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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese accents (Cantonese)

I was going through some old emails yesterday and I chanced upon this funny little message:

‘Hi Keith, (from a former student of mine; if she is reading this, which is entirely likely, I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting this little header from her message. and in any case, please get in touch!)

Your emails never fail to entertain me, but this one made me laugh out loud…’

I wonder what made her so amused. The original message of mine goes like this:

‘My Christmas (2014) was somewhat uneventful. I went back to Hong Kong (first time in three years; I spent the last two Christmases in the UK, which was strangely memorable, as I managed to get a lot done on my own (lots of concerts, Christmas services, meals etc), though I did miss the family atmosphere and cheer during Christmas time) and participated in numerous family reunions this time round. I may have told you before that my mother’s side of the family comes from Shanghai and Ningbo, so my maternal relatives actually speak Shanghainese and related Wu dialects. I have recently taken an interest in those dialects and actually practised a bit during the family dinners. I went through the videotapes afterwards and discovered two things: 1) my Shanghainese is a disgrace 2) my native HK accent (e.g. n- > l- and all the things that I have been telling you to avoid) resurfaced when I was with family and friends, which is also a disgrace. As I have mentioned to you numerous times before, I am ashamed of the degeneracies of contemporary HK speech (and society) and have tried very hard to get rid of my HK accent (and identity) from a young age. Believe it or not, I used to speak with a heavy HK accent (and I used to be proud of being HK Chinese), but in my teens I spent hours practising speaking Cantonese to the mirror and managed to purify my speech. I felt so ashamed after watching those videos that I ended up apologising to the mirror. That was so utterly unprofessional of me to lose my linguistic focus, though it was Christmas/New Year so I guess that I had an excuse… Playing with my nephew was also fun. I got knackered after playing with him for almost five days running (118 hours). He is learning to speak now, and I have been speaking some Old Chinese to him (using Cantonese, of course, not Mandarin, for obvious reasons…! ###southernchinesepride) just to mess up his UG and language acquisition. It would be awesome if we raised him speaking Old Chinese, though my family probably would not appreciate that (!)…’

I have mentioned some prominent dialects of China here as well as some sociolinguistic factors which determine our code-switching/dialect mixing. As with all languages in the world, there are phonetic and grammatical differences in our language, Chinese, which is made all the more prominent by the fact that there are very many dialects in our country. In terms of linguistic density, China is easily on a par with some of the densest dialectal areas in the world (Italy, India, Medieval/Modern Germany, Native North America), as there is a variety attached to pretty much every single community (urban or not), which, considering the enormous size of China, amounts to just under a million dialects. Cantonese is the dialect spoken in the south-east of China, of which there are numerous sub-dialects which display microvariations. There are two very prominent features in Hong Kong Cantonese mentioned in my quoted message above, namely the slight change in place of articulation in word-initial labial-dentals (n- > l-) and the loss of word-initial ng-, which are widely classified as sloppy speech (懶音). A well known illustrative example is the phrase ‘I love you’:

我      愛      你

Ngoh oi      nei

I          love you

‘I love you.’

In contemporary sloppy speech, this is regularly pronounced as 我愛你 (oh oi lei) with the initial ng- of the pronoun ‘I’ dropped (我 ngoh > oh) and the change in the word-initial labio-dental of the pronoun ‘you (sg) (你 nei > lei), which sounds absolutely terrible. Whenever I teach my students to confess their love in Cantonese (!), therefore, I always teach them to get this phrase right: 我愛你 (ngoh oi nei). If you are going to propose to someone, at least say it right!

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