The development of Cantonese language is a story worth telling

Peter Gordon says a community effort to trace the development of the Cantonese language over the years may well illuminate the heated debate in Hong Kong over its place in our society

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 11:36am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 4:14am

A recent article on the Education Bureau website read: "Although the Basic Law stipulates that Chinese and English are the two official languages in Hong Kong, nearly 97 per cent of the local population learn Cantonese (a Chinese dialect that is not an official language) as their commonly used daily language."

The ruckus was so great that the piece was promptly taken down. The question as to whether Cantonese is "official" has been well discussed elsewhere, but the posting also labelled Cantonese a "dialect", as well as using "language" in a linguistically incompatible way that implies the two terms are interchangeable.

Language is an element of culture in use every waking hour, one which ties people intimately to those immediately around them, providing ongoing re-inforcement for their sense of identity. The status of Cantonese is, therefore, a matter of considerable political significance. And not just here. July 2010 saw protests in Guangzhou over a proposal to replace Cantonese-language television programming with Putonghua.

These spilled over into Hong Kong, somewhat ironically resulting in a rare instance of solidarity between Hong Kong people and their Cantonese cousins across the border, an empathy that governments on both sides had been long trying to instil, without much noticeable success, and that has since been trumped by troubles over baby formula.

It's a subject that gets the letters column in these pages buzzing. Writers have huffed that the use of Putonghua was patriotic and Cantonese nothing but a "vulgar relic", a "dialect" best left to the "wet market", and further opined that, "in the realm of education, Cantonese should be treated as a mispronounced, grammatically incorrect form of Chinese rather than a desirable medium of instruction". Others, notably Sir David Tang, have ridden to the defence of Cantonese as a fully fledged language, and "a very well-developed and rich language at that", stressing its links to classical poetry.

If Cantonese were "just" a dialect, then its exclusion from education and formal communication might - possibly - be justifiable. If, on the other hand, Cantonese is a "language", it smacks of politics to favour Putonghua at its expense.

So is Cantonese a language or a dialect of Chinese? The answer may be "yes" to both. Cantonese, most linguists would say, is indisputably a separate language. It is at least as different from Putonghua as any two Romance languages are from each other. It is spoken by roughly as many people as, say, Italian. There is an oft-quoted saying attributed to linguist Max Weinreich that notes that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy". In China, this would have been the Beijing dialect.

However, Chinese differs from European languages in that it has a single written form which exists independent of and unites the various vernaculars. Europe had something similar in the early Middle Ages: people may have spoken early forms of French, Spanish or Italian at home, but all one could really write was Latin. Arabic is perhaps a better and more contemporaneous example: its various spoken versions can be mutually unintelligible. In spite of changes in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, everyone nevertheless reads and mostly writes a frozen-in-time form of classical Arabic.

The terms "language" and "dialect", which should ideally be scientifically objective, have in practice gathered considerable political content and may obscure rather than illuminate the Chinese situation. It has been noted in the linguistic blogosphere (yes, there is one) that the Chinese term usually translated into English as "dialect" ( fangyan) doesn't really mean that: one writer calls it "place-speech"; another has invented the term "topolect".

Language, being as common as breathing, is unsurprisingly a subject often held to be common knowledge. But much of what seems self-evident about language can prove at variance with some tenets of formal linguistics. And herein lies an opportunity.

A "Museum of the Chinese Language" - covering the development of Chinese, both script and the various linguistic branches, and how they have changed over time, i.e. an introduction to historical linguistics - would be fascinating and educational as well as, I imagine, immensely popular. (This is not an entirely original idea, for there is such a museum for Portuguese in Sao Paulo, Brazil.) Such a museum would not be expensive: the displays could be mostly multimedia, with schoolchildren particularly in mind.

A section on Cantonese could also reference Cantonese-language culture (music, film, etc) and the Cantonese diaspora, and help establish (or re-establish) Hong Kong as the hub for this aspect of Chinese culture, catalyse links with Cantonese communities abroad, and help develop a sense of Chinese diasporic history.

But whether Cantonese is a language or dialect is, at least for the Cantonese themselves, more a question of identity - and hence politics - than linguistics. The answer may depend not just on what Cantonese-speakers believe but also on the language in which they phrase the distinction. A Museum of the Chinese Language would help them do so.

Peter Gordon minored in linguistics at university. He edits the Asian Review of Books