Saving Penang Hokkien from extinction

 |Aug 8, 2016
From left - Khoo Keat Siew, Graeme Wilkinson, Tan Gin Soon, Dr. Elizabeth Lee, Tan Swee Imm and Steven J. Hall officiating the launch of Penang Hokkien - English Dictionary at PCA in Jalan Perak, George Town.
From left – Khoo Keat Siew, Graeme Wilkinson, Tan Gin Soon, Dr. Elizabeth Lee, Tan Swee Imm and Steven J. Hall officiating the launch of Penang Hokkien – English Dictionary at PCA in Jalan Perak, George Town.

The first comprehensive Penang Hokkien – English Dictionary written by Tan Siew Imm was launched at the Penang Chinese Association (PCA) building in Jalan Perak, George Town recently.

PCA president Tan Gin Soon said in his welcome speech that Penang Hokkien was a unique and distinct language which differed from the Hokkien used by other regions.

“This language has evolved over time and is spoken by the majority of Penangites of all races,” he said.

Penang-born Tan Siew Imm is a lecturer at the Sunway University centre for English language studies.

She shared the burden of facing the extinction of the Penang Hokkien language and the need to preserve oral languages.

Tan an educator turned lexicographer and took four years of research to complete and publish the dictionary with English – Penang Hokkien Glossary which contains an impressive 12,500 Penang Hokkien words.

This dictionary funded by a grant from Sunway University aims to contribute to the preservation of Penang Hokkien and to be used as points of reference.

At present there are about 6,500 languages in the world with half of them in oral form and at risk of extinction.

Tan’s speech was partly in Penang Hokkien to drive home the point that grandparents, adult children and spouses would only speak Penang Hokkien to each other and use Mandarin or English to speak to or instruct their children.

Tan Siew Imm (right) signing books at the launch of Penang Hokkien - English Dictionary at PCA in Jalan Perak, George Town.
Tan Siew Imm (right) signing books at the launch of Penang Hokkien – English Dictionary at PCA in Jalan Perak, George Town.

Over time the Penang Hokkien language is destined for extinction if Penangites keep replacing it with Mandarin or English.

The younger generation is simply not conversant in Penang Hokkien.

However all is not loss with the new wave of Penang writers publishing books, recording and presenting spoken words publicly; it is highly unlikely that Penang Hokkien will be erased from the people’s memories.

The audience were treated to Penang Hokkien ditties and poetry recital by Johny Chee, Yasmin Bathamanathan and Lilian Tong.

Sunway University vice-chancellor Prof. Graeme Wilkinson said that the university had recognised the importance of preserving a local language and its diversity.

Wilkinson even quoted a Penang Hokkien phrase “thiam-hok thiam-sui” which means “May your fortune increase and life be long!” to the delight of the Babas and Nyonyas and guests who were present at the event.

Also present was the university’s centre for language studies director Prof. Stephen J Hall, who spoke a smattering of Penang Hokkien had the audience in stitches extolling the usage of the language.

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Doris Lim is a Malaysia Outlook contributor with a keen eye for details developed form her background in architecture and design. Her affable personality and passion to celebrate life is captured in her stories of the community. Doris’ love for all things beautiful and quirky is tempered by her love for writing, photography, food, art and travel.