Cantonese English, locally referred to as Chinglish, in theory, refers to the accent and characteristics of English spoken by native Hong Kongers and other Cantonese people. Overall, it is primarily spoken by native Hong Kong language (Cantonese) speakers. Therefore, although it is called Hong Kong English, it is not only spoken in Hong Kong. People who come from Macau, Guangzhou, or whose first language is Cantonese speak it.
English is one of the official languages in Hong Kong, and is used widely in the Government, academic circles, business and the courts. All road and government signs are bilingual and English is as equally valid as Chinese on legal and business standings. English is what distinguished most and those who spoke English or were taught English were considered the elite, meaning those able to be taught English were considered upperclassmen. This conceptualized way of thinking arose in 1984. This dialect is its own category and is the standard in Hong Kong.
People with higher education, past experience of living in English-speaking countries, or who constantly interact with Hong Kong's English-speaking expatriate communities, generally speak an acquired form of English. Accent and spelling preference may vary from person to person, depending on the people they have interacted with and the country they have studied in. For most ordinary local Hong Kongers however, the English spoken is generally typical of foreign language learners: Cantonese-influenced pronunciation with some acquired Received Pronunciation characteristics, and with vocabularies and sentence structure generally more formal than those of native speakers. For instance, contractions and slang are not used, and many idioms are alien to Hong Kongers because the terms pertain more to the cultures of English-speaking countries.
The falling English proficiency of local English language teachers has come under criticism.
Since the Handover, English in Hong Kong remains primarily a second language, in contrast to Singapore where English has been shifting toward being a first language.
Thirty-five years ago, it was argued that there was no such thing as Hong Kong English, but nowadays its status is much more established. In the Dynamic Model of Postcolonial Englishes, it has been classified as in the third phase, that of Nativization, but more recently it has been shown that many young people are happy to identify themselves as speakers of Hong Kong English, so it might be regarded as progressing into the fourth phase, that of Endonormative Stabilization. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that Hong Kong English is highly intelligible to listeners from elsewhere, which helps explain why an increasing number of people are happy to be identified as speakers of this variety.
Although it may be assumed that, as a result of the colonial legacy, the pronunciation of Hong Kong English was originally based on British English, in fact nowadays there are many features of pronunciation derived from American English, and indeed the influence of American English appears to be increasing. Furthermore, there seem to be some innovative developments that are unique to Hong Kong English, such as a split in the realisation of /v/ as [f] or [w]. Some of the more salient features are listed below.
There is a tendency for /θ/ to undergo fronting and become [f], so through may be pronounced as [fɹu], and three may be [fɹi]. However, this is variable, so some speakers pronounce thin as [θɪn] while others pronounce it as [fin]. The voiceless TH sound may be pronounced as [θ] at the beginning of words, but [f] usually occurs at the end.
/ð/ tends to be [d], so this is [dis], and whether is [wedə].
/v/ may be [w] or [f], so event may have [w] while even has [f]. It seems that [w] occurs at the start of a stressed syllable while [f] occurs at the start of an unstressed syllable.
There is alternation between [l] and [n], and the same speaker may alternate with words such as light and night, and both loud and number may have either [l] or [n] at the start.
In initial consonant clusters, [l] sometimes occurs in place of [ɹ], so crowded may have [l] while problem often begins with [pl].
/w/ may be omitted from initial /kw/ clusters before a rounded vowel, so quote is [koʊt] and quarter is [kɔtə].
In final consonant clusters, just as with many other varieties of English, there is a tendency for simplification, so the plosive at the end of words such as think and camp is often omitted. Deletion of coronal plosives /t/ and /d/ from word-final clusters has been reported to occur in about 76% of tokens, though this frequency is a little less if the function words and and just are excluded from the analysis.
L-vocalisation is common, so dark /l/ in the coda of a syllable is often pronounced as [ʊ], and fill may be [fɪʊ] while tell is [teʊ], just as in London English (Cockney). After back rounded vowels /l/ is often omitted, so school is [skʉː] and wall is [wɔː].
