Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."
But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region: "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe: Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."
Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.
The bold assertion that Cantonese is "not an official language" of Hong Kong flies in the face of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which states that both Chinese and English are official languages of Hong Kong.
Of course, trying to define what "Chinese" is is not an easy matter. Surely, if we are talking about spoken language, then "Chinese" at the time the Basic Law was enacted, and even now, meant Cantonese, inasmuch as roughly 97% of the population of Hong Kong speak Cantonese as their Mother Tongue. But if we're talking about written language, then "Chinese" at the time the Basic Law was enacted, and still now, signified Mandarin. As anyone who has tried seriously to master both spoken Cantonese and written Mandarin knows full well, there is a world of difference between the two. Never mind trying to master written Cantonese and spoken Mandarin, which are also sharply divergent.
Since stating that both Chinese and English are official languages of Hong Kong inevitably results in enormous confusion with regard to what "Chinese" is, after the handover in 1997 the stipulations regarding language usage were supplemented with a policy of liǎng wén sān yǔ 兩文三語 ("biliterate and trilingual"). By "biliterate and trilingual" it is meant that there are two official scripts (Chinese and the Roman alphabet; in practice that amounts to saying that the official written languages of Hong Kong are Mandarin and English) and three spoken languages (Cantonese, English, and Mandarin). No matter how you slice it, according to the Basic Law and the supplementary language policy, Cantonese is an official language of Hong Kong, and it certainly is the de facto spoken language.
Those who have been following the debate on Language Log know that part of the problem lies in the mistranslation of the Chinese word fāngyán 方言 as "dialect". Because this mistranslation plays havoc with the classification of Sinitic languages, I invented the word "topolect" as a more accurate replacement, one which would not interfere with efforts to make taxonomical sense of the innumerable varieties of Sinitic, many of which — like Mandarin and Cantonese — are mutually unintelligible.
I will not recap here all of the reasons why Sinitic fāngyán 方言 are not "dialects" nor how treating them as dialects distorts the Stammbaum relationships among them, but will only mention that more information concerning the concept of fāngyán 方言 may be found here, here, and here.
More recently, I have revisited the problem of how to deal with fāngyán 方言 and the classification of Sinitic in the Festschrift for Alain Peyraube.
The declaration that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong opened a horrible can of worms, but it had two positive results:
1. It helped to make sensible people realize that the discussion of "language" vs. "dialect" should be regarded as a linguistic matter, not a political football.
2. It revealed how ridiculous it is to refer to the Mother Tongue of tens of millions of people as a "dialect", especially when no one ever bothered to show in a principled manner what it is a dialect of and how it relates to other so-called mutually unintelligible "dialects" such as Taiwanese and Shanghainese.
As a consequence of the Education Bureau's blunder, a huge debate over the nature and position of Cantonese has erupted in Hong Kong, with respected public figures such as Alex Lo explaining straightforwardly "Why Cantonese is a real language in Hong Kong".
To close this post, allow me to cite the discovery made by a colleague that shows just how despicably the Mandarinate views Cantonese, the venerable Mother Tongue of the people of Hong Kong.
I would never have imagined that Cantonese would be personified as the "Devil" himself and that ghoulish image used by the HK Education Bureau in teaching Putonghua to Cantonese-speaking young children in Hong Kong.
Yet this is precisely what is done in this video.
I think this video is downright bizarre, shocking, creepy, and highly objectionable. Toward the end the scene of the man pointing the gun right in the face of the young girl is horribly disturbing.
It's obvious this video was produced by mainlanders who think they are clever and creative. However, if any naive Cantonese-speaker had any doubts about how sleazy and underhanded are the methods used by the promotion-of-Putonghua agenda, this video should dispel them.
The laughable crudity of this video notwithstanding, there is a war going on in Hong Kong, one between government forces determined to promote Putonghua at all costs and a populace who naturally have an understandable affection for their Mother Tongue.
[Thanks to Bob Bauer]