Hong Kong English

Hong Kong English

Hong Kong English (Traditional Chinese:港式英語), in theory, refers to the accent and characteristics of English spoken by Hongkongers. In practice, it is often considered, especially by the locals, as the Hong Kong variant of Engrish.

Since many of the 'characteristics' in Hong Kong English are perceived as erroneous and improper use of English, the term is often used by the locals as a disparagement rather than to describe a linguistic identity. The majority of Hongkongers with English proficiency tend to follow British English, while others may follow American English or a mixture of the two.


English is one of the official languages in Hong Kong, and is used widely in the Government, academic circle, business and the courts. All roads and government signs are bilingual and English is equally valid as Chinese on legal and business standings.

In contrast to Singapore, however, Hong Kong is a Chinese Cantonese-speaking society as 95% of the population of the city is ethnic Chinese and use Chinese (either Cantonese, Hakka, or Mandarin) as their primary language. Most shops located in districts seldom frequented by foreign visitors have signs in Chinese only, and in locally-owned enterprises written communications are in English with all other work conducted in Chinese.

Under this backdrop most Hongkongers regard English as a foreign language, albeit a prestigious one, used primarily for formal communications, particularly in writing. Unlike Singapore, exposure to English environment is extremely limited, one which has become increasingly even more so since the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997. Since that year, the government has been pushing very hard to make sure that government-funded schools use English only to teach English language as a subject, and not as the medium of instruction for other subjects. Only a handful of government primary schools and secondary schools are now allowed to use English as the medium of instruction in the Hong Kong (whereas many independent fee-charging schools continue to use the English medium). Nonetheless, being able to use English flawlessly has a high level of prestige attached and most of the Hongkongers fluent in English are regarded as part of the elite class.

People with higher education, past experience of living in English-speaking countries, or who constantly interact with Hong Kong's English-speaking expatriate communities, generally speak an acquired form of English. Accent and spelling preference may varies from person to person, depends on who they have interacted with and which country they studied aboard. For most ordinary local Hongkongers however, the English spoken is generally typical of foreign language learners: Cantonese-influenced pronunciation with some acquired Received Pronunciation characteristics, and vocabularies and sentence structure more formal than those of native speakers. For example, contractions and slang are not used, and many idioms are alien to Hongkongers as they pertain to English-speaking countries' cultures.

The falling English proficiency of local English teachers has come under criticism [ [http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ687974&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ687974 Grammar Error Strike Hard: Language Proficiency Testing of Hong Kong Teachers and the Four "Noes"] Journal of Language Identity and Education, retrieved 2008-09-04)] . In response, the education bureau has required English teachers without English language undergraduate degrees to submit to an assessment, called "LPAT", to ensure their English was of sufficiently high calibre. Those failing LPAT are no longer permitted to teach English. Unless hired by the government, even native English speakers were to undergo LPAT screening. Some Who|date=September 2008 opted to retire to avoid the LPAT processFact|date=October 2007, while many others failed the testFact|date=October 2007.

Spoken characteristics

Voicing of Consonant

* Consonants in Cantonese are all voiceless except nasals and approximants, as a result, /d/, /z/, /dʒ/ is read like /t/(unaspirated), /s/, /tʃ/(unaspirated), for example.


* Many people pronounce "three" as "free". As a self-mockery or pride, one telecom service provider in Hong Kong is named as "One Two Free".


* Like British English, Hong Kong English is non-rhotic, which means 'r' is not pronounced except before a vowel. However, with the influence of American programmes shown in TV, young people in Hong Kong have started to pronounce the 'r' sound.
* 'wh' read as 'w', as in British English.


* Some people read 'v' as 'w' or 'f' sound. (e.g. 'Vector' and 'Aston Villa'; 'Vince' is read as "Whince")
* Other 'v' becomes 'w' or 'f' mostly with a consensus yet no obvious pattern. (e.g. 'f' in 'favour', second 'v' in 'Volvo' and either 'f' or 'w' in 'develop' depending on the speaker.)
* Many Chinese people cannot pronounce 'v' as native English speakers do, because the 'v' sound has no equivalent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and many other dialects; but in the case of other Chinese dialects, such as Wu dialects, there is an equivalent of the 'v' sound, hence speakers of those dialects have little difficulty pronouncing this sound.


