When speaking English in Hong Kong, it sometimes happens that I ask myself linguistic questions at leisure… but where are the expressions? can not do ” or ” Long time no see Can informal language be more easily understood? In fact, it is the Cantonese modeling of the English language, the linguistic curiosity known as Pidgin English, which has long served as a lingua franca between Chinese and Europeans.
Arrival of British in Canton
Contrary to popular belief, pidgin was not a simple language invented by the British to help foreign “savages” understand themselves, but a dialect adapted from Cantonese by the Chinese to facilitate trade.
When the British came to China in large numbers from the 18th century, there was no common language they could use to communicate. Initially, they had to use simple gestures to make themselves understood. For them, learning Chinese was too complicated, and an imperial decree of 1759 forbade Cantonese traders to know or attempt to teach English. In fact, the text was titled “Vigilance à respect to foreign barbaric norms”. Canton is the only city authorized to trade with foreigners for a limited period, and teaching Chinese to foreigners is prohibited. This “Canton System” lasted until 1842.
So it was a question of finding a middle ground to facilitate communication without compromising the Chinese traders, who were put to death if they learned a few words of their language from the foreigners.
China was almost unknown to the British
This world of communication was easily mastered because most of Canton’s merchants and English sailors at the time were illiterate. Moreover, China, its culture and its customs, were often misunderstood even by the English aristocracy.
There were many texts by pioneers such as linguist Peter Mundy, author of “Travels in Europe and Asia” written after John Weddell’s expedition. The latter adopted many Chinese customs and foods, including tea, many of which were unknown in Europe. But his texts were lost, and, as we have said, the English made no attempt at trade until the next century.
And so the English newcomers plunged into the unknown, into the most gross exoticism, encountering the canals of Canton and the great shops of the pawnbrokers.
An old Portuguese presence in China
However, do not forget that they were not the first Europeans to set foot on Chinese soil, and the presence of the Portuguese is older. They were settled in 1513 before the British. They obtained the right to anchor in 1536, and established a colony at Macau, the first permanent buildings of which date from the middle of the century.
So the first pidgin is based on Portuguese words. The latter adapted to the new Europeans, whose trade with the British became the majority at the end of the 18th century. This explains why Pidgin contains words adapted from Portuguese and later used with English. The name “mandarin” given to Chinese officials is dictated from the Portuguese “mandar”.
Uncertain origin of the word “pidgin”.
There are many theories about the origin of the word pidgin. A common description of Chinese ventures is business. But there is no solid evidence for this origin. It can also be “pí qīn”, which means “business” in Cantonese.
However, Pidgin became the dominant language of Chinese trade until the end of the Opium Wars in 1860. It became so common in the Canton region that it was used by the Chinese among themselves, resulting in an unintelligible mixture of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
Do you speak pidgin?
Chinese structures retain an important place in the use of pidgin, especially with the appearance of measure words for most nouns. Instead of “four books”, it said “fragments of four books”, according to the Mandarin word for quantity “gè” – 个. In addition, Pidgin English had no verbal declensions or plurals, which made it easier to learn while remaining faithful to Chinese foundations.
Since English has sounds not known in Chinese, we had to find a way to pronounce more or less identical characters. Got hints. Chinese words do not end in consonants, which often results in “ee” or “o” ending in English words. For example, we can quote the words:
- belong-ee (belong)
- more-e (many)
- Silo (Child)
Sometimes the Cantonese version was already English and the phrase was translated as “calc”. To ask how much an item costs, for example, ” How-e dollar ? ”, thanks to the transliteration of the Cantonese sounds “hau mat zi daa laa”.
The collapse of the pidgin
Agreements signed at the end of the Opium Wars removed restrictions on trade and the teaching of the Chinese language. The demand for Pidgin, which has already declined, is gradually disappearing. As the center of trade between Great Britain and China moved from Canton to Shanghai, Mandarin trade expanded.
However, usage of the language continued somewhat until the 1960s, when usage ceased in its last stronghold, Hong Kong. A few decades ago, in Aberdeen Harbour, you could still strain your ears and hear the words of the pidgin. Its existence is limited to a few Mandarin words, literal transliterations from English Bacon (bean) Or Whiskey (wēi shì jì).
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