Is ‘chok’ English or not?

The other day. I was giving a talk on Hong Kong English to sixty S2 boys at a secondary school. At the start of the talk, I showed the S2 boys a few words which often appear as written ‘English’ in Hong Kong. My purpose was partly motivation, and partly to get an idea of their level of awareness of Hong Kong languages. The words were: jetso; long time no see; add oil; chok; and milk tea. 

I was somewhat amused that one fourth of them thought the word ‘chok’ was English, while one half of them were not sure. The word ‘chok’ has always been a Cantonese word to me, though there is not a written form. Traditional usages include 「架巴士好chok」,「chok吓個奶樽」. But when the TV actor Lam Fung was first described as ‘chok’ about two years back, the word seemed to take on a new meaning. I asked some students at CUHK how the new meaning came about, and one of them said it originated from pinball games, which had the saying ‘chok 必殺技(打機)’. So it meant something like ‘to artificially produce a certain effect/result’. This was a plausible explanation given the fact that Lam Fung was accused of ‘looking, somewhat unnaturally in a certain artificial way, to appear more handsome’.

What’s interesting is that the usage was soon extended to other contexts, like ‘cok3 seng1’, which meant ‘to artificially speak or sing in a certain way’. Later still, it became an adjective with little meaning, as in ‘He/This is very chok’; somewhat like the English words ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’. People used it just because it was trendy.

When I first posted the question on FB, one FB acquaintance suggested that ‘chok’ originated from the English word ‘choke’. But to me, the English word ‘choke’ had barely the meaning of ‘chok’ as used in the above examples.

Some time later, however, the Cantonese expression ‘chok住道氣’ sprang to mind. This meaning came closest to the English word ‘choke’, in the sense of ‘being unable to breathe smoothly’.

So did ‘chok’ originate from an English word (such as ‘choke’)? I still don’t think so. But perhaps when it appears in written form in Hong Kong, it does so through English letters. So after a while, people who are not aware of the origin might think it’s English. (Incidentally, the HK Cantonese word ‘jetso’ was also considered to be English by quite a number of the students.)


My bantering about the word ‘chok’ with other FB friends caught the attention of Dr Angel Lin, who forwarded the issue to Dr David Li, an expert on HK languages. Dr Li kindly provided his observation, as follows:

It is definitely a Cantonese morpheme (unmistakable in speech) which does not have a suitable written representation in Cantonese (i.e. no Cantonese morpho-syllable appears to fit the pronunciation of cok3). Phonetic loan from existing Chinese morpho-syllables [pronounced in Cantonese to be sure] is a highly productive strategy; here it is blocked because there is no suitable match – hence a pseudo-English representation. In terms of pronunciation, however, it is not a problem given that most of our students receive English-rich education from kindergarten (based on words like ‘church’ and ‘shock’, where ‘c’ tends to be ignored without affecting its pronunciation).



特首喜歡說「責成」這部門做這事,「責成」那部門做那事;給人的感覺就是他的下屬不做事,或他不信任各部門。我翻查台灣中央研究院現代漢語語料庫,「責成」的用法都含對對方不滿或不放心的含意,例如「教育部將責成省市教育廳及縣市教育局應立即成立 …」,「如果我國法令不能責成紙廠回收資源,政府應該規定紙廠以 …」。除了「責成」,特首不可說「提示」,「指示」,或「頓促」嗎?


To friend someone on Facebook

In English, can we say ‘to friend someone (on FB)?

Four years ago in the Ming Pao column I co-authored with Dr Benjamin Au Yeung, I was still saying no.

In fact, when someone suggested this usage in 2008 on Urban Dictionary, it got only 7 Like’s. By the standard of Urban Dictionary, the usage received almost no support.

In 2009, when someone used it on the Internet, it was written as “how to ‘friend’ someone on FB”. The verb friend was put in quotation marks.

In 2012, the website eHow took away the quotation marks.

