Cantonese: good news and bad news

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The good news is that it's a language.

The bad news is that you can't speak it.

"China’s version of TikTok suspends users for speaking Cantonese:  ByteDance’s short video app Douyin has been urging live streamers to switch to the country’s official language", Abacus via SCMP (4/3/20)

I've been hearing similar reports concerning the use of Cantonese on other social media:  it is definitely discouraged or even forbidden.  At least, though, the Abacus article does not miscall Cantonese a dialect, but affords it the dignity of referring to it as a language.

The cited article begins:

With about 68 million native speakers, Cantonese is the second most widely spoken Chinese language. But if you’re trying to use it in a live stream on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, it might get you banned.

This is what happened to Nicolas Leung. His account received three 10-minute bans over the last three weeks accompanied by prompts to switch to Mandarin, China’s official language, while using Douyin’s live streaming function.

And he's not the only one. Cantonese-speaking content creators have been expressing dissatisfaction over Douyin urging users to speak Putonghua, the Chinese word for Mandarin that literally means "common language." This is despite the fact that the platform doesn't appear to have any listed rules governing the use of different languages.

This would be like people in Canada being told not to speak French, like people in India being told not to speak Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, etc., etc., like people in America being told not to speak Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, German, Hebrew….

Can you imagine?


Selected readings

There are dozens of other Language Log posts on the subject of whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect.  For a sample, Google on:  Victor Mair language log cantonese dialect


  1. Bytowner said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 8:46 am

    I can imagine the like. Partly because of Canadian and Chinese history.

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 8:53 am

    People in Canada haven't been asked not to speak French (lately), but they have certainly been asked not to speak Indigenous languages of all sorts, sometimes with threats of violence…

  3. Arthur Waldron said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 8:57 am

    See Karl Deutsch Nationalism and Social Communication MIT 1950 a true classic. About as many Cantonese as French speakers. An attack on Cantonese will lead to powerful Cantonese nationalism of a new type forming. It will be a big problem for the northerners. A new central focus for many inchoate grievances. Having no solution. It’s all Deutsch.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 10:07 am

    Roughly 53 million people, 41 million native Spanish speakers, and approximately 11.6 million bilingual Spanish Speakers live in the United States. There are more people speaking Spanish in the U.S. than Spain (47 million speakers) and Colombia (48 million speakers).Sep 4, 2018

    Can you imagine telling them not to speak Spanish in the USA?

    Or telling people not to speak Catalan (10 million speakers) in Spain (47 million speakers of Spanish)?

  5. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    Government efforts to suppress minority languages, with varying degrees of severity, have historically been common and have had varying degrees of success. Irish, Catalan, Occitan, Sardinian, Saami, etc. Russia is currently enacting creeping measures of suppression of minority languages, for example Tatar, the main and official language of Tatarstan, a constituent republic of almost 4 million people.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 10:57 am

    In America, I see a lot of support for Spanish: labels, packaging, telephone services, announcements, notices, radio stations, etc., etc.

    Just because I'm exposed to Spanish this way on a daily basis, I'm learning a lot of it without even trying.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 10:59 am

    Most of my Indian friends are highly multilingual, knowing at least two or three of India's official languages.

  8. James said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 1:06 pm

    I haven't played around with Douyin too much, but does anyone know if other languages are banned as well? If someone were to produce English content would it be removed? What about Shanghainese, or Mongolian?

  9. John Rohsenow said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 1:37 pm

    I assume that using only Putonghua ("Mandarin" Chinese) on line/in social media comes under the PRC's Language Law of 2001, specifically
    Sec. 2, Article 15: "The nation commonly used language and script used in all information processing and information technology products shall meet the regulations and standards for the national commonly used language and script. [See my translation in Language Policy in the PRC (2004) ed. by Mingliang Zhou; Klewer Acad. Pubs. pp.41-43.]

  10. Michael Watts said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 3:24 pm

    This is one of the easier things you could imagine. Fighting over language is incredibly common in pretty much all contexts.

    More conventional performers seem to have no trouble performing in 方言, and it has enough popular support for this song (verses in 普通话, chorus in what I can only assume is 闽中) to be a hit:

    县里很多的乡镇 他们都很团结
    东街口的路边 有很多奶茶店
    00后的同学 你不会说方言

    The place I was born in is called 大田县
    The many villages in the county are all very close [intimate]
    On the street by the east gate there are many milk tea shops
    Classmates born after 2000, you don't know 方言

    I asked a friend once about bands performing in Shanghainese, and got several enthusiastic recommendations. So it would seem something about the livestreaming genre is considered especially significant.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 4:59 pm

    I agree with all the other commenters who find it very easy to imagine governments telling people to stop speaking their language. To take the specific example of Catalan, the Franco government did exactly that. European school children in the mid-20th century were routinely punished or humiliated for speaking Scots, Breton, Sardinian and probably a few dozen other non-national languages that I don't know any details about. (Get the kids while they're young and you don't have to worry about policing the grownups a generation later…) I think it would be difficult to make a case that China's policy is significantly more oppressive than that of many other countries now or in the fairly recent past.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 6:25 pm

    As everyone has been saying – it's an absolutely ridiculous policy (what are they even afraid of?), and it has ample precedent in the 19th and 20th centuries; the only thing new in it is the Internet.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 7:12 pm

    "…like people in America being told not to speak Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, Taglog, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, German, Hebrew…".

    Can you imagine?

