Cantonese almost became the official language

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2009, 12:00am

Putonghua is the official language on the mainland, but if history had played out differently the vast majority could have been speaking Cantonese.

In 1912, shortly after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the founding fathers of the republic met to decide which language should be spoken in the new China.

Mandarin - now known as Putonghua [the common language] - was then a northern dialect spoken by the hated Manchurian officials. While it had served as China's lingua franca for centuries, many perceived it as an 'impure form' of Chinese.

Many of the revolutionary leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, were from Guangdong - which has long been China's land of new ideas. A great debate started between the delegates and eventually led to a formal vote. Cantonese lost out by a small margin to Putonghua and the rest is history.

While historians today still argue about the authenticity of the story, it is something Guangdong people love to tell. Many Cantonese speakers feel proud of their native language, saying it has more in common with ancient classical Chinese than Putonghua - which is a mix of northern dialects heavily influenced by Manchurian and Mongolian.

Linguists agree to some extent. 'Cantonese is closer to classical Chinese in its pronunciation and some grammar,' Jiang Wenxian, a Chinese language scholar, said. 'Using Cantonese to read classical poetry is a real pleasure,' he said. 'Many ancient poems don't rhyme when you read them in Putonghua, but they do in Cantonese.

'Cantonese retains a flavour of archaic and ancient Chinese. Nowadays few people understand classical Chinese, so Cantonese should be protected as a type of language fossil helping us study ancient Chinese culture.'

Cantonese is spoken by about 70 million people in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and communities abroad.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Guangdong was the only Chinese province allowed to trade directly with foreigners. Many Westerners at the time learned Cantonese. Up till very recently, there were more Cantonese speakers in overseas Chinese communities than Putonghua speakers. In Canada, for instance, Cantonese is the third most commonly spoken language after English and French.