Monday, September 29, 2008

Hong Kong Cantonese

Hong Kong Cantonese is a variant of , one of the languages in the Chinese language family, spoken in Hong Kong. Although largely identify their language with the term "''Cantonese''" , a variety of publications in mainland China describe the variant as ''Hong Kong speech'' or ''Hong Kong language'' . There are slight differences between the pronunciation used in Hong Kong Cantonese and that of the Cantonese spoken in the rest of Guangdong, where Standard Cantonese is a lingua franca. Over the years, Hong Kong Cantonese has also absorbed foreign and developed a large set of Hong Kong-specific vocabularies. These differences from Standard Cantonese are the result of British rule between 1841 and 1997 as well as the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the border closure thereafter.


Before , the inhabitants of Hong Kong mainly spoke the Tung Kwun-Po On variant of Cantonese, as well as , , and . These dialects are all remarkably different from Standard Cantonese.

After the British acquired Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories from the Qing in 1841 , 1860 and 1898, large numbers of merchants and workers came to Hong Kong from the city of Guangzhou, the centre of Cantonese. Standard Cantonese became the dominant spoken dialect in Hong Kong. The frequent migration between Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking areas did not cease until the 1950s. During this period, the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong was very similar to that in Guangzhou.

Around 1949, the year that the People's Republic of China was established, Hong Kong saw a large influx of refugees from different areas of China. The British colonial government closed the border to halt the influx, but illegal immigration from mainland China into Hong Kong continued. Because of this, the correspondence between language and ethnicity may generally be true though not absolute, as many Chinese who speak Hong Kong Cantonese may come from other areas of China, especially Shanghai or non-Cantonese regions of Guangdong where Hakka and Teochiu prevail. Movement, communication, and relations between Hong Kong and mainland China became very limited, and consequently the evolution of Standard Cantonese in Hong Kong diverged from that in the rest of Guangdong. In mainland China, the use of Standard Mandarin, or Putonghua was enforced and Cantonese language was discouraged. Indigenous vocabularies were replaced by written Chinese, which is close to Putonghua. In Hong Kong, Cantonese remains the medium of instruction in schools, along with and Chinese. And because of the importance of English in Hong Kong and frequent communication with the Western world, there existed a large number of English loanwords in Hong Kong Cantonese like "巴士" , literately, "bus". Hong Kong people even started to incorporated English words into Cantonese sentences, for example, "咁都唔 make sense" . Therefore, the vocabularies of Cantonese in Mainland China and Hong Kong differed.

Moreover, the pronunciation of Cantonese changed while the change either did not occur in Mainland China or took place much slower. For example, merging of /n/ initial into /l/ initial and /?/ initial into null initial were observed. Due to the limited communication between Hong Kong and Mainland China, these changes only had a limited effect in Mainland China at that time. As a result, the pronunciation of Cantonese between Hong Kong and Mainland China varied, and so native speakers may note the difference when listening to Hong Kong Cantonese and Mainland China Cantonese.

Alongside with the flourishing Cantonese opera, , Cantopop and other aspects of Hong Kong-based Cantonese-language popular culture, Hong Kong Cantonese were exported to overseas Chinese communities as well.


In modern-day Hong Kong, many younger native speakers are unable to distinguish between certain phoneme pairs, causing them to merge one sound into another. Although this is often considered substandard and is frequently denounced as "lazy sounds" , the phenomenon is becoming more widespread and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions. Contrary to popular opinion, some of these changes are not recent. The loss of the velar nasal was documented by Williams , and the substitution of the liquid nasal for the nasal initial was documented by Cowles .

Other observed shifts:
*Merging of initial into initial.
*Merging of initial into null initial.
*Merging of and initials into and when followed by . Note that is the only in Cantonese.
*Merging of coda into coda, eliminating contrast between these pairs of finals: -, -, and -.
*Merging of entering-tone coda into coda analogously.
*Merging of the two syllabic nasals, into , eliminating the contrast of sounds between and .
*Merging of some into .

