Hong Kong Multilingualism and Polyscriptalism

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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.]


  1. raul pertierra said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:22 am

    enjoyed the article. filipinos have to cope with 3 languages (english, filipino, local dialect but with only one main script)) and as a consequence schooling is a difficult and often confusing experience. my current research deals with the phenomenon of texting using mobiles where new conventions for writing are being devised by users showing the same creativity you mention for cantonese writing.

  2. ben said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:39 am

    Nice article.

    I'm not all that literate, so I haven't had that much exposure to written Cantonese. But this is definitely the first time I have seen "5" in place of "唔". 唔 is extremely common in advertising (at least in HK), so I found it funny that someone would use 5 instead.

    Also, as to the comment about written Cantonese only really taking off in the electronic age (i.e. "advent of swift and easy electronic transmission of written messages "), a lot of the early 1990s Stephen Chow movies have subtitles written in pure Cantonese. And they even made the same choice of characters as the audiobooks (for Cantonese learners) I've come across.

  3. Dawa said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 3:42 am

    This is the written Cantonese that is mostly used by Mainland Cantonese and teenager (maybe tween) in Hong Kong. Obviously this one is from Mainland.
    Many Mainland Cantonese input written Cantonese using Mandarin (Hanyu) Pinyin so they can't input "唔" and have to type "5" instead. Teenagers in HK found the way they write very funny and therefore copied the style of Mainland Cantonese. Many older HK netizens called that "Mars language" and made a translation of it.

    "晤" (m2) is also used in Hakka and other Tai-Kadai languages. Taiwan Hakka dictionary use "毋" instead of "唔". Maybe they think Cantonese-made word is not too authentic. In Thai, they called "not" as "mai" or "mi". Cantonese also used "mai" in case like : "咪郁" (Mai Yuk, Don't Move). I even see Tibetan "no" sometimes is written as "mi".
    About July 25 Rally,
    The media dare not to write that Cantonese protesters
    actually shouted “Mandarin f off”.
    “Phou Tong Khwa Sau Pei” . “Phou Tong Khwa” is the transliteration for “Putonghua” and it literally means “to boil water-melon”. “Sau Pei” means “f off”.

  4. Donald said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 7:37 am

    Linguistically, there is no reason to say that Cantonese is a language rather than a dialect, or vice versa. As in every country in the world, it is social and political factors which define what is a language and what is a dialect.

    As someone famously said, a dialect becomes a language when it has its own army and navy.

  5. ?! said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    "As someone famously said, a dialect becomes a language when it has its own army and navy"

    Given that the spoken languages are mutually unintelligible I don't see why they would be considered dialects at all. The writing system obviously complicates the situation but the actual spoken languages are no more closely related than, say, Spanish and French. Probably further apart.

    To say that it is purely social and political factors that determine a language's status is inaccurate. Australian and American English are very close to each other, I wouldn't even call them dialects, but the political history of their peoples is totally distinct.

  6. Ellen Sapora said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    Dr Mair,
    One Cantonse expression that has made its way over to Taiwan via Hong Kong TV stars appearing on Taipei TV shows is "ho sai lay" , which means "li hai" in Mandarin, or "wow, so talented, so skillful!"

    Everyone now in Taiwan say "ho sai lay" every day….At first I thought it was Taiwanese or Hakka, but turns out to be a Hong Kong slang

  7. A-gu said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    Great post! I saw the mobilized pro-Cantonese protesters in Guangzhou, good to see. But it seems that Cantonese speakers and Holo Taiwanese speakers face the same problem of a mother language with low social prestige and an inadequately standardized and promoted writing system. To say nothing of speakers of other Sinitic languages.

  8. Niall said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    It would be very interesting if this way of writing Cantonese evolved to a point where the semantics of the characters are mostly ignored. The people could use just a hundred or so characters while writting making a kind of Hiragana or Zhuyin system for Cantonese.

    Is this likely?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    Latest report from AFP. Notice the scale of the projected protest and the role of Facebook in making it happen.

