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. The falling English proficiency of local English language teachers has come under criticism. The proportion of the Hong Kong population who report using English (that is, all forms) as their "usual spoken language" increased from 2.8% in 2006 to 4.3% in 2016, while 51.1%, 63.5% and 65.6% respectively, reported being able to speak, write and read the language.
The existence of Hong Kong English, as a distinct variety of the English language, is still a matter of debate among many scholars.
Evidence suggesting variant established
In the literature examining the existence of Hong Kong English as a distinct variety, scholars have sought evidence of expression of the variant which may be classified according to the following criteria:
Standard and recognisable accent; research has demonstrated the existence of, and local preference for, a local Hong Kong English accent
Distinctive vocabulary; local media, such as newspapers, clearly show a shared common vocabulary used among English speakers in Hong Kong
History; a continuous link can be drawn between Hong Kong English and early pidgin forms used to communicate between traders in Canton before the establishment of Hong Kong as a colony.
Literature using the variant; there is a growing corpus of literature produced in English which is meant for local consumption, such as the work of Nury Vittachi.
Reference works; reference texts describing Hong Kong English are beginning to emerge, such as A Dictionary of Hong Kong English: Words from the Fragrant Harbor
Using these criteria, scholars have said that Hong Kong English possesses the attributes of a distinct variety.
Hong Kong English is also featured as a separate entity in the Oxford Guide to World English, under the sub-heading of "East Asia". Hong Kong English is also included as a separate variety of English within the International Corpus of English, with a dedicated local research team collecting data to describe the usage of English in Hong Kong.
Evidence suggesting variant not established
It has also been argued that there is no such thing as Hong Kong English and the predominance of recent works discuss Hong Kong phonology in terms of erroneous deviation from varieties such as British and American English. In one co-authored work describing a study conducted of five Hong Kong speakers of English, it was concluded, controversially, as they conceded, that HKE was at most an emergent variety and perhaps no more than a "learner interlanguage".: 12 In the Dynamic Model of Postcolonial Englishes, it has been classified as in the third phase, that of Nativisation, but more recently it has been shown that many young people are happy to identify themselves as speakers of Hong Kong English, so it may be regarded as progressing into the fourth phase, that of Endonormative Stabilisation. Furthermore, by the criteria identified in the above section, scholars have noted that there is very little literature produced in English which is meant for local consumption.
Intelligibility and recognition
It has been demonstrated that English spoken in Hong Kong 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. However, it has been noted that language use is highly politicised and compartmentalised in Hong Kong, where the two official languages are seen as having different and distinct uses. Indeed, it has been argued that even English language teachers in Hong Kong would refuse to acknowledge the local variant of English within a classroom setting, opting instead for more "standard" variations.
It has been argued that the lack of recognition of Hong Kong English as a variety on par with other Asian varieties, such as Indian English or Singaporean English, is due to a lack of research.
As a result of the colonial legacy, the pronunciation of Hong Kong English was assumed to be originally based on British English, However, nowadays, there are new features of pronunciation derived from American English, and the influence of American English has emerged. 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.
/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.
Words with the ending sound of /s/ add long vowel / i:/ , such as Joyce [dʒɔɪs] pronunciation becomes Joysee [dʒɔɪsi:]
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 [fiʊ] while tell is [teʊ], just as in London English (Cockney). After back rounded vowels /l/ is often omitted, so school is [skuː] 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 and Canadian 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 bat and bet 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 both pronounced [hit] with a short tense [i]) 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].
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).
American/British spelling and word usage
Both British and American spellings are in common use, although the British variant predominates in official circles, and remains to be the officially taught form in education.
When referring to the same thing, British vocabulary is more commonly used, for example: rubbish bin instead of garbage/trash can; lift instead of elevator; mobile phone instead of cell phone; estate agent instead of real estate broker.
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'; Chinese: 大班; Sidney Lau: daai6 baan1) is a term used in the early 20th century for a business executive of a large corporation.
Lai see a transliteration of the Cantonese term (Chinese: 利是), also referred to as "red envelopes", or "red packets", or by the Mandarin term 紅包 (hóngbāo), for red envelopes bearing auspicious Chinese phrases or characters containing money and handed out as gifts, particularly during the Lunar New Year festival.
^Census and Statistics Department. "Main Tables". 2016 Population By-census. Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Archived from the original on 8 October 2018. Retrieved 10 March 2019.
^Kirkpatrick, A.; Deterding, D.; Wong, J. (2008). "The International Intelligibility of Hong Kong English". World Englishes. 27 (3–4): 359–377. doi:10.1111/j.1467-971X.2008.00573.x.
^Hansen Edwards, J. G. (2016). "The Politics of Language and Identity: Attitudes Towards Hong Kong English pre and post the Umbrella Movement". Asian Englishes. 18 (2): 157–164. doi:10.1080/13488678.2016.1139937.
^ abcdeHung, T. N. (2012). "Hong Kong English". In E. L. Low; Azirah Hashim (eds.). English in Southeast Asia: Features, Policy and Language in Use. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 113–133.
^ abChan, J. Y. H. (2013). "Contextual Variation and Hong Kong English: Contextual Variation and Hong Kong English". World Englishes. 32: 54–74. doi:10.1111/weng.12004.
^ abcHung, T. N. (2007). "Innovation in Second Language Phonology". In T. Hoffmann; L. Siebers (eds.). World Englishes: Problems, Properties and Prospects. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 227–237.
^Hansen Edwards, J. G. (2016). "Sociolinguistic Variation in Asian Englishes: The Case of Coronal Stop Deletion". English World-Wide. 37 (2): 138–167. doi:10.1075/eww.37.2.02han.
^Sewell, Andrew (2017). "Pronunciation Assessment in Asia's World City: Implications of a Lingua Franca Approach in Hong Kong". In Isaacs T.; Trofimovich P. (eds.). Second Language Pronunciation Assessment: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Bristol: Multilingual Matters / Channel View Publications. pp. 237–255. JSTOR10.21832/j.ctt1xp3wcc.17.