• Thu
  • Oct 23, 2014
  • Updated: 9:07am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:23am

Why Cantonese is a real language in Hong Kong

When it comes to Cantonese, I am a diehard regional southerner and proud of it. By Cantonese, I mean the language spoken in Hong Kong and Guangdong. I say language, not dialect. Yes, there are minor differences in expressions on both sides of the border but it's nothing like it has with Putonghua.

Despite an apology from the Education Bureau, I don't think it was a gaffe when it said in its website's section on language learning support that "Cantonese is not an official language". And lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, what did you write in my newspaper the other day - Cantonese is "a mere dialect"? Go back to school, Ip. The ancient canonical Chinese texts predated Putonghua, but not necessarily Cantonese.

Strictly speaking, the bureau is not wrong. Chinese is one of the two official languages of Hong Kong, but there is no mention of Cantonese or Putonghua as an official language in the Basic Law. But local officials increasingly operate under the assumption of the central government, which gives official status to Putonghua, with other Chinese languages relegated to being dialects. The denigration of Cantonese in Hong Kong began with the colonial Brits.

The usual argument is that a dialect has no written script. Well, our current written Chinese script called "baihua" or vernacular system emerged from the May 4th Movement's modernisation of the language. The script is neither Putonghua, a northern spoken language, nor Cantonese, a southern one. This written script works equally well for Putonghua, Cantonese or other Chinese speakers. Cantonese has a much longer and venerable lineage than Putonghua, a mix of the Han Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu languages from the Qing dynasty. Cantonese could possibly date back to the Warring States period, though there was then no unified China and the south was considered "barbarian". But Cantonese emerged as a recognisable language from the time of the An Lushan Revolt during the Tang dynasty, when an exodus of refugees flooded the south.

As the scholar Nan Huai-Chin wrote: "Hakka and Cantonese were the Tang dynasty's national languages; Hokkien was the Song dynasty's. Putonghua is a [recent] national language."


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Shouldn't the Hong Kong version of this Chinese spoken-language be called Hongkongese as it is spoken like nowhere else on earth, which much that is home-grown and liberally sprinkled with patois? For that matter, why was it called Cantonese in the first place as Canton (now Guangzhou) is only a small part of Guangdong Province and a smaller part of South China. I would submit that it is a regional dialect like Hakka, Hokkien, Toishan etc., though it is by far the most popular spoken tongue.
Having said all that, there is no doubt that this is one of the most descriptive language/dialect in the world. It literally has a word for everything down to the tiniest nuance of the intangibles or metaphysical.
I can't understand though how such a useful and colourful tool can be spoiled and degraded by some of the most foul expressions used daily in all walks of life, in public places, in front of women and children, including ones own, and oftentimes used AGAINST one's own family members and why women (especially those accompanied by very young children) would tolerate this without complaint. All other languages or dialects have its own swear words, but nothing like Hongkongese. Bring back the law of obscene or offensive use of language in public place and the Treasury would find itself enriched annually with surpluses beyond its dream.
There's no question within the linguistic world, Cantonese and Hokkien and Mandarin are separate and independent languages within the larger sino-tibetan language family. Why must a central government work to suppress and degrade a language and label it as a dialect in the name of national unity? That will only breed local resentment and discontent. there is no question within the greater Chinese speaking world from China to Malaysia and Singapore and Taiwan, Mandarin has reached the status of dominence. I see it within the same league as English with the EU. It goes without saying that your typical Swede or German and however unwillingly the French all recognize the importance of English and most of them all know and understand and can communicate in English. But while there's an acknowledged dominance of English, there's a respect for the other languages. That is what is at issue here. The Chinese national government is not just working to assert Mandarin's dominance, it is also working at the same time to wipe out local regional languages, that is the true tragedy here.
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I love my Cantonese mother tongue more than any other language. But I also keep in mind that the vitality and colorful expressions of our language are no substitute for essential national communications. Just listen to the insipid banalities of HK's TV talking heads.
Austrians, Swiss and many Germans speaking regional dialects all defer to High German (Hochdeutsch) when they communicate with one another. That's the "national" dialect taught in all German speaking schools.
Or look at the Philippines, which is engaged in vitriolic exchanges with both China and HK at the moment. After the 1898-1902 war with the US, in which more than 200,000 Filipinos were killed by Teddy Roosevelt's US Army, the country abandoned Spanish in favor of pidgin American English. Today there are no written form of Tagalog and other Austronesian languages except bastardized Latin transliterations.
Some Cantonese words have no Chinese character representations. We, a minority insofar as dialect (language) is concerned, should not expect to invent new characters and force them down the throat of the Chinese speaking world. We all write Chinese, don't we? Here's my advice to Hong Kongers. Unless you want imitate Aquino-Abe duo's economic seppuku act, don't sabotage your children learning Putonghua.
We must preserve our Cantonese culture at all costs. Let's sit down and learn to speak our national language. It's not hard. We have already mastered its vocabulary and many idioms.
Whymak, probably the best written comment I have seen scmp.com including the reporters. What is your educational background and what is your specialty. I admire great writers who can express their feelings through language. Thanks for deep and profound contribution to this topic. I agree with you and Ms. Ip-Lau
Thanks for your kind comments. I am 100% Cantonese thoroughbred, born and raised in Hong Kong. I went to St. Joseph's College, where I learned English from Brothers of Christian Schools. Despite my average intellect, these dedicated teachers drilled me tirelessly, merciless the proper use of the language in barely intelligible Irish brogue.
Saying Cantonese is unofficial mean saying Hong Kongers are unofficial, we never meant to declare Cantonese is the language of whole nation, but we have the right to keep our own language, the action is totally brains washing, nudging the wrong idea into our heads.
"A language is a dialect with an army and navy" as the saying goes. Gosh is HK being ruled by dumbwit like Ip she can p*ss off back to "Stanford".
Both Cantonese and Hokkien are ancient languages. Not sure that you can say those were the colloquial languages of which capitals of China's dynasties. Cantonese and Hakka are said to come from the Yangtse River basin in ancient times, whereas Hokkien comes from regions further, hence the term Hoklo short for Henan Luoyang. Both Cantonese and Hokkien, as ancient languages are very helpful when you learn the pronunciations of Japanese and especially Korean. Mandarin as a more modern language is much less helpful. Hokkien and Cantonese are not particularly related but they are closer to the other than either is to Mandarin. Hokkien is said to be even more ancient than Cantonese, still much historical linguistic research is devoted to both Hokkien and Cantonese, and not much on Mandarin. Cantonese as well as Hokkien are great linguistic treasures for humanity, a point apparently not appreciated by a mediocre intellect such as Regina Ip.
Thanks for a good discussion. I believe Ms. Ip has some good points similar to my posting in this column.




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