• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 1:41am
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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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.
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.
hard times !
This Broomhead Regina Ip might have forgotten that in the Legco chamber, all the lawmakersexpress their views in Cantonese and make pass the bills in Cantonese as well ! And our law courts's Chinese judges hand down their verdicts in Cantonese if the culprits/accused are of Chinese nationality and fluent in Cantonese. If Cantonese is not considered an official language as English does, then...This Regina Ip is not only narrowed-minded but also short-sighted in views, I am sorry to point out.
"Cantonese is "a mere dialect"? Go back to school, Ip. The ancient canonical Chinese texts predated Putonghua, but not necessarily Cantonese."

What do you expect from somebody named "Regina". I 100% agree with you Mr. Lo. Having Ms. Ip go back to school would be beneficial to all of Hong Kong. Her arrogance is truly unbearable, and any objective analyst can tell she learned nothing since 2003 despite her claims of reinventing herself.
anecdotally, i have heard even some mainland scholars mention that a good portion of ancient poetry or songs flow more smoothly and naturally using Cantonese pronunciation rather than anything "modern" like Putonghua.
I do believe Cantonese should remain as the OFFICIAL DIALECT of Hong Kong. It has been speaking in Hong Kong for centuries and should not be replaced just because some Mainland Chinese want to take over Hong Kong, period! How would they feel if we come to Mainland China and demand Cantonese as the official dialect instead of Putonghua?
No need to insult people who think differently from you. Just the arguments would suffice, if well made.
Putonghua is the official spoken Chinese
for intra and inter-national communication
Cantonese an important part of the spoken Chinese language
is the effective official language in HKSAR
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".




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