The future of Cantonese, part 2

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During the month of May, we witnessed a major flare-up in Hong Kong over the status of Cantonese:

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers" (5/4/18) — with references to more than two dozen earlier posts on Cantonese relevant to today's topic; in toto, the number of LLog posts touching on one or another aspect of Cantonese is far greater than those listed at the end of this 5/4/18 post

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers, part 2" (5/7/18)

"The Future of Cantonese" (5/27/18)

All of this has prompted Verna Yu to ask "Can Cantonese survive?", America (6/5/18).

Yu's article begins:

When Joe Wong was looking for a kindergarten in Hong Kong for his toddler son, he was shocked to find that many boasted that they taught in English and Mandarin only—a phenomenon he found odd in a city where Cantonese is spoken by 90 percent of the population.

According to official figures, over 70 percent of Hong Kong’s primary schools now use Mandarin in Chinese-language classes.

Simmering resentment over the promotion of Mandarin over Cantonese recently came to a boil when an article by a mainland Chinese scholar asserted that Cantonese could not be considered a mother tongue. The claim, seen as an attack on Hong Kong’s sense of identity, sparked an outcry.

But Cantonese and languages spoken in southern China such as Hakka and Min are in fact regarded as languages rather than dialects by linguists, said Stephen Matthews, a linguistics professor at the University of Hong Kong. And since a “mother tongue” is the first language that a child hears from his or her mother, “it does not make sense to consider written Chinese as the mother tongue of a Cantonese speaker,” said Mr. Matthews.

“For most Hong Kong children [the mother tongue] is Cantonese, with a grammar and vocabulary quite different from those of written Chinese,” he said.

Spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible and differ not only in pronunciation but also in grammar to a certain degree. Cantonese is primarily used for spoken communication and although it can be written down, the written form is used only in informal contexts. Formal written communication in the Chinese diaspora is considered acceptable only in the Mandarin-based standard written Chinese.

“I am a Hong Konger and Cantonese is our mother tongue. When we see it deliberately trampled on, we must protect our heritage,” said a user named Elaine Wong on Facebook. “Cantonese mustn’t disappear!”

“When authorities want to destroy a place’s culture, they start with language,” Joe Wong said. “I think the trend is to deliberately suppress Cantonese and is yet another step to ‘mainlandize’ Hong Kong and get rid of our unique identity.”

Whatever Beijing’s ultimate intentions, linguists point out that the real threat to Cantonese comes from Hong Kong’s parents. Most speak Cantonese as their first language and have emotional ties to it but because written Cantonese never had an official status, people see it as a useless oral language that does not help advance career prospects. In recent years, many parents have even abandoned speaking to their children in Cantonese and instead speak to them in English or Mandarin.

Lau Chaak-ming is a former lecturer in Cantonese at the University of Hong Kong and the founder of an online Cantonese dictionary project words.hk. “The government might step up the push for the lingua franca and suppress regional languages, or abandon them in education to limit their domain and reduce their vitality,” he said, “[but] when parents believe their own language is of a low status and start using another one instead, that is the real threat to a language.”

China is homogenizing Hong Kong by pressuring the majority Cantonese language speakers to learn Mandarin. This is the culturally monochrome future we can expect if China's influence continues to grow in Hong Kong.

The future of Cantonese looks bleak indeed.  Shanghainese, the erstwhile language of China's financial dynamo, is already semi-moribund, and Cantonese in the province of Guangdong, including its capital of Guangzhou, is rapidly being squeezed out of the official, public, media, and educational spheres of this economic powerhouse.  We are witnessing the death, not only of "minority" languages like Uyghur and Tibetan, but of major Sinitic languages other than Mandarin as well.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was only in Hong Kong that a language other than Mandarin, in this case Cantonese, continued to thrive.  Since the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, the spread of Mandarin — with the consequent attrition of Cantonese — is a matter of policy and a fact of life.  According to the negotiations and agreements between the PRC and Great Britain, Hong Kong was supposed to be able to maintain its accustomed laws and rights for half a century after the handover, i.e., until 2047, but the PRC has already broken its promises by interfering in virtually every aspect of Hong Kong governance, including initiatives and regulations concerning language teaching and use.

