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  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 1:46am
CommentLetters

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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This article is now closed to comments

lainy
Wow!!! Rules and standardisation!!! This is what the communist want from their colonised subject. The beauty of Hong Kong Cantonese is its adaptations. It has it orginal roots from acient Chinese tones and graphical, visual, and symbolic protray of communication which few other languages process. These properties make the language a living colloquial medium. No language except Latin has a totally "fixed, agreed upon rules". That is why Latin is a dead language. This is why Cantonese is more versatile than Mandarin. Just one example, even English, we say, "You ARE a man." It uses "ARE" plural even "man" is singular. It does not say, "You IS a man." The rule for singular and plural is not fixed even though the "agreed" rule for the verb-to-be. The English "rules" on prepositions is not totally "fixed" or "agreed upon" either. The writer of this SCMP comment has not idea about the rules (or the lack of it) in lingustics. He mentioned that hs is a member of HKU. Hmm...
daily
Who is the blooody idiot who wrote this article?...................hope this is their last one ever.
snelderj
Embedding english terms in speech is nothing unique in HK but in most international cities. Like it or not, English is the business, academic language as it's the most common language people communicate across borders. As a native cantonese speaker from HKU and lived in many different cities, I do not sense any inferiority complex among our fellow Cantonese speakers, but rather the eagerness to communicate with people who dont speak cantonese. Am afraid your observation and analysis is rather off-based.
Dai Muff
If you do not know Putonghua speakers who are just as keen to interject English you must never talk to other Chinese. Yet no one is saying that proves Putonghua has an inferiority complex. English is strong because it absorbs words from other languages. This is something the language purists are always to dumb to understand.
happycamper
I think you need to learn more about language(s) before making such pronouncements. The obvious lack of knowledge is shockingly clear in many of your comments, like this one regarding spelling conventions. Language is speech, and writing is merely a convention designed to represent it, however badly. To assert that Cantonese is not a "valid language that represents and unites its speakers" is patently ridiculous. Evidence: the many languages in the world which have no written form whatsoever. Language has existed far longer than writing. Do your homework, or risk further exposing your own ignorance.
mrsamliu
Thank you for pointing it out. If I may elaborate, specifically Cantonese living under colonial rule have developed an inferiority complex. As for adopting anglicized names, the Koreans, Vietnamese, Jews and Armenians typically stick to their ethnic names, despite their birth place in America. Even African Americans make it a point to create their own "non-white" names in spite of centuries in the USA. For Cantonese or Chinese in general, it will take harsh but true examination such as this to correct the wrongs with such insecure behaviors and stop this copy cat pattern to anything European. As for the author's critics, I suspect that they are either in denial, or they don't want to keep the self esteem of 6 million Hong Kongers in check for fear of stirring up an intellectual revolt.
gablee007
Guessing from the author's name, the writer is a Korean with likely negligible knowledge of Cantonese yet is commenting on Cantonese.
Although I do agree with the point that Cantonese should have some sort of a government body to monitor and set rules for Cantonese, too many points written in this article are just false and absurd.
Firstly, to answer why Cantonese speakers use English words like "Accounting" or "Business", it's because most HKUers grew up in schools where English was the teaching medium, so they are used to using industry-specific words in English rather than Cantonese. You can say they are lazy but I don't think lazy should be equated with an inferiority complex.
Also, HKU shouldn't be used as the lone sample to represent Hong Kong, because HKU, compared to the other HK universities, is known for stressing English rather than Chinese. Also, HKUers' English standard is relatively higher than other HK universities. If the author had local Hong Kong friends from other HK universities, he would know that the average Hong Konger's Facebook post would still be written in traditional Chinese, not English.
joo.han.334
Thank you for your thoughtful response. Surprisingly you are quite right about my personal particulars.
It has been edifying to hear what locals have told me about Cantonese that I have previously not been aware of.
Still it is largely my impression that the practice of using English is not to be easily dismissed as particular (to a region or class) or immature. Take the case of Mandarin as a comparison, where transliteration is consistent and more of a norm. I can safely say that Hong Kong people would be more likely to find transliteration archaic, tacky than excessive foreign words invasive, unoriginal.
Sugelanren
This person is obviously not a Hong Kong born Cantonese speaker! Just an observer.
calyth
I think what the author got wrong is the inferiority complex.
But this take on standardization stands. I was born in Hong Kong, but didn't practice the language for 14 years, and have drastically reduced contact to the HK culture for the same amount of time, and the vernacular Cantonese has changed drastically.
So much so that my little cousin kept trying to correct tomorrow "聽日vs天日“ and my sister mentioned to him that people spoke slightly differently back then.
And try and read an official Chinese letter, it just is drastically different than the Cantonese used every day.
What is really happening is that Hong Kongers feel threatened by the mainland culture surrounding them. Any kind of creep into Hong Konger's language will be perceived as a mainland boogeyman trying to convert them. It's not all that different than the French grumbling at their own countrymen adopting English words in their own language.
dunndavid
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.
joo.han.334
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.
calyth
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...
dunndavid
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.
joo.han.334
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
bonniechin
Absurd.

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