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Articles, Economics, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

The Hokkien Vernacular

By Ooi Kee Beng, editorial in Penang Monthly, May 2017.

IN LIEU OF a normal editorial, and in keeping with this month’s cover story being about Penang Hokkien, I am providing here in somewhat truncated form, the Introductory from “The Hokkien Vernacular” (edited by George Thompson Hare and published in Kuala Lumpur in 1904). I hope this stimulates readers’ interest in this Chinese dialect, and in learning/mastering the special version of it that we consider the folk tongue of Penang. For regular readers of Penang Monthly, consider this a “Window into History” episode.

“This language with its various provincial dialects is spoken in the Hokkien province, in the island of Formosa and by the large majority of Chinese emigrants to the Straits Settlements, the Protected Native States, the Dutch Netherlands and the French and Spanish Colonies in the Far East. It is also spoken in a slightly altered form by the Hokkiens (descendants of old Hokkien settlers) in certain districts in the Canton Province. In this book the vernacular as spoken in Amoy is adopted as the standard for pronunciation. In the two Prefectures of Tsoân Chiu (泉州; Quanzhou) and Chiang Chiu (漳州; Zhangzhou) there are, however, many variations of this pronunciation, and the Tsoân Chiu and Chiang Chiu dialects differ as much between themselves as they both do from the form of the language used in Amoy. In the Straits Settlements and Dutch Colonies, the immigrants and settlers from the Chiang Chiu Prefecture predominate in point of number and in influence, and their pronunciation is, perhaps, that most frequently heard. No one, however, who learns thoroughly the language as spoken in Amoy will fail to easily understand or fail to be understood by the speaker either from the Chiang Chiu or Tsoân Chiu Prefectures. It is unnecessary to pay special attention to the provincial variations of the Amoy pronunciation till some considerable progress has been made with the language.

The distinctive characteristic about the Hokkien vernacular is that the colloquial differs perhaps more, in point of idiom, inflection and in the use of terms, from the literary style than any other Chinese language. One of the peculiar features about the Hokkien vernacular is that the character has both a colloquial and a literary or reading sound as it is sometimes called, e.g. for the character 人 (a man) is pronounced “jin” when read in a book, and “lang” when spoken vivâ voce. This peculiarity adds to the labour and difficulty of acquiring a knowledge of this language. The great crux about the Hokkien language is the want of proper Chinese characters to write the colloquial. […]

In most works dealing with the Hokkien colloquial, prepared for the use of Europeans, the Hokkien words are written in Roman letters and this system, perhaps, is the best for a learner who has only a little time at his disposal for study and who wants to learn a little colloquial only. […]

The great drawback about the romanised colloquial is that it divorces the learner from the Chinese character. It is, however, of great importance in learning any Chinese language that the ear and eye should work together and give mutual assistance—the ear by paying particular attention to the sound and tone of the word, and the eye by storing up the image of the form of the character used to represent its sound. If the colloquial is written in Chinese, the learner can study two things at one and the same time—i.e. both the colloquial word and the Chinese character that represents the meaning of the word. The one effort secures two useful pieces of knowledge. Take, for example, the sentence “He is a good man,” in the Hokkien vernacular, when romanised this reads; “I śi hó lâng” and when written it is “伊是好人”. It should be a principle with all learners of this and other Chinese dialects never to consider a common colloquial word known thoroughly until the common character used to write it is known as well. This remark cannot, of course, apply wholly to Hokkien words that have no exact corresponding written character. Yet even in these cases, a knowledge of the characters employed phonetically to express the sound of such words will increase the learner’s acquaintance with the form of a number of useful characters in common use….”


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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