Because of Hong Kong's colonial heritage and topolectal position, students here are forced to juggle three languages (English, Cantonese, and Mandarin) and two scripts (Roman alphabet and Chinese characters), the so-called policy of “biliterate trilingualism (兩文三語)” for schools and the Civil Service since the handover to the People's Republic of China in 1997. In terms of the best schools to get in, parental expectations, government demands, and entry and exit examinations, the linguistic challenges faced by Hong Kong students are daunting.
One way the students respond to these pressures is to mix languages and scripts in a unique fashion. Since their mother tongue, after all, is Cantonese, this is the basic matrix of oral expression. Proper written "Chinese," on the other hand, is fundamentally Mandarin — even for those who do not speak a word of that northern language. When the students let down their hair, as it were, they naturally will present their thoughts and emotions in Cantonese.
In the past, Cantonese was primarily restricted to the realm of speech, while a rather stilted form of Mandarin (or, before that, Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic) was used for writing. Especially in Hong Kong, in part because of the permissive language policies of the British government, a system for writing Cantonese did develop, but it was very much unstandardized and unofficial, relying on a host of special characters not found elsewhere, using standard characters in unique ways, and even using Roman letters for Cantonese morphemes and loan words. Still, despite the fact that it did become possible to write Cantonese — for those who were determined to do so — the sphere of application was rather limited.
With the advent of swift and easy electronic transmission of written messages (e-mail, STM, etc.), the opportunity for Cantonese speakers to write Cantonese (in contrast to simply speaking that language) expanded vastly. The ease and speed of electronic communication of written messages encouraged a casual, conversational tone, so the old notion that writing was restricted to Mandarin began to break down much more rapidly than before. The problem, though, is simply that — even though they may want to write the way they speak — most young people are not adequately equipped with the special script resources necessary for writing the full range of spoken Cantonese. Consequently, there has arisen a clever style of writing Cantonese in a combination of the 3 languages and 2 scripts mentioned above.
Here is an example of how complex this style of written Cantonese can be (bear in mind that even this is not as "Cantonesey" as one might be if one pullled out all the stops): 好5舍得大学生活，E+就要离开了，有D接受5到呢个事实~~"
I will transcribe and translate this later on. For the moment, please note that the writing is a combination of Roman letters, Arabic numerals, a mathematical symbol, and simplified characters, all representing Sinitic morphemes. We may call this "Internet-style Cantonese," where the Roman letters, Arabic numerals, and the mathematical symbol represent particularly Cantonese morphemes.
Since, by and large, simplified characters are roundly despised in Hong Kong, I suspect that the passage may have originated in Guangzhou (Canton). I will have more to say about the state of Cantonese in Canton at the end of this post (there is breaking news of some consequence).
N.B.: In Mandarin, "E+" here would be pronounced as yijia (not worrying about the tones).
A translation to more "formal" written Cantonese might be something like this: 好晤捨得大學生活，而家就要離開了，有滴接受晤到呢個事實～～.
Translation to Mandarin: Hǎo shěbude dàxué shēnghuó, xiànzài jiù yào líkāi le, yǒudiǎn jiēshòu bùliǎo zhège shìshí ~~” 好舍不得大学生活，现在就要离开了，有点接受不了这个事实～～”
Translation into English of all Cantonese and Mandarin versions: "It's really hard to give up college life. Now that I have to leave, it's a bit hard for me to accept the reality…."
Here is a rendering into Hong Kong written Cantonese by Genevieve Leung, followed by her explanatory comments:
What's in parentheses is what's different than from the version you gave me. I'd definitely use 唔, not 晤 with the day/sun radical. 依 is phonetically most similar to E (high level tone), and the sound of 倒 (dou2) most resembles the way it would be spoken (到 is dou3). From "official" transcripts I've seen of Cantonese speech, 倒 is used over 到, if you want to use that as evidence of "purity." Here's the (Jyutping) romanization: hou2 m4 se2 dak1 daai6 hok6 sang1 wut6, ji4/ji1 (depending on the character) gaa1 zau6 jiu3 lei6 hoi1 liu5, jau5 di1 zip3 sau6 m4 dou2 ni1 go3 si6 sat6. This is just a stylistic point, but the author's use of 了 (more Standard Written Chinese) is in contrast to what is spoken in Cantonese (了 is rarely used in spontaneous speech, unless in chunk phrases like 了解). Not that I wouldn't use 了 in writing written Cantonese in blogs or instant messaging, but I'd probably use it for resultative effect (e.g., 真係太可惜了 ["That's truly too unfortunate"]), not because that's how it would come out in speech. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's a blatant stylistic choice for the author to use 了. But that's just my take on it.
Another rendering ("transcription") into Hong Kong written Cantonese by Abraham Chan, followed by his explanatory comments:
For "now," some say "ji1 gaa1," others "ji4 gaa1." Judging from the "E+" form, I'd guess it's more like "ji1 gaa1," as the Roman alphabet "E" is typically read with a high tone here. The particle "了" is of course Mandarin derived, and few pronounce it as "liu5," which is the literary reading; it's more likely a borrowing for the Cantonese particle "la3" or "lak3."
A more colloquial version? That sentence sounds fairly Mandarin/Westernized to me. "離開" is Mandarin; "ce2" is a more colloquial term for "leave." "接受唔到呢個事實" is a translation of "cannot accept this fact," a Westernized construct. I'd leave out the last phrase altogether.
I'd perhaps say something like "就快要�喇，好唔捨得大學生活。" (zau6 faai3 jiu3 ce2 lak3, hou2 m4 se2 dak1 daai6 hok6 sang1 wut6)."
Where does that leave us with regard to the state of Cantonese in mid-2010? People in Hong Kong certainly know how to speak their Mother Tongue, and they revel in its vibrancy and ability to express their deepest emotions. However, when it comes to writing down their thoughts and feelings in Cantonese, then they are faced with severe obstacles, and often have to resort to ad hoc arrangements to represent basic Cantonese morphemes, or they bastardize their writing with the injection of Mandarin elements that are easier to write. Furthermore, as becomes increasingly clearer to me each day I stay in Hong Kong, they mix plenty of English words in their speech and in their writing. (One Hong Kong friend said to me, "If we really want to, we can type Chinese, but English is a lot easier to type.") Only specialists in the writing of Cantonese can accurately convey the full range and nuances of relatively pure Cantonese, and even for them it is a challenge to find means to write (and especially to type) all the unique Cantonese morphemes that are regularly used in speech. Consequently, for those who are not specialists in written Cantonese, but only dabble in it, no matter how fluent and comfortable they may be in speaking Cantonese, they are likely to have to resort to such alphanumericized, Mandarinized hybrids as the one with which we started: 好5舍得大学生活，E+就要离开了，有D接受5到呢个事实~~"
Just as I was about to make this post, I received word that the people of Guangzhou (Canton) in the PRC have mobilized to protect their mother tongue. These reports show that it is not just older folks who are worried about losing their own language, but younger persons as well. However, so long as Cantonese speakers refer to their mother tongue as a "dialect" instead of the "language" (actually group of languages) that it is, they are only inviting others to think of it in such patronizing terms as "unique" and "charming," or even "vulgar" and "slang." All too often, I have heard Cantonese speakers themselves say that their language is "only lǐyǔ 俚語 [slang]" or "merely a fāngyán 方言 [dialect / topolect]," when it is really just as much a language (yǔyán 語言) as Putonghua / Mandarin.
[Many thanks to Abraham Chan and Genevieve Leung, and a tip of the hat to Yilise Lin, Bob Bauer, and Don Snow, also to Arthur Waldron, Ed Wong, and Anne Henochowicz.]