Tuesday 11 October 2011

W, X, Y and .....Zed or Zee?

As the boys get bigger and start going to classes with structure, they are often singing the ABC song. Now if you ask me, that song ends "w, x, y and zed, now I know my alphabet..." then something else, I've forgotten the end. But the version that everyone (including britishers) uses here ends "w, x, y and zee, now I know my ABC, next time won't you sing with me."

This seems weird to me - are the boys going to grow up Americanized? Or internationalized? I expect they will say "heaps" instead of "loads", and they "won't have a bar of it" and spell it "vegies" not "veggies" but that's the Aussie influence (they are already addicted to Vegemite and were born on ANZAC day). Now, it won't come as much of a surprise to you all that I am something of a snob, especially when it comes to languages.

Already friends with school-age kids are worrying that they say candy instead of sweets (just to complicate the matter, the Aussie for sweets is lollies) Why do I feel so strongly that I don't want them to say chips instead of crisps? I think it might have something to do with a fear of them being bullied at an English school. But it's deeper than that too, it's always been there. I don't know, just my own little foible I guess.

Here in Hong Kong we have a curious blend of linguistic habits. The old melting-pot metaphor applies here, and I am only referring to the stuff written in the Latin alphabet. 

Of course it's easy to mock names - like the shop called Wankee Sports, or people with names like Purple, Champagne or Buffet. It's also easy to mock the difficulty that Canto speakers have distinguishing between L and R - see you tomollow, la! But it seems like the influence of many different cultures has seeped into common usage here.

Shroff, for example (Parsi for "one who deals with money") is very frequently used; everywhere from a car park attendant's hut to the hospital cashier's desk is called a shroff. A warehouse is a Godown (from the Malay "gudang"). Nullah is used to describe a sort of concrete reinforced gully for rainwater, it's from Hindi and is apparently hardly used anywhere except Hong Kong.

Hong Kong English has many idiosyncrasies, and perhaps the habit that we mock the most is for HKers to say "cannot". Cantonese is such a direct language, made up of simple units, that there is no custom of sugar-coating, as we would in English. No "would you mind" or "I'm afraid not" or "I'd be grateful if". Just CANNOT. And as much as we take the piss, I don't actually get cannotted all that often. It's more of an attitude I guess. 

It's ironic because the answer is so often CAN - yes, I can come and fix your water heater on a Sunday afternoon, yes I can continue to negotiate your flat rental at 10pm on a Friday night, yes I can bring you a keg of beer on a public holiday. Of couse the flip side of that is yes I can dig a massive great hole in the pavement without any protective barriers around it so that you and your ma chai can fall into it!

ps: I just took the boys out with me when I went to get coffee at Pret in Lee Gardens II, and I dressed them in jeans, socks and shoes and jumpers because it was a bit chilly. I explained this to Vergenia, who asked me what the temperature is, so I just looked it up - 25 degrees. Not exactly chilly.

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