Deutsch Intern
English Linguistics

Diachronic change in modalising expressions in Hong Kong English

The modal system of English in its development provides an ideal perspective on language change and variation, and has therefore been studied widely. General changes that have been observed in ENL – such as the declining frequency of core modals connected to an overall trend towards the colloquialisation of the written form (Leech, 2013) – are also gaining momentum in ESL varieties (Collins, 2009) . However, the sociocultural and socio-historical situation in specific postcolonial communities promotes diversity among non-native varieties of English and may cause unique developments in their modal systems.

In this project, we seek to identify patterns in the use of modalising expressions in Hong Kong English in relation to topic, genre and the larger socio-historical context. For this, we study the frequency and function of selected modal verbs in Hong Kong English and compare these with findings from British English and other New Englishes. Our first analyses of press news reports in the DC-HKE reveal a peak in the use of modal verbs in the late 1980s, i.e., exactly the critical period before Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 (see Hong Kong project). In further studies, we will extend the analysis to other modalising expressions, other stance markers and other genres to shed light on a possible link between language change and social change in Hong Kong.


Prof. Dr. Carolin Biewer    
Dr. Ninja Schulz
Lisa Lehnen


Biewer, C., Lehnen, L., & Schulz. N. (in prep.) Modalising expressions in Hong Kong English: Tracing diachronic change from 1928 to 2018. In P. Hohaus & R. Schulze (Eds.), Modal Co-text, Modal Context - Re-Assessing Modal Expressions in the Light of Converging Evidence. John Benjamins.

Guest lectures

Biewer, C. Modalising Expressions and Ethnonyms in Hong Kong English: Tracing Diachronic Changes from 1928 to 2018 (from 1903 to 1999). University of Zurich (UZH), April 10, 2019.