Death knell for Cantonese

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Article in South China Morning Post (12/18/21):

My Hong Kong by Luisa Tam

Cantonese is far from dead. It lags Mandarin in the Chinese language league table for numbers, but its cult status will see it live on

    Cantonese is a one-of-a-kind linguistic art form that’s quirkier and more edgy than Mandarin, nimble and ever-changing

    Its long-term fate is in the hands of every Cantonese speaker and Cantonese-language enthusiast who is willing to continue to breathe new life into it

In this, her most recent article on the nature and fate of Cantonese, Luisa Tam, a favorite author of ours here at Language Log, is upbeat about the future of the language.  I love Cantonese as much as she / anyone does, but I am less sanguine about what lies ahead for it than Luisa is.  As I said several days ago during a faculty meeting at Penn, there's no one who is more passionate about about defending and promoting Cantonese than VHM.  Why, then, am I so pessimistic about what is in store for this lively language?

Before I answer that question, let's see why Luisa Tam is so positive about Cantonese in the coming years.  Here are some selections from her article:

Cantonese has already been around for 2,000 years and is still spoken by at least 80 million people around the world. If we look at its lifespan up to this point and view it under the concept of forever, it has done impressively well.

I don’t think that with 2,000 years under its belt, Cantonese is in imminent danger of disappearing any time soon. But then again, the definition of “imminent” is relative when we are talking about a language as old as Cantonese. So, is it on the brink of extinction, or is just going through a down period?

Cantonese is undeniably a one-of-a-kind linguistic art form. Many people who are not native Cantonese speakers choose to learn the language because they are attracted by its linguistic characteristics as well as its “flavour”, which is both archaic and modern. It gives the speaker intriguing insights into the past, present, and maybe even the future of Cantonese culture.

Speaking of flavour, I think Cantonese is a delicious language, and is an acquired taste for some new learners.

Judged purely by numbers, Cantonese is a minor Chinese tongue as Mandarin has 10 times more speakers. But in this linguistic puzzle, the question of survival is not just about increasing the number of speakers but also improving its quality and maintaining its uniqueness. If Cantonese can’t win by sheer quantity, it can surely take the crown by flaunting its unique qualities.

Consider the following. In Hollywood movies, besides hearing foreign stars blurting out the occasional phrases in Mandarin, we often hear them uttering Cantonese phrases too. So, no doubt, Cantonese is up there in the Chinese-language league table with Mandarin.

And if Mandarin wins hands down in terms of the number of speakers, Cantonese can surely secure a top spot with its quirkiness, edginess and unpredictability.

Sometimes a language is lost because of neglect. This means that it stops evolving and keeping up with changing times and tastes, thus consigning itself to the dustbin of history.

But thankfully, that’s not Cantonese. It moves in tandem with social trends, reflects societal changes and individual tastes, and grows with each new generation of speakers. I don’t think there is any language in the world that’s as nimble and ever-changing as Cantonese.

Cantonese is in the blood of so many people living in Hong Kong, in southern China, and across the rest of the world.

The continuation of Cantonese literacy lies not in its prevalence, but its cult status in Chinese culture.

So, let’s not take that supposed “death knell” too seriously. I can say with absolute confidence that Cantonese will be on the up in the next decade. Everything has its peaks and troughs, and this is just another one of those things running its natural course.

I like Tam's emphasis on the special "taste" and "flavour" of Cantonese, so I have highlighted that section.  While that's an intriguing way to look at the specific qualities of different languages, and Cantonese certainly has many charming and endearing features, they are not enough to stave off the heavy handed controls of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Another interesting take on Cantonese put forward by Tam is what she calls its "cult status" within Chinese culture.  There's some truth to that pronouncement, since Cantonese language is intimately intertwined with the religious practices and beliefs where it is spoken.  This will certainly make it difficult for the government to stamp out readily, as will its association with Kung fu movies, Cantopop, dim sum, and so forth.

All of these encouraging aspects aside, in the face of CCP ham fistededness, I believe that Cantonese is doomed in the long run.  Unless… (I will reveal below what comes after "unless").

Cantonese is already moribund in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), the metropolis of its heartland.  The near-demise of Cantonese in Guangzhou / Canton is directly the result of CCP government policies and practices.  Since the situation in the Cantonese speaking region of the PRC is so bleak (the language is virtually prohibited in entertainment, education, and other public arenas, such that it has already seriously eroded the currency of Cantonese in private spheres; few young people speak (much less write) fluent Cantonese any longer.

