Hugh M. Lewis, 1996


Copyright, 1996, Hugh M. Lewis

Copies of this text may be printed for research and classroom use only.


The Hokkien Chinese dialect as it is spoken on Penang Island is an "oral" language. Chinese language newspapers there are written in Mandarin. There are few English-Hokkien references available which would facilitate the understanding or learning of the Hokkien Dialect. The only and most authoritative account available is a two volume Spoken Amoy Hokkien (Bodman, 1955, 1958) which appears to be intended for use by British military officers.

The Hokkien Chinese dialect as it is spoken in Penang and upon the Jetty is differs from the Hokkien dialects found in Singapore, Taiwan and the province of China in which Amoy is situated. It is expected that there are a number of loan words, loss of formal spoken styles, refined vocabulary, idioms and colloquialisms of the parent language and the presence of neologisms that are not borrowings from Malay or English. This dialectal variation is significant in understanding the restructuring that a local language goes through, and significant dialectal differences in the replacement of basic terms, form of grammatical construction and sound shifts can be demonstrated even between sister communities of Hokkien Chinese within Malaysia.

This patterning must be understood against a complex sociolinguistic background of Penang that is characterized by the presence of multiple overlapping languages and communities of partially fused (limited competence) multilingual speakers. The language landscape of Penang is represented by formal British English, informal "Penanglish," Mandarin, Hokkien Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Bahasa Malaysia and Pasar Malay, Cantonese, Teow Chiew Chinese, Kek, Hakka, Hok Chiew and other Chinese languages.

Though among the Chinese communities that were studied, Hokkien remains the principal base language. It is expected that most people in Penang have some competence in at least two or three other languages to a better or worse degree of competence, and it is not unusual to find individuals knowing five or six distinctly different languages with a fairly high level of competence in most of them. An interesting facet of this patterning is that much of this multilingualism is acquired through indirect and informal means, personal interactions in the market place or business world, through television and other forms of media and friendship or familial ties. Only the major languages of English, Malay and Mandarin are taught formally in the curriculum.


A schematic diagram portraying the linguistic complexity and heteroglossia of Penang


Fused multilingualism is a common, shared part of the language patterning found in Penang--a part of the mother tongue spoken by parents and among one's peers and other social role models. Multilingual fusion is characterized by relative frequencies of code-switching/mixing between languages at several levels (syntactic, semantic, phonetic, stylistic levels) of linguistic analysis simultaneously. The following is an example of a normal dialogue mixing Hokkien, English (underlined) and Malay (highlighted) between two Chinese women who were originally of different dialect groups:

Speaker one: 1. Tiga suku...in a way...siaw lian boh mature....e a thinking a noun boh har me straight....so every time e a boyfriend chiau e chut kee dating, the next day e lai office....e kong e a boyfriend chow har mi, chuah e kee tak loh...har mi ka liau....these two old ladies wah....kong koh, tell me more, tell me more, koh, ai chai whatever happen kah liau.

Speaker two: 2. So, e tell more.

Speaker one: 3. Tell kah liau, kah lu kong, tiga suku....si wah, boh kong hor tian e lang...after that....lau e kong lau loh, this girl chut kee lunch....gossip....bodoh, actually, tit ah girl....bay haui koh e a seng ku....a ya, terrible lah, these two old ladies....Remember these two old biddies I was telling you about in the office.

Speaker two: 4. Ya....how can I forget.

Speaker one: 5. One day....e meet wah for lunch downstairs and then the two old ladies...lau wah... introduce him to one of them, only one of them because the....I don't know what happen to her...I get angry with them, these two old ladies....terrible....in my whole life cho kang working life.

Code-swtiching and code-mixing patterns occur both contextually in the background, unconsciously as part of the individual's normal speech style, and consciously as part of a deliberate and strategic form of "information control" and status manipulation. A great deal of attention must be paid to the effective use of code switching/mixing at appropriate points, especially in complex inter-linguistic interactions when information and status are critically important.

Within such a context, the expressive function of language as an aesthethic medium, the "poetic" function of language, and subjectivation-objectivation in the reinforcement of a coherent, shared version of reality necessarily yields to the social and largely pragmatic function of communicative efficacy of "making oneself understood in the best, shortest way possible." Pragmatic problems of "making things happen" and "getting the job done" take first place over formal or aesthetic consideration of language production and interpretation.

Within this normal context of fused multilingualism, we must understand the importance that the individual speech setting plays in the patterning which linguistic interaction takes (in the home, in the office, in the market place, in the neighborhood, at the shopping center, etc.).

The second level upon which this operates is in the sociolinguistic background of speech community in which the boundaries of that community are inherently complex and inherently "isolectal" rather than clear-cut. Members have normally access to more than one alternate patterning of language at any one time, and this patterning complicates communication and characterization of a speech community in which the normal state of affairs is a sort of creolized "fusion."

