A quick exit for Cantonese

« previous post | next post »

On his blog, "Throwing Pebbles", the journalist Yuen Chan describes how hard it is nowadays to find a decent elementary school in Hong Kong that offers instruction in Cantonese, rather than in Mandarin:

"Mother-tongue Squeezed Out of the Chinese Classroom in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong" (7/22/15)

This despite the fact that Cantonese is the mother tongue of around 90% of the population of Hong Kong.

The illustration at the beginning of the article shows starkly how different the phonology of the two languages are:

的 地 得

dik dei dak (pronunciations of the three characters in Cantonese)

de de de (pronunciations of the three characters in Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM])

In MSM, the first character is the possessive / adjectival / relativizing suffix, the second is the adverbial suffix, and the third is a particle for marking verbal complements.  In Cantonese and in MSM, these three characters also have other pronunciations (in MSM), meanings, and functions.  In written MSM, 的 is the most frequent character (4.09% of total occurrences), 地 has rank 21 (0.501%), and 得 is ranked 39th (0.326%).

The differences between Cantonese and Mandarin are not merely phonological, but also have to do with virtually all other aspects of language:  grammar, syntax, morphology, lexicon, idiomatic usage, and so forth.

Yuen Chan's article is long and covers a lot of ground, including the politics of the problem.  In this post, however, I want to focus on a few issues that are usually overlooked both by proponents and opponents of Cantonese in these heated debates.

One is the near universal assumption that Cantonese is "just a dialect".  What are the nuances and implications of that little word "just"?  I personally do not at all believe that Cantonese is "just a dialect".  I consider it to be a full-blown language, one that is spoken by tens of millions of people, not just in China.  Although I do not think that a type of speech must have a written form to be considered a legitimate language, Cantonese certainly can be and has been written, as the studies of Robert S. Bauer and Donald Snow have shown clearly.

Another issue that bothers me in these debates is the strange assumption that the famous dictum of "My hand writes my mouth" (wǒ shǒu xiě wǒ kǒu 我手写我口) justifies Mandarin as the medium of instruction.  I should think that exactly the opposite would be the case.  If the vast majority of children in Hong Kong speak Cantonese at home and on the street, are watching movies and television in Cantonese, are listening to popular songs in Cantonese, playing games in Cantonese, and so forth, then wouldn't it cause less of a cognitive strain on them to have Cantonese as the medium of instruction rather than Mandarin, which is a very different language in all of the respects that I mentioned above?

I strongly disagree with one of the advocates of Mandarin as the medium of instruction for Hong Kong who asserts, "Cantonese is at the end of the day a dialect, we can’t just write a dialect, so we have to adjust it internally, have to make it standard, switch some phrases and even sentences.”  Cantonese can be written and, "at the end of the day", I think that it is every bit as much of a language as MSM, which, after all, was codified in the 20th century by a committee, and particularly a single individual, the linguist Y. R. Chao (see here [4th ¶] and here).

[h.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Stephan Stiller]


  1. norman said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 10:27 am

    That's interesting – most of my HK friends and family who have kids have all been trying to get their children into schools that have EMI, with an eye towards a trilingual curriculum. But it's definitely true that there's not much emphasis on Cantonese – they're mostly concerned with the scholastic reputation of the school, and want their kids to have native fluency in English, then Mandarin, then Cantonese, in that order.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 10:44 am

    From a former student:

    I definitely appreciated having Cantonese as my base when learning how to write as I didn't have too much trouble learning the difference between 的,地,and 得!

  3. Eidolon said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    Mandarinization is proceeding at a fairly rapid pace in the PRC, and the end goal is easy to see: a population in which MSM is the L1 language of every person – or at the minimum a fluent L2. Politics have a lot to do with it, as does the belief that monolingualism is more practical and efficient, as then there is no need to translate between regional languages. But the stigma against 'local speech' isn't new; there has always been a 'prestige' tongue in China – usually the tongue of the capitol. As late as the mid-Qing Dynasty, however, it was Nanjing Mandarin. Beijing Mandarin only overtook it in the late Qing, followed by MSM which, as is known, is not exactly Beijing Mandarin but rather a constructed language based on Beijing phonology. Northeast China, it is said, are better speakers of MSM than Beijingers.

    Regardless, I think the preservation of local tongues has less to do with whether it is a dialect/language, than whether the PRC is under political pressure to preserve it. Tibetan, for example, receives a lot of preservation efforts, due to international accusations of 'cultural genocide' by the PRC government, which leads to the government mandating certain protocols for Tibetan to keep up an image. Cantonese, however, has no equivalent cause behind it. Besides Hong Kong, its homeland of Guangdong is increasingly Mandarinized both by migration and by practicality. Once Guangdong goes, HK is sure to follow, despite its position as a stronghold of Cantonese preservation.

    The rest of the local languages/dialects in the PRC are in even poorer shape with regards to rallying support for preservation. A few of them are preserved simply by virtue of falling beneath the radar – eg rural areas with minimal interactions with the rest of the country. But major cities in all the PRC provinces are becoming L1/L2 Mandarin speaking, and the effort is as deliberate as it is expedient – the availability of teachers, government mandates on TV programming, and migrants from other dialect/language areas whose only shared language with the locals and each other is MSM. Without a concerted effort to preserve them, it isn't just Cantonese that is heading to a quick exit, but all dialects/languages that aren't MSM.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 11:56 am

    China seems to be following the pattern of language unification that has already happened in the larger countries of Europe, and I don't see the situation of Cantonese as being very different from that of Occitan or Low German in the 19th century.

