Penang Hokkien will be ‘dead’ in 40 years if people stop using it, says language expert

Churchman pointed out Penang Hokkien’s singsong words are a reflection of the multicultural melting pot that makes up Penang. — Picture by KE Ooi
Churchman pointed out Penang Hokkien’s singsong words are a reflection of the multicultural melting pot that makes up Penang. — Picture by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Aug 2 — The Penang Hokkien language is destined for extinction if Penangites keep replacing it with Mandarin or English, says language expert Catherine Churchman.

A lecturer in the Asian Studies programme in the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, Churchman believes that the communities in Penang are becoming more fractured because of the language barrier.

This is simply because most of the younger Penangites are not conversant in Penang Hokkien anymore.

She said Penang Hokkien is unique as it evolved over time and was the main lingua franca spoken on the streets by everyone here including even Malays and Indians.

"Nowadays, I don't know, maybe Malaysia was always like that, but it seems to be getting more fractured when you have people who only speak Mandarin and perhaps Malay maybe their Malay wasn't so good because they don't speak it very much or people who only speak Malay and maybe some English, and they can't speak to each other which is the cause of problems and all sorts of misunderstandings," she said in an interview with Malay Mail Online recently.

She pointed out Penang Hokkien’s singsong words are a mix of borrowed words and grammar from Malay, English, Cantonese and Teochew, adding that they are a reflection of the multicultural melting pot that makes up Penang.

"What I think happened here is that the Baba Nyonya were the first people to form Penang Hokkien," she said, explaining how during that period, the Baba Nyonyas would speak more in Malay but with incoming sinkeh (new migrants from China), they had to speak Hokkien and this resulted in the formation of a base dialect that is a mix of local cultures, local words and Hokkien from mainland China.

She said from that period of the 1900s leading up to the 1990s, Hokkien was the street language where everyone spoke it on the street regardless of what their mother tongue was at home.

"They may speak Cantonese, English, Malay or Hakka at home but when outside, they all speak Hokkien to interact in the street and this was the case up till the 1990s," she said.

Churchman attributes the change to pressure in schools where students were not allowed to speak their mother tongue in school except for Mandarin or English or Malay.

She believes that in most homes now, they don't speak Hokkien anymore due to a misguided belief that Hokkien is somehow inferior to Mandarin as it is being used as a medium of teaching in Chinese schools.

"It's now very rare to find children who can speak Hokkien or for Hokkien to be used within a family so all that history of the different migration groups that formed this language, I guess it soon won't be a living tradition anymore," she said.

Churchman herself speaks fluent Penang Hokkien due to years of learning it from the Penang Hokkien podcast by John Ong and practising it with local Penangites who still speak Hokkien.

She said the only way to keep the language alive is for Penangites to realise the significance of the language and be rid of the misconception that it was merely a "deviation of the true Chinese" or that Mandarin is the "unifying language for Chinese."

"In Penang, Mandarin wasn't the unifying language. Hokkien was the unifying language for all Chinese up to the 1990s and after that, it was the Singaporean idea of schools... people started saying things like Hokkien is just a dialect and Mandarin is the real language and all of these other ones are just a deviation of the true Chinese which isn't true.

"That's not linguistically or historically true... Hokkien didn't develop from Mandarin. They developed from a common ancestor which no longer exists," she said.

She added that many people tend to think Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka or Teochew were deviations from Mandarin and that these were inferior and not worth learning which is untrue as these languages are actually the original mother tongue languages that were spoken by their ancestors.

The polyglot is also currently compiling a Hokkien-English dictionary that she has been working on for the past eight years. It has over 7,000 words in it now.

"I am still gathering Hokkien sentences and expressions even as I go along and I hope to be able to work on it and complete it by next year," she said.

Churchman was recently in Penang to deliver a lecture on Penang Hokkien as a diaspora language.

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