[This is a guest post by Robert S. Bauer, with some comments on "dialect" vs. "language" by me (VHM) at the bottom.]
1. After 1949 over the last few decades of British colonial rule, Cantonese was regarded as one more desirable/useful barrier separating HK from China.
As a consequence, the British treated Cantonese with benign neglect which allowed it to develop naturally and without interference, and this is why it has been doing as well as it has.
A couple of years ago the fact that only a handful of people showed up at a demonstration in support of Cantonese in HK shows that most HK speakers do not see it as being under imminent threat.
In Guangzhou people are told that "civilized people speak Mandarin" wénmíng rén shuō Pǔtōnghuà 文明人説普通話, which to me implies that uncivilized people speak "dialects" (topolects) such as Cantonese.
2. Some people hold the view there is only one kind of "proper" Chinese and that is standard written Chinese (i.e., Modern Standard Mandarin). The "dialects" (topolects) are nonstandard or substandard and hence unimportant and uninteresting — except to linguists and dialectologists.
Here in HK I've encountered people who have told me that Cantonese cannot be written and should not be written.
I once told students in a sociolinguistics class I was teaching some years ago that I thought written Cantonese should be standardized and promoted as another Chinese variety. One of the students who was from the mainland and a teacher of Chinese language in HK could barely suppress her outrage, telling me if that were done then written Cantonese would challenge and compete with standard written Chinese and such a situation could not be allowed or tolerated.
But in reality written Cantonese and standard written Chinese have already been in competition in HK for some time, although not on a large scale, and Cantonese could in no way be said to challenge the pre-eminent position of standard written Chinese. The standardization of written Cantonese has been evolving for some time on its own informal, ad hoc basis, but so far this phenomenon hasn't received much attention.
A couple of observations:
The other day as I was riding down the escalator in a train station I saw the phrase 啱晒 ngaam1 saai3 'thoroughly correct, absolutely right', a thoroughly Cantonese expression, written in an advertisement. I assume northerners who don't speak Cantonese would find it completely meaningless, and for the time being that doesn't seem to matter to the advertiser who rented that space, but such an attitude will likely change before long.
The other night at a linguistics conference dinner the man sitting on my left said he was from Chongqing and couldn't understand anything Cantonese speakers in HK were saying. Earlier in the day I had come across the word 萬字夾 maan6 zi6 gaap3/2 which was said to be the Cantonese word for 'paper clip' and equivalent to standard Chinese huíxíngzhēn 回形針 or huíwénzhēn 回纹针, so I showed him the Cantonese word and asked him if it meant anything to him. He said 'no'. I think it may be an old Cantonese word, since most of my Cantonese-Putonghua dictionaries published in HK haven't recorded it, although three other references have listed and defined it.
VHM: Dialect or Language?
Cantonese is one of the main themes of our Chinese deliberations on Language Log, e.g., "Cantonese novels" and "Mandarin is weirder than Cantonese". On the question of whether Cantonese is a language or a "dialect" (of what?), which keeps coming up in these discussions, we really do need to get beyond the trite notion that "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." For starters, see "Counting the Languages of the World" by Geoff Pullum, and the comments thereto about Chinese "dialects".
Quebec doesn't have an army or a navy and a national flag, but everybody would agree that French and English are different languages. And think of all the different languages that are spoken in India, yet none of them have an army or a navy and a national flag. Conversely, consider all the nations that DO have an army or a navy and a national flag, but speak the same language, e.g., the United States, England, Canada, Australia…. Consequently, having an army or a navy and a national flag has nothing to do with the determination of whether a linguistic entity is a language or a dialect.
Perhaps it would be useful to have a debate on the meaning of the word "dialect" and what that signifies for its relationship to "language", thinking especially of the implication of the prefix dia- ("inter; through; across; between").
< … διαλέγομαι (dialégomai, “I participate in a dialogue”) (Wiktionary)
< …dialegesthai "converse with each other," from dia- "across, between" (see dia-) + legein "speak" (Online Etymology Dictionary)
< …Latin dialectus, Greek διάλεκτος discourse, conversation, way of speaking, language of a country or district, < διαλέγεσθαι to discourse, converse, < δια- through, across + λέγειν to speak (OED)
The Free Dictionary (American Heritage)