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13 Oct 2022

Languages and Dialects of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is famous for it’s diverse landscapes, rich culture, history, and being an international melting pot. However, lesser known is the many dialects spoken here. Chatteris’ own Eugene Yick discusses some of the many dialects found in Hong Kong.

The Weitou dialect can be found in the New Territories | Image by Louis Stewart

The region of Hong Kong boasts a rich linguistic mosaic, owing to its turbulent history of colonisation and changes in sovereignty, as well as its status as a crucial entrepôt between east and west. Within Hong Kong, the Chinese language principally takes form through two dialects, of which the first is Cantonese, a dialect indigenous to the region and the adjacent Guangdong province. As you may already know, Cantonese is the most spoken variety of Chinese in the territory, being the first language of over 90% of HK’s residents. The second major variety of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong is Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China. The particular form of Mandarin employed in education and administration is known as Putonghua, a variety of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect. Both Cantonese and Putonghua, however, are viewed by most locals as separate languages due to their numerous differences in lexis, pronunciation, phonology and syntax.

The varied geography of Hong Kong carries considerable linguistic diversity, with numerous dialects being spoken outside the main urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, especially in rural and farming communities. Officially, Hong Kong comprises three main regions:  the main island, known as Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories that include a further 233 smaller outlying islands. It is primarily across the latter where minority indigenous dialects are spoken, namely Hakka, Chiu Chow, Sze Yap, Taishanese, Min and Hoklo. These language communities are almost exclusively found in rural areas and are most common within the coastal and walled villages of the countryside. 

There are over 200 outlying islands to explore in Hong Kong | Image by Louis Stewart

If you spend most of your time on Hong Kong Island or in Kowloon, you likely won’t have come across many of these varieties of Cantonese, in particular the rarely heard “Weitou” dialect. To hear this melodic and intriguing vernacular, you would need to journey either to the northern New Territories or some of the region’s outlying islands, where the Weitou dialect is still spoken in rural villages. This variety of Cantonese is filled with unique and old-fashioned jargon, and many words differ in pronunciation and intonation to those of standard Cantonese. In fact, the speech of many elderly Weitou-dialect speakers is considered mutually unintelligible to those who only understand standard Cantonese! 

While this dialect was once common across the New Territories, the number of total speakers has drastically declined over the last century as both Mandarin and English have become more prominent within Hong Kong society. Moreover, the Weitou dialect as well as other minority dialects of Hong Kong are not formally taught within schools, where usage is typically discouraged in favour of standard Cantonese. This has ultimately meant that usage is mainly limited to the home, where inter-generational linguistic transmission remains the only source of learning these dialects. Unfortunately, the decline of Weitou speakers has been accelerated due to discrimination from those who live in urban areas. To some city-dwellers, the Weitou dialect is unfairly considered a language of the lower class, or of uneducated farmers, and consequently many speakers will actively avoid speaking this dialect in favour of standard Cantonese when travelling outside of their home communities.

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