Hong Kong Cantonese

Hong Kong Cantonese

Hong Kong Cantonese (zh-t|t=香港粵語 / 港式粵語 / 香港廣東話) is a variant of Cantonese, one of the languages in the Chinese language family, spoken in Hong Kong. Although people in Hong Kong largely identify their language with the term "Cantonese" ( _zh. 廣東話), a variety of publications in mainland China describe the variant as "Hong Kong speech" ( _zh. 香港話) or "Hong Kong language" ( _zh. 香港方言). There are slight differences between the pronunciation used in Hong Kong Cantonese and that of the Cantonese spoken in the rest of Guangdong, where Standard Cantonese (based in Guangzhou) is a lingua franca. Over the years, Hong Kong Cantonese has also absorbed foreign vocabularies and developed a large set of Hong Kong-specific vocabularies. These differences from Standard Cantonese are the result of British rule between 1841 and 1997 as well as the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the border closure thereafter.


Before British colonisation, the inhabitants of Hong Kong mainly spoke the Tung Kwun-Po On (Dongguan-Bao'an) variant of CantoneseFact|date=February 2007, as well as Hakka, Teochew, and Tanka. These dialects are all remarkably different from Standard Cantonese.

After the British acquired Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories from the Qing in 1841 (officially 1842), 1860 and 1898, large numbers of merchants and workers came to Hong Kong from the city of Guangzhou, the centre of Cantonese. Standard Cantonese became the dominant spoken dialect in Hong Kong. The frequent migration between Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking areas did not cease until the 1950s. During this period, the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong was very similar to that in Guangzhou.

Around 1949, the year that the People's Republic of China was established, Hong Kong saw a large influx of refugees from different areas of China. The British colonial government closed the border to halt the influx, but illegal immigration from mainland China into Hong Kong continued. Because of this, the correspondence between language and ethnicity may generally be true though not absolute, as many Chinese who speak Hong Kong Cantonese may come from other areas of China, especially Shanghai or non-Cantonese regions of Guangdong where Hakka and Teochiu prevail. Movement, communication, and relations between Hong Kong and mainland China became very limited, and consequently the evolution of Standard Cantonese in Hong Kong diverged from that in the rest of Guangdong. In mainland China, the use of Standard Mandarin, or Putonghua was enforced and Cantonese language was discouraged. Indigenous vocabularies were replaced by written Chinese, which is close to Putonghua. In Hong Kong, Cantonese remains the medium of instruction in schools, along with written English and Chinese. And because of the importance of English in Hong Kong and frequent communication with the Western world, there existed a large number of English loanwords in Hong Kong Cantonese like "巴士" (/páːsǐː/), literately, "bus". Hong Kong people even started to incorporated English words into Cantonese sentences, for example, "咁都唔 make sense" (literately "it does not make sense."). Therefore, the vocabularies of Cantonese in Mainland China and Hong Kong differed.

Moreover, the pronunciation of Cantonese changed while the change either did not occur in Mainland China or took place much slower. For example, merging of /n/ initial into /l/ initial and /ŋ/ initial into null initial were observed. Due to the limited communication between Hong Kong and Mainland China, these changes only had a limited effect in Mainland China at that time. As a result, the pronunciation of Cantonese between Hong Kong and Mainland China varied, and so native speakers may note the difference when listening to Hong Kong Cantonese and Mainland China Cantonese.

Alongside with the flourishing Cantonese opera, Hong Kong films, Cantopop and other aspects of Hong Kong-based Cantonese-language popular culture, Hong Kong Cantonese were exported to overseas Chinese communities as well.


In modern-day Hong Kong, many younger native speakers are unable to distinguish between certain phoneme pairs, causing them to merge one sound into another. Although this is often considered substandard and is frequently denounced as "lazy sounds" ( _zh. 懶音), the phenomenon is becoming more widespread and is influencing other Cantonese-speaking regions. Contrary to popular opinion, some of these changes are not recent. The loss of the velar nasal (IPA|/ŋ/) was documented by Williams (1856), and the substitution of the liquid nasal (IPA|/l/) for the nasal initial (IPA|/n/) was documented by Cowles (1914).

Other observed shifts:
*Merging of IPA|/n/ initial into IPA|/l/ initial.
*Merging of IPA|/ŋ/ initial into null initial.
*Merging of IPA|/kʷ/ and IPA|/kʷʰ/ initials into IPA|/k/ and IPA|/kʰ/ when followed by IPA|/ɔː/. Note that IPA|/ʷ/ is the only glide ( _zh. 介音) in Cantonese.
*Merging of IPA|/ŋ/ coda into IPA|/n/ coda, eliminating contrast between these pairs of finals: IPA|/aːn/-IPA|/aːŋ/, IPA|/ɐn/-IPA|/ɐŋ/, and IPA|/ɔːn/-IPA|/ɔːŋ/.
*Merging of entering-tone ( _zh. 入聲) IPA|/k/ coda into IPA|/t/ coda analogously.
*Merging of the two syllabic nasals, IPA|/ŋ̩/ into IPA|/m̩/, eliminating the contrast of sounds between (surname Ng) and (not).
*Merging of some IPA|/tsʰ/ into IPA|/ts/.

