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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

MTR signs

The Hong Kong (HK) MTR (Mass Transit Railway) system really is iconic, which makes it a shame that it has recently suffered so much vandalisms in the HK protests. It is equivalent to the London Tube/European Metro/New York Subway systems in being the connection which allows people to go from one part of the city to another and in effect binds the whole city together. It is probably a bit more packed and less comfortable than the other systems, since HK is quite a bit smaller and the flow of population dynamics runs on a feverish pitch on a daily basis as the people tend to rush from one end of the city to another. It is also a place of special interest for the sampling of Cantonese speech, since it is an underground public arena where normal societal rules of speech apply, yet at the same time the intimate setting of travelling under ground is such that people, especially those travelling in groups, tend to talk among themselves in colloquial registers. I have mentioned before how there are some interesting sociolinguistic phenomena in the HK MTR, which shows just how spontaneously bidialectal HK Chinese people are. Formal, literary features derived from Mandarin and local, colloquial features of Cantonese can be found in some subtle forms of code-switching where people sometimes switch almost unknowingly between formal and informal registers in accordance with the situation, which attests to the rich mixture of linguistic inventory in the sociolinguistics of HK. I have recently discovered a piece of text which suggests that such seemingly incoherent mixing of varieties may run deeper than code-switching, as shown in the following photo:

This is without doubt a piece of literary Chinese, as seen in its content of warning passengers to mind the doors (請勿上/落車 ‘please do not get on or off the carriage’) as well as in its use of the negator 勿 which is a literary word and is used in Classical Chinese and has survived into numerous central Wu dialects. Nonetheless, there are some striking Cantonese features in this piece of warning, namely the use of 落 ‘descend’ as an antonym to 上 ‘ascend’, which is a distinctively Cantonese feature and is equivalent to Mandarin in many usages. Also, the temporal subordinate clause sounds somewhat local, since in standard Mandarin this could be rendered as 車門關上時 ‘when the doors are closing’, whereas here the colloquial Cantonese clause-initial complementiser 當 ‘when’ is used (當車門正在關上). All in all, this little piece of text which is otherwise perfectly mundane and insignificant shows how wonderfully inventive the Cantonese literary language has become, as it takes from the literary foundations of northern Mandarin and seamlessly inserts Cantonese features into it. The boundaries between written and spoken registers, as seen in the triglossic culture in HK (Cantonese/Mandarin/English), are somewhat fluid and permeable, which gives rise to such fascinating dialectal mixing.

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