Like many accents in Britain, Hong Kong English is non-rhotic, so /ɹ/ is only pronounced before a vowel. However, with the growing influence of American English, many young people in Hong Kong now pronounce the /ɹ/ in the coda of a syllable.
There is often little distinction between the non-close front vowels, /æ/ and /ɛ/, so bet and bat may be pronounced the same (with [ɛ]).
Long and short vowels are generally merged, particularly involving the close vowels /iː/ and /ɪ/ (so heat and hit are similar) as well as /uː/ and /ʊ/ (so pull and pool are the same).
Vowel reduction is often avoided in function words, so a full vowel occurs in words such as and and to as well as the first syllable of content words such as accept and patrol.
Multi-syllable words are often differently stressed. For example, while the word "latte" is pronounced /ˈlæteɪ/ in most variants of the English language, it is usually pronounced /laˈtʰei̯/ in Hong Kong English, with the second syllable stressed instead of the first.
Omission of entire "r-" syllables in longer words; "difference" becomes /ˈtifɐns/, and "temperature" becomes /ˈtʰɛmpʰit͡sʰœ/.
Words beginning with unstressed syllables "con" are generally pronounced its stressed form /kʰɔn/ with a lower pitch, e.g. "connection", "consent", "condition". Words beginning with stressed syllable "com-" e.g. "competition", "common" and "compromise" are pronounced /kʰǎm/.
The schwa tends to be pronounced as /ɛ/ in final closed syllables; "ticket" is pronounced /ˈtʰe̝kʰɛt̚/, and "carpet" is pronounced /ˈkʰapʰɛt̚/.
The suffix -age is generally pronounced /ei̯tʃ/; "message" is pronounced /ˈmɛsei̯tʃ/, "package" is pronounced /ˈpʰɛkʰei̯tʃ/ etc.
Compared to other varieties of English, there is less difference between stressed and unstressed syllables. In most varieties of English, unstressed syllables are reduced, taking less time. This difference is smaller in Hong Kong English.
In Cantonese, there is no structure of diphthong+consonant. As a result, /eɪn/ becomes /e̝ŋ/, /eɪm/ becomes /ɛm/, /ɔɪn/ becomes /ɔn/, /oʊn/ becomes /o̝ŋ/, /aʊn/ becomes /aŋ/, /eɪk/ becomes /e̝k̚/, /oʊk/ becomes /o̝k̚/, /eɪl/ becomes /ɛu̯/ etc.
For the case /aɪn/, /aɪt/ or /aɪk/, the ending consonant is generally omitted, resulting in /aɪ/.
Many Chinese will speak a foreign language with the same characteristic monosyllabic staccato of spoken Chinese, with varying degrees of the natural liaisons between syllables that natives employ. In a similar vein, they often pronounce syllables as if words were transliterated into Cantonese: "Cameron" is pronounced as [ˈkʰɛmmalɔn] based on its transliteration; "basic" is pronounced as [ˈpei̯se̝k̚].
When speaking English, many people tend to assign one of the six tones (or nine, if entering tones are included) of the Cantonese to different words, giving it a Cantonese style. E.g. most Hong Kongers would pronounce "there" and "their" differently, giving a higher pitch to "there" /ˈtɛ́/ (tone 1 in Cantonese) and a lower pitch to "their" /ˈtɛ̀/ (tone 6 in Cantonese).
Exaggeration of certain final consonants, for example /s/ to /si˩/ and /d/ sounds of the past-tense form of verbs to /tət̚˩/).
Pronouncing the silent /w/, /h/ sounds in words like "Green-wich", "Bon-ham", "Chat-ham", "Beck-ham" are often reflected in the transliteration of the words, for example, Beckham is transliterated 碧咸 (pronounced /pɪk̚˥ haːm˩/).
