Linguistic heritage in peril

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am

Speak Putonghua, write standardised characters, use civilised language, be a civilised person.' The words are printed on a red banner hanging in the main entrance of a primary school in Guangzhou, a city that once set the standard for the Cantonese-speaking community.

'It is a common practice; many schools are doing the same,' said Yao Cheuk, an artists' agent in the city. 'They are doing this because it is national policy to promote Putonghua. From time to time, there is news that kids got punished for speaking Cantonese in schools. It is outrageous. They are eliminating Cantonese.'

Angry about the official bias, Yao went on to explain the superiority of Cantonese, which he described as a more mature language with a richer linguistic history than Putonghua. He cited soccer player David Beckham's name to illustrate his arguments. Cantonese translates his family name using two characters, while Putonghua uses four.

'You know why?' asked Yao. 'Because Cantonese is an ancient language that has a rich phonetic system, it takes only one character in Cantonese to mimic the English sound 'ham', whereas it takes Putonghua two Chinese characters.'

He pointed out that Putonghua has only 23 vowel sounds, while Cantonese has 59, leaving Putonghua relying heavily on the context for meaning.

Yao's friend, surnamed Pang, stressed they were not anti-Putonghua. 'Language is for people to communicate. I speak Putonghua whenever there are people whose native tongue is not Cantonese,' the college student said. 'Kids will do the same when they need to communicate with their friends. Why force us to abandon our native language?'

Both insist on using Cantonese pronunciations to spell their names in English. Pang and Yao are among a group of Guangzhou natives who fear for the future of Cantonese in the capital of Guangdong. Their worries are not without basis. For example, more than 80 per cent of cabbies do not speak Cantonese and often drivers will suggest that Cantonese speakers use Putonghua for directions.

Also, Putonghua is now spoken in Tianhe, Guangzhou's central business district. Most of those living and working there are non-Cantonese speakers. Cantonese only prevails in the old neighbourhoods, such as Xiguan in Liwan district. In many parts, there is a 50-50 split between Cantonese and Putonghua speakers.

Pang, Yao and their friends believe Putonghua speakers in Guangzhou already outnumber Cantonese speakers, because of the influx of migrants from other parts of China and the national policy of promoting Putonghua. The trend, they say, will continue, leading eventually to the extinction of Cantonese in Guangzhou.

'There is no official research or records on this. But it is easy to come up with this conclusion,' said another Cantonese campaigner, Lu Hanen. Guangzhou's population reached 12 million in 2008, according to the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences. About 7.5 million are registered residents. Lu, who works for a local television company, assumes they are Cantonese speakers. The rest are registered as temporary residents, who Lu believes are largely Putonghua speakers.

Since most of the migrant workers do not register with the government, he believes that at least half the people in Guangzhou do not speak Cantonese.

Yao, Pang, Lu and their friends are organising a Cantonese-language festival for March. 'I hope the festival will be a wake-up call on the crisis Cantonese is facing. I don't think we can stop Cantonese from being eliminated, but I want to slow [the decline],' Lu said.

The idea was developed during discussions about the beauty of Cantonese, reading and understanding ancient literature and scripts, said Paco Cheung, who works in the advertising industry. 'Reading ancient literature in Putonghua, the rhythms are wrong,' he said.

Cantonese is regarded as a modern variation of the ancient Han language, said Roxana Fung, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University's department of Chinese and bilingual studies. The Cantonese system - pronunciations, vocabulary and usage - is very similar to the official language used during the Tang dynasty (618-907).

'Every dynasty had its official language to help the emperors rule. The official language of the Tang dynasty has left plenty of its traits in Cantonese,' she said.

The linguist, who specialises in Cantonese and other Chinese dialects, believes it was migrants and exiled officials from the heart of the dynasty who brought the Tang language to Guangdong.

'Remoteness and inefficient transport created an environment for the language to remain largely intact after it arrived here - leaving it relatively untouched by the subsequent influence of the northern dialects to the ancient Han language.'

Putonghua, meanwhile, only came into being after the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Beijing dialect - a mixture of Manchu, the language of the ethnic group that ruled during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and the indigenous Beijing language - forms the backbone of Putonghua.

'To standardise Putonghua, officials decided to eliminate the unpopular indigenous usage and vocabularies of the Beijing dialect. Meanwhile, they included the popular terms spoken in the bigger northern China area, making the northern dialects the basis of Putonghua,' Fung said.

'As a result, Putonghua is not the native tongue of anyone. We call it a linguistic artefact. And it will not be the native language of anyone in the future because, even if people grow up in a Putonghua-speaking environment, as long as there are local dialects, the Putonghua language people speak still carries the characteristics of the local dialects.'

The national campaign to promote Putonghua started in 1956, the year Beijing made it the standard language. Beijing renewed its efforts in 1983, launching a new wave of campaigns, and it has now replaced many dialects, becoming the language of the younger generation.

In Guangzhou and other cities in Guangdong, Cantonese is still a major language spoken on radio and television - in contrast to Shanghai, for example, where Putonghua dominates the mass media.

'Many people still use Cantonese. There are many places where people no longer speak their own dialects after decades of promoting Putonghua,' Cheung said.

The group attributed this to the geographical distance between Guangdong and Beijing, officials being busy with power struggles in the first 30 years of Communist rule, and the proximity to Hong Kong.

'In the 1950s, most of the people in Guangdong didn't speak Putonghua,' artists' agent Yao said. 'Beijing, meanwhile, didn't have the resources to push it too hard and Cantonese was still the teaching medium. There wasn't much change in terms of speaking Cantonese in Guangzhou until the 1970s. The influx of migrants from northern China to live and work in Guangzhou started having an impact on Cantonese, but still Cantonese was the main language.' Cantonese even became trendy and stylish in the 1980s, thanks to Canto-pop, Hong Kong films and celebrities. 'The supreme position of Hong Kong lured many northerners to learn Cantonese.'

Satellite television broadcasts from the northern cities, the increasing influence of Taiwanese pop culture, and the rising economic might of Beijing and Shanghai since the early 1990s have turned the tide against Cantonese. Migrants are no longer keen on learning Cantonese, Yao said.

The changing dynamics and the government's heavy-handed promotion of Putonghua have lured many Guangzhou children to abandon their native tongue.

The Cantonese festival is designed to remind Guangzhou natives to appreciate their local culture and make new arrivals respect Cantonese. Performances will include Guangdong music, folk songs, traditional story-telling, stand-up comedy duels (traditional Cantonese stand-up comedy requires two actors to exchange verbal quips, ridiculing each other to please the audience), and Cantonese rap. The group has yet to obtain any corporate sponsorship or government support.

'The difficulties we face highlight the challenges Cantonese is facing,' Lu said. 'The official policy is to promote Putonghua. The government will not stop us from promoting local culture, but it is not going to support us. For corporations, many decision-makers are not Cantonese speakers and, even if they are, they consider that the festival will only appeal to a small group, and doesn't have much commercial value.'

Professor Fung does not want to see Cantonese eliminated.

'Dialects are language fossils, they keep many characteristics of the ancient language. Through dialects, we can understand many ancient scripts,' she said.

'Dialect and language, whether they die or thrive, is largely determined by the economic influence and the social status of the people who use them. As long as it is used on official occasions, in prestigious events, such as Legislative Council debates in Hong Kong, and as the teaching medium in schools, the language is there. It will lose its status if it is no longer the medium we use in teaching our children. It is why Cantonese is still the dominant language in Hong Kong.

'But as there are increasing exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland, it will be inevitable that Putonghua becomes the role model for our Cantonese and we will come under its influence.'