* Often 'n' is changed to 'l' which reflects current usage in the Hong Kong Cantonese (Yue) dialect; many people in Hong Kong, particularly the younger generation, mix up the initials /n/ and /l/ in English. (In Cantonese the original correct pronunciation of, for example, 女 (Jyutping neoi5) meaning lady/female/woman is IPA|/nɵy/, but is almost always pronounced as IPA|/lɵy/ in modern Hong Kong usage.)
* Nasals in English are stronger than in Cantonese.
* l-vocalization is common: ending 'l' (Dark L)(IPA2|ɫ) often pronounced as 'w', as in Polish, e.g. "bell" --> /bew/, "milk" --> /miwk/. This IPA|/w/ is sometimes strengthened and becomes like IPA|/o/ (e.g., sale becomes SAY-o)


* Beginning 'j' and soft 'g' read as 'dz' [ts] (e.g., Gigi pronounced as "zhi-zhi"), but this is not a common mistake.


* Merging of IPA|/æ/ and IPA|/ɛ/ to IPA|/ɛ/. e.g. 'bad' and 'bed', 'mass' and 'mess'.


* The letter “z” is generally pronounced as IPA| [jiˈsɛt̚] , a corrupted version (due to various of the above-mentioned reasons) of a very archaic pronunciation IPA|/ɪˈzæd/; the correct pronunciations, IPA|/zɛd/ (used in UK and most of the Commonwealth nations) and IPA|/zi:/ (used in USA), are not understood by some.


* Multi-syllable words are often differently stressed. e.g. "Edu'cation" may be pronounced as "'Ed 'cation" since Chinese is tonal.
* Omission of entire syllables in longer words. ('Difference' become DIFF-ENS, 'temperature' becomes TEM-PI-CHUR.)
* Words beginning with unstressed syllables 'con' are generally pronounced as its stressed form /kawn/ with a lower pitch, e.g. 'connection', 'consent', 'condition'. Words beginning with stressed syllable 'com-' e.g. 'competition', 'common' and 'compromise' are pronounced as /kahm/.

Lack of structure of diphthong+consonant

*In Cantonese, there is no structure of diphthong+consonant. As a result, /eɪn/ becomes /ɪŋ/, /əʊn/ becomes/ʊŋ/, and /aʊn/ becomes /aŋ/.


* When speaking English, many people tend to assign one of the six tones (or nine, if entering tones are included) of the Cantonese language to English sentences, giving it a Cantonese style.
* Exaggeration of certain final consonants, for example 's' (to /si/) and 'd' sounds of past-tense form of verbs (to [IPA|tət̚] ).
* Differences or omission in ending sounds. (as the ending consonants are always voiceless and unreleased (glotallized) in Cantonese with the exception of 'm', 'n' and 'ng', similar to Basel German)
* Producing the 'w', 'h' or 'l' sounds in words like Greenwich, Bonham, Beckham, and is reflected in the transliteration of the words, for example, Beckham is transliterated as 碧咸 (pronounced as /IPA|bik-ha:m/).
* Merging the contrast of voiceless / voiced consonants with aspirated / unaspirated if any contrast exists in Cantonese. The stop [p] becomes [IPA|pʰ] and [b] becomes [p] ; [t] becomes [IPA|tʰ] and [d] becomes [t] ; [k] becomes [IPA|kʰ] and [g] becomes [k] .
* Merging voiceless / voiced consonants into voiceless if there is no contrast in aspirated / unaspirated in Cantonese. Both [f] and [v] become [f] ; both [z] and [s] become [s] ; both [IPA|tʃ] and [IPA|dʒ] become [IPA|tʃ] ; both [IPA|ʃ] and [IPA|ʒ] become [IPA|ʃ] ; both [θ] and [ð] become [θ] ( difficulty in pronouncing [θ] and [ð] too, some pronounce [θ] as [f] , [ð] as [t] ).
* Confusion between homographs (words with the same spelling but different meanings), e.g. the noun "resume" (c.v.) and the verb "resume" (to continue).


