Honglish, not Chinglish

Posted on April 24, 2010 by


A Cantonese speaking region, Hong Kong has stood out from the rest of China, perhaps along with Shanghai. How? Well, English is the how. Why? The Opium War is the why. British invasion has certainly given many countries a lot of grief in the past, but in the case of Hong Kong the invaders also brought gifts. One of these is the gift of English. It has allowed Hong Kong to become a bilingual part of China and thereby brought wealth, freedom and international awareness to Hong Kong.

Without having stepped on Hong Kong’s soil, one will almost certainly have encountered Hong Kong English before, either from going to the local China town, the Chinese takeaway round the corner, or simply from one of your many Chinese friends. Please do not mistake Hong Kong English with Chinglish, as it is uniquely defined by Hong Kong Cantonese and perhaps more importantly one century’s worth of British ruling.

Hong Kong is more-or-less bilingual

There are a huge amount of Language 1(L1) – Cantonese – to Language 2 (L2) -English- negative transfers in Hong Kong English, hereafter Honglish or HE. Here I will mentioned some phonological and grammatical features of HE, but there are many levels of Honglish, many Hong Kong people might possess only some but not all of the following features.

HE phonology is a combination of English and Cantonese phonology, for instance there are voiced bilabial plosives like “b” as in “bat” which are absent in Cantonese‘s phonemic repertoire.

One of the most defining and yet most inconspicuous features Cantonese is its glottalized or unreleased stops, namely -p -t -k. Unreleased stops are just like standard English stops but without an audible release burst, which is also why they are hard to detect and distinguish. Glottalized stops, maybe better known as glottal stops – a feature of Cockney English, are not too different from unreleased stops but instead they are controlled by the closure of the glottis. The name of the old Hong Kong airport, “Chek Lap Kok”, perfectly demonstrates these stops. In British English final -p -t -k (the end of the word) could have less aspiration than initial p- t- k-which makes it slightly less audible, but in Honglish, the glottalized/unreleased stops could make words such as “like” and “light” homophones – IPA: /laiʔ/ which further reduce audibility.

As Cantonese words are all monosyllabic and end in unreleased stops, vowels or nasals (n, m), Cantonese speakers have problems with end consonants. To get round this, in HE, there are often vowel additions after coda, as shown in the word “gas” which in Received Pronunciation (RP – ‘standard’ British English) would be /gæs/, whereas in HE, an extra vowel is added after the sound /s/ to introduce an extra syllable such as /ˈgæsi/. This feature is also quite common with Italian speakers of English, with Italian words nearly all ending in vowels. This addition of vowels also give an alternative to the previously mentioned glottallized/unreleased stops, which makes the word “like” /lai’ki/ with an added vowel after /k/ instead of /laiʔ/

Consonant clusters are a right devil for many learners of English as a foreign language, especially for those whose mother tongues are neither Germanic and nor Slavic. In HE, there are two common ways of tackling this obstacle. One way HE speakers get round this is by cluster separation through vowel additions, meaning that vowels are added between consonants. This can also often lead to stress shift, for instance, with the word “stupid” – in RP it would be /ˈstjuːpɪd/ compared to HE /si ˈdjuːbɐʔ/ which has an extra vowel added between /s/ and /t/ and a stress shift to the syllable /ˈdju/. Another way is by cluster reduction – i.e. simply missing out some consonants. The word “splinter” would for example be /ˈsplɪntə/ in RP compared to HE /ˈspintɐ/ with no /l/, or even, combined with cluster separation, we would get /s iˈbintɐ/.

With intervocalic -p- and -t- (between vowels), in British English (BE), there will normally be a reduction in aspiration, i.e. the stops are slightly aspirated. In the case of, for example, Dutch or Spanish speaker of English as a foreign language (EFL) these stops would be unaspirated, but HE goes one step further as they would be both unaspirated and voiced as shown in the earlier example of the word stupid. “P” is thus said as “b”.

The absence of the sounds “ch” /tʃ/ as in “Church” and “j” /dʒ/ as in “judge” is quite common in many languages, with Cantonese no exception. In HE there may be a devoicing and deaffrication of these consonants, with both thus substituted with /ts/. Therefore church can be /ˈtsœːtsø/ (note the vowel addition after the second /ts/).

Another rather famous feature of Cockney English is L-vocalisation which incidentally is also a common feature of HE. This means that the final “l” of a word is substituted by a vowel similar to / ʊ/ as in “oo” in “book”, for instance “ball” – BE: /bɔ:l/ and -HE: /bɔ:ʊ/.

Of course, the all time classic /l/ and /r/ problem with speakers of East Asia languages such as Chinese and Japanese is also present. I cannot help not mentioning a rather amusing minimal pair – BE “Fried rice” and HE “Flied lice”! In modern Cantonese, there is also a trend of merging of initial n- and l-, this trend has been transferred to HE in recent years, meaning that “net” = “let”.

Cantonese is a moderately syllable-timed language, which gives HE a somewhat staccato sound. This is somewhat similar to the sound of Spanish, and in fact some research has shown that Cantonese could even be a more syllable-timed (see explanation below * ) [cheers!] than Spanish and Italian.

Due to absence of schwa – the neutral “nothing” vowel (/ə/ phonetically) in Cantonese, which is perhaps the most common vowel in English, the strong forms of short words are the only forms used. For instance “of” is always /ɔv/ and never /əv/ “uv”. However this could, arguably, make HE speech very clear at least to foreign ears and indeed easier to understand compared to BE.

HE Grammar has inherited a lot of that of Cantonese. The most striking of all is lack of pluralizations such as “two cat is…” instead of “two cats are…”. There is also a lack of conjugations, such as “yesterday I go swimming” instead of “yesterday I went swimming”. These two features together mean that the nouns are always singular and the verbs are always in the first person singular form.

Other perhaps more international EFL errors also found in HE are things like lack of articles – “cat is on table” instead of “the/a cat is on the/a table” and tautology such as “raise up your hand” instead of “raise your hand”.

Another interesting feature, on both phonological and grammatical levels, is that, due to a century’s worth of British ruling and an impressive and growing array of American TV

series, some HE speakers appear to have adopted a blend of American and British English. This gives HE speakers a set of vowels and consonants that are quasi-British and quasi-American, for instance, many of them will only pronounce the “R”s when they are between vowels, which is a feature of RP English, such as “There is” and yet the very same people might pronounce the words “can” and “can’t” with the same vowel, a feature of Standard American English.

With the continuing spreading of Estuary English which contains some features of Cockney English, such as glottal stops (though only non-intervocalic, i.e. in “bat” but not “battle”) and L-vocalisation, I argue that Estuary English is a reasonably easy native English template for HE speakers to adopt at least on the phonological level. Finally, may I be so bold to say that perhaps American English is not fit for HE speakers and should not be taught at schools in Hong Kong.

[Well the reader don’t really need to know about American phonology, it is just saying that Estuary English is more suitable and American English is not??] [um but what justification do you have for saying that?, as described immediately above, glottal stops and l-vocalisation both are features of HE and Esturary English]

*A syllable-timed language is one that consists of syllables that are pronounced in roughly the same amount of time. Whereas in a stress-timed language, the time between stressed syllables are roughly the same.

Posted in: Linguistics