Hong Kong English

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Hong Kong English
Native toHong Kong
RegionEast Asia
Latin (English alphabet)
Unified English Braille
Language codes
ISO 639-3
China Hong Kong 4 levels localisation.svg
Location of Hong Kong
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Hong Kong English is a variety of the English language native to Hong Kong. The variant is either a learner interlanguage or emergent variant, primarily a result of Hong Kong's British overseas territory history and the influence of native Hong Kong Cantonese speakers.


English is one of two official languages in Hong Kong – the other being Chinese (Cantonese) – and is used in academia, business and the courts, as well as in most government materials. Major businesses routinely issue important material in both Chinese and English, and all road and government signs are bilingual. [1]

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.[2] 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.[3]


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[edit]

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[4][5]
  • Distinctive vocabulary; local media, such as newspapers, clearly show a shared common vocabulary used among English speakers in Hong Kong[6]
  • 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.[7]
  • Literature using the variant; there is a growing corpus of literature produced in English which is meant for local consumption.[8]
  • 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[9][4]

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".[10] 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.[11]

Evidence suggesting variant not established[edit]

It has also been argued that there is no such thing as Hong Kong English[12] 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".[13]: 12  In the Dynamic Model of Postcolonial Englishes, it has been classified as in the third phase, that of Nativisation,[14] 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.[15] 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.[4]

Intelligibility and recognition[edit]

It has been demonstrated that English spoken in Hong Kong is highly intelligible to listeners from elsewhere,[16] which helps explain why an increasing number of people are happy to be identified as speakers of this variety.[17] 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,[4] 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.[10]


As a result of the colonial legacy, the pronunciation of Hong Kong English was assumed to be originally based on British English,[18] However, nowadays, there are new features of pronunciation derived from American English,[13] and the influence of American English has emerged.[19] 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].[20] Some of the more salient features are listed below.


  • /ð/ tends to be [d], so this is [dis],[18][21]
  • /ə/ tends to be [ɑ],so whether is [ˈwɛdɑ].[22]
  • /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.[20]
  • 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.[20]
  • Words with final /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.[23]
  • 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).[18] After back rounded vowels /l/ is often omitted, so school is [skuː] and wall is [wɔː].[22]
  • 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, many young people in Hong Kong now pronounce the /ɹ/ in the coda of a syllable.[19]
  • 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]).[18]
  • 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).[18]
  • 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.[22]


  • Multi-syllable words are often differently stressed. For example, while the word "latte" is pronounced /ˈlæt/ 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.
  • There is less vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, and some variation in the placement of stress. For example, chocolate may be pronounced /ˈɒklt/, as distinct from /ˈɒklət/ in other varieties of English.[24]
  • 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.[25]


  • 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˩].
  • Differences or omission in ending sounds, as the ending consonants are always voiceless and unreleased (glottalised) in Cantonese with the exceptions of /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/, similar to Basel German
  • 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 (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/ stays as [pʰ] but /b/ becomes [p]; /t/ stays as [tʰ] but /d/ becomes [t]; /k/ stays as [kʰ] but /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" (a CV) and the verb "resume" (to continue).

American/British spelling and word usage[edit]

  • Both British and American spellings are in common use, although the British variant predominates in official circles, and remains the officially taught form in education.
  • However, Hong Kong has significant American influence in its treatment of abbreviations and initialisms: the full point is expected in shortened titles (Mr., Ms., Dr., St.), and government honours also retain the full point in post-nominals (G.B.M., G.B.S.), whereas British English no longer uses the full point.
  • When referring to the same thing, British vocabulary is more commonly used, for example: rubbish bin instead of garbage/trash can; lift[26] instead of elevator; mobile phone instead of cell phone; estate agent[27][28] instead of real estate broker.

Hong Kong vocabulary/expressions[edit]

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.[29]
  • 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.
  • An amah (Chinese: 阿嬷; Sidney Lau: a3 ma4) is a term used in the early 20th century for a live-in servant (from Macanese/Portuguese- ama nurse); now supplanted by "[domestic] helper"
  • A 'shroff' is a cashier, in a hospital, a government office or a car park (parking garage).[30]
  • "Godown" is a warehouse From the Malay "gudang".[31] The ultimate origins were traced to the Indian subcontinent.[32]
  • Nullah is a concrete or stone-lined canal or a reinforced creek bed used to contain run-off. Nullah entered the English language from Hindi.[33]
  • Jetso ("") is sometimes used to mean discount or special offer.[34]
  • 'Add oil', direct translation of the Chinese 加油 (Sidney Lau: ga1 yau4), an exclamatory entreaty of encouragement. The usage became popularised by the Umbrella Movement.[35]
  • 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.[citation needed] People often read souvenir wrongly as soften-near.

