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City Weekend

What’s in a word? A lot if it is in Hong Kong Cantonese

The language has evolved considerably since new immigrants adopted it after they arrived in the city, although Putonghua is now starting to influence it

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 November, 2016, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 11:33pm

The cultural identity of being a Hongkonger grows in tandem with the Cantonese language. To understand how colloquial Cantonese evolved over the years, the Post spoke to Anthony Fung, the director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University about the sociology of Cantonese.

According to Fung, the contemporary history of Cantonese started in the 1950s when it bound together the early waves of immigrants.

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“Most of the current population came from the immigrants who moved here in the 1950s and 60s,” he said, “People then spoke a variety of different dialects. When they got to Hong Kong, the only thing they had in common was the Chinese language.”

He said early immigrants soon adopted Cantonese as their shared spoken language and they also reinvented it. “The current Hong Kong Cantonese has elements from many spoken dialects,” he said.

Fung said the language really emerged in the 1970s as the first generation of Hong Kong Chinese were born. He said mass media and popular culture were then saturated with Cantonese, which quickly elevated its status.

“The 1970s is where the Cantonese language experienced the strongest formation,” he said. “Then the language became a prominent form of Chinese.”

“Cantonese then started to become a language of modernity. It suggests that the speakers tend to be more liberal, open-minded and civil,” he said.

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According to a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong, about 70 per cent of local residents currently still consider Cantonese as the most modern language in the city.

In the 1980s and 90s, the prominent entertainment industry in Hong Kong gave rise to actors such as Stephen Chow, whose classic quotes breathed new life into Cantonese.

“Many words which are used in the mo lei tau style of humour were old expressions, not invented ones. But Chow spinned them in a new way and brought people’s attention to them,” he said.

The style of Chow, who has been applauded by locals as the king of comedy, is called mo lei tau in Cantonese, which represents a type of slapstick humour that features nonsensical parodies and deliberate anachronisms.

Many of Chow’s mo lei tau expressions have made their way into the official Cantonese lexicon.

According to Fung, Putonghua emerged as a strong influence over the development of Cantonese after the 1997 handover, especially in the field of politics and business.

“Now in the government and the business sectors, we see a lot more Putonghua expressions now,” he said. “For example, bureaucrats use words like shi tou [momentum]. And they also say certain policies are wei dao wei [not in place].”

He also said with the emergence of social media, Hong Kong Cantonese is evolving faster than ever. As the city is saturated with mass media influences, inspiration for new words emerges every day across different mediums.

“[Through the old-school gossip magazines] to internet forums such as the Golden Forum, young people are extending the meaning of the language all the time,” he said.

Fung said internet slang and expressions have become integrated in daily language. “For example, we are now praising people by calling them nanshen [god] or nushen [goddess],” he said.

New trendy words such as hea and chok are also products of young people reinventing the language. While the former means to stay idle, the latter means “to forcefully make oneself look better”.

But he said contrary to the common belief that these trendy words were almost invariably imported from Western languages, many of these new expressions were a remix of archaic words.

“If you trace their origins, you might be able to find some. But most people just don’t know how to write the characters any more. So they spell them out as if they are English words,” he said.