgin English had fewer words than a full language. It was really only used to do business and was never a full language. The Chinese and British people did a lot of business, but did not interact socially.

audio 1

Today most speakers of modern Hong Kong English speak Cantonese as their first language and most of the new words in Hong Kong English are from Cantonese. Most of them are cultural or food related words, red pockets (red packets, lai see), dim sum, chow fan, har gow, bok choi and so on. International English is used for business. Today most Hong Kong language mixing between Cantonese and English happens socially. Interestingly enough many of the words related to corruption are from Putonghua. Guanxi is used in Hong Kong English not the Cantonese guanhai. Latin is sometimes the source language for governmental functions. Caput schools use the singular of per capita; they have not closed down. Today the British, and other westerners, mix socially with Cantonese speaking Chinese.

audio 2

Modern Hong Kong English is not strictly colonial. English only became common in Hong Kong as the language of business after British colonialism was seen to be doomed and not during the earlier colonial period. The demand for good public education had a lot more to do with the current rise of English in Hong Kong and not occupation by the British military.

Some people talk about falling English standards in Hong Kong. This belief is nonsense.

Language change happens across generational time scales. 50 years ago the percentage of Hong Kong Chinese who spoke English was in the low single digits. Now it is 46.1% and still growing. English was first passed by Putonghua as the second language in the 2011 government census. Only 3.5% of Hong Kong yan (Hong Kong people) speak English as a first language, but many more speak good English.

I hope that Hong Kong people will be proud of their language history and not cling to the idea that anything not British must be a mistake. English is truly international and is owned by all its speakers.

audio 3

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

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