Tuīguǎng pǔtōnghuà 推廣普通話 ("Promotion of Putonghua", i.e., Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]), a government priority, is proceeding apace.  If the PRC remains politically stable for the next few decades, the demise of Cantonese is a foregone conclusion (cf. the fate of Manchu, the now extinct language of the people who ruled over China from 1644 to 1912).

If Cantonese gradually dies away, the descendants of its quondam speakers should not just blame the CCP for circumscribing its usage.  Their ancestors themselves must also share a good deal of the responsibility for the death of their mother tongue because, although they spoke to each other in Cantonese, they never bothered to develop a viable written language, nor did they teach their children how to write down the sounds of their language, and worst of all, they consented to literacy in the very language they now decry as pressing their mother tongue to extinction, viz., Mandarin.

Contrast this with the situation in India, where many of the regional vernaculars have their own flourishing literary traditions (e.g., Bengali), despite the fact they do not possess decisive political or military power at the national level.

————

Recent readings

"The wonder of Cantonese particles" (5/14/18)

"On the propinquity of Vietnamese and Sinitic" (5/11/18)



28 Comments »

  1. Gene Anderson said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    This is tragic. Cantonese is a wonderfully expressive and rich language with a long and wonderful tradition. It can't be allowed to die. The situation is the same as that faced by Celtic speakers a century or two ago. As a sometime Cantonese speaker of Celtic background, I have a couple of dogs in this fight! Cantonese forever!

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

    Makes me think of the current belated attempts to resurrect Gaelic in The Republic of Ireland (they now how TV shows in "Irish") and Hawai'ian in
    Hawai'i, where they have a Hawaiian language medium school, and a new
    Dept of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i. Does a language have
    to become near extinct before it can be recognized?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Well, the Hong Kong film industry at least seems to still be alive, and Wong Kar-wai, e.g., remains an international idol. Maybe you saw the same BBC list I saw recently that ranked his "In the Mood for Love" the 2nd greatest film of the 21st century. And of course the film is in Cantonese, not Mandarin!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC%27s_100_Greatest_Films_of_the_21st_Century

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

    Yes, and there's Cantopop, which is also booming.

    But film and pop are both in the oral realm. Will they be enough to save Cantonese?

  5. Bloix said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

    Being ignorant of Chinese language issues, i found this sentence surprising:
    "Cantonese is primarily used for spoken communication and although it can be written down, the written form is used only in informal contexts."
    What language do newspapers use? Do novelists write in Mandarin? Are trial transcripts transcribed in Mandarin when the witnesses are testifying in Cantonese? Are birth certificates and business licenses written in a language that most people can't understand?

  6. David Marjanović said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

    If Cantonese gradually dies away, the descendants of its quondam speakers should not just blame the CCP for circumscribing its usage. Their ancestors themselves must also share a good deal of the responsibility for the death of their mother tongue because, although they spoke to each other in Cantonese, they never bothered to develop a viable written language, nor did they teach their children how to write down the sounds of their language, and worst of all, they consented to literacy in the very language they now decry as pressing their mother tongue to extinction, viz., Mandarin.

    I don't think it's that simple. All the varieties that are currently counted as German dialects are written less often and less systematically than Cantonese is. I write to my mother, my brother and my sisters in Standard German in Skype chat because our dialect, spoken in Austria's third-largest city, has no written tradition. The diglossia is stable: dialect for oral communication in normal situations, Standard for written communication, formal speeches and the like and communication with speakers of mutually less intelligible dia- or mesolects. The difference to (greater) China seems to be entirely in social attitudes.

  7. AntC said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

    After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was only in Hong Kong that … Cantonese, continued to thrive.

    (We should also note that Cantonese thrived in Macau. Presumably the same now applies there.)

    It seem's ironic it was the 'baddie' European imperialists that allowed Cantonese to thrive for over 100 years. My impression is that Cantonese in Guangdong province was at least more tolerated until Beijing had secured hegemony over HK.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 7:30 pm

    "I don't think it's that simple."