  5. Guy said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

    The language/dialect debate always fascinates me because I don't quite understand what facts the distinction is intended to capture. Just recently I asked an in-law visiting from Mexico about Nahuatl. When I called it a language, she made a face and corrected me saying it's a dialect, with a tone of voice indicating that she considers the distinction very important. I was tempted to press the issue to figure out exactly what she meant by that, but I didn't want to seem argumentative.

  6. K. Chang said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    Makes me glad I've already had a polyglot education. :) Learned Taiwan style Mandarin when small, started learning English at 10, with a smattering of Spanish, then moved to Texas for more English and Spanish, before eventually moving to SF for Cantonese. However, my family had always spoken Cantonese on occasion. So it's not unfamiliar to me.

  7. Rodger C said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    @Guy: In this context, "It's a dialect" means "It's not Spanish," or specifically, "Indios speak it."

  8. Hiroshi said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

    “My hand writes my mouth” bothers me as well. I think the main point that advocates of PMI (Putonghua as the medium of instruction for Chinese language) are trying to raise is that, Cantonese as being spoken in everyday life is not “proper, formal” Chinese. The fact that spoken Cantonese can be transcribed with Chinese characters is not relevant. This quote from Yuen Chan’s article probably summarizes it better:

    "Lam thinks it makes sense to teach in Putonghua because it is very similar to written modern standard Chinese. Whereas Cantonese is a vernacular, a dialect that cannot easily be written or accepted in formal written contexts, says Lam.”

    Yuen Chan discussed the issue in more details in her article which I think is a fantastic read. But I would like to highlight a point she brought up: the link between “my hand writes my mouth” and the New Cultural Movement (Chan refers to it as the “May Fourth movement of 1919”, which seems slightly incorrect: when “May Fourth Movement” is used in a broader sense to describe the New Cultural Movement, you usually don’t specify “of 1919”. But alas, I digress) or 新文學運動. Up to the end of the New Culture Movement, only classical Chinese (古文) is considered “formal” written Chinese. The modern standard Chinese (not MSM) was born out of the effort to unify or connect written Chinese with vernacular/colloquial Chinese, hence the slogans like “my hand writes my mouth”(我手寫我口), “言文一體”. And that leads us to an interesting question: what does “my hand writes my mouth” mean exactly? Reform the literature from the ground up so it conforms to modern vernacular culture (largely northern urban Chinese culture in that context), or adopt an essentially foreign spoken language (Putonghua) so you can adopt its written form (modern standard Chinese)?

    It’s not surprising that “my hand writes my mouth” sounds very odd in arguments supporting PMI, because the logic really is reversed. But if you accept that “formal written Chinese = modern standard Chinese ~= transcribed Putonghua”, then “my hand writes my mouth” might make some sense if you interpret it as “speak and write in the same language.”

    But then one may ask, how big exactly is the gap between standard written Chinese and Cantonese? And what are the relations between colloquial Cantonese, formal Cantonese, Putonghua, modern standard Chinese (written), classical Chinese, etc.? My thought on this is, even if one considers “formal Cantonese” to be different from modern standard Chinese and has to choose the latter as THE standard written form out of political and cultural necessities, nothing is stopping Cantonese speakers to read whatever is written out loud, in Cantonese. Yuen Chan’s article has more on this, especially in conversation with Professor Tse Shek-kam. I can imagine the argument of “same language code” being valid for some other Chinese dialects/languages in which the “differing literary and colloquial readings” (文白異讀) are so universal that teaching formal Chinese (however you define that) in native tongue might turn out to be more complicated than just using Putonghua as the instructional language. But for Cantonese, I don’t think that’s the case.

    Another interesting point about “My hand writes my mouth” but is slightly off-topic in this discussion: the line in its original source (as given in the blog post) actually has very different meaning. Its use as a slogan among PMI proponents probably is a legacy of the 1910s when champions of written vernacular Chinese adopted the phase in their campaign.

  9. Doc Rock said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

    For comparison, the characters are pronounced in Korean as follows: 的 적 jeok, 地 지 ji, 得 득 deuk. In Japanese, 的 てき teki , 地 じ/ち ji/chi , 得 とく toku.

  10. Tetsuo said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

    "It's just a dialect" is just a dogwhistle for "it's spoken by people I consider below me." It's the linguistic equivalent of American racists using terms like "thug" when they mean "black" but don't want to sound overtly racist about it.

  11. Calvin said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

    I am not a language expert. But here is my own litmus test: please find a book, or an article, that is written in pure Cantonese. You can also try to write one.

    Being a native Cantonese speaker, I find myself read and write Chinese easier in the "standard", or MSM form. In casual writing like email or instant message, I do mix in Cantonese to emphasize or make fun.

  12. Ron said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 1:33 am

    There… are Cantonese novels though? They've been discussed by Dr. Mair on this very website numerous times.


    Also, Donald Snow's "Cantonese as written language : the growth of a written Chinese vernacular" is worth skim-reading if you're at a university that has/can get a copy.

  13. Calvin said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

    Thanks @Ron for mentioning this book 男人唔可以窮.

    But it wasn't the first in that genre — self-narrative style story/novel using colloquial Cantonese. There was a novel from a popular Hong Kong radio drama broadcasted in late-eighties called 小男人週記 (online version here). It was basically the script of the entire series of the radio drama.

    Ironically (but not surprisingly), the preface from the author was written in standard Chinese.

    And just to illustrate my point, if you would "translate" the preface into Cantonese, how different could it be?

RSS feed for comments on this post