Local language

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From Bob Bauer:

A couple of days ago I discovered one of your Language Logs from last year that had a very interesting and very long back-and-forth discussion on the distinctive characteristics of Hong Kong's Chinese language.* I noticed.one commenter with initials HL** mentioned some particularly interesting things about the use of the term Punti 本地話*** to mean "Cantonese" in HK's law courts. Historically, Punti had referred to the indigenous Cantonese in contrast to the more recently-arrived Hakka immigrants. (By the way, for what it's worth, in the first half of the 19th century 地 was pronounced [ti], and then in the late 19th/early 20th century it diphthongized to [tei]).

As it turns out, 本地話 has established its own special HK usage. This semester I just happen to have a student who is a court interpreter, and I asked her about this term. According to her, 本地話 is used instead of 廣東話 within certain govt. depts. The term 本地話 is written on a card that is used by court interpreters who make an affirmation when they take up the post of court interpreter. It is also the term used to mean Cantonese by the police when they record verbatim in their notebooks whatever is said to them by witnesses, suspects, etc. So, if someone had said something in Cantonese to the police officer, then he would use this term to indicate that. In addition, the Immigration Dept. and the Customs and Excise Dept. both use this same term to mean Cantonese.

Notes by VHM:

*"Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/14)

**Long comment by HL.

***In MSM, 本地話 would be pronounced běndìhuà ("local language / speech"); in Cantonese it would be more common just to say bun2dei6 ("local [language / speech]")

How many "local languages" there must be on earth!  I would surmise that most indigenous, rural folk refer to their speech as "local language" or some such designation.  It is only when we start to get regional and national identities that terms like "Cantonese" and "Chinese" come into being.  Another distinction in the naming of languages (and the people who speak them) is that between endonym and exonym.  Often the endonym will be egocentric ("human speech"), whereas exonyms are often pejorative ("немецкий язык", the Russian term for German, derived from the word for "mute").


  1. languagehat said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 9:13 am

    Svoja mova.

  2. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 11:46 am

    Yiddish-speakers often call their language דאָס מאַמע־לשון (dos mame-loshn) literally "the mother language", as distinct from the one taught in schools or used in prayer.

    Incidentally, the word לשון, which is feminine in Hebrew, is somehow neuter in most dictionaries I looked at, and even masculine according to Harkavy. I'd be interested if anyone knows how that happened.

  3. Chaak said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

    Some additional notes:

    1. I believe the term was used to refer to the local Cantonese dialect, i.e. 圍頭話 (Waitau), and later extended to include mutually intelligible Cantonese dialects. I'm pretty sure if someone speaks Toishanese or other Szeyap Cantonese to a police officer, the term "Punti" will not be used. On the other hand SE Asia Cantonese or other varieties of Cantonese (e.g. 南寧白話) will be recorded as Punti although these varieties are clearly not 'local' in any sense.

    2. The term is also used for the ethnic / clan division. I was shocked when I saw the option on my marriage registration form asking me to specify whether I am "Punti" or "Hakka". I always wonder how other Sinitic clans are supposed to identify themselves.

    BTW the term is not being used by the Cantonese-speaking population in Hong Kong outside of courtrooms / police force. The most common name is 廣東話 (gwong2 dung1 waa2), but we occasionally use the phrase 我哋啲話 (ngo5 dei6 di1 waa2, literally: our (plural_or_uncountable) language) to refer to Cantonese.

  4. Chris C. said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

    My grandparents, children of immigrants, who grew up with Rusyn in the house and only learned English when they entered public school, spoke "po nashemu".

  5. Finn said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

    The Māori name for the Māori language means "the language", or "the ordinary language".

    ("Māori" itself is a word meaning "ordinary" or "normal", which became a proper noun after contact with European civilisation, as the locals referred to themselves as "normal people", in contrast with the Europeans.)

  6. John Swindle said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

    @Chris C.: A letter in Russian about a hundred years ago from a young Volga German girl to her uncle in America introduces a phrase in phonetic German with the clarification "пай унс", quotation marks and all, intending of course "bei uns." The uncle was my grandfather. I take the quotation marks to be mildly self-mocking.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

    It's perhaps worth pointing out that Cantonese is referred to in Southern China as 白話 (impressionistically bak-wa), meaning the plain or colloquial language. This term doesn't appear to be understood in Hong Kong.

  8. Jason said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 6:55 pm


    And "Inuit" means "The People" and "Inuktitut", the term for the language, means "In the manner of the people." And Koreans call their language 국어 "gugeo" "national language", leading to slight awkwardness when a foreigner's "national language" isn't "the national language."

    I'm not sure we should give a free pass on such ethnocentrism.

  9. AlexB said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 7:37 am

    As far as I understand it, Slavic peoples divide the population into those who use words (Slavs), those who can't speak properly (Niemetz) and those who talk gibberish (Walach)

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    @Jason, there are several ways that Koreans can refer to their language, but 국어 國語gugeo "national language" is rather restricted in usage to dry, academic settings. You go to gugeo classes in school and consult gugeo dictionaries; the study of the Korean language is called 국어학 國語學 gugeohak and its practitioners 국어학자 國語學者 gugeohakja; the language is regulated by 국립국어원 國立國語院 Gungnip Gugeowon, the National Institute of the Korean Language.

    But in everyday life, unless they're talking about the subject in school and dictionaries, they aren't likely to refer to their language as gugeo. There are a number of options, but one common way that is relevant to this discussion is simply to call it 우리말 urimal "our speech".

  11. DMT said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

    Some people in Hong Kong do use 白話 to refer to Cantonese. I don't know whether these people were more recent migrants to the city than the people who don't understand the term.

  12. Bmblbzzz said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    Po ludzku, "in human speech" is consciously humorous phrase I've heard in Poland.

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