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Cantonese

Three cheers for Hong Kong English, as it builds community spirit

  • Not only is localised English not undesirable or inferior, it serves functions that cannot be performed by other varieties of English
  • A naturally evolving language provides freedom of expression beyond the confines of linguistic conventions or rules
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2018, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2018, 1:27pm

I am writing in response to the letter from Jason Tang, “Oxford dictionary has accepted ‘add oil’ but think twice before using it in an English exam or a business email” (October 23).

Influenced by a standard language ideology, people believe that a homogeneous, standardised, one-size-fits-all language is always desirable and possible. However, the reality is that all spoken human language is necessarily and functionally variable and changeable, to help it convey social, stylistic and even geographical meaning. A standard language exists only as a magical and powerful construct in the minds of different speakers. The concept of a standard is only an intangible measure to ascertain whether a person is speaking the appropriate language.

Such standardisation is arbitrarily determined, meaning that the standard for a language is always socially constructed, rather than absolute. For instance, Hong Kong English could be immediately rejected simply because it does not adhere to those standards. However, seen from a multilingual perspective, not only is localised English not undesirable or inferior, it serves functions that cannot be performed by other varieties of English.

Add oil! The evolution of Hong Kong English, and where our unique words come from

It seems that the status of Hong Kong English as a new world English variety is controversial due to its stigmatisation by a number of institutions and scholars. Some comment that there is no social motivation for the indigenisation of English in Hong Kong, and that English has only been regarded as a learner’s language in our city. Meanwhile, the norms of correctness as referenced in the key domains of education, government, business and law adhere to those of standard English varieties.

Watch: Subtle vs obvious – offbeat Cantonese meet-and-greet phrases

That said, the vast popularity of your columnist Luisa Tam’s weekly Blowing Water column demonstrates that Hong Kong English can strengthen the sense of group belonging and coherence among locals, especially the younger generation. Hong Kong English is now very popular in the colloquial context where many terms, like “add oil”, “long time no see”, “chur”, and “hea” are being coined on a daily basis and some are even receiving international attention. The more a community emphasises in-group similarity through these commonly spoken languages and idioms, the more salient one’s social identity is likely to be.

Language is always tightly linked to society, so if a change in society occurs, a change in language follows. A naturally evolving language provides freedom of expression beyond the confines of linguistic conventions or rules, not only as a means of communication, but also as an expression and reflection of cultural identity.

Adrian Lam, Kornhill