• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 6:52pm

Cantonese speakers suffering from an inferiority complex

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 6:58am

I refer to Peter Gordon's article ("The development of Cantonese language is a story worth telling", February 15).

As a member of a major Cantonese speech group - the University of Hong Kong - I find the article's point on tracing and exhibiting the language's history bona fide, but disoriented. In other words, the ongoing degeneration of Hong Kong Cantonese, manifest at places none other than universities, indicates that it is the current practice of Cantonese, not its history, that begs for collective care.

In principle, I agree with the author's view: that such a debate concerning the status of the vernacular essentially concerns the local authenticity, possibly in relation to greater China. However, the alarming note is not that people are not well enough informed of the language's (or the dialect's, whichever one sides with) history, but that people abuse and neglect the language right now.

I reckon it is the low self-esteem of Cantonese speakers that lies at the heart of the issue. On the one hand, it is low self-esteem in the form of an inferiority complex. Here at HKU, when local students introduce themselves in Cantonese, they prefer to switch and utter foreign words such as "accounting and finance" with a proper English accent that breaks the flow of the Cantonese speech.

In fact, many freshers decide to adopt non-Chinese names, even ones so bizarre as Sunny, Ocean or Kiki. Now that we are at university, it seems, Cantonese and Chinese transliteration are regarded as inappropriate.

On the other hand, the issue is simply ignorance. Cantonese speakers don't seem to care how and why they speak their language. While they intuitively know their nine tones and the difference between suffixes "di" and "ge", with the same intuition they fail to realise one irony: that they never care to standardise and abide by fixed rules, especially when they would care about the right English pronunciation and orthography. This standardisation would provide solidity to Cantonese against abusive slang and facilitate the teaching of it to foreigners.

If language is "an element of culture in use every waking hour … providing ongoing reinforcement for their sense of identity", as the author claims, then it is precisely this ongoing practice that needs attention.

As long as this pattern of low self-esteem persists, and as long as Hongkongers continue to choose English to eloquently summarise their days on Facebook, then the museum proposed might have to introduce Cantonese as a legacy.

Joo Hun-han, Sheung Wan


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Pessimism about the future of Cantonese in this article seems exaggerated. When I went to Hong Kong University for the first time some months ago I was shocked to hear how much English was in the use, in the greater Hong Kong society though this is not the case. As I have seen in the U.S. many campaign phenomenon don't make it into the greater society. Much that is seen on colleges campuses is not so much a harbinger for the future but rather a fad of youth. The greater threat to Cantonese is potential top down actions by Hong Kong's/China's government.
Perhaps I should add that much of the pattern I mentioned -- abusive English appropriation -- can be heard in other parts of the city, namely in Central area. I may even say that the economic and cultural position that the area holds does not make it a mere extension or parallel to university campuses that you suggest as sophomoric. Through the representative case of university students I intended to challenge a larger group of Cantonese speakers.
I think you're reading too much into which areas seems to bring in loan words into the Cantonese langauge. There's not really a "Japan town" in HK per se, but it's not the first time I heard someone utter "sou desu ne" in every day speech.
Something about HK just seems to get people to introduce loan words every day. Maybe it's the pop culture - whatever is in vogue right this moment seems to influence a sizable group quickly.
One thing that bugs me quite often is the choice of English names. One poor guy called himself Bell (presumably from his Chinese name), and quickly enough an English speaker whom we worked with was doing small talk and attempted to make a joke at his expense, suggested whether he got Bell (Belle) from Beauty and the Beast...
Not even in all of Central can English compete with Cantonese, just the highly international financial sector and some industries that have extensive international interaction.
sudo rm -f cy
"that they never care to standardise and abide by fixed rules"
But colloquialness is part of Cantonese's very fibre.
I acknowledge the colloquial nature of Cantonese. The problem I raise is that Cantonese's colloquial nature does not seem to be accommodated within fixed, or agreed, rules. By rules I mean for example the way you would write the word 'di', or 'joh' the passive particle. Without these fundamental agreements it may be difficult to assert Cantonese as a valid language that represents and unites its speakers.
- Joo



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