Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers

« previous post | next post »

So say mainland and government spokespersons.  It sounds absurd, but here's the "reasoning", as summarized by Bob Bauer:

Have you heard about HK's latest brouhaha that Cantonese is NOT the mother tongue of HK's Cantonese-speaking population? A bigshot mainland scholar has written that HK Cantonese can't possibly be their mother tongue because it's MERELY a dialect and dialects can't be mother tongues!

Yesterday the Chief Executive Carrie Lam was asked by a legislative councilor what her mother tongue was, but she refused to answer his question and said it was pointless!

Oh, how I detest the word "dialect" when it's used irresponsibly, derogatorily, and maliciously like this!

Here are some news reports on this highly contentious matter:

"Lam dismisses controversies over education", by Sophie Hui and Riley Chan, The Standard (5/4/18)

"Should Mandarin replace Cantonese in Hong Kong? No, says Carrie Lam:  Chief Executive Carrie Lam, education secretary and mainland linguist all dismiss idea that Mandarin will be used to teach Chinese in city’s schools", by Su Xinqi and Sum Lok-kei, SCMP (5/3/18)

"Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam dismisses speculation over changes to controversial liberal studies subject:  The contentious secondary school subject could reportedly lose its status as a ‘core subject’ for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam", by Sum Lok-kei, SCMP (5/3/18)

Yesterday’s (5/3/18) Apple Daily newspaper 蘋果日報 published the following headline on page A7 (蘋果港聞):  "Jiào jú yǐn nèidì xuézhě: Yuèyǔ fēi gǎng rén mǔyǔ 教局引内地學者: 粵語非港人母語" ("Education Bureau cites mainland scholar:  Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers")

This main article and related ones on the same page present a good account of the matter.


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

"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)

"English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage" (9/4/13)

"Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages" (9/25/15)

"Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål" (12/22/13)

"Speak Cantonese" (6/10/16)

"Written Cantonese on a 'Democracy Wall' at a University in Hong Kong" (3/21/14)

"Token Cantonese" (5/16/15)

"Cantonese 'here'" (10/15/15)

"Uyghur, Cantonese, and other valuable languages of China" (2/20/16)

"Cantonese novels" (8/20/13)

"Cantonese tones" (2/25/17)

"Dialect or Topolect?" (7/1/10) (see the comments by Claw and Jason Cullen)

"A quick exit for Cantonese" (7/22/15)

"Cantonese teachers influenced by Mandarin" (1/9/17)

"Kongish" (8/6/15)

"Kongish, ch. 2" (1/22/16)

"Written public cursing in Hong Kong" (5/3/17)

"Eighty-one Cantonese proverbs in one picture" (2/27/14)

"Cantonese as Ebonics" (12/17/13)

"Cantonese is not dead yet" (6/9/17)

"Cantonese: still the main spoken language of Hong Kong" (7/1/17)

"Differing Cantonese and Mandarin readings of the same headline" (4/30/18)

"Multiscriptal, multilingual Hong Kong headline" (5/4/18)

"Mother Tongue: lost and found" (12/15/14)

"How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language" (

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Mark Metcalf, and John Lagerwey]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 10:20 am

    Here is an introduction to the Mainland scholar, his career, and his published work: 宋欣橋教授 (in Chinese). Y K Sung (interestingly, the romanisation of his name is not based on pinyin) is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has worked for the Chinese Ministry of Education and the State Working Committee on Language and Writing (my translation). One suspects that the only reason a man like this has ended up in Hong Kong is to further the national government's agenda on language issues. He would certainly know which side his bread is buttered on.

    Given his biased views on 'dialects', one can only wonder how 'scholarly' his work on dialects (including 盂縣 = Yu county dialect in Shanxi) could have been.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 10:59 am


    Thank you very much for the substantial, informative, and helpful information about Y K Sung.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

    From dako-xiaweiyi:

    Cantonese, Minanhua, Mandarin, Shanghainese, etc. are entirely different languages. They are mutually unintelligible.

    Cantonese is close to Vietnamese.

    The canard that they are all "dialects" of "Chinese" was promoted by Sun Yat-sen who was trying to make a nation out of China, which in his time was actually an empire formed by the Manchurian conquest of neighboring nations.

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 3:45 pm

    I'm somewhat surprised at the notion that Cantonese being a "dialect" would prevent it from being anyone's mother tongue. It seems natural enough to me to say that someone's mother tongue is Bostonian or whatever.

    (Possibly relevantly, the Swedish word for "mother tongue" is modersmål, a compound whose second part, mål, means among other things "dialect".)

  5. Ellen K. said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

    I was thinking the same thing as Andreas Johansson. It's not wrong to say my mother tongue is American English. To say someone's mother tongue is AAVE or Cockney or such is to say something that conveys a distinct meaning.

