Effort to save Cantonese

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 October, 2009, 12:00am

The words printed on a red banner hanging in the main entrance of a primary school in Guangzhou read: 'Speak Putonghua, write standardised characters, use civilised language, be a civilised person.' Guangzhou was 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 have been 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 to rely 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 the mainland 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, who works for a local television company.

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 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 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.'

Roxana Fung, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University's department of Chinese and bilingual studies, 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 [teaching] medium [in schools]. This 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.'

This is an edited version of an article published in the Sunday Morning Post on October 11