In this Tuesday’s episode of The Good Wife, this expression was used 5 times, by 4 educated adults: “I wanted to friend all the other jurors”; “I friended the judge”; “she friended me back”, and so on.

Language is changing all the time, and I think we have come to the stage where we can accept and safely use “to friend someone (on FB)”. (So I take back what I said in Ming Pao 4 years ago. But if your students use it in DSE and get penalised, don’t blame it on me, haha!)

Incidentally, I looked up FB’s Help page; they’re still using the cumbersome ‘to add someone as a friend’.

In Hong Kong Cantonese, we say, in mixed code, “please ADD me”; “let me ADD you”, and so on. We don’t say ‘please FRIEND me’.

As FB is banned in Mainland China, we need not bother about what they say.

But what about Taiwan? How do they say ‘to friend someone’ in Taiwan Mandarin?

When is code-mixing, code mixing?

原來在文憑試中文口試中,說Facebook,iPhone,和iPad是要扣分的,要說「面書」,「蘋果智能手機」和「蘋果平板電腦」;那麼Android和 IOS又怎樣用中文說呢?又如果說「巴士」,「的士」,「波士」沒有問題,那麼「唉瘋」也是「中文」啊!

我不是鼓吹中英夾雜,但怎樣才算語文混雜(code-mixing),其實不是簡單的課題。我和Benjamin Au Yeung在《中英大不同第一冊》已指出,大陸和台灣的官員是怎樣說CEPA的呢?他們說的是CEPA, 而不是「更緊密XXXXXXXXX協議」。

如果要說Outlet(賣減價貨品的地方),要說outlet, 還是要跟大陸人說「奧XXX」(對不起,我也記不起來), 而且,那又算不算是中文?

What is grammar?

Is it ‘wrong’ to say ‘There IS a man, a dog and three cats’?

This writer is saying that, even though this is what some native speakers would say, ‘according to grammar’, it is wrong, since the noun phrase that comes after ‘There is’ is plural in number.

The writer is making 3 assumptions: (A) grammar rules are always logical, hence ‘plural noun > plural verb’; (B) it is grammar that dictates what is the right thing for people to say; (C) we should speak the way we write. But …

First, grammar rules are not always logical. Why do we say ‘I’m right, aren’t I?’, when we say ‘He’s right, isn’t he’? Why can we say both ‘If I were you’ and ‘If I was you’? Why is ‘I allowed him to do it’ acceptable but not ‘I let him to do it’?

Second, ‘according to grammar’, but what is grammar? Whose grammar? Who decides what is correct grammar and what is not?

Third, why must we speak the way we write? If a lot of native speakers say ‘There is’ followed by plural nouns in speech, why can’t we accept it?

For me, the harder decision to make is whether we can use or accept this structure in more formal situations. Should examinations include this kind of question and what would be the acceptable answers? Should teachers reject it if it appears in a student composition which is a diary entry?

Finally, let’s remember that many sentences we consider 100% grammatical today, would have been totally ‘ungrammatical’ 300 years ago.

Not that we don’t need to bother about grammar any more, but it’s time we examined (not ‘examine’) a more fundamental question: What is grammar?

Hea 論港式英、粵語

The following is the script used by Paul and Ben in their talk show at Harbour City last Saturday. The show was delivered in Cantonese. Of course, during the actual delivery, they would sometimes deviate from the script.


Paul:       Hi, Ben, you’re very chok today. Actually, to use the expression I learnt two days ago, you are chok 到痺.

Ben:        Are you praising me or mocking me?

P:    Of course I’m saying this as a compliment. But actually I’m a bit confused. When chok first came about, it didn’t seem to express a compliment.

B:    About a year ago, we had a TV actor called Lam Fung. He was famous for chok 樣. Later, people extended its use and said chok聲. And indeed chok did have a negative connotation initially.

P:    Later, we had such usages as ‘好chok’, ‘chok出新天地’. The meaning seems to have changed. So has the part of speech.