Today in Hong Kong, people still make an effort to avoid these sound merges in serious broadcasts and in education. Older people often do not exhibit these shifts in their speech, but some do. With the sound changes, the name of Hong Kong's Hang Seng Bank ( _zh. 香港恆生銀行), IPA|/hœ́ːŋ kɔ̌ːŋ hɐ̏ŋ sɐ́ŋ ŋɐ̏n hɔ̏ːŋ/, becomes IPA|/hœ́ːn kɔ̌ːn hɐ̏n sɐ́n ɐ̏n hɔ̏ːn/, sounding like "Hon' Kon' itchy body" ( _zh. 痕身 IPA|/hɐ̏n sɐ́n/) "bank". The name of the Cantonese language ( _zh. 廣東話, "Guangdong speech") itself should be IPA|/kʷɔ̌ːŋ tʊ́ŋ wǎː/, although IPA|/kɔ̌ːŋ tʊ́ŋ wǎː/ (sounding like " _zh. 講東話": "speak eastern speech") and IPA|/kɔ̌ːn tʊ́ŋ wǎː/ (sounding like " _zh. 趕東話" : "chase away eastern speech") are overwhelmingly popular.

The shift affects the way some Hong Kong people speak other languages as well. This is especially evident in the pronunciation of certain English names: "Nicole" becomes "lik col", and "Leonardo" becomes "leo la do". The mixing up of /n/ and /l/ also affects the choice of characters when the Cantonese media transliterate foreign names.

Prescriptivists who try to correct these "lazy sounds" often end up introducing hypercorrections. For instance, while attempting to ensure that people pronounce the initial IPA|/ŋ/, they would also mispronounce words that historically have a null initial as IPA|/ŋ/. One common example is that of the word , meaning "love." Even though the standard pronunciation should be IPA|/ɔ̄ːi/, the word is often incorrectly pronounced as IPA|/ŋɔ̄ːi/.

In recent years, a number of Hong Kong secondary schools have tried to improve the situation by making the learning of Standard Cantonese Pinyin part of the school Chinese curriculum.


Life in Hong Kong is characterised by the blending of Asian (southern Chinese in particular) and Western cultures, as well as the city's position as a major international business centre. In turn, Hong Kong influences have also spread widely into other cultures. As a result, a large number of loanwords are created in Hong Kong and then exported to China, Taiwan and Singapore. Some of the loanwords have become even more popular than their Chinese counterparts, in Hong Kong as well as in their destination cultures.

Imported loanwords

Selected loanword. [ [http://ihome.ust.hk/~lbsun/hkloan.html A list compiled by lbsun] ]

From English

Exported loanwords

Into English

Into Japanese

Incorporation of foreign language words into Cantonese sentence

Besides foreign loanwords, Hong Kong people are also used to incorporating words from foreign languages into Cantonese sentence without formally translating the words into Cantonese. For instance, "咁都唔 make sense", literally means "it does not make sense". Sometimes, the part of speech of the incorporated words are also changed, like "佢地好friend", translated into English as "they are very 'friend'", means "they are good friends". The word "friend" is changed from a noun into an adjective. In some examples, some new meanings of English words are even created. For example, "至yeah", literally "the most yeah", means "the trendiest". Originally, "yeah" means "yes" in English, but it means "trendy" when being incorporated into Hong Kong Cantonese.

When foreign words are used in Cantonese sentence, polysyllabic words and monosyllabic words tend to become disyllabic, and the second syllable is in the Upper Rising tone (the second tone). For example, "IPA|kon1 si2" (constitution), "IPA|saek6 kiu1" (security) and "IPA|ka1 si2" (class). There are a few polysyllabic words become monosyllabic though, like "IPA|mon1" (monitor), literally means computer monitor. And some new Cantonese lexicons are created according to the morphology of Cantonese. For example, "IPA|laai1記" from the word "library". Most of the disyllabic words and some of the monosyllabic words are incorporated as their original pronunciation, with some minor changes according to the Cantonese phonology. For example, "bra" is pronounced as "IPA|ba1", omitting the "r" sound.

After a foreign word is used in Cantonese sentences, it can be used like other Cantonese words according to the syntactical rules of Cantonese. For instance, "sure" (肯定) can be used like "你IPA|su1IPA|su1 aa4?" (are you sure?) as if it were its Cantonese counterpart "你肯唔肯定?". In some circumstances, using English words is preferable because it can simplify sentences. For example, "呢D點心係for visitors咖" means "these dim sums are for visitors". If English has not been used, the sentence would become long and complex such as "呢D點心係準備畀與會客人嘅" and thus not preferable.

Hong Kong Cantonese speakers rationally know which words are from foreign language, but when they speak they just use these words like normal Cantonese vocabularies. Sometimes it is difficult to find equivalence of the English words in Cantonese, such as the “miss” in ”我miss咗架巴士”, meaing "I missed the bus". In the case of some technological terms, the problem is even more serious. Hong Kong people find it difficult to say “你用個IPA|mau1-si2 right-click嚟highlight個mon” (“You use the right-click of the mouse to highlight the monitor”) in pure Cantonese. It is because most of the people do not know the Cantonese expression of "mouse", "right-click", "highlight" and "monitor". This is also a headache of those linguists and Chinese teachers who advocate the use of pure Cantonese.

ee also

*Bilingualism in Hong Kong
*Cantonese profanity
*Chinese language
*Code-switching in Hong Kong
*Hong Kong English
*List of Chinese dialects
*Spoken Chinese


External links

* [http://www.amw168.com Learn Chinese with Chinese Lyrics] Now with Pinyin and sound files
* [http://evchk.wikia.com/wiki/分類:術語 分類:術語 - 香港網絡大典] (in Big5 Chinese) Hong Kong slangs & jargons in the Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities in Hong Kong(Wikia)

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