By Jade Du
In my eyes, Professor Chris Hutton of the school of English is like an encyclopaedia. As his postgraduate student, I have always admired his erudition and curiosity. His wide range of research includes the history of linguistics, race theory, intellectual history, linguistics and ideology in Nazi Germany, and language and legal interpretation. Among all of his works, what strikes me the most is A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs, and City Life. Truly, learning a foreign language is not an easy task for adults, and I can’t imagine the seemingly insurmountable challenge of making and publishing a dictionary in another language. (I would never imagine that I could produce a French or Japanese dictionary in the near future.) On a cloudy afternoon, I had a talk with Chris, trying to find out the “language myth” behind Cantonese learning and dictionary making.
Q: We all know that language learning is difficult, especially for adults. How did you and Kingsley Bolton begin writing a dictionary in another language? How long did it take to complete the dictionary?
A: We began in 1990, and the dictionary was finally published in 2005. I really wanted to learn Cantonese when I moved to Hong Kong. Dictionaries at that time, however, didn’t contain ‘ordinary’ language expressions and the Internet didn’t yet exist. I found it extremely difficult. I had no way of looking up daily expressions. It was frustrating for me, so I started a dictionary with my colleague. It was not originally meant to be published; it was simply for our own personal use. The idea was that the language used around us was not in the standard dictionary. There was a need for a practical thing.
Q: Did you know Cantonese before you started to make the dictionary?
A: No, no. At that time in Hong Kong there was little chance to learn Cantonese because most of the people around me could speak English. It is difficult to learn a language if you don’t have a context and environment. I took some language classes, knew some basic expressions, but slang is complicated. It is hard to understand the meaning in the early stage of language learning. I soon realised the way to learn it was to collect and study it.
Q: How exactly did you collect slang?
A: It was difficult and stressful. In English you can look up slang in a dictionary, but for Chinese it is much harder. I began with the help of a student. We collected a lot of Cantonese ordinary expressions from HK comics and movies. I have also collected various Cantonese dictionaries. Sometimes during people’s dialogues, I would even note down something interesting on a card. (He motioned over to several alphabetised drawers containing many cards, pamphlets and other items.)
Q: What everyone wants to know: would you consider updating the dictionary? Can we expect a new edition soon?
A: Cantonese has changed fast these days, so the dictionary now has a few mistakes. I have collected new data, and, if there is time, I may consider updating the dictionary. Not at the moment, though. I have several projects at hand.
Q: This leads me to some of your other fascinating projects—like your research on language in triad gangs or your fieldwork in Guangxi. Your research covers a wide range of topics and fields. What project are you working on currently?
A: Currently, I am writing a book on the idea of “Aryan” and a law case on the transgender issue. It’s true that there are so many academic publications and you can’t read all of them. I also read weekly magazines, like New Yorker and the Economist, and book reviews to be in touch with the latest research. I am interested in research related to HK. This led me on a collaborative project, tracing the trajectories of HK Vietnamese refugees to a small trading town near the north-eastern part of the China-Vietnam border. In a course on language and jargon, I have asked students to work on various projects. One of my former students worked on triad language as his MPhil thesis. He was a police officer and managed to get access to triad speech in his work. From people working in noodle shops and Starbucks to the jargon of taxi drivers, I find speech in society fascinating.
The conversation continued and the interview concluded with a further discussion of HK cinema and places to go hiking in the New Territories. What I see in Professor Chris Hutton is what it means to be an intellectual: stay humble, open-minded and curious. I sincerely wish him all the best in research and life, as I look forward to his new books and our next talk.