    The situation pertaining to Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin in the past, present, and future is not at all simple. They are two separate, mutually unintelligible languages. It's not just a matter of a slight difference in pronunciation, vocabulary, idioms, and so forth. As I've pointed out in scores of posts on Language Log during the past decade, the grammar, the particles, the morphology, syntax, etc. of Cantonese are all quite dissimilar to those of Mandarin.

    The speech of Linz is a dialect of German. Cantonese has its dialects too: Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Toishan, Gaoyang, Xiguan, and so on, some of which are not fully intelligible to each other.

  9. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

    But that's *very* similar to the German situation. Somebody like me, who studied Hochdeutsch, is as hopeless as a Mandarian speaker in Hong Kong in Austria or Switzerland. Yes, you'll encounter a lot of people who know Hochdeutsch, but you'll encounter a similar number of Mandarin speakers in Hong Kong.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 9:43 pm

    After three semesters of Cantonese study and many Hong Kong films, I regret that I never became fluent. Cantonese is a delightful language and I would be sad were it to disappear.

    Presumably films are mostly scripted. I wonder how the scripts are written. There may be more of a written literature than is apparent at first glance.

    When I was studying in the '90s, I would occasionally pick up a HK comic book or entertainment magazine, which were generally written in colloquial Cantonese. Is that no longer the case?

  11. NatShockley said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 3:55 am

    The German situation does make for an interesting comparison: it shows that "topolects" (like Swiss German, Swabian and so forth, which are certainly not mutually intelligible with Hochdeutsch and therefore not merely dialects in the linguistic sense) can indeed maintain a fairly stable existence even when not used as the language of instruction in the school system – provided the state is not deliberately trying to stamp them out, and provided their speakers place sufficient value on them. Those two conditions unfortunately do not seem to exist in Guangdong and Hong Kong, putting Cantonese in a situation more like that of Breton, Occitan, etc. in France.

  12. AntC said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 7:42 am

    I too am puzzled about the written forms for Cantonese. Any shopping street in Causeway Bay or Nathan Road/TST or Mong Kok is a riot of neon signs with Chinese characters in what topolect?

    The menus in restaurants and waiters write down the orders in what? Hotel receptionists take notes in what? Post-it notes in any office are what? Greengrocers' signs in the markets name the produce in what? etc, etc. I'm mentioning these humdrum examples, because I've seen them.

    Re the restaurant trade: most Chinese restaurants in Britain are run by HongKongers (same in NZ). I've seen MSM-speaking tourists surreptitiously get out their phones to translate. (Or perhaps they're looking up obscure characters. But I'm sure at least some are translating from the English. And for the restaurants that deal with large tour parties, I'm pretty sure they have both MSM menus and what?)

  13. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 9:02 am

    Perhaps Cantonese needs some "touchstone" dictionary, like the OED for English, or, perhaps a top-down language body "with Chinese characteristics", like the Académie Française" to standardize both oral and written language?

    For those asking about written Cantonese, here's a fun web site to play with (url and example sentence in "written Cantonese" below):

    http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/

    你問我,我問邊個?
    nei5 man6 ngo5, ngo5 man6 bin1 go3
    Why are you asking me? How am I supposed to know?

  14. Guy_H said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 11:51 am

    In response to Bloix and AntC,

    – Newspapers are mostly written in standard Chinese. Some newspaper articles will use written Cantonese, especially the celebrity gossip section. Tabloids like Apple Daily are quite famous for using a lot of written Cantonese.
    – Novelists mostly write in standard Chinese.
    – Trial transcripts will transcribe using Cantonese to reflect the testimony word-for-word, but legal documents are in standard Chinese (or more commonly, in English).
    – Birth certificates are in standard Chinese. When someone is writing their name, it would be incorrect to say that they are writing it in Mandarin or Cantonese, as the characters would be exactly the same in either language – there is no tradition in Hong Kong of using Cantonese-only characters in names and in fact would be extremely strange. I can’t actually think of any Cantonese-only characters which would be appropriate to use in somebody’s name.
    – Menus – similar to people’s names, it’s a bit tricky to say that the names of food are written in a particular Chinese dialect. It’s generally universal to both languages. If someone is checking the meaning on their phone, it’s more likely they are unfamiliar with that particular region’s cuisine.
    – Written notes – could be in either standard Chinese or Cantonese. When my Hong Kong cousin texts me, it could be in either Cantonese, standard Chinese or even English. It’s very random.
    – Store signs – they are generally in standard Chinese but I can think of exceptions. If the sign is a proper noun, it would be hard to say it is written in a particular dialect.

