Mother tongue or other tongue?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2006, 12:00am

I suppose I should go down on bended knee and risk being shot in the back of my neck for such a counter-revolutionary idea. It certainly is late in the day - seven years short of a century - to right what many Chinese perceive to be a scholarly oversight and a slap in the face for their linguistic legacy.

But making Cantonese the national language of China, instead of the Putonghua now in use, still has a lot of appeal. That is particularly true among Chinese in the southern part of the country, who speak it as their mother tongue - and for their friends and relatives who emigrated. They make up the bulk of overseas Chinese communities in the United States, Britain and many other parts of the world.

Cantonese lost out to Mandarin - as it was called then - by only one vote in a historic poll taken in 1913 to decide on a unified spoken language for China. Two years earlier, the government of Sun Yat-sen had overthrown the Qing dynasty and founded the first Chinese republic.

Officials found themselves governing people spread across a vast country. The saving grace was that, unlike the Indian sub-continent, they wrote the same script. But alas, they talked in a babel of tongues, barely intelligible outside their own confines - and gibberish to ears from afar. A scholarly committee was formed to look into the matter and, as things turned out, the northern school - favouring the court dialect of the Beijing area - prevailed.

It evolved into what we now know as Putonghua, which is more refined and easier on the ear than the earthy Cantonese. But the wisdom of the decision is open to debate, considering that no less a person than chairman Mao Zedong had trouble speaking it. Mao could barely make himself understood at times, mainly because of his thick, native Hunan accent.

To be fair, his Nationalist Party counterpart, generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fared no better with his version of Mandarin. There is even an anecdote about a bodyguard being mistakenly taken out and shot because Chiang mispronounced two words of Mandarin. Although it's recognised as the official national language, it is open to question whether it is actually the 'popular language' (the meaning of putonghua) by edict from on high or by the choice of the masses.

Schools in mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau - as well as in places with overseas Chinese communities - now universally teach the national language. But there are no inviolate standards, and there are singular tonal variations and local differences in style and delivery.

At the best of times, Chinese is a difficult tonal language; Cantonese is forbidding, particularly to foreigners, because it has more tones than Putonghua. Foreigners learning the language are terrified by all the fine inflexions that can change the meanings of any sound they make. But then, such inflexions make for the complexity and beauty of Cantonese.

One-fifth of the world already speaks Chinese in one form or another. Putonghua is the official language of the mainland and Taiwan (where it's still called Mandarin); it's one of two official languages in Hong Kong and Macau; one of four official languages in Singapore; and one of six official languages at the United Nations.

But where there are overseas Chinese communities, there are Cantonese speakers. Supporters of Cantonese for a national language also claim it is distinguished as the most earthy vernacular in the world.

No other language can rival Cantonese for sheer descriptive power and colour. As such, it contains the best glossary of swear words - something for any occasion.

C.P. Ho is a former news agency correspondent and television executive