The Future of Cantonese

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[This is a guest post by Robert S. Bauer]

HK’s Cantonese language continues to attract attention and be a topic of discussion.

Two Mondays ago (May 14, 2018) I was a guest discussant on RTHK Radio 3's Backchat programme.

The topic was "The Future of Cantonese" (in Hong Kong).

In addition to the two main hosts, Hugh Chiverton and Mike Rowse, the following people joined in the discussion:

Simon Liang, Member, Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis (a group promoting the correct usage of Cantonese)

Peter Gordon, Editor, Asian Review of Books; and Language Critic

Benjamin Au Yeung, TV host and Linguist

Robert Bauer, Honorary Linguistics Professor, University of Hong Kong

Li Hui, University of Hong Kong

In case you are interested here is the link to this particular radio programme.

Among the points I stated during the programme: as a linguist I preferred not to use the term dialect, as it carries too much negative connotation; that Hong Kong is the Cantonese-speaking capital of the world; and that Hong Kong Cantonese should not be called a dialect but should be recognized as a full-fledged language.

I also mentioned that the University of British Columbia in Vancouver now offers its students the opportunity to study Cantonese in its three-year language programme which has been very successful and currently has 300 students enrolled in it. This information caught the interest of at least one listener who commented in an email to the host about it.

As is well-known, the HK govt. promotes the language policy of biliteracy in Chinese and English and trilingualism in Putonghua, Cantonese, and English, the socalled 兩文三語政策.

On the one hand, the teaching of Putonghua and English are well-funded in the schools; however, on the other hand, as far as I can tell, the Cantonese language itself receives no concrete support and seems to have no specific role in HK's education system. If it does have any particular role, I wish someone would inform me what this is.

It amazes me that Cantonese-speaking students have advanced through their school years without ever having been taught any kind of romanization system of the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. They have been learning their Cantonese pronunciation by listening to their teachers. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered if there is any connection between this mode of learning Cantonese pronunciation and the tremendous amount of phonetic variation in Cantonese pronunciation (including the so-called 懶音 laan5 jam1 'lazy pronunciation').

Maybe the official thinking is that if the govt. is not overtly suppressing or undermining the Cantonese language, then this is to be regarded as a kind of indirect support for it.

I have decided I should take on the task of compiling a list of concrete measures that can be implemented to support, develop, and promote the HK Cantonese language.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 9:08 pm

    This is a terrific post!

    If I could suggest anything for Bob's list (mentioned in his last paragraph), as a professor of Chinese literature, I would say that the development of a vibrant, vital Cantonese literary tradition — prose, poetry, fiction, drama — is essential for the long term preservation of the language. Hong Kong already has a very successful Cantopop music and film scene, and these are working wonders for the preservation of the language and culture, but these are oral forms. Written forms of language are also necessary to ensure that Cantonese doesn't die out.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    If ever there were a language in need of an "Academie Cantonese" then it would surely be this language! But I digress. Here are my two cents about what Cantonese needs:

    In the entertainment / media world:
    1. Subtitles: Cantonese-language film subtitling in Cantonese, news subtitling in Cantonese, etc. (Why do we still insist on hearing "係" and seeing "是"?)
    2. Something similar to MetroLyrics or AZ Lyrics, but in Cantonese – for all Cantonese pop songs.

    In the education world:
    1. Amen and hallelujah to the standardized transliteration system, taught to all children, starting in K1 !
    2. Assigned reading, in Chinese class, of at least a few books really written in Cantonese – graphic novels if need be.
    3. In music class and choir, song lyrics written in Cantonese.

    And, just for fun:
    1. Does there exist yet a Cantonese-language version of China's national anthem? If not, let's hold a contest to create one. It could be sung back-to-back with the English & Putonghua versions like New Zealand does it with English & Maori. Frankly, if South Africa can call that kludged-together flop in multiple languages and musical styles a "national anthem" I don't see why China can't manage something a bit better. And (see above) the lyrics should be written in Cantonese. (Keeping in mind: "Anyone who maliciously modifies the lyrics, or plays or sings March of the Volunteers in 'a distorted or disrespectful way in public', can be detained for up to 15 days in administrative detention by police under the anthem law, or imprisoned for three years under the criminal code.")

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 10:06 pm

    @Jenny Chu

    Bravo for all the splendid ideas!!!

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 10:58 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    The authors of the following journal article concluded that Cantonese had no place nor been assigned a role to play in HK's education system:

    Lee, Kwai Sang and Leung Wai Mun. 2012. "The Status of Cantonese in the Education Policy of Hong Kong." Multilingual Education 2.2:1-22.

    pdf available upon request

  5. Chas Belov said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 2:16 am

    @Jenny Chu: While its been some time since I've seen a Hong Kong movie, when I was attending them in the '90s I did occasionally encounter Cantonese-subtitled movies. I believe Queen of Temple Street was one of them.

    As for Cantonese pop lyrics, aren't they typically using Cantonese pronunciation of MSM, e.g., "bət" instead of "m" for "not"? That said, I believe the lyrics of hip-hop group LMF are in colloquial Cantonese, and their lyrics are easily found on the internet, if not always safe for work.

  6. B.Ma said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 4:59 am

    I always thought that HK TV channels were subtitled in Standard Chinese for the benefit of non-Cantonese speakers.

  7. cameron said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

    The post refers to "the Cantonese language" and also to "the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters". What is the latter, and what is it's relationship to the former? Are there other Chinese languages that have their own distinctive systems for pronouncing the characters, or is Cantonese unusual in that regard? Does this Cantonese pronunciation system apply to Classical Chinese as well as to written Modern Standard Mandarin?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    From Zeyao Wu (a native speaker of Cantonese from Guangzhou):

    I don't know whether my point is correct, but I always think if we want to promote Cantonese, the first step is to standardize it.

    HK Cantonese is a little bit different from Guangzhou Cantonese. What always confuses me is that oral HK Cantonese always mix with many English words, then how should we categorize this kind of language? In written HK Cantonese, should they still keep this custom? What's more, when I talked to a Malaysian Cantonese speaker yesterday, I found that they have many phrases that I cannot understand and vice verse.
    Thus, when we want to subtitle in Cantonese, what kind of rules should we follow, and who are the audiences? I think it is not enough if we only promote Cantonese in HK. All Cantonese speaking areas have the potentiality to promote Cantonese.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 11:12 am


    I agree with you completely.

    Guangzhou must also become more active in the preservation of Cantonese, and indeed the whole of Guangdong Province.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 11:22 am


    You should read through the Language Log archives. There you'll find dozens, nay scores, even hundreds of posts that will answer every single one of your questions — and more.

  11. Kaiwen said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 5:53 pm

    Cited from the article: Maybe the official thinking is that if the govt. is not overtly suppressing or undermining the Cantonese language, then this is to be regarded as a kind of indirect support for it.

    @Zeyao Cantonese has survived to this day without a complete standard, albeit declining these days. To me, another native speaker, what is really worrying is the policy from the PRC government. Cantonese is having less proper space to live, but standardization is almost the last resort which there are still the pros and cons to weigh up of. Without acting wisely, we may even not have the chance to standardize it. I promote Cantonese, but I'm not deliberately going for a new superstar dialect for all (HK) Cantonese speakers, should we? It is a hard question to me.

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