It can be expected that normally complex multilingual settings are characterized by high levels of noise--potential for ambiguity and misunderstanding. The problem of the disambiguation of meaning, primarily through simplification of code, will therefore take precedence over the problem of expression or refinement of meaning through the sophistication and elaboration of code. Structural resemblance of emergent languages must be understood as the consequence of shared design features in the process of linguistic reduction.

Rules of practice are worked on daily, ironed and eventually smoothed out biographically and historically by trial and error, and the entire prolonged process can be looked upon as one of a long series of mistakes and learning and focal elaboration and simplification on the basis of these error patterns.

The consequence of this patterning may be a process of continuous "linguistic convergence" which can be dialectically contraposed to the better understood patterning of linguistic divergence. Within a given speech community, we can hypothesis the emergence of a new, fairly coherent "creolized" patterning of speech which is the direct consequence of multilingual fusion and which can be considered to be the offspring of two or more distinct parent languages.

The basis of organization of this reference is upon "natural classes" that are the result of systematic elicitation of terms from native speakers. A brief vocabulary of Hokkien terms and sentences has been put together based upon what appear to be ethnosemantically salient and possibly more basic categories within the language (based upon pile sorts of terms and domains and word lists by native speakers), with the idea of conveying a fraction of spoken Hokkien as it occurs in Penang. Some of these terms are compared with those available (those underlined and in parenthesis in the following word lists) from the only Hokkien reference available (Bodman, 1958) probably drawn mostly but not exclusively from the standard parent dialect of Amoy. Phonological shifts of certain vowel sounds are apparent in some of the terms, the most notable are those for fish ("hu" from "h") and pig ("tu" from "t").

The form of presentation or ordering of this patterning is merely suggestive and should not be taken as either correct or monolithic or homogeneous within the community that was studied. Morphophonemic shifting of certain tone patterns, vowels and consonantal clusters regular occur within the varying phrase contexts which makes uniform description difficult and there appears to be a dropping or merging of certain final consonants. There is no standard form of spelling of these terms, and nor is there uniform agreement on the orthography of the syllables and sounds heard. Variant, alternate forms can be found for many terms, and many exceptional terms and even basic categories are missing from this inventory.

At the outset, it should be remarked that the Penang variety of Hokkien as an oral language is inherently bound up in trading and marketing activities, in practical affairs of the home, kinship, domestic management, cooking, familial relationships and in religious practices and beliefs. It is not a language to be used for intellectual abstraction, scientific theorization, refined discussion of the more subtle or sublime feelings or resonance's in the world, or for the romantic elaboration of the affairs of heart. When Hokkien Chinese wish to talk about these things, they invariably "switch-out" of Hokkien and easily slip into other codes--Mandarin, English, Malay, for the sake of expressive elaboration. To underscore this facet of Hokkien is not to belittle the language--such elaboration and sophistication is possible and probably has been worked out by some people--but it is not commonly found among the average speaker.

There is an important sense in which spoken Hokkien is "context" bound and a great deal of the phrase structure of the language depends upon an understanding of the local context in which it occurs. A great deal of the stylistic modification and manipulation of the language for purposes of information control and communicative efficacy is based upon this contextual nature of the language, and knowledge of the immediate context is often necessary before a correct interpretation of a statement can be made.

This contextuality of Hokkien Chinese finds expression in spatially oriented constraints within syntactic construction through the use of special verb forms of "to go," "to come," "to give," and "to take;" of particles that act as "localizers" and noun-specifiers; as well as in the deemphasis of devices of temporal modifiers--i.e. verb tense. This intrinsic context-boundness of Hokkien can be easily fit within an extrinsic cultural context of a larger patrilineal, "kin-centric" universe of relations in which geomantic principles and familial social relationships are highly elaborated.

Grammar normally entails a simplified subject-verb-object order, but this order does not appear to be strongly determinative of phrase structure, except that verbs or the objects of a predicate do not come before the subject. Adjectives come before nouns, as in English. There are a number of ways of saying the same thing, for example the simple and common phrase "Are you going to the market today?" can be expressed in several different ways--"Lu ki bahn sahn o kane jit?", "Lu ai ki bahn sahn o?", "Kane jit lu ou ki bahn sahn o?", "Kane jit lu ai ki bahn sahn o?", "Lu ai ki banh sanh o kane jit?".

Verbs are not conjugated and have no tense or plural/singular markings. The placement of the verb in relation to the subject is marked by adverbial particles (such as"beq, ue, thang, ue sai, ue thang, teq, + la, bat, -liau" aspects), "stative verbs" (such as "ho"), "directive verbs" (such as "ki", "lai", "sang"), and auxiliary verbs (such as "u") and that defines the entire system as "aspectual," expressing assertion, possibility, likelihood, intention or expectation.