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