Such a proposition is preposterous on the very face of it. Yet a commenter to this blog has repeatedly made this claim in all earnestness, and even attempted to back up his claim with various types of evidence. I asked some friends and colleagues what they thought of such an assertion, and many of the more temperate responses I received have been included in the comments to "No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese", where the comparison was made; see also the earlier "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese", where the same commenter made the identical claim.
More recently, I have received two responses that are too long and too late to append to the earlier threads. The first is from Denis Mair:
I don't agree with this person. I think it's baffling to speak of any language as "backward." Every language is equal to the needs of articulate people within their particular cultural milieu. In fact it's the articulate people who create the language as they go along.
If this person says that Cantonese is "backward," then Tibetan must be backward, and native languages in North and South American must be "backward." That's crap. Maybe they are impoverished in the sense that a language needs smart young people to immerse themselves in it. Now some of the best young minds can only devote part of their attention to these languages, because they have to shift to world languages for educational opportunity and broad information access. But Cantonese has a thriving youth and media culture, so it's still developing.
I do think that historical circumstances have given Mandarin ascendancy over Cantonese, so if you want to talk about the hard facts of literacy, then Mandarin trumps Cantonese. Modern standard written vernacular is based on Mandarin grammar, so it's what people imbibe in books. But we now live in a culture of images, so traditional literacy is less and less important. A mixture of text and imagery will place less emphasis on in-depth literacy in a hegemonic language. A basic command will be enough, and the dialect languages (and subcultural ideolects of Mandarin) will have a chance to prove their vitality by linking themselves to visual language. The logic of visual/text hybrids has a lot to do with the unique genius of the native tongue. (For example, the strong influence of manga even in translation).
I don't think the "ebonics" comment expressed it clearly, but I do think that Chinese characters have an edge in appeal to graphic/visual memory, and I think graphic/visual memory comes into play in rapid reading. And there is a lot of available capacity for visual memory in the brain. I don't think we sound out anything when reading rapidly in a phonetic alphabet—-we learn to recognize graphic forms at a glance. As graphic forms, words in a phonetic alphabet are just squiggles, but Chinese characters have high graphic contrast values. This is a point I've made many times in the past, but I haven't heard much feedback. Maybe people think I'm just stating the obvious, that Chinese characters look distinctive.
Maybe I'm wrong; maybe our rapid reading in English depends on rapid internalized combinatorial analysis of phoneme strings for word recognition. It's something that can be explored through well-designed experiments, and probably has (if we can just find the experimental data and apply it). Intuitively, though, even if we did have subconscious phonetic processing during rapid reading, we would still need rapid visual recognition of letter strings (not just letters) in order to do the phonetic processing rapidly enough. Intuitively speaking, again, letter strings fall short of character strings in graphic contrast value. If this is true, then phonetic languages have the advantage for learning to read (and ease of writing), but not in rapid reading.
I reluctantly report my own agonizing experience. As someone who started learning the characters at age 21, I have not been able to take "advantage" of this "advantage" in rapid reading. It's an advantage that only comes into play if one learns the characters (stocks one's visual recognition banks) before a certain cutoff point, probably somewhere around age 16-19. Since I learned my characters at 21, I am condemned to a lifetime of dendritic, roundabout processing to recognize characters. I didn't stock my visual memory in the same way that a native reader does. That means I will never be able to take in a whole line of characters at a glance as native readers can do.
Even though I spend my days poring over lines of Chinese text in my translation work, this has not changed this basic disadvantage. I read fast enough for translation work, I guess, because I mull over what I read while reading. But dang-it, I still cannot read rapid movie subtitles in Chinese! I still can't burn through a novel, I must plod through it. I cannot enjoy a lot of good, cheap world cinema DVDs which only have Chinese subtitles, for instance Hiroshima Mon Amour based on the book by Marguerite Duras.
Ach, all the knowledge I have missed by not staying within my own beloved mother tongue!!
The second comment on the Cantonese as Ebonics claim is from Zev Handel:
This is nonsense, of course, on many levels. But there is no arguing with a person like this. I think Eric Vinyl's response ("Ha ha, this is adorable.") is the most appropriate way to deal with ignorance of this sort.
As you can see from the subsequent discussions with this commenter lower down, attempts to engage in rational discussion simply lead to more bombast and frustration.
By the way, a few thoughts on "QUICK QUESTION: how is it that so many of the most common morphemes in Sinitic topolects cannot be written with Chinese characters?"
1. It is more appropriate to say "are not written" rather than "cannot be written". As the example of Cantonese writing shows, anything can be written with Chinese characters.
2. Aside from Cantonese (and a few other historical examples of fully developed writing systems for non-standard varieties of Chinese), educated speakers of Chinese topolects typically write Standard Written Chinese. In the case of colloquial morphemes that are obviously cognate to morphemes in a standard written Chinese (whether it is written Mandarin, i.e. modern Báihuà, or Classical Chinese), topolect-speakers instinctively recognize that those morphemes could be written with the characters that conventionally write the cognate words. For non-obvious cognates, topolect-speakers will intuitively either feel that the word "can't be written" or will invent an off-the-cuff writing method. The most common off-the-cuff method is to use a character whose conventional reading pronunciation is similar to the target topolect pronunciation.
3. It is quite rare to use a character for a Mandarin equivalent (as opposed to a cognate) to write a topolect word, simply because this is a confusing and non-intuitive way to represent colloquial speech. For example, if one were to use "的" to write the Taiwanese possessive ê, it would immediately cause ambiguity about what morpheme is being represented, and make it unclear which language is being written. Recall that there are reading traditions that assign "dialect pronunciations" to all characters that occur in standard written forms of Chinese, and it is these pronunciations that automatically are triggered by the written form of the character.
4. For various reasons, the morphemes that tend to be least often cognate across Chinese varieties are high-frequency morphemes, such as: third-person pronoun; possessive/subordinating particle; completion aspect particle; diminutive suffix; prepositions; verb 'to give'; negative adverbs. This is what leads to the situation where the most frequent morphemes are least easy to write. The rarer a lexical item is, the more likely it is that it is in fact a borrowing from the written or standard language.
To sum up, Cantonese is Cantonese and Ebonics is Ebonics; each is sufficient unto itself, and neither is "backward".