Cantonese is a rich and subtle language that must be preserved

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 August, 2010, 12:00am

Clark Li continues to rant ('Written version of Cantonese is low-brow', August 16) in his reply to my letter ('Offensive views on Cantonese condescending', August 10).

First, an argument might be 'tired' precisely because it is true. So there is nothing wrong with the true argument that Cantonese is used throughout Chinese poetry.

Secondly, the fact that Cantonese literature has not been translated into a dozen other languages does not mean that it lacks beauty and sophistication.

I remind Mr Li that the English used by Chaucer in his original Canterbury Tales is not translatable per se into other languages. Nor, I would imagine, is James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

Yet these are seminal examples of a literary masterpiece. So using the standard of global translation is to use a wrong standard.

For two years I have been writing a Chinese column in a local newspaper, which sets out to use as much vernacular Cantonese as possible, because I believe that there are so many subtleties in the use of Cantonese that we in Hong Kong, with our overwhelming Cantonese population and culture, should preserve.

How dare somebody like Mr Li tell us that we should not be preserving this language and further enhancing it - for a language is a living thing and requires development.

I might also remind him that Mandarin (not 'Putonghua', which is an artificially-invented word) being used throughout the mainland was a decision enforced by Mao Zedong in order to ensure political control of the country, and has got nothing to do with any literary consideration.

In Hong Kong, we would fare much better politically if we had our language which the northerners did not understand.

Therefore, your correspondent should stop calling the speaking of Cantonese a 'linguistic atrocity'. It shows ignorance and condescension.

I see I was also criticised by K.Y. Tan ('Unfair attack on Singapore', August 12) for saying that Singaporeans speak three languages badly.

I should add that when I wrote something like that, I was clearly making a caricature. And a caricature is calculated to amuse and is obviously not all reality.

It's like saying that the French are extremely arrogant; or the Polish are stupid; or the Shanghainese boastful. But a caricature also always carries a grain of truth, and is a useful way of making a point, like a cartoon.

I have always suspected as much: Singaporeans don't have a great sense of humour.

Sir David Tang, Central