Today in Hong Kong, people still make an effort to avoid these sound merges in serious broadcasts and in education. Older people often do not exhibit these shifts in their speech, but some do. With the sound changes, the name of Hong Kong's Hang Seng Bank , , becomes , sounding like ''Hon' Kon' itchy body'' ''bank''. The name of the Cantonese language itself should be , although and are overwhelmingly popular.

The shift affects the way some Hong Kong people speak other languages as well. This is especially evident in the pronunciation of certain English names: "Nicole" becomes ''lik col'', and "Leonardo" becomes ''leo la do''. The mixing up of /n/ and /l/ also affects the choice of characters when the Cantonese media foreign names.

who often end up introducing hypercorrections. For instance, while attempting to ensure that people pronounce the initial , they would also mispronounce words that historically have a null initial as . One common example is that of the word , meaning "love." Even though the standard pronunciation should be , the word is often incorrectly pronounced as .

In recent years, a number of Hong Kong secondary schools have tried to improve the situation by making the learning of Standard Cantonese Pinyin part of the school Chinese curriculum.


Life in Hong Kong is characterised by the blending of Asian and Western cultures, as well as the city's position as a major international business centre. In turn, Hong Kong influences have also spread widely into other cultures. As a result, a large number of loanwords are created in Hong Kong and then exported to , and Singapore. Some of the loanwords have become even more popular than their Chinese counterparts, in Hong Kong as well as in their destination cultures.

Imported loanwords

Selected loanword.

From English

From Japanese

From French

Exported loanwords

Into English

Into Standard Mandarin

Into Taiwanese Mandarin

Into Japanese

Incorporation of foreign language words into Cantonese sentence

Besides foreign loanwords, Hong Kong people are also used to incorporating words from foreign languages into Cantonese sentence without formally translating the words into Cantonese. For instance, "咁都唔 make sense", literally means "it does not make sense". Sometimes, the part of speech of the incorporated words are also changed, like "佢地好friend", translated into English as "they are very 'friend'", means "they are good friends". The word "friend" is changed from a noun into an adjective. In some examples, some new meanings of English words are even created. For example, "至yeah", literally "the most yeah", means "the trendiest". Originally, "yeah" means "yes" in English, but it means "trendy" when being incorporated into Hong Kong Cantonese.

When foreign words are used in Cantonese sentence, polysyllabic words and monosyllabic words tend to become disyllabic, and the second syllable is in the Upper Rising tone . For example, "" (constitution), "" and "" . There are a few polysyllabic words become monosyllabic though, like "" , literally means computer monitor. And some new Cantonese are created according to the of Cantonese. For example, "記" from the word "library". Most of the disyllabic words and some of the monosyllabic words are incorporated as their original pronunciation, with some minor changes according to the Cantonese phonology. For example, "bra" is pronounced as "", omitting the "r" sound.

After a foreign word is used in Cantonese sentences, it can be used like other Cantonese words according to the of Cantonese. For instance, "sure" can be used like "你唔?" as if it were its Cantonese counterpart "你肯唔肯定?". In some circumstances, using English words is preferable because it can simplify sentences. For example, "呢D點心係for visitors咖" means "these dim sums are for visitors". If English has not been used, the sentence would become long and complex such as "呢D點心係準備畀與會客人嘅" and thus not preferable.

Hong Kong Cantonese speakers rationally know which words are from foreign language, but when they speak they just use these words like normal Cantonese vocabularies. Sometimes it is difficult to find equivalence of the English words in Cantonese, such as the “miss” in ”我miss咗架巴士”, meaing "I missed the bus". In the case of some technological terms, the problem is even more serious. Hong Kong people find it difficult to say “你用個 right-click嚟highlight個mon” in pure Cantonese. It is because most of the people do not know the Cantonese expression of "mouse", "right-click", "highlight" and "monitor". This is also a headache of those linguists and Chinese teachers who advocate the use of pure Cantonese.

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