• Fri
  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 9:08am
CommentInsight & Opinion

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


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

This is a linguistic clarification:
Peter Trudgill, a well known sociolinguist in the 70's indicated the difference between dialect and language is when a dialect is adopted as a country's national language. By his definition, dialects have their own vocabulary, accent and grammar, thereby claiming that dialects are linguistically justified. It is government and politics which decide whether a dialect becomes a language at the national level.
Britain has many dialects such as Cockney, Cornish, Oxford English etc. China also has many dialects, Putonghua being the dialect that has been chosen as a national language. Lu Xun had Shanghai dialect in his works in the 1930's, more recently Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan wrote in ShanXi dialect, and of course Cantonese is printed publicly in HK newspapers (Apple Daily) when no Putonghua speaker understands what the articles contain.
In HK, the significance of having Cantonese as a medium of instruction rather than Putonghua appears to be derived from vested attitudinal interests of HK parents, allowing political elements to interfere in linguistic differences between dialect and language.
. So having a museum on the development of Cantonese dialect is a worthwhile project but it should be the result of linguistic research rather than political affect.
Dr. Nancy Lee
Formerly Head of the Support Unit on the HK Government's Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR)
Great idea of a museum !
And it will come to reality, as linguistic integration into one politically chosen language erodes at first and erases ultimately the differences between one spoken language and its designated replacement through education and culture.
Local individual and original cultures will be reduced to local individual and original cuisines, duly celebrated, along with anecdotal specificities, with future generations forever trying to "go back" to its regional "roots". This process has been happening around the world and should be learned from, the French language/culture being a foremost exemple of a "success story" in this field.
Come on, Cantonese speakers, you are now the "roots" of a legitimate language/culture, and the choice is yours !
I think the HK gov should promote mandarin as an official language like what the Taiwanese and Singaporean govs have done.. HK after all is not an independent country and the official language on the mainland is mandarin!
It took me many hours to read this article
in segments resembling Venter’s way of sequencing
The title is interesting
but not the content and the way it’s assembled
verbosity without a coherent theme for presentation
opinion editor should have sent it to J Lee
and borrowed articles from proj syd
or selective neutral articles from biased NYT
One can travel a very long way across the border and be understood speaking Cantonese. Cantonese is not dead yet! My question to the UN
Chinese as an Official UN Language::
Can you elaborate on this please? Does this mean that a speech in any of the many Chinese dialects (or languages) is acceptable in the UN? Specifically, would a speech in Cantonese be acceptable and receive simultaneous translation? Thankyou.
UN has long ratified Cantonese a language!


SCMP.com Account