    > Hong Kong plans rally to save Cantonese language
    > HONG KONG, July 27, 2010 (AFP) –
    > Hong Kong activists will rally on Sunday against China's bid to phase out Cantonese in favour of national language Mandarin, following a rare protest for the same cause in southern China.
    > Organisers have called on supporters via Facebook to help protect their mother tongue, after hundreds protested in support of Cantonese in the city of Guangzhou last Sunday, defying government orders.
    > "I believe we can gather 100,000 people to stop China's evil act of promoting Mandarin and destroying Cantonese!!!" the organisers wrote on the event's Facebook page.
    > "Protect Chinese heritage. Against the extinction of our culture by dictators," a supporter wrote on the site.
    > Such instances of mainland protests spilling over into Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997, are rare since China's 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
    > Sparking ire among Cantonese speakers, the People's Political Consultative Conference in Guangzhou wrote this month to the province's bureaucrats proposing that local TV stations broadcast their prime-time shows in Mandarin instead of Cantonese ahead of the Asian Games in November.
    > Adopting China's official language, also known as Putonghua, would promote unity, "forge a good language environment" and cater to non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese visitors at the huge sporting event, authorities were quoted as saying.
    > Many Cantonese speakers worry about the future of a language which is the mother tongue for the majority of people in Hong Kong, Macau and China's southern Guangdong province, and which is widely spoken among overseas Chinese communities.
    > Mainland China made Mandarin the country's official language in 1982, leading to bans on the use of the country's myriad dialects at many radio and television stations.
    > TV stations in Guangdong, which has about 110 million people, are allowed to broadcast in Cantonese only because of its proximity to Hong Kong, according to the South China Morning Post.
    > By Tuesday noon, about 150 visitors to the Facebook protest page said they would join the pro-Cantonese rally, while many others also showed their support for the campaign.
    > Some Guangzhou residents said they would travel to Hong Kong to attend the upcoming protest.
    > A teenage Guangzhou resident wrote on Facebook: "We will try to protest again on July 31 in Guangzhou. Not sure if we will be kicked out again by the (police).
    > "If so, we will rely on you all in Hong Kong."

  10. arthur waldron said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    As I mention in my own far-less-linguistically-informed post that some of you have received, Karl Deutsch long ago (1953) pointed out that rising incomes, status, self esteem and general competence, made people HOLD ON TO THEIR NATIVE LANGUAGES rather than moving up the previously existing hierarchy, Thus Finns made Finnish the language of Finland and drove out German as the elite and university language, ditto Czech, not to mention the Slavic "peasant" tongues like Belorussian and Ukrainian. In the old days even Americans went to Germany to get the "Best" education–Henry Adams, for example (1838-1928 ) and I have now elderly acquaintances who did their engineering in Zurich, by choice. More recently Flemish and French have done the same as the ancient University of Louvain became that of Leuven following linguistic disturbances in the 1960s that expunged French from the former bastion–and from the town too, where the spoken language is never heard, and the only written french one sees is on old mail slots, carved in antique stone, or frosted on old shop windows. Even the French language papers from Brussels are out of sight. For China I think this means that as Cantonese, Fukienese, Shanghainese, etc, get richer and more able to assert themselves, the imposition of "vulgar" northern Mandarin will become more and more difficult. After all, which is more 土, Shanghai or Beijing? Also, and this was Deutsch's real point, the linguistic kernel can lead to the agglomeration of regionalism and nationalism (Deutsch was an ethnic German who spoke Czech–1953 Nationalism and Social Communication). Then other issues pile on and next thing you know you have a culture, Nor do you need an army and a navy–look at Belgium! What is missing for the Chinese topolects is a writing system,

  11. Eric said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 2:00 pm


    "Inadequately standardized??" This is a ridiculous statement. Despite what I perceive to be Dr. Mair's anti-character sentiment, I think any claim that there are "severe" impediments to Hong Kongers writing Cantonese, or that they're "not adequately equipped" is flimsy. Of course we can argue what level of standardization is "adequate," but there's a frickin' Wikipedia for chrissake!

  12. Petrus said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    For a good (historical) account of writing in Cantonese see also: Snow, Don. 2004. Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular.
    Hong Kong University Press: Hong Kong.

  13. ?! said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    Does the presence of a wikipedia in a particular language prove that the language is standardized? There is a wikipedia in klingon too…

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    Bob Bauer and Don Snow, both of whom are my friends and who are specialists on written Cantonese, agree that it is highly UNstandardized. This is why, when writing their series of excellent Cantonese grammars, Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip did not attempt to use any Chinese characters, why most Cantonese textbooks are in Romanization only, why most Cantonese classes in the United States (and even in Hong Kong) do not ask students to learn to write in characters (only in Romanization), and why young people in Hong Kong and Canton resort to the sorts of devices I described in detail in my post. Written Cantonese is not standardized, and no amount of vulgarity and ranting can make it so.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    In an act of shameless self-promotion, I'll note that I've contributed to the cause of the preservation of colloquial Cantonese. My play "Rice Kugel" contains perhaps a couple dozen lines in this language. I specifically used colloquial Cantonese characters in the script. While I ran these lines past Cantonese-reading and -speaking friends and acquaintances as well as some folks on sci.lang, I'll also note that Google helped me to find Cantonese message boards to verify certain phrases.