  14. Michael Watts said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 8:05 pm

    Yes, asking us to keep imagining it doesn't make it any more difficult to imagine.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 8:31 pm

    People here in New Mexico have told me they were punished at school for speaking Spanish. Punishments for speaking indigenous languages, in the U.S. as well as Canada, are well documented.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 8:35 pm

    Please compare the situation in India with that in China. Are you trying to imagine that they are the same? Is there not a stark difference? Can you not see it?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 9:13 pm

    "Mandarin begins surpassing Cantonese in Boston's Chinatown:

    As the economy in China is developing rapidly, Mandarin, the official language in China, has become more popular in Boston's Chinatown," thrive (4/23/10)

  18. Michael Watts said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 12:33 am

    Whether to anoint Hindi specially as the national language of India is a live political issue there now and has been for quite a while, so, no, there's not a stark difference. The single-national-language constituency in India hasn't achieved as much as it has in China, but it's active.

  19. Calvin said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 1:30 am

    Since you use Canada as an example, it is worthwhile to note the language policy in the province of Quebec, known as Bill 101 (

    The overzealous enforcement by the so called "language police" sometimes led to unfortunate circumstances like this:

  20. Bathrobe said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 1:34 am

    There is only one word for the Chinese government: 卑怯

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 5:31 am

    bēiqiè 卑怯 ("abject; [mean] and cowardly")

  22. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 5:32 am

    To equate the language policies of the Indian government today with those of the PRC is to be willfully obtuse.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 7:47 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    It looks like the folks who are monitoring the content on the video app Douyin do not speak Cantonese.

    Since they don't understand what the Cantonese speakers are saying, so they're telling them to speak Putonghua and not to speak Cantonese.


    I agree with Bob. The paranoid government is terrified that people might be saying something subversive or opposed to the rule of the CCP. The solution would be to hire Cantonese monitors and censors — or to stop being so paranoid.

  24. John Swindle said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 8:02 am

    Which makes it like policies banning the use of foreign languages in prisons. Not that the languages banned are all foreign. Not that Cantonese is foreign. Not that the PRC is in any way analogous to a prison.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 8:49 am

    "Which makes it like policies banning the use of foreign languages in prisons" — I am not convinced that it does. If we ignore for the purposes of this discussion the rôle of rehabilitation, then the primary function of a prison is to prevent those detained inside from escaping. And whilst the majority of those detained will want only to serve their time and then leave through the front door, hoping never to return, a hard core will spend much of their time trying to work out how to escape. And although this can be done single-handedly, it is usually far easier if a number are involved, even if the rôle of the others is only to create a diversion. Now if the prisoners are required to speak only the language of their captors, then formulating an escape plot is significantly harder than if they are allowed to openly discuss things in a language that no guard can understand. So for me, the reasons for forbidding the use of foreign languages in prison are clear and seem not unreasonable, whereas the reasons for forbidding (for example) the use of the Cantonese language on Douyin, while to a certain extent analogous (the authorities are presumably seeking to prevent subversive content being broadcast in a language which the majority thereof neither understand not wish to understand), I personally do find unreasonable, even if I understand the reasons for the ban.

  26. John Swindle said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 9:06 am

    I didn't mean to imply approval.

  27. Jake said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 10:14 am

    "Can you imagine telling them not to speak Spanish in the USA"

    Of course I can, and I'm surprised you can't :

  28. Twill said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 10:19 am

    @Philip Taylor Obviously peripheral to the main discussion, but I would question a lot of the assumptions behind the idea that banning foreign languages in prison even serves that purpose.

    For one, it is completely unfeasible for prison staff to monitor all conversations between prisoners in the first place, so in practice it couldn't possibly stop e.g. the hundreds of thousands of Hispanophones imprisoned in the US from communicating in Spanish. It's also ridiculous in the first place to suppose forcing every prisoner to speak in the language of their jailors would preclude them from obfuscating conversations when the terms argot and cant may as well have been invented to describe the ubiquity of prison jargon.

    The idea that prisoners could openly discuss escape plans and other nefarious activities should they be permitted to speak in their own language assumes that it is impossible that anyone among the prison staff could possibly understand their language, or otherwise engage the services of someone who could, and the speakers share such an in-group affinity that word would not spread to other prisoners (who might have some interest in the plan) or prison staff (who usually have informants among prisoners).

    But beyond that, the reality is that most (modern, first-world, civilian) prisons are not under serious threat of escape attempts anyway. These are not POW camps, and there is no serious contingent of prisoners plotting to smuggle people out of their place of confinement (as opposed to smuggling contraband in). There is generally little opportunity to tempt people, the system is designed to reward those who co-operate, and for those who don't otherwise have an upstanding life they might hope to return, there isn't much on the other side for them either. As for gangs, if anything, they entrench people in prison. There are people for whom escape is a burning desire they couldn't possibly hope to quash, but the vast majority of people just acclimate to their new life. And as we know, where they are not treated with an adversarial, punitive mindset we have better outcomes, escapes inclusive. Banning foreign languages is utterly wrong-headed no matter how sensible it seems on first glance.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 11:00 am

    Is Spanish ruled out in the United States today?

  30. Michael Watts said,

    April 9, 2020 @ 2:15 pm

    Is Cantonese ruled out in China today?

  31. Mango said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 2:44 pm

    The question, Prof. Mair, was not whether "Spanish is ruled out in the United States today", but whether language policies like China's are imaginable in other countries. Yes, unfortunately they are. China's current language policies are awful, but it takes quite a lot of ideological blindness to pretend that something like "vergonha" is unimaginable outside of China. "Vergonha" was even a model for East Asian language policies.

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