    The question of whether something is written in Mandarin or Cantonese can be a bit tricky. In the more “formal” registers, they are quite close to each other. And for a lot of words, differences are due to regionalisms rather than the two languages writing things differently (if that makes any sense. Sorry, not sure how to explain it!). For example fridge is “bing xiang” in Beijing and “bing seung” in Guangzhou, which is written exactly the same, but “suet gwei” in Hong Kong, which is different. However, “bing xiang” is Mandarin, whereas “bing seung” and “suet gwei” are Cantonese.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    It's not just a matter of a slight difference in pronunciation, vocabulary, idioms, and so forth. As I've pointed out in scores of posts on Language Log during the past decade, the grammar, the particles, the morphology, syntax, etc. of Cantonese are all quite dissimilar to those of Mandarin.

    Actually, now that I think about it, the last common ancestor of Cantonese and Mandarin (Late Middle Sinitic) was spoken around the same time as the last common ancestor of Upper German in the strictest sense and the varieties that later contributed to the development of Standard German (Upper Franconian and north of there). It shows. The differences in pronunciation are not "slight", but large enough that the Standard spelling conventions cannot deal with the sound systems of, actually, most dialects, which is of course a large part of why the dialects aren't written more often. For instance, Middle High German had a quite crowded and lopsided inventory of non-close unrounded front monophthongs: /æ æː ɛ ɛː e/. (The /eː/ you'd expect had earlier wandered off to become a diphthong.) On the way to Standard German, the lengths were redistributed (lengthening of vowels in open syllables and in monosyllabic words that ended in at most one consonant; irregular shortenings in closed syllables), and then the qualities were redistributed according to the new lengths, resulting in just /ɛ eː/ in most Standard accents, with an extra /æː/ in the westernmost ones (and as an occasional, irregular spelling-pronunciation in many others). The spelling system distinguishes between /ɛ/ and /eː/ by combining e or ä with various indications of length or shortness. In Central Bavarian, which includes my dialect, phonemic vowel length is completely lost. (Phonetic vowel length works like in Russian: stressed vowels are longer than unstressed ones.) I'm not sure what happened to MHG /æ/, but MHG /æː/ became part of the new /a/ (after the old /a/ and /aː/ became /ɒ/); /ɛ/ and /ɛː/ merged, /e/ remained distinct, and the qualities were never redistributed. Thus, the dialects' /ɛ/ and /e/, each of which can regularly correspond to both /ɛ/ and /eː/ of the Standard – and to its /œ/ and /øː/, while the dialects' /œ/ and /ø/ can each correspond to all four of /ɛl/, /eːl/, /œl/ and /øl/ of the Standard.

    This leaves us unable to use the existing orthographic means to distinguish /ɛ/ and /e/, for instance. Consider as basic a word as "take". In the Standard, that's /neːmɛn/ (with some diaphonemic wiggle room for unstressed /ɛ/). This is spelled nehmen, indicating the length twice: first by the openness of the stressed syllable, second by the "syllable"-final h (which, incidentally, isn't even etymological in this case). Throughout Bavarian, it's /nɛmɐ/. All indications of length would imply /e/, so they'd be actively misleading. Using mm to graphically close the stressed syllable and thus indicate /ɛ/ is not an option, because consonant length hasn't been lost in Upper German, or in Austrian Standard German for that matter! We'd need to come up with something completely new, and then popularize that new convention.

    (Or we could return to the MHG practice of just not indicating half of the distinctions in the vowel system. That would be considered unsatisfactory nowadays, though. There are minimal pairs like /nɛmɐn/ "(we/they) take", Standard nehmen, vs. /nemɐn/ "next to the (m./n.)", Standard neben dem.)