    But, perhaps by "dialect" they mean not dialect or topolect but something like "depreciated form of a real language". Which would be a wrongful way to describe Cantonese regardless of it's relationship with MSM.

  6. Arthur Waldron said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 4:34 pm

    As a Boston Brahmin in my fashion I can tell you that we have no dialect just some Irish whose phonemes or lack therefore creep in. The last native speaker of Brahminese if Frank Coolidge when he shuffles off that pleasing and cultivated manner of speech all go the way of toity toid and toid the Dutch accented English of Olde New York. Arthur

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    Someone on another list erroneously commented: "They’re grouped together because they share a written language." We at Language Log know better (read the references at the end of the o.p.

    dako-xiaweiyi responded:

    I understand and know the narrative, but written Chinese characters can be overlaid onto other languages, as in Japan. Japanese can look at a Chinese newspaper and get a pretty good sense of what is being discussed even though it's an entirely different language.

    U.S. Southern dialects of English came from English. Generally, southern Americans, even those with a strong accent, can communicate with Australians. That's why we call them dialects.

    Cantonese did not descend from Mandarin; it is not a "mother language." I am told (I don't speak them) that Vietnamese and Cantonese are similar enough that they might be called dialects of the same language, but mention that to someone steeped in the PRC narrative and watch them flash off. It's not a matter of linguistic science, it's a matter of constructed near-religious hyper-nationalistic identify.

    You can have more fun than atheists baiting religious fundamentalists just by saying "Guangzhou has been an indivisible part of the Yue Kingdom since ancient times" and watching the fireworks.

    The languages of the Qing Empire were grouped together, called "dialects" of a common language, by nationalists because it served their nationalist narrative. It would be like calling English a dialect of German, which Hitler might well have later done had his military adventures gone a different way. It defies the standard-English meaning of the word "language" for political purposes, and we hear it so often that we never stop to question the obvious falsehood.

    The irony is that CCP oppression–linguistic and otherwise–is not really the force that is making a nation out of China where none existed before. Rather, it seems to be more prosaic things like television and free internal migration that are forming a Chinese national language, which is really a modern phenomenon.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 7:31 pm

    From John Tkacik:

    The ride from Fleet Club to the US Consulate in HK in 1983 was HK$4.20, I would pay with a $10 note and say "唔該, 畀五元我" … which I've always assumed was a non-Sinitic syntax left over from prehistory…. Cantonese (粵語) is pretty shot-through with syntactic evidence of being its own language … and certainly Mandarin is a later dialect of the more ancient 粵 Yue tongue rather than the other way round. Don't scholars of ancient poetry insist Tang 詩 are more euphonious in 粵?

    I don't hear it myself … but still …

    There is no rational case to be made that Mandarin ought replace 粵語 as Hong Kong's mother tongue.

  9. liuyao said,

    May 4, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

    "irresponsibly, derogatorily, and maliciously" all true, but are we sure he used the English word "dialect"?

  10. cliff arroyo said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 1:25 am

    " I am told (I don't speak them) that Vietnamese and Cantonese are similar enough that they might be called dialects of the same language"

    I'd say rather that Chinese loans in Vietnamese are much closer to Cantonese than Mandarin (which makes sense given geography). Once going over something with my Vietnamese teacher a colleague who had long ago learned some Cantonese said he could understand a lot of it. But shared vocabulary and family origin are of course very different things.

    I've also heard that Thai and Cambodian (different language families) are around 50 to 70% mutually intelligible just from common vocabulary (mostly Cambodian loanwords to Thai, sometimes originally from India).

  11. David Marjanović said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 6:29 am

    Just to make sure it doesn't remain unsaid: Vietnamese has several layers of Sinitic loanwords, amounting to even more – and even more basic – loans than Japanese has, but its basic vocabulary is very different. Rather than a Sino-Tibetan language, it's an Austroasiatic language like Khmer, Mon and the Munda languages of India.

    I'm somewhat surprised at the notion that Cantonese being a "dialect" would prevent it from being anyone's mother tongue. It seems natural enough to me to say that someone's mother tongue is Bostonian or whatever.

    You can do that with mother tongue, but can you do it with native language? To do it in German (with Muttersprache, literally "mother language" quite distinct from "tongue"), inevitably comes across as half-joking.

    And indeed, mǔyǔ 母語 is literally "mother language", with the same yǔ that is used to form the names of languages like English, French, German or Japanese.

  12. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

    @David Marjanović

    I'll let the L1 speakers judge if "native language" can be used that way in English. I might very well do so; but that might be a Svecism.

