Contributor : Rachel Ka Yin

“Gwong Fuk Heung Gong! Si Doi Gark Ming!”

If you understand the above slogan, chances are you’re probably a Hong Konger born in the post-80s or 90s. If that did not make any sense to you, the “language” in use is a form of loose Cantonese romanization (a feature of the wider linguistic phenomenon “Chinglish/ Kongish”) which recently saw a surge from the niche to widespread societal use in political activism via the online platform “LIHKG”.

What is loose Cantonese romanisation?

Loose Cantonese romanisation exists apart from standardissed forms of Cantonese romanisation such as Jyutping and Yale romanisation, and is believed to have come into existence in the late 2000s. Loose Cantonese romanisation arose organically in said era as a result of the increased use of instant messaging applications (such as the now-defunct MSN) amongst post-90s who were unfamiliar with the Chinese input systems of Cangjie or Zhuyin. The widespread use of personal mobile phones and texting in the early 2010s also contributed to the development of loose Cantonese romanisation, as texters did not always change to the available Chinese input methods from the default English keyboard when expressing Cantonese messages, rather choosing to resort to the romanisation of Cantonese words via the English alphabet.

Why did loose Cantonese romanisation arise despite the existence of standardised systems of Cantonese romanisation?

The answer probably lies in the lack of use of Jyutping (developed in 1993), Yale (developed in 1958) and Cantonese pinyin (developed in 1971) outside professional and academic contexts. Post-90s would not be literate in these romanization systems as they were not taught in schools, unlike Hanyu Pinyin in China and Zhuyin in Taiwan; and the elements of IPA enunciations and characters in these systems make them inaccessible and unintuitive to the layman.

Why did loose Cantonese romanisation arise?

Romanizing Cantonese according to the rules of English phonics requires the romanizer to be familiar with both the phonics of written English and the phonology of spoken Cantonese. The Hong Kong Education Bureau’s “Trilingual and Biliterate” language education policy since the 1997 handover greatly increased English language standards among students, and thus the average post-90 would much more likely be familiar with English phonics, rather than Jyutping or Yale, and also when compared with the previous generation of Hong Kongers- these policies, coupled with aforementioned technological developments, laid the framework of necessary linguistic conditions for a new form of Cantonese romanisation to arise organically amongst the post-90s generation.

Why use loose Cantonese romanisation?

The main purpose of loose Cantonese romanisation is efficient communication. Due to the widespread use of code-mixing (the origins and implications of which are outlined in my paper here) amongst the younger generation of post-80s and 90s, interlocutors found it troublesome to switch between the Chinese and English keyboards or input methods (particularly with earlier models of mobile phones) to code-mix an English admixture into Cantonese texts, and thus would rather choose to transcribe the message in loose romanised Cantonese instead. Additionally, Cantonese is mainly a spoken language, and a wide variety of alternative characters exist for certain phrases (or indeed, written characters do not exist at all/ are incredibly obscure to the average interlocutor due to atypical fabrication and relatively common words (even particles), and thus the interlocutor, troubled with finding the correct character, chooses to express the Cantonese phrase in loose romanised Cantonese instead. Even if the interlocutor does use a Chinese input method, the preferred method familiar to much of the younger generation (who were not taught Cangjie or Zhuyin) is Handwriting, and many interlocutors would not be familiar with the written characters of frequently used words due to their obscurity and complexity, despite familiarity with it in spoken Cantonese. A good example is the pronoun “佢” (he/she/it), loosely romanised to “kui”; which in Jyutping is “keoi5”, but in Yale romanisation is “kéui“.

Does loose Cantonese romanisation follow any rules?

