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IF there’s one clear feature that separates Penangites from the rest of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it is the distinct northern-accented Hokkien.
It doesn’t matter whether we are in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru, London or Timbuktu but we can pick up a Penangite whenever we hear this northern style dialect with its rich sprinkling of Malay words that denotes its nyonya-baba linguistic roots.
But each time I return to Penang, I can feel the linguistic changes that are taking place. Whether we realise it or not, Penang Hokkien is slowly disappearing.
Penangites are fiercely proud of their Hokkien as it is entirely different from the one spoken in Singapore, Taiwan or Xiamen in China.
As older Penangites, perhaps we can be a little snooty, as we sometimes dismiss the Hokkien spoken elsewhere as somewhat crass and unrefined.
Only the Hokkien spoken by the Chinese community in Medan closely mirrors that of Penang Hokkien, presumably because of the proximity between Penang and the Indonesian city.
Whether rightly or wrongly, or plainly out of ignorance, Penangites feel the sing-song delivery sounds better.
Words such as balai (police station), balu (just now), bangku (stool), batu (stone), cilaka/celaka (damn it), campur (to mix), jamban (toilet), gatai/gatal (itchy) gili/geli (creepy), sabun (soap) and kesian (pity), are an integral part of the Penang Hokkien dialect.
If the person is not from Penang, then he or she has to be from Kedah, Perlis or Taiping.
Even Penangites of other racial groups can easily speak, or at least understand Hokkien. My fellow moderation advocate, Anas Zubedy, speaks excellent Hokkien. So do my colleagues executive editor Dorairaj Nadason and sports editor R. Manogaran.
But the daily use of the dialect is rapidly being replaced by Mandarin. Go to most coffeeshops today and the hawkers or helpers are likely to tell you the price of food in Mandarin.
I am feeling a little uncomfortable because I am a very parochial and sentimental Penangite. It doesn’t help that I do not speak Mandarin.
Although I am a Cantonese, Hokkien is the spoken language in my family home and the changes that are taking place do have an effect.
Even most of the Penang state government leaders are not from Penang. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was born in Johor and grew up in Melaka.
Senior state exco member Chow Kon Yeow is from Kuala Lumpur but he studied in Universiti Sains Malaysia. Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy is Sitiawan-born but he spent most of his time in Selangor.
Exceptions are the children of the late Karpal Singh – state exco member Jagdeep Singh Deo and Bukit Gelugor MP Ramkarpal Singh Deo – and other state assemblymen.
The Penang Monthly bulletin, in its May issue, dramatically headlined the situation “Penang Hokkien on life support.”
In an interview with Penang Monthly, the Penang Hokkien Language Association secretary Ooi Kee How was quoted as saying that “people think there’s no benefit in learning or speaking Hokkien, which is not true. Yes, you can survive if you do not speak Hokkien; you can get by with speaking only one language your entire life.”
“But the thing is, something will diminish. Our creativity, our cultural identity, will decline. A lot of innovations will disappear, because different languages shape the way we think differently.”
And what has brought about the decline of the Penang Hokkien? It’s a combination of factors. For one, a whole generation of Penangites have been educated in Chinese schools, at least at the primary level.
This is unlike the older generation of Penangites like me, who are now in the 50s, who attended schools using English as a medium of instruction. In the absence of Mandarin, we spoke mainly Hokkien and English but people in their 30s and 40s find it more comfortable conversing in Mandarin – and for sure, not English.
Then there is this huge impact of Chinese TV shows, especially over Astro. They are entirely in Mandarin, with shows from mainland China and Taiwan, and in Hokkien, which is spoken in a manner more similar to those used in Melaka and Johor.
It is no surprise that the sales staff at malls also expect the Chinese community to speak in Mandarin, and understandably they will begin the conversation in Mandarin – because you are expected to know the language.
There is also the impact of China as the new economic powerhouse of Asia, if not, the world. Mandarin has taken over the dominant spot as a language with economic value, and certainly prestige. That is the reality but it may well be at the expense of a rich heritage.
Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in Asian Studies, in the School of Languages and Cultures in Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, who studied the Taiwanese and Penang Hokkien dialects, reportedly said: “Penangites have become increasingly used to hearing Taiwanese Hokkien, but the Taiwanese are not used to hearing Penang Hokkien.
“Simply replacing Malay loan words with the Taiwanese equivalents does not turn Penang Hokkien into Taiwanese Hokkien either. The grammatical structure of Penang Hokkien is different.”
Fearful of the danger of Penang Hokkien dying, Penang Monthly further quoted Churchman as saying “languages often die the same way, and one of the reasons is simply the existence of a generation gap.”
That melodious Penang Hokkien may not be heard, decades from now, if this frightening trend continues.