Mandarin may be king, but it can’t sideline Cantonese in Hong Kong
Yonden Lhatoo mounts a staunch defence of Cantonese as Hong Kong’s original and enduring mother tongue, rejecting politicised paranoia that it’s being steadily usurped by Mandarin
“Sorry, I don’t answer silly questions,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor retorted when challenged by an opposition lawmaker this week to state on the record whether Cantonese was her mother tongue.
It was a politically loaded question, stemming from paranoia that Cantonese was being sidelined after the Education Bureau issued an article for primary Chinese-language teachers written by a former mainland official who suggested the city’s lingua franca should be Mandarin. The implication being that Cantonese was a dialect, rather than a proper mother tongue, for Hongkongers.
“We are speaking Cantonese every day, so this is a non-issue,” Lam said, denying there was any plan to change policy on the medium of instruction and refusing to be drawn into yet another controversy over the “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong.
She was right to dismiss what was obviously a deliberate attempt to politicise a matter that was clumsily handled by the bureau. The fact is, no one is trying to kill off Cantonese and the vast majority of Hongkongers are pragmatic enough to understand the reality of Mandarin being the national language, while holding on to their own mother tongue.
If there’s one thing you need to understand about Hongkongers, it’s that they are fiercely in love with their language.
And why not? Even with my shamefully ma ma dei (so-so) grasp of the language, I find Cantonese is easily one of the most expressive and versatile vernaculars. It’s constantly evolving and adapting, with a syntax so simple and a tone system so intricate that it can be manipulated for slang, word play and innuendo to wickedly entertaining effect.
On a personal confessionary note, I also find it the most satisfying language to swear in because it can be so crude and simultaneously clever. I love how you can play on profanity using numbers that sound like lewd words in Cantonese and adding a smattering of English to the mix for hilarious impact.
“Delay no more” is a classic example – it seems harmless enough in English, but in Cantonese it morphs into the globally ubiquitous insult that, politely explained, accuses the target of having an Oedipus complex.
More importantly, the people of this city have amalgamated Cantonese with their sense of identity as being Chinese in essence but still a breed apart from the rest of China’s population.
This is true to the extent that using the language can sometimes be a political act in itself for people who worry that Hong Kong is losing its uniqueness as it absorbs the reality of closer integration with the mainland and mother country, whether through the mass migration of mainlanders settling down in this city or the perceived Mandarinisation of daily communication as the demographics shift.
More than a decade ago, while working on a report about Hong Kong’s language issues, I interviewed a local lawmaker who quite confidently declared that Cantonese was a “dying dialect” rather than a living language and the city should look to Mandarin and English as the future.
Well, the importance of English is undeniable, and Mandarin may indeed be the new king on the block, but Cantonese remains rooted in people’s DNA. Nobody can write it off.
It’s spoken by up to 100 million people across the globe, and while that may pale in comparison with more than 900 million Mandarin speakers, Cantonese has a 2,000-year history that lends it plenty of gravitas and immortality, whether you want to define it as a dialect or a language.
“A language is a dialect with an army and navy,” a wise man once joked, when explaining the difference. Apply that to the Mandarin-Cantonese debate, then take a step back and lighten up. There’s just no need to take it so seriously.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post