Last November, a song called “Earth Vely Danger” (yes, that’s really how it’s spelled) was momentarily at the top of the Hong Kong iTunes chart.
Its lyrics might make some grammar sticklers cringe. That’s because they were written completely in Chinglish.
The song, a parody by the satirical publication 100Most, riffs off the difficulty that some Hong Kongers have with speaking English. Even though the city was a British colony for over a century, Cantonese is the first language for most of the population, and English is still largely learned in school.
(Read more: How colonialism gave rise to Hong Kong milk tea)
The phenomenon has given rise to a distinct form of English in Hong Kong that some linguists identify as a dialect, though others might just hear it as bad English. Words are pronounced with sing-songy Cantonese tones, and sentences are structured according to Chinese grammar.
The lyrics of “Earth Vely Danger” do just that. In fact, the title is a reflection of Chinese grammar applied to English. The phrase “Earth very danger” might sound ridiculous to native English speakers, but Hong Kongers adept in Chinglish will understand it to mean “Earth is very dangerous” because Chinese sentences often drop the word “is.”
Chinglish is so prevalent in Hong Kong that a 2015 government report found that students were using it in their exam responses. In everyday speech, locals frequently mix English and Cantonese, creating hybrid sentences such as this one:
That’s Soft Liu of GDJYB, a Hong Kong indie band that writes most of their songs in Chinglish.
“If you ask me to speak English, I always talk like this,” she says in the video. “If our interview can all do it in this way, it is more comfortable to us, really.”
For GDJYB, code-switching between Cantonese and English is not just a cultural quirk; it’s a political act. Their music often touches on local issues, such as the “umbrella protests” that engulfed the city in 2014, and writing in Hong Kong Chinglish is an expression of local identity.
“It’s a distinct language unique to bilingual Hong Kong people,” says Liu, the band’s lead singer.
A Facebook page called Kongish Daily has been a hit in Hong Kong because it publishes posts in Chinglish and reflects the way Hong Kongers talk in real life, interspersing sentences with Cantonese words transliterated into English.
Its first post was about a “Kong man” (Hong Kong man) who “spend HKD 400,000 to ask marry—all bcoz his BB like something exciting, amazing and not traditional” (which is to say, he spent about US$50,000 to propose to his girlfriend because she liked unconventional things).
Nick Wong, one of the page’s founders, is an English teacher, and the irony of that is not lost on him. He acknowledges that there are different varieties of English around the world, and Chinglish is just a result of Hong Kongers learning English in school rather than the real world.
“Classrooms teach formal language,” Wong says. “Local students tend to use bookish English they learned from school in all situations. They don’t know how to use conversational English to talk to foreigners when they are overseas.”
In a language with such global reach as English, evolutions are inevitable with time, context, and migration.
“The questions of who sets the standards and who should control how we use it become very fuzzy,” says Lisa Lim, an associate professor of English at the University of Hong Kong, “especially when English is used by people who speak a language like Chinese that comes from a very different family, and has very different grammatical structure and pronunciation.”
So don’t call it bad English. Just call it Chinglish.