The continued existence of Cantonese in Hong Kong after 1949, when the PRC was founded, was but a rearguard action premised upon the status of the colony under the protection of the British empire, where certain legal and linguistic rights were ensured by the crown judicial and political system.  However, with the iron-clad imposition of the PRC National Security Law on June 30, 2020, all of that changed radically.  The CCP is now gradually strangling Cantonese in classrooms and courts.

Tam says "with absolute confidence that Cantonese will be on the up in the next decade."  I agree that Cantonese in Hong Kong will not disappear entirely within the next decade, but I don't think it will be "on the up" either.  It will rapidly decline during the next decade, and within two or three decades after that it will reach the sorry state of Cantonese in Guangzhou / Canton, unless….

Despite the valiant efforts of individuals like Mingfei Lau, a member of The Linguistic Society of Hong Kong Jyutping Workgroup, and his colleagues who are developing large data bases and better computer input systems for Cantonese, and Ka Lee Wong of the University of Southern California, who is directly addressing the "vulgarity" of Cantonese and its circulation in Southeast Asia, they are struggling against the seemingly inexorable might of the PRC state, which aims to obliterate the topolects and "minority" languages in favor of Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]).

Now here comes the big "unless", namely, unless the PRC / CCP government collapses, which, in my mind, is a real possibility — for reasons of sociopolitical instability, economic weakness, geostrategic conflicts with numerous neighbors, environmental degradation, unreliable supply of food and resources, public health crises, ethnic and religious strife,, etc.  So maybe there's hope for Cantonese after all.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser and John Rohsenow]



  1. Y said,

    December 18, 2021 @ 9:53 pm

    Unfortunately, the PRC takes pride in massive projects, the bigger the better. That includes massive projects of linguistic extermination.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    December 19, 2021 @ 4:59 am

    "… the PRC / CCP government collapses, which, in my mind, is a real possibility …"

    Seeing the streets swarmed with para-military "security" forces for the election today, I've never felt so keenly the old maxim about languages, dialects, and armies.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    December 19, 2021 @ 7:08 am

    2000 years? So it's not descended from Late Middle Sinitic?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2021 @ 7:43 am

    2,000 years.

    I was pretty sure that somebody would catch that fairly quickly.

  5. Isoraqathedh said,

    December 19, 2021 @ 9:59 am

    I've read an opinion, and am in broad agreement, that for Cantonese to live for the next few decades it should adopt its own writing system. This is informed by many scripts in West Africa that are invented fairly recently, notably Adlam whose name says as much.

    Actually, I think you have displayed that script here a while ago, and it is called jyutcitzi. Having said that, I can't at all vouch for it being any sort of popular though I am learning it.

  6. David C. said,

    December 19, 2021 @ 11:50 am

    There's also the question of which varieties of Cantonese will survive. For all the reasons made out in the article, Cantonese is still a widely spoken language with an active diaspora. In the past few decades, standard Cantonese (廣府話, Cantonese as spoken in Guangzhou/Canton) has been displacing local varieties, partly due to lack of use, but in large part due to the social stigma around rural topolects.

    Frankly, Cantonese is in much better shape than many other topolects in China. In my last visit to Guangzhou several years ago, Cantonese was still widely spoken by store clerks, public transit staff, people on the street etc. Public announcements are typically also delivered in Cantonese. Of course it depends on which area of Guangzhou you find yourself. Even at the airport, the person at the information desk understood Cantonese well despite responding in Mandarin. Guangdong province continues to have dispensation to operate a TV channel in local topolect, the Pearl River Channel (珠江台).

    In my view, Cantonese going away in Hong Kong is unlikely in the near to medium term, unless something drastic happens, such as mass migration from the mainland.

    The British colonial government in Hong Kong did not grant broad linguistic rights in the political and legal systems for Cantonese speakers until well into the 1970s. Laws didn't even begin to be translated into Chinese until that period. For all that one can say about the current regime, to this day, laws are still drafted primarily in English common law legalese, and courts in Hong Kong operate mainly in English.

  7. Aubrey said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 9:02 pm

    All I can say is most people only care about the "standard accent" of Cantonese – 廣府音, but in fact, Cantonese owns a number of regional varieties, but I don't see anyone talking about protecting them. As to the history of Cantonese, I doubt 2,000 is the correct number…I'm pretty sure Cantonese along with some other southern Chinese are byproducts of a long-time mixture of Old/Middle Chinese and local Kra-Dai family. In the Old Chinese period, the then "Cantonese/Lingnan" language was probably not the direct ancestor of modern Cantonese.

    "I believe that Cantonese is doomed in the long run."

    This is definitely the fate for MOST languages in this world, not just Cantonese.