    A useful strategy on searching out such message boards is to use Cantonese-only characters such as 冇 in one's search.

  16. Eric said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 3:03 am

    Klingon is the consummate standardized language: what one dude says goes.

  17. Guyllaume said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 3:14 am

    Ironically, Cantonese is arguably in the strongest position of any non-Mandarin language in China. A lot of the other dialects e.g. Shanghainese, Sichuanese, Hokkien etc are no longer spoken fluently by the post-80s generations (i.e. those born after 1980). Because of the quasi-independence of Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is the only dialect with a fully formed popular culture including movies, television, radio and comic books. From memory, it is also the only other dialect which is permitted to be used in a Chinese metro (in the HK, Guangzhou and Shenzhen metros). Having said that, Cantonese is clearly under pressure just like any other dialect in Mainland China. It has virtually no official use; children are banned from using it school and deducted class points for doing so; Cantonese colloquialisms and uniquely Cantonese characters are actively discouraged from being used in Guangdong newspapers.

    The other unspoken issue is the huge migrant population in Guangdong’s cities who do not speak Cantonese. It is not unheard of to go about an entire day dealing with only Mandarin-speaking bus drivers, taxi drivers, restaurant staff, shop assistants, policemen etc. This causes huge resentment in the local population. If 5 million Cantonese migrants suddenly arrived in Beijing speaking only Cantonese, I can assure you the Beijingers would be in an uproar too.

    I disagree with the idea that further economic development will be enough to revive the southern dialects. If you look at French in Quebec, Flemish in Belgium or Catalan in Catalonia, the revival of these languages all came with greater self-rule. Which will certainly not happen in China. If you really want to see the future of dialects in China, look no further than Taiwan. I would estimate that the vast majority of Taiwanese under the age of 30 cannot speak the local Taiwanese variant fluently. Even the ones that do happen to be quite fluent in Taiwanese often speak a heavily Mandarinized version of it or inevitably slip back into Mandarin. Even after the implementation of Taiwanese democracy in the 1990s, the momentum simply was too much in favour of Mandarin to save Taiwanese.

    On a personal note, I have to admit that I don’t like the look of written Cantonese and I’m not surprised that many more traditionally-minded Cantonese speakers do as well. It just looks so terribly inelegant compared to the “real” thing.

  18. Qov said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    ?! Wikipedia kicked out Klingon because they were afraid that media attention to the language in which no one needed encyclopedia access would devalue the project.

    Eric Yeah, just like the Académie Française ensures that French is spoken the same way everywhere. Sadly no. The Portuguese translation of the Klingon Dictionary is so bizarre that I have little hope of understanding Klingon speakers from Brazil and what happens is that in different speaker communities words take on different connotations. The accepted position of certain subordinate clauses in Klingon sentence structure varies according to the force of personality of the current proponents.

    The 'one dude,' Marc Okrand, provides new words and occasional grammar clarifications, but he mostly likes to listen to the arguments, smile and say "interesting."

  19. JLee said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    I disagree that "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." This gives the impression that cantonese is an altogether different language than Mandarin. The correct view is that there are two forms of cantonese. The written form and the spoken form. The written form is same as mandarin. A paragraph written in standard chinese can be read aloud in cantonese and be perfectly understood by cantonese speakers. Indeed- that is how written chinese is taught in Hong Kong. It is taught in Cantonese. The colloqual form, the spoken form, of cantonese is what you hear on the streets.
    Also- internet postings occupy a realm of its own. Just look at the english language forums and twitters- you'll see things like 'ROFLCOPTER' or 'joo got pwned'. In that context I don't see why "有D接受5到" is particularly remarkable.

  20. Sau Laan said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Hey – where is that FB page (100,000 for Cantonese)…I'm having a hard time finding it. Wan 5 dou a, lol.

  21. Pete said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:38 am

    Is it this one?


  22. Aswin said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

    @ Arthur Waldron

    I am reminded of the Scottish example. Hume and pals nailed their Union Jack colours plainly after the Treaty of Union in 1706. They undertook a program where they stopped seeing themselves as Scots but as "North Britons" out of shame and convenience.* Regrettably this left their ancestors expending a considerable amount of energy trying to reverse this damnatio memoriae.


  23. Lareina said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 2:24 am

    does this mean Mandy needs to learn Mandarin??? :)

  24. Rodger C said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    @Aswin: We need a post on the use of "ancestors" to mean "descendants."

  25. Aswin said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 5:34 pm


    Ha, it totally flew past my radar! my sincerest apologies.

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