    The grammar, including morphology (see examples above), syntax and particles, is noticeably different, too, but not in ways the writing system couldn't handle reasonably well. The same holds for the vocabulary – except as restricted by the phonology, an issue largely irrelevant to Cantonese characters.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 9:16 pm

    Such a long comment, but 90% of it deals with pronunciation. Only the last little paragraph touches on all other aspects of language, and they are given but short shrift (no examples provided).

    Here's a brief (8:21) video on "Cantonese vs. Mandarin", with more than a million and a half views. It's not great, but it will give some idea of the stark differences between the two languages

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e73btaVo868

    It's really only the use of characters for writing that make the two languages seem more similar than they actually are. That would be like saying that French, German, English, Spanish, etc. are dialects of one language because they all use the Roman alphabet. Furthermore, to be literate according to the educational standards imposed by the authorities, a Cantonese speaker must learn Mandarin grammar, lexicon, syntax, etc. If someone wants to try to perform the tour de force feat of writing in something approaching Cantonese, they will have to use a thousand special characters created expressly for that purpose:

    Cheung K.H. and Robert S. Bauer. 2002. The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters. Monograph Series No. 18. Berkeley: Journal of Chinese Linguistics.

    In addition, they will most likely use Roman letters to write some Cantonese morphemes for which there are no hanzi, even specially invented ones.

    For a monograph on how seldom Cantonese is written, and how it is usually liberally adulterated with Mandarin elements, see:

    Snow, Don. 2004. Cantonese as Written Language, The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

  17. Chas Belov said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 10:41 pm

    I remember running across Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents by Zeng Zifan (Author), S. K. Lai (Translator), and being amazed at it running a few hundred pages. I wound up not buying it because it didn't use the Yale transcription that I had learned, but it did give me a fascination for the differences between the two languages.

    I did buy the delightful A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life by Christopher Hutton (Editor) and Kingsley Bolton (Editor). Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of words and phrases that are specific to Hong Kong Cantonese, including some that are unwriteable, leading to fun random reads on whatever page you turn to.

    I believe there are some food words that are specifically Cantonese, for example, 塘虱 (tongsat, pond louse) for catfish. And I would venture to guess that 王 would only be used by a Cantonese-speaking waiter to write on a guest check as an order abbreviation for brown rice, because 王 (king) and 黃 (yellow) are homonyms in Cantonese (wong) but not in Mandarin (wong vs. huang).

  18. David Marjanović said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 5:26 am

    Such a long comment, but 90% of it deals with pronunciation. Only the last little paragraph touches on all other aspects of language, and they are given but short shrift (no examples provided).

    Yes, because I figured my comment was getting long enough, and because the challenges of writing a previously unwritten variety in a culture used to an alphabet are quite different from those faced in a culture used to Chinese characters. In the former, recognizably cognate vocabulary with different phonological makeup poses a problem, while different vocabulary that happens to fit the standard's phonology can be effortlessly written in the established conventions of the standard; in the latter, it's the other way around – recognizably cognate vocabulary can be written with the same character(s), while different vocabulary will end up written with the character for a homophone or a synonym or a specially created character or not at all.

    I don't mean to downplay the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese! Instead, I mean to point out that you seem to be underestimating the diversity of German, which I recently compared to the whole Slavic family (which is, again, of similar age).

    But if you're interested in grammatical differences, here are some:

    – Standard German has two synonymous* past tenses: a synthetic one cognate to the English past, and an analytic one cognate to the English present perfect. Throughout Upper German, the former is lost (with occasional exceptions for one or verbs: my dialect retains it for "be" and all but the 2pl of "want").
    – Standard German has two synonymous* conditionals: a synthetic one cognate to e.g. "I were", and an analytic one cognate to "I would be". For regular verbs, the former is identical to the synthetic past (as in English) and therefore avoided outside of downright literary registers. In Upper German, there is no synthetic past to confuse it with, so it's used very often. Still, the analytic one exists and has two choices of auxiliary verb ("would", "did") instead of just one ("would").
    – Standard German has** merged the 1/3pl ending with the infinitive ending: it's all -n. In my dialect, this merger is not complete: while normally a syllabic nasal, this ending splits behind nasals into infinitive /ɐ/ and 1/3pl /ɐn/. (I gave the example of nehmen, inf. /nɛmɐ/ but 1/3pl /nɛmɐn/, but didn't point it out.) A separate ending /nd/ survives in some other Bavarian dialects, but I'm not sure if that's 3pl only or a merged 1/3pl. …Oh, I forgot about the new 1pl ending found in Lower Bavaria, see below.
    – Several rounds of apocope and syncope have messed differently with the inventory of endings in dialect and standard. The regular ending of the synthetic past & conditional is /tɛ/ in the standard, but (conditional only) /ɐd/ in the Bavarian dialects. Some imperatives are endingless in the standard, the others end in /ɛ/ like the 1sg; all imperatives and the whole 1sg are endingless in Bavarian.
    – Between two such rounds of apocope, Bavarian underwent shortening of word-final long consonants. This created length alternations between 1sg (endingless) and 1/3sg (syllabic nasal or /ɐ/). The next round of apocope left long consonants stranded at the ends of words again, so that the singular and the plural of many nouns is now distinguished by consonant length. This includes consonants for which the German spelling system cannot indicate a length difference, namely /x/, /ʃ/ and /pf/. …With /x/ we get that problem anyway. Standard German has separate outcomes from old /x/ and old /xː/: the latter is preserved and spelled ch, the former is mostly lost (with compensatory lengthening where possible) and spelled as silent h. Both are mostly preserved throughout Upper German.
    – Apocope has also messed with the gender of some nouns. And some have different genders even without apocope.
    – 17th-century written German had plenty of nouns that ended in -n except in the nom. sg.. In feminine ones, in the standard, this -n has been reinterpreted as a plural ending and removed from the singular. Bavarian dialects have mostly generalized it to the nom. sg. instead.
    – The genitive case, a somewhat artificial feature in Standard German, is wholly lost in most dialects. Replacements include "of", "the.DAT his/her/its" and compound nouns formed even from personal names.***
    – The dative and accusative show various partial or complete mergers in different dialects; in mine the dat. pl. is wholly replaced by the acc. pl., but they're mostly kept distinct in the singular apart from the fact that their most common endings /m/ and /n/ assimilate to surrounding consonants.
    – The definite article is used with personal names throughout Upper German (and beyond). Ask little children how they're called, and the answers will generally start with "I am the".
    – The indefinite article is used with mass nouns at least in Bavarian. "Do you have (some/any) money/sand/water" comes out as "do you have a money/sand/water". I kid you not.
    – The Bavarian clitic pronouns, and their effects on verb endings. *deep breath* This is really getting too long, but I'll mention that the 2sg clitic is the whole verb ending /st/, so that /obst/ means both "fruit" (mass noun) and "whether you". The 1sg clitic /mɐ/ merges, if placed behind a verb, with the 1sg ending /N/, often triggering length metathesis, and in Lower Bavaria it has completely replaced the verb ending so that wir fahren "we go (on wheels, by ship, to hell or up into heaven)" is now /mɪɐ̯ˈfɒɐ̯mɐ/. Probably relatedly, throughout Bavarian, the 2pl verb ending is /ts/ rather than the expected /d/; the 2pl clitic is /s/ from a dual pronoun that is scarcely attested in Old High German but has become the normal independent 2pl pronoun in most Bavarian dialects. – Chains of verb endings, clitics and epenthetic vowels can reach polysynthetic complexities like in spoken French. The difference is that the clitics still count as words for the purposes of word order, though the order of clitics in a chain is sometimes different from what you'd expect from Standard German.

    I'll stop here; if anyone is interested in concrete examples of what I've tried to describe, or differences in vocabulary, tell me.

