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Is Hokkien a Gangster Language?

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In Singapore, Hokkien seems to have earned the reputation of being a gangster language. But is Hokkien such a crude language in the first place?

Is Hokkien a Gangster Language?

First of all, let's recall a few Hokkien phrases that most Singaporeans should know:

si liao, siao liao, goa kak li kong ah, haolian, wah lau eh, KPKB, ..., ..., ...

Notice a pattern? All these are Hokkien phrases that have expressively negative meanings or possess some... gangsterly vibes to them. There are definitely more with cruder, uncouth meanings, but... let's just not put those here.

Every language has its own share of inappropriate language forms. There are so many crude phrases in English that all English speakers know, but that doesn't earn English speakers a reputation of being crude, generally speaking. Why? The reason is simple; it is because many English speakers are in knowledge of a language form that are NOT crude. The same thing applies to speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and essentially every other languages.

The problem with Hokkien in Singapore is that the crude, inappropriate language form are in much larger circulation compared to the refined, polite one.

It often appears that almost by default, in Singapore, whenever someone talks about Hokkien, a string of Hokkien crude phrases, an angry Hokkien-shouting auntie, or a classic ahbeng-ahlian scenario surfaces immediately in people's heads.

The problem isn't exactly with the angry auntie, or the ahbeng and ahlian, but rather the version of the Hokkien they use, the kind that involves a lot of crude phrases. Another problem is that this version of Hokkien is strangely popularized in TVs, Youtube videos, and other social media for comedic effect.

The next problem comes when such a crude version of Hokkien become learning points whenever someone attempts to learn and speak Hokkien. That's just trouble waiting to happen. At the end of the day, the overall impression the language easily becomes rough, and, gangsterly.

Do Hokkien speakers in other regions perceive Hokkien as a gangster language too?

Go up north to the region of Penang and Medan, and you'll very likely hear Penang/Medan Hokkien being spoken. Both Penang and Medan Hokkien are of the same variant and are slightly different from Singaporean Hokkien in terms of accent and some vocabularies.

The general impression of Hokkien in Penang and Medan is neutral, in that it's a language, and that's it. Some may view it inferior to Mandarin, but there are no gangsterly connotations attached to Hokkien in these regions because many speakers are in knowledge of a more refined, polite language form on top of the rough, inappropriate one; as the learning points of Hokkien are families, friends, and teachers instead of angry aunties, ahbengs, and ahlians.

And of course, don't forget to go further up to Taiwan! If you have come across their Hokkien-speaking TV shows, you'll definitely know that Hokkien isn't entirely a crude language. Surely in between these millions of Hokkien speakers, whether in Taiwan, Penang, or Medan, there are bound to be those who can't stay away from using the crude form of the language, but the fact remains that there are many who speak the refined version, so at the end, it evens out. The impression that Hokkien is a gangster language in these regions does not exist as much as it does in Singapore.

The conclusion is that Hokkien is not a gangster language, but the extensive use of crude, inappropriate form of the language without the knowledge of refined, polite one can make it so.

Agree or disagree?

Your Turn

  • Do you personally think Hokkien in Singapore is crudely spoken?
  • What do you think should be done to remove the gangsterly connotations attached to Singaporean Hokkien?

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