    Something I perhaps should have mentioned re Sw. modersmål is that while mål can mean "dialect", it can't by itself mean "language", so the compound has a wider range of application that you'd think from the components. Swedish is my modersmål, but it isn't a mål.

  13. WSM said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

    Notions of a common shared language or 通語 that stands in contrast to 方言 (regional speech – not "dialect" in the formal linguistic sense) predate the Qing by a long, long time though… as do attempts to elevate one member of a broader set of languages as a "standard" relative to the others (e.g., the 中原之音 which served as the standard for composing metrically correct poetry): there are references all over written corpus to odd usages reflecting local ("dialectical") usages.

    The real change during the Qing was to move away from a southern-based (meaning, more similar to topolects found in Southern China) to a northern-based shared language. All of which is say the grouping of some/most of the languages found throughout China is hardly so recent as to make such a grouping entirely artificial and forced, certainly without concluding, absurdly, that Mandarin is somehow the "mother tongue" of native speakers of Cantonese.

  14. Hans Adler said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 4:20 am

    Although probably false in this case, the idea that a dialect can't be a mother tongue doesn't seem all that absurd to me. In southern Germany, many children grow up speaking only a local Swabian or Bavarian dialect, and later learn Standard German along with reading and writing. Yet they almost universally refer to German, not Swabian or Bavarian, as their mother tongue.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

    mother tongue

    1. One's native language.
    2. A parent language.
    American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


    mother tongue

    1. (Linguistics) the language first learned by a child
    2. (Linguistics) a language from which another has evolved
    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014


    moth′er tongue

    the language first learned by a person; native language.
    Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


    mother tongue

    the language that a person has grown up speaking from early childhood.

  16. Hans Adler said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 4:20 pm

    I should have clarified that in German we have only one word, Muttersprache, for mother tongue / native language. It literally translates to "mother language". When there are synonyms, people tend to make up distinctions. In response to a StackExchange question I found the opinion that someone's mother tongue may be the language spoken at home and their native language the one spoken outside the family. Similarly one could argue that for someone grown up as a dialect speaker, the dialect is the mother tongue and the standard language is the native language. I wouldn't be surprised if some people grown up speaking Scots referred to Scots as their mother tonge and to English as their native language.

    My Chinese is next to non-existent, but it appears to me that in Mandarin there could be a similar relation between mǔyǔ ("mother language") and běnzúyǔ ("clan language"). But since "clan language" makes me think of dialects, I wonder if it wouldn't be more accurate to translate běnzúyǔ as mother tongue and mǔyǔ as native language.

  17. Mango said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

    @Hans Adler: Yes, many Swabian and Bavarian speakers would spontaneously refer to their mother tongue as "German". They would classify Swabian and Bavarian as varieties of German, but that does not mean they think that "a dialect cannot be a mother tongue". It is not strange at all in Germany to refer to Swabian, Bavarian or any other "dialect" as "Muttersprache". People actually do that all the time – I once had a professor who excused his accent with his Muttersprache being Bavarian; radio stations run "dialect" programs on the international day of the mother tongue (21st February); books on "Mundarten" are called "Muddersproch" and so on… Just think of Willi Ostermann's classic song from Cologne: "Ich han – un dat litt mir em Senn – ming Muttersproch noch nit verlore, dat es jet, wo ich stolz drop ben."
    That being said, unfortunately, the notion that a dialect is a degraded form of the standard language is commonplace in Germany too, even in the south…

  18. Jack said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 11:38 am

    I don't have any basis to back this up, but I'm a bit skeptical of the claim that "Cantonese is close to Vietnamese". Vietnamese isn't even a Sino-Tibetan language.

  19. Bathrobe said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

    According to Wikipedia, Cantonese features substrate influence from Tai-Kadai, but this is a different language family from Austroasiatic.

    I suspect the claim that Cantonese is related to Vietnamese is part of a "Southern Yue" identity thing. The kingdom of Nanyue was destroyed by the peaceful Han dynasty and became thoroughly Sinicised.

    Much later, Vietnam wanted to call itself Nanyue, but given that Nanyue had covered parts of Guangxi and Guangdong, the Qing emperor refused and called it Yuenan (Vietnam) instead.

    Old dreams and myths die hard.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

    "Any attack on the Cantonese language will only strengthen Hong Kong identity – just look at Taiwan’s experience

    Anson Au says Taiwan’s experience with the ‘re-Sinicisation’ policies of Chiang Kai-shek’s time shows how such cultural oppression will only lead to hatred, and an awakening of local identity"

    Anson Au, SCMP

    PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 6:23pm
    UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 8:32pm

    Note the disparity between Cantonese and Putonghua: 6.26 million vs. 131K, and English has more than twice as many speakers as does Mandarin.

RSS feed for comments on this post