    * There are stylistic distinctions, but nothing like the actual meaning differences of the English cognates. It's more like passé simple & passé composé in French.
    ** Except in the most irregular verb, "to be", which is inf. sein, 1/3pl sind. My dialect has the same for the former apart from vowel nasalization, but a completely different vowel in the latter: it's /san/.
    *** Compare "Tanya's room", Russian Танина комната with a possessive adjective (-ин-) instead of a genitive (*комната Тани), and das Tanjazimmer.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 7:33 am

    "I don't mean to downplay the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese! Instead, I mean to point out that you seem to be underestimating the diversity of German, which I recently compared to the whole Slavic family (which is, again, of similar age)."

    Hardly. My Dad was from an Austrian village that is much smaller than Linz, Pfaffenhofen by name (see "Soundex and Metaphone" [2/5/12]), that is situated far to the west of the country in the mountainous Tyrol, so I'm quite aware of how different Austrian dialects can be from each other. I've been to Pfaffenhofen many times and am always intrigued by the particularities of the local speech. Still, even with my sehr schlecht spoken Standard German, I can understand what folks there are saying, and I can make myself understood by them. Even more fascinating to me, as someone who has spent his whole academic life since high school focusing on vernacular language, is that the people of tiny Pfaffenhofen can write down their language (they even have a bit of a literary tradition in it) and, mirabile dictu, I can read it and make sense of most of it (albeit not without considerable effort). I suppose that the people of Linz also can write down their language, and may even have a local tradition of writing in it. If they do, I would love to read some of it.

    I've been to Hong Kong dozens of times, have lived, lectured, and taught there for a couple of years, and formally studied Cantonese for one year. Yet, despite that fact that I'm fluent in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), I probably understand less than 20% of full-blown spoken and written Cantonese.

    Seriously, though, before this comment excites you to write reams more about how different the dialect of Linz is from Standard German, with rich comparanda to the whole Slavic family, you need to take a look at some of the materials on Cantonese provided in this post, its comments, and the many other posts and comments about Cantonese that have appeared on Language Log before you waste your energy doing that.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 7:37 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    What Guy_H wrote on June 11, 2018 is fully accurate.

    For a relatively comprehensive analysis of written Cantonese with numerous examples, readers may find the following journal publication to be of interest to them:

    Bauer, Robert S. 2018. Cantonese as written language in Hong Kong. Global Chinese. 4.1:103-142.

    https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/glochi.2018.4.issue-1/glochi-2018-0006/glochi-2018-0006.xml

  21. andy said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 7:44 am

    "After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was only in Hong Kong that … Cantonese, continued to thrive."

    Is it fair to say that Cantonese continues to thrive in Chinese expat communities (e.g. in NYC, SF, Vancouver, etc. etc.)?

  22. David Marjanović said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 10:16 am

    Still, even with my sehr schlecht spoken Standard German, I can understand what folks there are saying, and I can make myself understood by them.

    The second is no surprise in a functioning diglossia: everybody is largely fluent in Standard German and has been from a very young age.

    A consequence of this is that it's not testable how well the standard is intelligible to any dialect speakers. Bavarian itself, however, approaches mutual unintelligibility at the edges. 20 years ago I met someone from South Tyrol and didn't understand every sentence. The example I remember is "this/that stuff", Standard dieses Zeug. The demonstrative pronoun is lost all over Bavarian, but while it's replaced by the unreduced form of the article in the rest of the area (result: /desˈtsɛɪ̯g/), that guy used a completely unrelated demonstrative pronoun I had never encountered before – in context: [sɛɫˈtsui̯g̊] –, and it took me a while to understand it from context. Isn't that at least comparable to 冇? – Intelligibility sharply drops to 50% or less (often much less) once you cross from Bavarian into High Alemannic or Lake Constance Alemannic; that's like Polish vs. Croatian.

    I suppose that the people of Linz also can write down their language, and may even have a local tradition of writing in it. If they do, I would love to read some of it.

    There may be one or two poets somewhere out there, but there's no tradition. Even in Vienna, where several poets and composers wrote in dialect in the mid-late 20th century, no two people write the same way, and few are even internally consistent. Neither is the Bavarian Wikipedia, whose literature category page is here and links to examples.

