Let’s be practical when it comes to the use of language – and script – in Hong Kong

Peter Gordon says those who have staked out a position in the uproar over the use of simplified Chinese characters in Hong Kong should consider the benefits of a more flexible policy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 12:08pm

Many things about Hong Kong bemuse newcomers. When I first arrived, one was the Chinese subtitles on Chinese television. It was explained to me that many Chinese people here spoke something other than Cantonese.

READ MORE: Character assassination? Hong Kong’s furore over simplified Chinese

This practice, or rather TVB’s recent subtitling of Putonghua news in the mainland’s simplified characters, has become another storm in Hong Kong’s language wars, with symbolism as usual replacing logic. If the purpose of subtitles is understanding, then certainly it makes more sense to subtitle Putonghua broadcasts in the traditional characters that most people here read.

TVB seems to have this backwards: to maximise understanding, it should subtitle Putonghua broadcasts in traditional characters and Cantonese broadcasts in simplified characters

However, unlike the era in which subtitled Cantonese was directed more or less at local speakers of, say, Hakka, those most in need of subtitles today may well be mainlanders. TVB, therefore, seems to have this backwards: to maximise understanding, it should subtitle Putonghua broadcasts in traditional characters and Cantonese broadcasts in simplified characters.

The uproar followed soon after a mainland student at Baptist University complained about the student union’s use of traditional characters. The posting (on an actual wall) might have been a deliberate provocation, or it might just have been clueless; either way, it went viral.

One path from the resulting tiff led to the Basic Law article that reads “In addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong [SAR].”

READ MORE: Language wars: Mainland and Hong Kong students spar over what constitutes Chinese

The US, it might be noted, remains without any official language. It is normally assumed that official business goes on in English, but courts, for example, normally have to provide translators for just about any language under the sun, and government notices are often printed in languages for which the number of people justify it. The modus operandi, insofar as there is one, is equity and practicality rather than language status.

In general, whether or not any particular notice comes in Chinese or English is better determined by some combination of practicality and courtesy, balanced by cost and logistics

From time to time, English-speakers here make the claim that the language’s official status requires fully bilingual government communications. This seems a logical, practical and financial stretch.

Splitting legal hairs is best left to lawyers, but the article would seem to reserve a role for English – without requiring it. One might reasonably expect to be able to insist that formal communications take place in English when it matters, for example, in the courts. English-speakers might also have reasonable grounds for arguing against liability for not having followed Chinese-only notifications.

These considerations neither imply nor require, it seems, that every communication need be in both official languages. In general, whether or not any particular notice comes in Chinese, English or, indeed, French or Tagalog is better determined by some combination of practicality and courtesy, balanced by cost and logistics.

READ MORE: Traditional or simplified, don’t let the Chinese language become political

READ MORE: Reading from the same script: a brief history of simplification and Chinese characters

While English is a mere observer in the Cantonese-Putonghua language wars, it provides a useful analogy. It might prove hard to refuse someone wishing to conduct formal communications in Putonghua, but that need not, again by analogy, necessarily imply that every communication from an official body be in other than Hong Kong’s quotidian standard.

Languages and scripts, furthermore, are different things. Both traditional characters and simplified characters are undeniably “Chinese”; common sense indicates that either or both count. But that is, again, not the same as individuals being able to insist on one or the other.

Principle is anyway often wrecked on the shoals of practicality. There have been complaints from non-Anglophone expats about accents not being permitted on ID cards. The issue was mostly cultural but might occasionally be substantive: the unaccented version of the German “Müller” , for example, is not “Muller” but “Mueller”. The response was, roughly, a shrug: HKID cards use the 26 letters of the English alphabet and that’s all.

HKID cards require traditional characters. That, rather than TV subtitles, is the real litmus test.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books