Whenever people come across my meetup group called “The Hong Kong Cantonese Code-mixing Group” that I started on meetup.com recently, they often find it quite intriguing that I am trying to promote Hong Kong Cantonese into a world-class international language, as it sounds like an idea taken to such an extreme that is beyond imagination. It’s as if I’m giving people an impression such as “Wow! What a grand vision this is! I have never imagined Hong Kong Cantonese would become a world-class international language! By the way, why the extra words ‘world-class’?” While the words ‘world-class’ could seem a bit redundant at first hand, but if I were to answer this question precisely, I would have to say that I added the words ‘world-class’ because my aim isn’t just to promote Hong Kong Cantonese into an international language, but also one that has a prestigious status like the Queen’s English in the UK. This may seem laughable and absurd, as there aren’t notably different accents in Cantonese that denote different levels of social class. But from the perspective of sociolinguistics, we can see that Hong Kong people’s habit of inserting English words into their mother-tongue conversation, known as “code-mixing” in academic terms, nevertheless enacts a de facto concept of social class into the Cantonese language. So the question is, if code-mixing has enhanced Hong Kong Cantonese to a new distinct variety that incorporates the concept of class, shall we promote this variety to gain a wider recognition, or even to a point where it can achieve a world-renowned status one day?
When people talk about the next most common language of the world nowadays, Mandarin would usually be one of those among the top of the list that people have in mind. Without even going into the relatively lower difficulty for foreigners to pick up the language compared to Cantonese, Mandarin is the language spoken by the world’s greatest economic power, which means it has a very high practical value for those who conduct businesses. But what about Cantonese? What would be the reasons for people learning Cantonese other than to work in Hong Kong or in the southern part of China? In a recent article that I’ve read on SCMP by Luisa Tam, it seems to highlight the fact that the Cantonese language is not ‘particularly gentle or pleasant on the ear’, which aligns exactly with what a lecturer used to say during my years studying for a bachelor’s degree in Translation. Basically, it was a very similar retelling of a story about a western person who had come to Hong Kong, listened to the way Cantonese speakers spoke, and then thought, “Why are these people arguing?” But apart from this, what I found the most amusing about the article was that the journalist gave the analogy that if Mandarin had a singsong tone like classical music, then Cantonese would have to be belted out like rap music.
So if you’re new to Cantonese and have read up to this point, you might be now wondering whether Cantonese is really worth learning anymore, especially when it seems to have an argumentative tone intrinsically attached to it. But what if I told you that the English-mixed version of Cantonese is a new distinct variety that is not the same? In the article that I have written on whether Hong Kong Cantonese has evolved to a new stage, I have mentioned that the younger generation nowadays are incorporating a lot more English words and phrases into their Cantonese conversation than before, and revealed that there are quite concrete explanations as to why people choose to express an item in English rather than in Cantonese instead. Even though this work is still under progress here, we can already see that there are many code-mixing usages that have existed for a long time since the past generation, as if they have been hardcoded into the Hong Kong Cantonese language. In addition to the prime example of ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’ from my previous article, if we were to replace a code-mixing usage such as the English word “present” (verb) with the equivalent phrase in Cantonese ‘匯報’, it would probably sound too old-fashioned and take us a whole century back!
So if code-mixing has become the norm in the development of a language, what would it mean for the status of the language? Well, in our case, if the usage of English has become well-integrated in Hong Kong Cantonese, we can say that Hong Kong Cantonese has also become more international as it is being influenced by English. As of now, foreigners may only sense our internationalism through our short English utterances in our mother tongue Cantonese language, but in the years to come, our language may have a chance to evolve into code-switching (the insertion of a foreign language inter-sententially) if we utilise more English words, phrases, and clauses in our increasingly globalised workplaces. But the question is, will this evolution make Hong Kong Cantonese become more international or the other way around? That is, when we come to think of it at a deeper level, code-switching at the sentence level may mean that the two languages are becoming more separate than before, rather than one language being influenced and enhanced by another language in the case of code-mixing. So does that mean Hong Kong Cantonese is in a pretty good spot right now? No matter what, let’s keep moving forward in our language development and not backwards in time! 🙂