HK Magazine Archive

How Has the Chinese Language Influenced English?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 11:58am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:46pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
We all know the influence the West has had on the East. What influence has the East had on the West? — Language Logger

What about the way Chinese has changed the way we speak English?

It comes down to trade between the British and Chinese empires in the 1700s. At that time it was plainly far too much to expect a proper, God-fearing Englishman to learn to speak “foreign.” And so a pidgin English emerged—especially around the trading center of Guangzhou—to facilitate commerce, a kind of syntactically simplified tongue that was mutually intelligible, more or less, to all concerned. And, as languages do, each influenced the other. Words began to slip from pidgin into mainstream English.

That’s why thanks to Cantonese, English is home to colloquial phrases such as “long time no see”—it’s a straight and literal conversion from the Cantonese ho loi mo geen (好耐冇見). When your boss asks for that report by Friday and you say “no can do”—you’re actually saying mm hor yi jo (唔可以做). And when you want to go have a “look-see” at that new bar in Lan Kwai Fong, then you’re going to tai tai (睇睇)—or maybe kan jian (看見), in Putonghua. When you tell someone to hurry up—“chop chop!”—that’s from the Cantonese gup (急), meaning “urgently.”

Most of these words are what’s known as “calques:” a word-for-word translation from another language. A more recent example of a calque is the word “brainwashing,” which comes from Maoist China. Xi nao (洗腦), “wash brain,” is a pun on the Taoist idea of xi sin (洗心), cleansing the heart and mind before conducting ceremonies. Calques are an enduring legacy of when cultures combine, leaving behind traces which we assimilate into our everyday lives.

Chinese pidgin English as a commercial entity gradually died out as English language education became more prevalent in Hong Kong, although you’ll still encounter some of the speech patterns in the city today. Take that old joke about the boorish British businessmen who finds himself sat next to an oriental gentleman at dinner one evening. Eager to ingratiate himself he leans over and says, clearly and VERY LOUDLY: “Likee soupee?” The Chinese man nods politely. Later the Briton leans over once again, eager to entertain his inscrutable acquaintance: “Likee steakee?” he demands. The Chinese man nods graciously. Then the Chinese man’s name is called and he stands: The guest of honor delivers a hilarious 20-minute speech in flawless Oxford-accented English.

He sits down, leans over to his flabbergasted neighbor, and says, clearly and VERY LOUDLY INDEED:

Likee speechee?