    Are English dialects still as widely spoken as they were decades ago? I highly doubt that. I remember watching a video of Shetlandic dialect (although Scots is now considered a language by many people), in that video, several speakers picked their favorite Shetlandic words and from their accents, it's easy to tell that the youngest girl speaks a very different accent from the oldest man in the video. The old man in that video speaks with a slightly Nordic accent and sometimes you might even mistake that for a North Germanic tongue, however, the young girl speaks Standard English/Scots-like tongue with local words and her accent is quite close to standard/broad accent. In conclusion, languages/dialects change no matter what.

    Even if the CCP has NOT encouraged the current language policy, it'll be merely a matter of time that Cantonese dies out. Many people blame CCP for this matter, but IMHO, many parents' stopping using their mother language with their offspring is the main cause, yes, I understand the entire society has been switching to Standard Mandarin for years ago but this is just human nature that people tend to become more homogenous as to efficiency.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 11:16 pm

    You are committing the fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. Of course, all languages — even vaunted English, the global language — will one day disappear. This post is discussing whether the policies and practices of the government of the PRC are hastening the demise of Cantonese.

  9. viveik saigal said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 11:03 pm

    Thank you for this blogpost. I have a few impressions to share of the issue of "Neglect" of the Cantonese Language in Luisa Tam's article. In Hong Kong this blame is squarely to be borne by Academia who I believe has the unique responsibility as gatekeepers to create, experiment and guide any Government policy and action towards development of a language.

    I along with my co-founder and an enthusiastic group of volunteers have started a project This project arouse out of my frustration of how Cantonese was being taught in formal setting to the Non-Chinese Speaker. We are creating open-source learning and publishing resources for the child and adult learner of Cantonese.

    Very early on in the project we found that the most elementary building blocks that are needed for resources to be created were missing. I hope you will all agree that all languages need a wide pool of constantly growing new learners. Easy, fun and empowering early language learning experiences are vital.

    There are more active romanisation methods than fingers on my hands. For a language with a so called small footprint, this creates confusion and a lack of interoperability of materials.

    2) The absence of a Romanisation method in the education system.
    Why we would deny the early learner in Hong Kong the necessity of the scaffolding of a romanisation system is still a mystery to me. The education policy in China which is not an English speaking country realised the importance of using romanisation, so did the Taiwanese. I think an apology is owed to the millions of kids past and present learning Cantonese to make them slog through a Character only system and increase teacher workload.

    3) A Graded Scale for Cantonese
    There may be a scale buried in some mainframe in academia, but nothing out there for Cantonese we could find, so we built our ourselves by analysing the words for frequency and importance. How might something so basic be missing for publishers, teachers and practioners of the language ?

    4) Text Editors and supporting open source software
    There is a plethora of open source resources needed for a language to be taught and flourish that seems to have been just not conceived or shared in the public domain.

    If any language were to crumble through overt policy, I would claim that the speed its demise will be because of neglect by Academia towards the development and maintenance of the fundamental building blocks that keep a language relevant.

    There is no glory to be won in the fields of linguistic and education policy, no papers or citations will emerge in the review and development of fundamentals, but the "why me worry" choice of inaction the Cantonese academic circle has adapted are baffling in the least.

    Surprisingly, there is no shortage of resources. Government makes funds available in plenty. Just a strange preference to keep an resource intensive system of rote learning in place that diminishes the joy and curbs opportunities of falling in love with a language that is so vibrant and lovable.

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 23, 2021 @ 11:34 pm

    @viveik saigal
    Many thanks for your tremendous efforts and amazing materials; I make frequent use of them especially via the Youtube channel.
    Yeah, language learning per se is pursued by (ahem) "academic linguists" less often than one might think, and even pedagogy per se is not a sufficiently academic pursuit in the eyes of some. And the bigger issue may be that many scholars of Cantonese/Taiwanese/etc. are given their (scholarly) natures under the spell of pan-Chinese literate culture to greater or lesser degree, which colors their interests and approaches…

  11. viveik said,

    December 24, 2021 @ 12:56 am

    @Jonathan Smith

    Thank you for your appreciation of the project (give us a hand if you can) and helping me get a better insight into the workings of Academia. Indeed it seems like a lot fell through the cracks.

    As long as Academia continues its self absorbed sucking at the breast of Government largesse, and fails to independently build structures or lead a community based engagement in celebration of the language, the readership here should calmly accept as inevitable, the accelerated collapse when the milk dries up or is diverted elsewhere.

    As the year ends and new resolutions are drawn up, maybe this is the time to ask ourselves

    1. Could it have been foreseen ?
    2. Was it foreseen ?
    3. What did you do about it ?

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