B:    Today, most of the time it has a positive connotation, as in好chok. But sometimes, it may not have any meaning. People just use it because it’s trendy, like chok出新天地.


P:     By the way, is chok originally English?

B:    I don’t think so.

P:     Neither do I. But some time ago, when I asked this question in my blog, a reader replied to me seriously, saying that chok was derived from the English word choke.

B:     Oh yes, we used to say choking the middle air, which in Cantonese we would say chok住度中氣..

P:     But this meaning of chok is different from the one in chok樣. But anyway, these examples show that Cantonese is a fun language. Take chok, we would insist on writing it as English.

B:     If we want to, we could invent a written form in Chinese for the word. But people would rather write it in English.

P:     This reminds me of some other examples. Let me test you to see whether you are familiar with this orthography. How do you write fing?

B:     F-I-N-G

P:    How do you write chur as in ‘chur 到盡

B:    C-H-U-R

P:    How do you write ‘hea’ as in ‘hea?

B:    H-E-A.

P:    How do you write ‘lur’ as in ‘children lur their mothers to buy a toy for them a toy store’?

B:    L-U-R.  But I have to add that indeed there is a written form for ‘fing’, which is. One newspaper in HK did use it for a while, as in揈頭丸, but switched back to F-I-N-G, because as you said, it’s more fun to write these popular Cantonese words in English.

P:    Other than the meaning which shows how creative speakers of HK Cantonese can be, I have also noticed how syntactically creative and generative they use some vogue words. Examples are:

chur到盡, chok 到痺, hea , 超搞笑…, lor3, 潮玩, 潮遊, ‘你都超想的話’,

B:     We can say我波士好chur, in which case chur is an adjective. We can also say chur到盡, in which case chur becomes a verb. We say佢好hea, in which case hea is an adjective. When we sayhea , hea becomes an adverb.

P:     But these constructions are concise and fun. I sometimes think how much more long-winded it will be if we are to say’潮遊’ and ‘hea 答’ in Standard Written Chinese or Putonghua.

B:    We will have to say something like很跟潮流地遊覽, or很滿不在乎地答.

P:    Cantonese, especially HK Cantonese, is lively and fun. So we must do everything to撐 it. Ben, you are a staunch supporter of Cantonese. And I十卜U.


B:    And of course, another feature of HK Cantonese is its code mixing. For example, one student wrote to me in an email saying:
佢都係for你好, for 佢定for

I have heard two students in New Asia saying:
男: 西環o個d街好窄加嘛, 同埋…
女: 咪住, 等我load load .

P:    I remember code-mixing used to be frowned on by teachers and professors, maintaining that language use should be ‘pure’. Code-mixing was considered an indication of a lack of competence in using a language. But very often HK people code-mix not because they’re good at neither English nor Chinese. On the contrary, it is an indication of creative use of language. And also, sometimes they deliberately code-mix to create a special communicative effect.

B:    Another interesting phenomenon is how they use all English words in Chinese structures. I have seen this sign at a shop in Stanley Market. Do you know what it means? It says “No buy, don’t touch’.

P:    I think it means唔買唔好摸.

B:    I have seen another sign in Wong Tai Sin estate, at the bottom of an escalator, saying “To up”.

P:    Yes, it means往上. Well, that’s pretty neat, isn’t it?


B:    But what about this …? In the section that sells oysters in a large supermarket in Quarry Bay, there is a sign that says ‘Buy four, get one’.

P:    This one is a bit tricky. I guess foreigners will still understand it. But the literal meaning is of course wrong. The correct sign should be ‘Buy four, get one free’. But if you think about the Chinese phrase41, buy four get one sounds like the correct translation. Only thatis not the same as get.

B:     We have to be careful about this kind of word-for-word translation, because the resulting sentence may not be proper English. There was once a café in Times Square that sold freshly baked cakes that customers could pick up themselves. The Chinese warning sign said小心燙手, and the English sign said Beware of your hands. An English speaker might think: What’s wrong with my hands?