Merging the contrast of voiceless/voiced consonants with aspirated/unaspirated if any contrast exists in Cantonese. This is because English voiceless consonants are most often aspirated, whereas the voiced ones are always unaspirated. The stop /p/ becomes /pʰ/ and /b/ becomes /p/; /t/ becomes /tʰ/ and /d/ becomes /t/; /k/ becomes /kʰ/ and /ɡ/ becomes /k/; /tʃ/ becomes /tsʰ/ and /dʒ/ becomes /ts/ (except when preceded by s, where the English consonants are unaspirated).
Merging voiceless/voiced consonants into voiceless if there is no contrast in aspirated/unaspirated in Cantonese. Both /f/ and /v/ become /f/; both /z/ and /s/ become /s/; both /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ become /s/; the only exception might be that /θ/ and /ð/ are never confused, due to difficulty in pronouncing /θ/ and /ð/: many pronounce /θ/ as /f/, and /ð/ as /t/.
Confusion between homographs (words with the same spelling but different meanings), e.g. the noun "resume" (c.v.) and the verb "resume" (to continue).
Contractions such as "aren't" are almost never used, even in conversations, as English in Hong Kong is used largely for formal writing.
Confusion with verb tenses and agreement of singular or plural nouns, as they have no direct equivalents in Chinese grammar (Mandarin and Cantonese). Or because that verb tenses are expressed using a preposition or exclamation words at the end of the sentence.
Use of prepositions: "on", "in" and "at" are often interchangeable. Prepositions are also sometimes omitted after transitive verbs. For example: "I will wait you at my flat," instead of "I will wait for you at my flat."
Over the phone, "This is [John]" becomes "I am [John]", a direct translation.
Yes/No confusion: In Cantonese, "yes" represents an agreement, "no" represents a disagreement, whilst in English "yes" represents a positive answer, "no" represents a negative answer. For example: "She isn't pretty, is she?" might attract the answer "No" when the native Cantonese speaker means "I disagree, in my opinion she is pretty".
"There is/are" becomes "there has/have", a direct translation.
Plural forms: there are no plural forms in Chinese, so plural and singular forms tend to be confused. The exclamation "Congratulation!" is often heard during expressions of joy for one's achievements.
"Actually" (also "In fact") is used much more frequently in Hong Kong English than in standard English. The Cantonese equivalent, 其實 ("keih sat"), is used more frequently than "actually" is used in standard English.
Using "lend" and "borrow" interchangeably. e.g. "I will borrow you my car" (real meaning: "I will lend you my car"). In Chinese, the word 借 is commonly used for both meanings.
Using "rent" and "let" interchangeably.
Omitting -ed and -ing. e.g. "He is charm.", "I feel touch." (real meaning: "He is charming.", "I feel touched.")
Using -ed and -ing interchangeably, e.g. "bored" and "boring". e.g. "I am so boring!" (real meaning: "I am so bored!"). In Chinese, the word 無聊 is commonly used for both meanings.
Using "win" instead of "beat". e.g. "I win you in the race!" (real meaning: "I beat you in the race!"). In Chinese, the word 贏 is commonly used for both meanings.
Using "hear" instead of "listen". e.g. "I hear the radio" (real meaning: "I listen to the radio"). In Chinese, the word 聽 is commonly used for both meanings.
10,000: Numbers larger than ten thousand. In Chinese, 10 thousand is read as one myriad (萬), 100 thousand as 10 myriad, one million as 100 myriad. Despite this, most people will not use the English word "myriad" so this type of English is hardly ever seen.
Fractions: In Chinese, the denominator is read before the numerator, so "three over four" (or three-fourths) may be misunderstood as "four over three". In this example, three-fourths in Chinese is "四分之三", literally "out of four portions, three".
Discounts: the Chinese way of saying 10% off is "90% of the original price". This is often written as 9折 (or 九折) which is understood to mean "discounted to 9/10 of the original price". When two digits are given the divisor is understood to be 100, e.g. 75折 (or 七五折) means 25% off.
American/British spelling and word usage
This is the entrance of the shopping centre "New World Centre" in Hong Kong. Note the spelling of the word "Centre" (instead of the American English "Center") and also that it does not say "Mall", as in the US.
