[This is a guest post by Stephan Stiller.]
This post complements Robert Bauer and Victor Mair's previous LL post titled "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" and addresses, among other things, J. Marshall Unger's comment in the corresponding thread. Please have a look.
The most important parts (of J. Marshall Unger) I quote here:
May I suggest that "dialect" and "language" be defined operationally with respect to the comparative method, i.e. diachronically rather than synchronically? If most linguists who know speech varieties A and B well accept that they are diachronically related without an explicit demonstration (regular sound laws and explanations for semantic divergences, etc.), then A and B ought to be called dialects of their common language. Otherwise, A and B should be called languages, which are assumed to be unrelated until proven "to have sprung from a common source."
[...] No honest linguist thinks that describing the relationship of Cantonese to Mandarin is a trivial task. There are still "gray area" cases (e.g. Okinawan, which I tend to think of as a highly aberrant dialect of Japanese, but others consider a distinct languages), but at least we know what we're arguing about in terms of data.
I would say it's evident to most people that German is related to English; it doesn't take a linguist to make that realization. Not only that – we are 100% certain that they have "sprung from a common source".
To describe the precise relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin is of course not a trivial task, but I have – on more than one occasion – heard Chinese linguists state that it is merely for political reasons that many call 粵 Yue a dialect. Cantonese linguist Anne Oi-Kan Yue(-Hashimoto) 余靄芹 writes:
We shall follow the tradition of designating the major Sinitic languages as "Chinese dialects", although linguistically speaking the latter is a misnomer.
(Materials for the Diachronic Study of the Yue Dialects, footnote 1 (p. 270); on pp. 246-271 of: 乐在其中：王士元教授七十华诞庆祝文集 / The Joy of Research: A Festschrift in Honor of Professor William S-Y. Wang on His Seventieth Birthday; 石锋 Shí Fēng、沈钟伟 Shěn Zhōngwěi (eds.); 天津 (Tiānjīn): 南开大学出版社 (Nankai University Press))
I don't think the linguistic facts are controversial, despite some people still saying so.
In order to get a better understanding of the language situation for Cantonese, imagine this:
Scenario A: You require that everyone in Germany writes English. A German might thus write something like this (the grammatical error with the first word is intentional and illustrates the realities of L2 usage):
Mine parents have acquired a pet.
He'd still say
Meine Eltern haben ein Haustier erworben.
in German because this is correct German. But he is taught to pronounce every English sentence (when reading aloud) in a cognate-by-cognate fashion, like this:
Meine Färser¹ haben z-heischt ein *Biech.
Of course, some words here don't really exist in German, but this mirrors the situation of a speaker of Cantonese in Hong Kong. To match up German with Cantonese and English with Mandarin works on so many levels (I won't explain now), but to better illustrate the situation to a native speaker of English, let's flip things around and proceed to …
Scenario B: Imagine a situation where all speakers of English are required to employ German for written communication. The sentence "my parents have acquired a pet" is, in correct German, the following:
Meine Eltern haben ein Haustier erworben.
Now when native speakers of English talk amongst each other, they still say:
My parents (have)² acquired a pet.
but they're not allowed to write such a vulgar thing! Instead they only ever encounter German in prestigious newspapers. They are also taught, in school, to read aloud the German sentence as
My elders have a house deer ur-wharven.
linearly matching the German text with English cognates. (Okay. "ur-" is more like a recent borrowing, with a distinct foreign sound to it. And I haven't heard anyone use the verb "to wharve" lately. But these seemingly irrelevant details, too, mirror the situation for Cantonese.) The two sentences even sound similar if you say them out loud.
German is a language, and English is only a dialect. You must not write English, because it is a bastardized, corrupt, "highly aberrant" form of German, extant only among crazy islanders!
Still not convinced that German and English are but phonetic variants of one and the same common language? Let's write the sentences down in a writing system that abstracts away from inessential details such as pronunciation. What about we pick something universal – Chinese characters! After all, if you can use them for Japanese, you might as well use them for written Pan-Germanic (aka Modern Standard Germanic), to which Sinographs seem almost equally suited.
Glosses, from the German version of the sentence, which the writing is appropriately based on:
I+⟨possessive suffix⟩ old+⟨comparative suffix⟩+⟨plural suffix⟩ have one house+beast ⟨prefix indicating successful achievement⟩+revolve+⟨participial suffix⟩
The homophonous plural and participial suffixes were spelled out with Runes to emphasize the common millenia-old Teutonic heritage. (Don't the Japanese have a mixed script employing kana in similar fashion?)
Now for the finale. As constructed, the sentence is written like this in German:
And now in High English³:
We can see that the two are exactly the same! In passing we've even proven Germanic to be part of the Sino-Tibetan language family.⁴
That Cantonese barely lost to Mandarin as China's national language might be a myth⁵ akin to the Muehlenberg legend (it's the one according to which German allegedly lost to English as the official language of the United States by just one vote). But since they're dialects of the same language, why would it even matter?
I am in fundamental agreement with much of J. Marshall Unger's academic work on Japanese and its script, to the extent that I am familiar with it. But I am not sure in what way his proposal for a comparative method of dialect determination is workable. Also, in what way is it, as he states, "diachronic" as opposed to "synchronic"? For linguists to determine diachronic relatedness – the existence of a common ancestor – "without an explicit demonstration" is for sure something that would rely on present-day similarities, which would make it a synchronic procedure.
¹ "Färse" means "heifer", so I'm forming an ambigendered plural "Färser" from a constructed male singular form, which would also be "Färser". I encourage the reader to explore the Indo-European Lexicon at UT Austin.
² The German present perfect corresponds to the English simple past as well. The way I have constructed my examples, details about grammatical aspect shouldn't matter.
³ What you hear on the streets is Low English, not worthy of ink. For example, "pet" sounds slangy. (HKers frequently use the word "slangy" to describe their perception of Cantonese lexis as being less refined than that of Mandarin.) There's regional variation anyways. Better to have a standard, no?
⁴ I know someone who insists that Japanese is Sino-Tibetan. Guess where his confusion is coming from.
⁵ Discussions of the Conference on Unification of Pronunciation (讀音統一會) are in The Languages of China by S. Robert Ramsey and Nationalism and Language Reform in China by John DeFrancis. It seems like Mandarin clearly won in the end. Who knows whether the oft-encountered "by one vote" can be accurately applied to an intermediate negotiation that took place there in 1913.