P:    This example reminds us that while we appreciate code-mixing in HK Cantonese, we also have to distinguish it from genuine English. For example, we often say ‘thank you in daily conversation. But it doesn’t mean we can say ‘thank kyuu you’, or let me say it in Hong Kong English, fan kill U,in an English conversation.

B:    When we say ‘thank Q you’ to another HK person in our daily Cantonese conversation, it’s perfectly OK. But if we say ‘thank Q you’ to an English speaker, they will find it strange. We have other examples of English used in HK which are not authentic English. One example is ‘How do you call this?’

P:  Yes, in Cantonese we say你點樣叫呢樣嘢. But we can’t translate 點樣 into How directly. We will have to say What do you call this.

B:    In Cantonese, we say 我有一件好消息…And then some HK people would say ‘I have a good news to tell you’.

P:    I used to have a former student who wrote to me on Facebook saying “I have a good news to tell you.” I wanted to remind her of the mistake tactfully. So I replied: “The word news is uncountable.” She wrote back: “I have a good new to tell you.”

B:    Sometimes it’s inaccurate choice of word. At the MTR exit turnstiles, they ask you to ‘touch your Octopus card’. Of course, if you simply touch your card, nothing will happen. What they should say is ‘tap your Octopus card’.

P:    I have also seen on their website ‘wave your Octopus card on the sensor’. Again, if you do that, nothing will happen.

B:    And I have seen in the promotion pamphlet of a bank: “Every time you dood your Octopus card”!  Anyway, I can see that our time is almost up. We should 將時間交俾the next speaker.

P:    I have heard MCs often saying in English ‘now, I will give the time to …’. Again, this is a direct translation from Chinese. In English, we don’t have this expression. We will have to say ‘now I will hand/pass (you) over to …  Interesting, though we cannot ‘give the time …’, we can give the audience a person, that is, the next speaker. In an event, when you introduce the next speaker, you can say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you …’. So for example, if I am to invite the next speaker, Dr June Leung to take the stage, I can say: “Ladies and gentleman, I give you Dr June Leung’.

B and P: There are many other interesting examples in our new book, and also in the previous one. If you’re interested in features of HK language, and also want to avoid making grammar mistakes in English-English communications, check out the book. Now, we need to ‘give the time back to …’, oops, hand you back to …


Hang Seng Bank’s switch to Simplified Chinese characters in their advertisments

So, I’ve sent the following message to Hang Seng Bank’s Feedback and Suggestions email address:

Dear Sir/Madam

I happened to walk past your Central Headquarters this morning, and my attention was caught by a huge advertisement poster on a wall outside your building because of its choice of Chinese script: Simplified Chinese Characters (hereafter SCC) used in PRC.

I personally don’t have a problem with SCC. I can read SCC with ease, and I occasionally use SCC in my writing. But I do not consider it a wise move on your part to switch to SCC in your advertisements.

You might think that the switch to SCC is to facilitate understanding of your advertisements by potential Mainlander customers. But the majority of people who will be seeing your advertisments are not Mainlanders. Using SCC actually has the effect of distancing the majority of your existing or potential customers in Hong Kong. Actually, assisted by the context, Mainlanders have little difficulty understanding advertisements written in traditional Chinese characters.

A more crucial factor that you should consider is perhaps the need to distinguish our banking business from that in China. As i like to put it: If we are trustworthy, it’s because we are different; not because we are like China. To put it another way, why should Mainlanders bank in Hong Kong? It’s because we are not like the banks in China. If they trust you enough, the difference in writing will be negligible to them. On the other hand, if you make yourself resemble a bank in China by using SCC, why should they be interested in you?

I am writing this not because I think that SCC is inferior to traditional Chinese characters, but to state my opinion that if your purpose is to attract the attention of potential Mainlander customers, your switch to SCC as a marketing strategy will only backfire.


Paul Sze