Kongish, ch. 2

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In "Kongish" (8/6/15), we looked at the phenomenon of extensive mixing of English and Cantonese by young people in Hong Kong.  We also became acquainted with the Kongish Daily, a Facebook page written in and about Kongish.  Many Language Log readers thought it was a satire or parody and that it was an ephemeral fad that would swiftly fade away. But here we are, half a year later, and the movement is still going strong, and even, it would seem, gaining momentum.

Elaine Yao has written a nice account of where things stand now with Kongish and what it's like:

Hongkongers mix English and Cantonese into new language, Kongish

Born as a language of protest, Kongish – a humorous mix of Cantonese and literal English translations from the local tongue – is gaining currency among bilingual young Hongkongers as a badge of identity

South China Morning Post (1/21/16)

I must caution that, unless both your Cantonese and English are at an advanced level, you will find it hard to follow all the morpheme mixing and profuse punning that pervades Kongish.  The SCMP has many examples of how it works, but I'll just focus on one that I think will be of particular interest to Language Log readers.  This is a video of the girl band GDJYB (GaiDan Jing YukBeng ("steamed egg and pork mince") playing their catchy hit, "Double NoNo".

The title is a literal translation of siong fei, or double negative, the Cantonese phrase referring to the children of Chinese families who gained residency despite neither parent being a resident, because they were born in Hong Kong.

The repeated chorus – “the Friso [milk powder] is mine, the Yakult [probiotic dairy product] is mine” – is an expression of anger at the problems that bulk grocery purchases by an influx of Chinese visitors has created for residents.

“We open the song with ‘tick tock, tick tock’ which describes the tempo of our city life,” Liu says. “As the song progresses, city life turns grim; locals always have to compete with Chinese for resources. The Hong Kong we live in is a place we no longer recognise.”

The song is captivating, the video is enchanting, and the images are profoundly thought-provoking.  I suggest that you watch it full screen:

With this kind of creativity and talent powering it, Kongish has a future.

In light of the previous post on Language Log ("Which is worse?"), It is noteworthy that one of the motivating factors for communicating in Kongish is the difficulty of Chinese characters.  As Nick Wong Chun, one of the founders of Kongish Daily says:

“Typing Chinese [characters] on Whatsapp is troublesome. So many locals, including people like us, use Kongish on Whatsapp. Of course we can easily switch to standard English with correct grammar if we want,” he says.

This is digraphia in reality, one pragmatic way out of the "Which is worse" trap.

[h/t Ben Zimmer]


  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 22, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

    Yes, people absolutely do write that way. In my experience, vernacular Cantonese written in Chinese characters (with the occasional romanized Cantonese or Mandarin thrown in for hard-to-write morphosyllables) is the predominant language used by university students in computer-mediated communication (incl WhatsApp) and more frequent than HK-Mandarin, but people resort to Kongish or (depending on their ability) HK-English when their Chinese-character typing skills are poor. I think it's essentially a symptom of not knowing 速成 (cuk1sing4, the input method most people use) or 倉頡 (cong1kit3, the other input method used by Cantonese-speaking HKers) sufficiently well.

    Hanyu Pinyin is generally perceived by HKers as difficult because (1) they don't know Mandarin well and (2) it makes it difficult (though technically not impossible) to type vernacular Cantonese.

    Typing in Roman letters is universally perceived as easier, but there is the cultural practice of writing in Chinese characters. This explains why even people good at inputting Chinese characters will occasionally resort to Kongish or HK-English. They say they're just "lazy" (incidentally this is a word particularly frequent in HK-English), but this is precisely an indication of what I wrote above.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 22, 2016 @ 10:53 pm

    Kongish and romanized Cantonese are harder to spot, though, because nowadays so many young people know 速成. I haven't yet investigated the conjecture that there is social pressure for those with written character-illiteracy. There are some students (not only among those who did boarding school abroad) who seem to not be able to *type* Chinese, and they write to their friends in English and do all homework in English.

    For the generation of those who are now 35 or older, being able to type Chinese was a prized professional skill, back in the non-速成 days. (Not sure about now.)

    Anyways, the existence of a written illiteracy (in HK and other places that use Sinographs) is an (? unexplored or) insufficiently known research subject, I think.

  3. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 1:00 am

    Aside from another exploration of code switching in the Sinosphere, I have to thank you for bringing to our attention a promising young band from that region. As someone who is left ice cold by most pop music from East Asia, I was very impressed by the creative playing and and genuinely emotive singing from these four young women. Anyone else who liked what they heard here might want to check out Glow Curve from Beijing.

  4. Rubrick said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 2:35 am

    That video is indeed terrific. I was not expecting anything quite so musically sophisticated; I think I've been overconditioned by J- and K-pop. They remind me a bit of Florence and the Machine.

  5. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 3:37 am

    PS: I guess romanized Cantonese writing, Kongish, and HK-English span up a spectrum for Roman-orthography writing in HK.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 6:59 am

    My understanding is that Cantonese/English(/Mandarin) code-mixing has been common in speech in Hong Kong for many decades, not just (and maybe not mainly) in writing. See e.g. Wai-ying Lai, "The occurrence of code-mixing in Hong Kong", 1989; Joyce Y.C. Chan et al., "Development of a Cantonese-English code-mixing speech corpus", InterSpeech 2005; Wentao Gu et al., "Prosodic Variation in Cantonese-English Code-Mixed Speech", ISCSLP 2008; Joyce Y.C. Chan et al., "Automatic Recognition of Cantonese-English Code-Mixing Speech", Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing 2009.

    The work in that tradition seems to agree in treating the matrix language as Cantonese, with embedding of morphemes and words from English (or in some cases from Mandarin).

  7. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 8:05 am

    From a friend: (1) An additional reason for mixing English into Cantonese writing is that a speaker doesn't know how to write a Cantonese morphophoneme in characters. (2) There is no social pressure against the use of English in typed communication. [Stephan: I actually don't like the SLA term "computer-mediated communication" (CMC): It reeks of buzz.]

  8. Mara K said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    What script do Kongish users write/type it in? Latin characters, Latin characters with tones, or a mix of Latin and hanzi?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    Latin letters, Mary K

    In fact, it looks like English, but — as the article in SCMP explains, with many examples — much of the time the English is being used to gloss Cantonese.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 10:14 pm

    I asked Bob Bauer if he detected any quantitative or qualitative difference in the current phase of Kongish compared to earlier phases of Cantonese-English code mixing? Here's his reply:


    My initial response to your question: I think of code-mixing as the mixing of speech varieties, whereas Kongish seems to be a kind of written English translated literally/abruptly from Cantonese.


  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    From a Hong Kong friend:

    I just read your Kongish post — it's very interesting…my brother just yelled at our cousin for speaking like that. I'll get back to the post in more detail in a bit.

    From Don Snow:

    I think the main change is in attitude toward this type of code-mixing. It has been common – and talked about – for decades, but in the past public discussion tended to view it as a problem, most notably its use by teacheers in classes. But now it seems to be picking up more of a role as an identity language, at least for some young people in Hong Kong.

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