Both British and American spellings are in common use, with the British variant predominating in official circles.
"I've eaten dinner law" ("I've had dinner"—“law" /lɔː˧/ indicates a perfect and makes the sentence more informal)
"I go lah, bye" ("I'm leaving, bye!"—“lah" /laː˧/ indicates intent and makes the sentence more informal)
Hong Kong vocabulary/expressions
Nullah Road, Mong Kok
Some words and phrases widely understood in Hong Kong are rare or unheard of elsewhere. These often derive from Chinese, Anglo-Indian or Portuguese/Macanese.
A 'chop' is a seal or stamp, e.g. a "Company chop" is the seal or stamp of a corporation (It actually originates from colonial Indian English.) It is now used in some other Commonwealth countries as a non-official term
A Tai-Pan (or 'taipan') is a term used in the early 20th century for a business executive of a large corporation.
An amah is a term used in the early 20th century for a live-in servant (from Macanese/Portuguese- ama nurse); now supplanted by "[domestic] helper"
A 'shroff' is a cashier in a hospital, a government office or a car park (parking garage).
Nullah is a concrete-lined canal or an re-enforced creek bed used to contain run-off. Nullah entered the English language from Hindi. The word nullah is used almost exclusively in Hong Kong.
Lai see means Lucky money.
'FILTH'/'Filth' (Failed in London, Try Hongkong) is a slang expression used to refer to people who look for employment opportunities in Hong Kong after being unsuccessful in looking for a job in the United Kingdom.
The word 'seldom' is used instead of 'rarely' in informal English – the word seldom is considered formal in English speaking countries.
A raffle is invariably referred to as a 'lucky draw'.
'Hong Kong foot', a literal translation of the Chinese slang term "香港腳" for athlete's foot. An early record for the Chinese name was found in Chen Jun Bao's diary (陳君葆日記), where an entry from 1944-08-03 claimed the term was named by Shanghaiese, while Hongkongers called it 'Singapore foot' (星加坡腳), and Singaporean called it 'Manila foot' (曼尼剌腳). 'Singapore foot' is still used by Singaporean media as of 2017.
The word 'cheap' can mean "of good value" in formal English. In Hong Kong English, the word 'cheap' tends towards the more derogatory connotation, meaning something is of low quality and distasteful.
Research is also being done on the generation of new Hong Kong English vocabulary driven by computer mediated communication between bilingual Cantonese and English speakers. Rather than use complicated Chinese character keyboard interfaces, Hong Kong English speakers will text and email English translations to the point that the English word often gains independent usage.
'Add Oil': [add oil!] verb, literally to fuel, is used more as an idiom to encourage a team or person. The term has long been limited to the Cantonese "gaa jau!" (加油), after originating as a cheer at the Macau Grand Prix in the 60s, but Hong Kong English speakers are increasingly using the English transliteration.
'Locust': [lo-cust] noun, referring to tourists from the mainland and meant to connote both masses and a drain on local resources. The word is derogatory and originated during shortages of powdered milk, which anti-parallel trading protesters blamed on mainland parallel traders.
Light bulb (literal translation of "電燈膽") means a third person that spoils the ideal combination of a couple. "Do not be a light bulb" means "Do not play gooseberry".
Common differences the Cantonese-speaking community
A 'body check' is used to refer to a medical checkup (medical examination), not a contact with an opponent from the front (due to literal translation from Chinese)
"Outlook" is often (mis)understood as "appearance". The noun "look" or "appearance" ("表") in Cantonese is commonly preceded by the character for "outer" ("外")
Using "open" instead of "turn on" and "close" instead of "turn off" for electronics such as televisions and fans. This is because "open" and "turn on" both use the same character ("開") in Cantonese. In spoken Cantonese, closing the door("閂" for the action, "門" for the door) and turning off appliances("熄" for the action) is denoted differently. Nonetheless, in formal writing, the same character ("關") is commonly used for both.