In 2015 University of Hong Kong professor Lisa Lim stated that some of the words, by that year, had declined in usage.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eoyang, Eugene Chen (2000). "From the Imperial to the Empirical: Teaching English in Hong Kong". Profession: 62–74. JSTOR 25595704.
  2. ^ Glenwright, Phil (2005). "Grammar Error Strike Hard: Language Proficiency Testing of Hong Kong Teachers and the Four 'Noes'". Journal of Language, Identity & Education. 4 (3): 201–226. doi:10.1207/s15327701jlie0403_2. ISSN 1534-8458. S2CID 144687817.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b c d Pang, Terence T. T. (2003). "Hong Kong English: A Stillborn Variety?". English Today. 19 (2): 12–18. doi:10.1017/S0266078403002037. S2CID 145090545.
  5. ^ Hung, Tony T. N. (2000). "Towards a Phonology of Hong Kong English". World Englishes. 19 (3): 337–356. doi:10.1111/1467-971X.00183.
  6. ^ Benson, Phil (2000). "Hong Kong Words: Variation and Context". World Englishes. 19 (3): 373–380. doi:10.1111/1467-971X.00185.
  7. ^ Bolton, Kingsley (2000). "The Sociolinguistics of Hong Kong and the Space for Hong Kong English". World Englishes. 19 (3): 265–285. doi:10.1111/1467-971X.00179. hdl:10356/96202.
  8. ^ Bolton, Kingsley; Lim, Shirley (2000). "Futures for Hong Kong English". World Englishes. 19 (3): 429–443. doi:10.1111/1467-971X.00191.
  9. ^ Cummings, Patrick J.; Wolf, Hans-Georg (2011). A Dictionary of Hong Kong English: Words from the Fragrant Harbor. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 9789888083305.
  10. ^ a b Wong, May Lai-Yin (2013). "Concord Patterns with Collective Nouns in Hong Kong English. With Illustrative Material from the International Corpus of English (Hong Kong Component)". Linguistik Online. 37 (1). doi:10.13092/lo.37.514.
  11. ^ "The International Corpus of English". The ICE Project. Retrieved 10 March 2019.
  12. ^ Luke, K. K.; Richards, Jack C. (1982). "English in Hong Kong: Functions and status". English World-Wide. 3: 47–61. doi:10.1075/eww.3.1.04kan.
  13. ^ a b Setter, Jane; Wong, Cathy S.P.; Chan, Brian H.S. (2010). Hong Kong English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748635979. Retrieved 30 June 2020.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ Schneider, E. W. (2007). Postcolonial English: Varieties Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-052-183-140-6.
  15. ^ Hansen Edwards, J. G. (2015). "Hong Kong English: Attitudes, Identity, and Use". Asian Englishes. 17 (3): 184–208. doi:10.1080/13488678.2015.1049840. S2CID 220291575.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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. S2CID 220288635.
  18. ^ a b c d e Hung, 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.
  19. ^ a b Chan, 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.
  20. ^ a b c Hung, 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.
  21. ^ Sewell, Andrew (2009). "World Englishes, English as a Lingua Franca, and the case of Hong Kong English". English Today. 25 (1): 37–43. doi:10.1017/S0266078409000066. S2CID 54170922. Archived from the original on 1 August 2020. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  22. ^ a b c Deterding, D.; Wong, J.; Kirkpatrick, A. (2008). "The Pronunciation of Hong Kong English". English World-Wide. 29 (2): 148–175. doi:10.1075/eww.29.2.03det. hdl:10072/42146.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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. Vol. 107. Bristol: Multilingual Matters / Channel View Publications. pp. 237–255. ISBN 9781783096848. JSTOR 10.21832/j.ctt1xp3wcc.17.
  25. ^ Setter, Jane (2006). "Speech Rhythm in World Englishes: The Case of Hong Kong". TESOL Quarterly. 40 (4): 763–782. doi:10.2307/40264307. JSTOR 40264307.
  26. ^ "Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in Government Departments". Civil Service Bureau. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
  27. ^ "About EAA". Estate Agents Authority. Retrieved 18 April 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  28. ^ "Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in Government Departments". Civil Service Bureau. Archived from the original on 19 October 2018. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
  29. ^ Lim, Lisa (28 July 2016). "Where does the word 'chop' come from?". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  30. ^ Lim, Lisa (17 March 2017). "Where the word 'shroff' came from, and its many meanings". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 6 June 2022.
  31. ^ Cassell Giant Paperback Dictionary, 1994
  32. ^ Lim, Lisa (10 June 2017). "Where did the word 'godown' come from? India, most probably via Malay". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  33. ^ Lim, Lisa (26 June 2017). "Why Hong Kong has 'nullahs' not drains". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  34. ^ "What Exactly Is a "Jetso"?". HK Magazine. 15 July 2016. Archived from the original on 3 August 2020. Retrieved 23 July 2019 – via South China Morning Post.
  35. ^ Lim, Lisa (11 September 2016). "How 2014 Hong Kong protests popularised the phrase 'add oil'". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  36. ^ Lim, Lisa (24 June 2015). "Add oil! The evolution of Hong Kong English, and where our unique words come from". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 7 June 2022.

External links[edit]