I see that during my absence I missed another diatribe in the letters page of the South China Morning Post from Quarry Bay’s most deranged mouth-frother, Cynthia Sze. As with her last one, she exhibits an extreme hatred for the English Schools Foundation, but this time she goes further and picks on the entire English language.
Mr Di Bona should realise that the English which the Basic Law provides as an official language is local English and not native English, just like Cantonese, which is local Chinese, is the de facto official Chinese language of Hong Kong. If local English fails to become socially functional like Singlish in Singapore, the use of English as an ancillary official language will decline naturally and should discontinue in 2047.
Even if I weren’t a bit jet-lagged, I’d struggle to work out what she is rambling on about. The Basic Law’s references to language do not specify any variant of either English or Chinese. Although official languages are used orally, such as in courts, they are mostly applied in the written form – laws, government documents and so on. This suggests that by ‘English’, the Basic Law means Standard English, not the local version that uses ‘would’ instead of ‘will’ to form the future tense and pluralizes nouns like ‘furniture’ and ‘vocabulary’. And we can be pretty sure that by ‘Chinese’ it does not mean the vernacular written Cantonese that so bemuses Mainlanders looking at Apple Daily. So the stuff about local English failing to become ‘socially functional’ – whatever it means – is irrelevant.
But Cynthia Sze is just hitting her stride…
Hong Kong will always be Cantonese-speaking because the Chinese are not hegemonic like the English who have obliterated the Celtic and the Romance languages in Britain.
Now we are descending into loser-language paranoia, as once seen among French and Quebec officials who saw the dominance of English as a fiendish plot rather than a historical accident. According to this interpretation of the past, Anglo-Saxons settled in eastern and southern Britain around AD 500 on a mission to stamp out proto-Welsh/Cornish/Scottish Gaelic/Manx/etc and any remnants of Latin left lying around. (The Romans, incidentally, had already eradicated Celtic languages in what are now France, Spain and Portugal.) After their Norman cousins introduced French among the upper classes, they fought back, English returned to prominence, and the dastardly conspiracy to swamp the planet with Beowulf, Chaucer and Elvis Presley proceeded in earnest.
To the extent that modern China’s leaders are laid back about non-Mandarin languages in their country, it is because they see them as harmless – perhaps like provincial cuisines. But how laid back are they really? Mainland education and media policies seem to reflect a steady bias in favour of marginalizing ‘dialects’, discouraging the use of traditional characters and banning (when they were trendy) Hong Kong-Canto advertising slogans. Beijing, as the hub of the world’s last surviving empire, is careful to manage alien languages like Tibetan and Uighur, and doesn’t seem hugely upset by the imminent extinction of Manchu (whereas the British taxpayer has to subsidize Welsh and Gaelic radio stations). Hong Kong, meanwhile, hears more and more Mandarin in its tourist spots and public housing estates. This doesn’t mean China is determined to wipe Cantonese out, but it doesn’t mean the Vietnamese, Filipinos and other South China Sea neighbours can relax because ‘the Chinese are not hegemonic’.
To Cynthia Sze, presumably, this isn’t really the point. If I grasp her thinking correctly, the danger is that by allowing Hong Kong people to educate their kids in English to the exclusion of Chinese (training yellow people to be white?) we promote the vicious and predatory cultural expansion launched 1,500 years ago by those leather- and wool-clad Germanic tribesmen arriving in places later to be known as Sussex, Wessex and Middlesex (where ‘-sex’ means ‘Saxons’)…
Promotion of native English will render Hong Kong an accomplice in the hegemony of the English language.
I still think, as I mentioned about her ESF-phobia before, that there is something deeply personal in all this, perhaps resulting from some failure to access a prized place in an ESF school. But maybe, after all, she is just unhinged.
The SCMP wittily gave the last word to a confused onlooker…
Puzzled by opposition to English
As a non-native English speaker I am often baffled by the anti-English sentiments in some quarters of Asia’s world city. Furthermore it is fascinating to see that while English has an aura of “cool” to youngsters all over the world (including mainland China) this does not seem to be the case here. I foresee that in 10 years’ time the whole world will speak (a sort of) English except for one pocket in the southeast of China: Hong Kong.
Josephine Bersee, Mid-Levels