Posted by: JohnHo | October 24, 2009

Hong Kong English?

When it comes to New Englishes, the famous examples are always Singapore or Indian English. My problem is: Is Hong Kong English can be an example of New Englishes as well?

Butler (1997) suggests that there are five defining characteristics of New Englishes, they are:

1. a standard and recognizable pattern of pronunciation handed down from one generation to another

2. particular words and phrases which spring up usually to express key features of the physical and social environment and which are peculiar to the variety

3. a history—a sense that this variety of English is the way it is because of the history of the language community

4. a literature written without apology in that variety of English; and

5. reference works – dictionaries and style guides – which show that people in that language community look themselves, not some outside authority, to decide what is right and wrong in terms of how they speak and write their English.

For criteria 1, there is a pattern of how Hong Kong people speak English: (a) we hardly find stress in Hong Kong English; and (b) all /n/ sounds are tended to pronounce as /l/ sounds.

For criteria 2, there are some words that are particular in Hong Kong English. For example, we have a word called “undingable” which means unbearable. Sometimes, when Hong Kong people speak Hong Kong English, they may tend to added “lah” at the end of every sentence.

For criteria 3, Hong Kong has a long contact history with English because it was under British colonization since 1842.

However, for criterion 4 and 5, the criterion cannot apply in Hong Kong English. Can Hong Kong people write formally in Hong Kong English? No, it is because when Hong Kong people write in Hong Kong English, someone may claim it as bad English. Hong Kong people prefer to write in Standard English. Moreover, there is still no reference work for Hong Kong English.

To summarize, I think Hong Kong English is not a mature variety compare to Singapore or Indian English.

Here are some characteristics found in Wikipedia that I think which are really typical Hong Kong English: (

 – Omitting articles like “the” and “a”.

 – 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.

– 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”.

– Plural forms: there are no plural forms in Chinese, so plural and singular forms tend to be confused

 – “Actually” (also “In fact”) is used much more frequently than in standard English

 – Using “bored” and “boring” interchangeably. e.g. “I am so boring!” (real meaning: “I am so bored!”). In Chinese there is just one word used to describe either state.

– Using “hear” instead of “listen”. e.g. “I hear the radio” (real meaning: “I listen to the radio”). Same reason as above.


 Butler, S (1997) ‘Corpus of English in Southeast Asia: Implications for a regional dictionary’, in Bautista, MLS (ed) English is an Asian Language: The Philippine Context, Manila : The Macquarie Library, 103-24


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