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Whitefella Australian learning how to be gwai lo (鬼佬) in Hong Kong

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The poetry of Special English

Well, it's been a long time between posts, mostly because I've been in Australia, and I don't feel any great need to write about that.
It was lovely to be back in Hong Kong, and as I was wandering around on my first full day back, I noticed this sign, on the scaffolding where a row of older buildings (唐樓) have been knocked down to make way for some (presumably massive) new building.
Now I recently read a book called 'Oracle Bones' in which the author talked about a type of English with a more limited vocabulary, of about 1500 words, called Special English which was used by the USA in their worldwide radio programs to be more accessible to their listeners whose first language was not English. As someone who had taught English in China many years before, he was still in touch with many of his former students, who liked these programs, because they were a good accessible way to keep up their English skills.
I liked this idea. There are a lot of jokes made by English speakers about the way English is spoken by native Chinese speakers. This is probably because there aren't enough examples of how badly Chinese is spoken by native English speakers, because so few of them actually try. Being in the process of learning Cantonese myself, I have great respect for how well many HongKongers speak English. I hope my Cantonese is that good some day.
But for now, I am liking the idea of Special English, because it conjures up the distinctive perspective that comes through when someone speaks a language not their own. For example, it makes a lot of sense when Chinese people substitute the words she and he for each other in English, because why would you distinguish between them when in Cantonese there is a particular word, such as for she, he or it.
Which, getting back very slowly to my original point, is why I loved this sign. No native speaker of English would talk about an undulating pavement, and what a terrible shame that is. Undulating is a beautiful word, a poetic word, conjuring up the Latin root, undis, waves. It made me imagine the rolling curves of the pavement bearing down on me, sweeping me away into a land where all public notices were written poetically, and life was just that little bit more humane.

1 comment:

  1. nice post - I love the poetry of undulating pavements - wish we had them instead of just crass pictures on signs that treat everyone as thought they don't speak any languages