Despite developing organically, loose Cantonese romanisation is not without it’s rules. One example that can elucidate this is “邋遢” (dirty/ untidy), loosely romanised to “laat taat”, which in Jyutping is coincidentally also “laat6 taat3”, and in Yale romanisation is “laaht taat”. This suggests that despite having no tones, loose Cantonese romanisation follows (certain) similar rules to standard forms of romanisation which are likely to be the ones widely applicable to romanisation in general (of any language). Due to the highly tonal quality of Cantonese (it has six to nine tones depending on how you’re counting), the lack of tones in loose Cantonese romanisation results in a large number of homographs, which could alter the entire meaning of a sentence. Take this sentence as an example: “Ngo seung hui lah.” Depending on whether the word morpheme “seung” is interpreted as “soeng2” (想) or “soeng5” (上), the sentence either means “I want to go now” (implied: I previously did not want to go) (我想去啦) or “I’m going up” (我上去啦). Thus the elucidation of homographs in loosely romanised Cantonese relies largely on contextual information. The lack of tones also constrains loose Cantonese romanisation by reverting “lazy sounds” (the linguistic phenomenon of interlocutors becoming unable phoneme pairs merging the two sounds) to standard Cantonese pronunciation, most notably the morphemes for “me” (我) and “you” (你): 我 is transcribed as “ngo” as in the Jyutping “ngo5” though nowadays pronounced as “o5”; whereas 你 is transcibed as “nei” as in Jyutping “nei5” although pronounced as “lei5”.

To what extent does loose Cantonese romanisation demonstrate productivity?

 Loose Cantonese romanisation is highly productive, with new phrases coming into existence each day as it used increasingly by the masses. These phrases usually instances of the code-mixing of Cantonese with English admixture on the morphemic level, or are shortened versions (contractions) or shorthand forms of Cantonese expressions. Examples of the former include “g hau” for the phrase “之後” (zi1 hau6), meaning afterwards, in which the pronunciation of the letter “G” is substituted for the similar sounding morpheme “zi1”; and the code-mixed phrase “yurked” for which adds a past-tense suffix “-ed” to the Cantonese morpheme “約” (joek3) meaning “make plans to meet” to form a compromise form which expresses the sentiment “previously made plans to meet” in a single morpheme. Examples of the latter include “ks” in short for “kei sud” (其實/ kei4 sat6), meaning “actually”; “m guns/ mm guns” in short for “m gunyiu/ mm gunyiu” (唔緊要/ m4 gan2 jiu3), meaning “no worries”; and of course the pervasive and characteristic profanity “dllm/ dnlm” for “diu lei lo mo/ diu nei lo mo” (屌你老母/ diu2 nei5 lou5 mou2) which is the equivalent of the English vulgarity “fuck your mother”, an emotionally charged sentiment that has, with recent developments, become politically charged.

Was loose Cantonese romanisation always so prevalent?

Loose Cantonese romanisation did not formerly enjoy the popularity it does today, and was largely confined to the niches of intra-group communication between young post-90s Hong Kongers with high bilingual literacy. Due to the colonial history of Hong Kong, there exists a psychological ambivalence towards English as it is rarely used among Hong Kong Chinese for intra-ethnic communication (unlike other colonial societies such as Singapore and India) to avoid coming off as overly westernised or pretentious, due to the assumed prestige attached to this “high” variety of language. Similarly, as loosely romanised Cantonese requires a considerable level of English proficiency, some netizens viewed romanisation of Cantonese as a trait of the highly westernised and elite that they felt was unintelligible and indecipherable to the average Hong Konger with limited to elementary English proficiency. Just a simple search on the Facebook page “名校 Secrets” (Elite Schools Secrets), an anonymous confessions page, reveals multiple examples (dating from as early as 2013 to as recent as 2017) of netizens who themselves apparently come from an elite cohort of EMI schools (and should theoretically be proficient in English to a considerable level) vilifying the loosely romanised Cantonese of their peers as pathological, pretentious and unintelligible. Despite these criticisms, loose Cantonese romanisation thrived in bilingual environments and gained traction in society, such that in 2013, Google introduced Google Cantonese Input which recognises loose Cantonese romanisation (or other non-standard Cantonese romanisation), which in itself is a linguistic feat of loose romanisation, though seemingly counterintuitive to its own linguistic origins.

A year later, the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 (see: the unofficial Chinglish motto of the movement, “Hong Kong, Add Oil!”) would see various news outlets such as localist magazine “100毛” demonstrate the increased use of the wider linguistic phenomenon Chinglish/ Kongish (see: my previous paper). A distinct sociolinguistic identity amongst Hong Kongers (see: The “Cantonese Is My Mother Tongue” Movement) to counter the corrosion of Cantonese by Mandarin (as a vernacular and medium of instruction) was also made salient. These linguistic conditions set the stage for the creation of bite-size news page Kongish Daily (more than 48,000 likes to date), which uses loose Cantonese romanisation in conjunction with code-mixing and Hong Kong English to caption and share news updates in line with an understated localist agenda.

