English in Hong Kong Cantopop: Discourse construction of alternative identities

Brian, Hok-Shing, Chan

Department of English, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Macau


In Hong Kong Cantonese popular songs (Cantopop) , there has been a trend to put the “punch-lines” in English where the voice expresses his/her emotions and desires with first and second person pronouns in English. Here, English is used in a way that defies its “macro” status and functions in Hong Kong, i.e., English as a second language, a workplace language, a “High Variety” (Ferguson/Fishman), a language of communication rather than identification (House 2003), a “they-code” rather than “we-code” (Gumperz 1982). Put it in another way, in everyday interaction, Cantonese instead of English is the symbol of ethnolinguistic identity among Hong Kong Chinese, that is, the default language people use to communicate their inner feelings. Looking into a corpus of Cantopop data from 1970’s to 2000’s, it is found that the representation of self in English did not exist in early songs, but it has arisen only in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The beginning of this use appears to be formulaic phrases repeated in many different songs, such as “I love you”, where English arguably still serves as a “they-code” reducing the “weight” of emotional expressions conveyed otherwise in Cantonese. Nonetheless, elaboration of that use has rendered English more and more in the role of a “we-code”. Unlike other recent works which treat code-switching in pop songs as an instrument of “crossing” (Rampton 2005, Jamie Lee 2006) or “globalization” (Bentahila and Davis 2002), this paper explains it as a result of instability of the “macro” status of English and functions, reflexity, that is, varying the original usage pattern and taking different stances towards it, and the pressure of genre, namely, pop songs highlight emotions/feelings of the voice and portray alternative, “individual” identities (Jamie Lee 2004). Implications of this analysis on code-switching, English in Hong Kong and the role of genre in macro-micro connections will be explored towards the end of this paper.

Session: Paper session: Code-switching 4
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 12