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SUNDAY MORNING

Reflections: Tongue ties

Wee Kek Koon

 

A Mong Kok shopping centre removed its Chinese sign last month after receiving complaints that it sounded too "mainland". While good and proper non-Chinese names such as Times Square, Aji Ichiban and SoHo are seen as reflective of Hong Kong's international character, a mainland-ish name is deemed so repulsive by enough people here that businesses nowadays must be extra careful not to offend their sensibilities. To many Hong Kong exceptionalists, such linguistic "pollution" cannot be tolerated. And yet, not so long ago, it was Hong Kong that "polluted" the Chinese language on the mainland.

Thanks to Hong Kong, " maidan" is now used all over China by people who want to pay for something. Standard Chinese words for salmon (" gui") and tuna (" wei") have been replaced by " sanwen" and " tunna", from Hong Kong's " sam-man" and " tan-na".

Like many other languages, Chinese has incorporated elements from foreign tongues over time. Through Buddhism, many Sanskrit words entered the Chinese lexicon, as did Mongolian and Manchurian words when China was ruled by the Mongols and Manchus. In more recent times, English and Japanese words and expressions have been adopted. All of this has enriched the Chinese language. The issue of using the mainland's linguistic norms in Hong Kong is a very complex one, however, involving history, politics, perceptions and, of course, good old prejudice.

 

 

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