How did loose Cantonese romanisation become prevalent in political activism?

            In short, one post on LIHKG was all it took for loose Cantonese romanisation to shoot to the front lines of the anti-ELAB protest and resistance movement. The initial thread read:

“LEI YUT GOR HAI 8.18 DA GA KAU TONG GE FONG SIK

IF U WAI YI YAU GHOST, WRITE ON A PIECE OF PAPER

“NEI GI NG GI NGO UP MUD 7 AH?”

YU GWOR KUI TAI NG MING

JAU GI KUI HAI YUN DING HAI GWAI LA

TONG NGO TUI BAO KUI AH DIU!!!!!!!”

Approximate translation with glosses:

“This is how we communicate on 8.18 (day of scheduled peaceful protest), if you suspect there might be a ghost (a troll/ spy), write on a piece of paper: ‘Do you know what the **** I’m saying?’ (in loose romanized Cantonese). If they are unable to understand, you will then know if they are human (a true protester) or ghost (a troll/ spy). Bump this so it becomes ****ing viral!!!!!!”

In short, protestors were wary of online trolls and spies planted by the Chinese government amongst their midst, and a LIHKG user suggested the use of loose Cantonese romanisation, understood only by Cantonese speakers, to weed out Mandarin speakers from the mainland, who may be able to sound the slogans but would be unable to comprehend its meaning.

            Following this post, a barrage of political slogans and posters appeared online overnight, from the unofficial slogan of the anti-ELAB protests “Gwong fuk heung gong, si doi gark ming” (Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times); to the call to protest “Wai yuen gin” (See you at Victoria Park) calling on citizens to join the peaceful protest in Victoria Park on the following day; and the informational “Wo ping jaap wui ngo yau kuen, V park no space gum dim sin” (I have the right to peaceful protest, but there is no space in Victoria Park, what should we do?).

What does the use of loose Cantonese romanisation imply for the social and linguistic identity of Hong Kongers?

            Social identity is intrinsically linked to the linguistic identity of an ethno-linguistic group. As the linguistic identity of the Hong Kong Chinese becomes more developed and complex, the social identity of the speech community also undergoes changes in aspects of culture and politics.

According to the Social Identity Theory, social identity is “based in comparisons people make between in-groups (group they belong to) and out-groups (groups they do not belong to)”. Thus, as speech is a way to express group membership, members of a speech community tend to strive to maintain a positive social identity by adopting convergence in communication to “signal a salient group distinctiveness, so as to reinforce a social identity.”

In the case of Hong Kong, the use of loose Cantonese romanisation in political activism is used to “signal a salient group distinctiveness”. It differs from instances of romanisation in other contexts- such as, rather ironically, the non-standard form of romanisation adopted by the Hong Kong Government for the names of roads and places- in that it serves the purpose of contending with the previously mentioned corrosion and infiltration of Cantonese by Mandarin by its unapologetic use of loose Cantonese romanisation. The use of loose Cantonese romanisation in these highly publicised contexts (slogans, activism materials, public online forums) as compared to previous confinement to niche and rather private communication (instant messaging) also demonstrates that Hong Kongers have increasingly adopted this form of communication as part of their social and linguistic identity to validate their status as Hong Kongers, and more specifically- bilingual Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong.

In hindsight, the spread of loose Cantonese romanisation developed organically, and slowly but surely from the niche to the masses until one post on LIHKG shot it to stardom. Hence looking forward, the further development of loose Cantonese romanisation would probably be entwined with the political fate of Hong Kong and the language education policies of government. The productivity of loose Cantonese romanisation will continue to produce linguistic innovations that will redefine the lexicon as we know it. Until then, our generation will be known as the vanguard of the trilingual and triliterate.

About the contributor:

Leung Rachel Ka Yin is a student of Psychology at the University of Oxford. Her poems have been awarded in the Proverse Poetry Prize, Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and her debut pamphlet is forthcoming with the Hedgehog Poetry Press in March 2020. She has been featured in the Cha Reading Series. She now serves as the Online Fiction Director of Isis Magazine, Poetry Reader at The Adroit Journal and Poetry Editor at Figure of Speech and Sandpiper.