* Omitting articles like "the" and "a".
* Contractions such as "aren't" are almost never used even in conversations, as much of use of English for most Hong Kongers are for formal writings.
* Confusion with verb tenses and agreement of singular or plural nouns, as they have no direct equivalents in Cantonese grammar
* Use of prepositions: "on", "in" and "at" are often interchangeable.
* Yes/No confusion: In Cantonese, "yes" represents an agreement, "no" represents a disagreement, whilst in English "yes" represents a positive answer, "no" represents a negative answer. For example: "She isn't pretty, is she?" might attract the answer "No" when the native Cantonese speaker means "I disagree, in my opinion she is pretty".
* "There is/are" becomes "there has/have", a direct translation.
* Often uses commas where full stops should be used since sentences could be linked with commas in Chinese.
* Plural forms: there are no plural forms in Chinese, so plural and singular forms tend to be confused.
* "Actually" is used much more frequently than in standard English, as would the equivalent Cantonese "keih sat" (其實).
* Using "lend" and "borrow" interchangeably. e.g. "I will borrow you my car" (real meaning: "I will lend you my car"). In Chinese there is just one word used for both actions.
* Using "bored" and "boring" interchangeably. e.g. "I am so boring!" (real meaning: "I am so bored!"). Again, in Chinese there is just one word used to describe either state.
* Using "win" instead of "beat". e.g. "I win you in the race!" (real meaning: "I beat you in the race!"). Same reason as above.


* 10,000: Numbers larger than ten thousand. In Chinese, 10 thousand is read as one myriad, 100 thousand as 10 myriad, one million as 100 myriad.
* Fractions: "three over four" (or three fourth) may wrongly be taken as "four over three". In Chinese, the denominator is read before the numerator. For example, three-fourths in Chinese is "四分之三", literally "out of four portions, three".
* Discount: the Chinese way of saying 10% off is "90% of the original price".

American/ British

* Both British and American spellings are in common use, with the British variant predominating in official circles.
* When referring to the same thing, British vocabulary is more commonly used, for example: "rubbish bin" instead of "garbage can"; "lift" instead of "elevator".


* end-word: In informal conversation like instant messengers, sentence-final particles or interjections of Cantonese origin such as "ar", "la", "lu", "ma" and "wor"'—many of these being “flavouring particles”—are used at the ends of English sentences.
* "I've eaten dinner lu" (“I've had dinner”—“lu” IPA|/lu₃₃/ indicates a perfect aspect and makes the sentence more informal)
* "I go la/lah, bye" (“I'm leaving, bye!”—“la” IPA|/la₃₃/ indicates intent and makes the sentence more informal)

Hong Kong Vocabulary

Parts of the vocabularies in Hong Kong English are taken from Chinese, Anglo-Indian or Portuguese/Macanese.

* A 'chop' is a seal or stamp, e.g. a "Company chop" is the seal or stamp of a corporation (It is actually originated form Colonial Indian English.)
* Although the adjective "cool" is used in other parts of the world as an expression of admiration or approval, in Hong Kong "cool" (especially when the word is put in a Chinese sentence) is often used to describe people whose behaviour is arrogant and reserved.
* 'Hong Kong foot' is a literal translation of the Chinese slang term "香港腳" for athlete's foot.
* "K.O." can be used as a verb, such as "Somebody K.O.s somebody", to mean that somebody beats or defeats somebody in a competition.
* A "Tai-Pan" (or 'taipan') is a term used in early 20th century for a business executive of a large corporation, now obsolete.
* An "amah" is a term used in early 20th century for a live-in servant (from Macanese/Portuguese- "ama" nurse), not obsolete.
* "Open the door, see the mountain" is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase "開門見山", which roughly means "go straight to the point" in a conversation.
* "People Mountain, People Sea" is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase "人山人海", which is used to describe a crowded place. "See also the record company People Mountain People Sea."
* A 'Shroff' is a cashier in a hospital, a government office or a car park.
* A 'body check' is a medical checkup, not a contact with an opponent from the front.
* "Outlook" is often (mis)understood as "appearance".
* "Jetso" is sometimes used to mean "discount" or "special offer".

ee also

** Chinese Pidgin English
** Phonemic differentiation
** Regional accents of English speakers
** Chinglish
** Singlish

*Hong Kong
** Code-switching in Hong Kong
** Education in Hong Kong
** Hong Kong Cantonese
** Languages of Hong Kong


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