    (Much of the Bavarian Wikipedia seems to me to be too literally translated from Standard German. That would make sense – the articles aren't in fact translated, but when people try to write in complete sentences, the standard comes to their minds first. But it's actually not easy to judge how idiomatic they really are, because what's idiomatic – including the very existence of much vocabulary – differs a lot between different Bavarian dialects, and each editor writes in their own dialect there.)

  23. Su-Chong Lim said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

    Scottish Gaelic was essentially lost in Scotland. When scholars tried to revive it and floundered, they found salvation in Canada's Nova Scotia, where Gaelic language literature had flowered and flourished over the past 200 years. Nova Scotia even had native Gaelic speakers to listen to and to learn from.

    If Cantonese is ever lost in HK, the trick likely would be to recapture it from the worldwide Cantonese diaspora. But better would be not allow it to be lost in the first place.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    June 13, 2018 @ 3:18 am

    Scottish Gaelic is still the most widely spoken language by far on the Outer Hebrides, and spoken by maybe half of the people in such places as the Isle of Skye.

    ===========

    Since I'm already commenting again, I'll take the opportunity to briefly mention Bavarian directionals. Some such words as "up, down, to the front, to the back" come obligatorily prefixed with hin- "away from the speaker" and her- "toward the speaker". In Bavarian what may be the same affixes appear on almost all directionals – and go on the other end, as suffixes /ɪ/ and /ɐ/, which curiously merge as /ɛ/ in /hɪntɐrɛ/ "to the back" (Standard nach hinten, no prefixes). "Down" uses a different root (instead of -unter, it's -ab, which is quite literary/poetic in the standard), and with the usual sound changes it's probably unrecognizable to most non-speakers: /ɒvɪ/, /ɒvɐ/. Then there are two extra roots, /tsʊv/- "toward a wall" and /daʊ̯n/- "away from a wall". The former seems to be from zu "to" and might be understood by a non-speaker; the latter has neither a cognate nor an equivalent in Standard German – it's not translatable into Standard German as anything shorter than "away from a wall".

    Regular sound changes have also made the vowel chains /aˈɛɪ/, /ɪˈɛa/ and /aˈɛɪa/ grammatical utterances: /ɪ/ ich "I", final /a/ auch "also", initial /a/ ah, /ˈɛ/ eh "in accordance with hopes or cynical expectations" – /aˈɛɪa/ means "oh, so it is me, too, after all – good".

  25. Dave Cragin said,

    June 13, 2018 @ 6:56 pm

    The explanation of a former colleague from Hong Kong how she spoke Mandarin revealed much about the differences between the languages. She said she would think how she would write it and then pick the Mandarin words. In other words, she wasn’t translating from Cantonese.

    However, she noted her pace of speech was too slow for most of her friends.

  26. andy said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 12:34 am

    My parents are native Cantonese speakers and interestingly, they only read Chinese with Cantonese.

  27. Eidolon said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

    What Guy_H said about Standard Chinese vis-a-vis Cantonese is not just the case today, it was the case historically, too. There was no long standing tradition of writing Cantonese down. The literate class across Guangdong wrote in Classical Chinese, the written lingua franca of the Chinese empire. This is, perhaps, the reason Cantonese parents have no particular attachment to the idea of writing down Cantonese – to them, such a practice has no historical precedent, and would feel new and strange.

    The Chinese script – and the Classical variety of Sinitic it embodied – has served as a written lingua franca for the Chinese empire for thousands of years. It has created a situation in which people in China regard the oral and written forms of the language as different registers of speech – ie "formal Cantonese" was, in fact, regarded as Classical Chinese. Had the Chinese script been an alphabet, it's an interesting question as to whether this situation would've ever come about.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 7:01 pm

    "Could simplified Chinese be a step towards Orwellian society for HK?"

    Charlotte Lee The China Post 96/11/18)

    https://chinapost.nownews.com/20180611-350285

    VHM: I don't like simplified characters and I'm sure that most people in Hong Kong detest them, but shoving them down the throats of the Hong Kong people before 2047 is not in and of itself a step toward an Orwellian society, which is quite another matter altogether.

    Note that this focuses on the Harrow International School in Hong Kong.

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