No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese

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Mark Swofford sent me the following photograph of two snack stands taken on September 8 on a mountain in Tucheng, Taiwan — somewhere around here:

Conspicuous even to those who do not read Chinese are the two symbols that are smack dab in the center of the top line of the writing on both stands: の and ㄟ. The former is the hiragana pronounced "no" which serves as the sign of the possessive in Japanese and the latter is the bopomofo phonetic indicator for [ei]. In both instances, they are serving to represent the Taiwanese possessive particle pronounced ê [e].

I discussed this problem of there being no character to write the most frequent Taiwanese morpheme at some length in "Our Taiwan", and am pleased now that I can illustrate it graphically. The only thing that could top this photograph would be to have a third stand with "e" (also often used to write the Taiwanese possessive particle) in the same position as の and ㄟ on the other two stands!

As my students so often say to me, QUICK QUESTION: how is it that so many of the most common morphemes in Sinitic topolects cannot be written with Chinese characters?


  1. Xiaolang said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:23 am

    I am totally ignorant on 閩南 or Taiwanese or whatever the language should be called, but I wonder why the don'tjust use 的 or 之, which are the obvious correspondent morphemes, even if [e] and 的 are not reflexes of the same word (though they do sound pretty alike). It should plse no problem, and many characters are actually usedthat way when writing Chinese dialects.
    I do not think this is a real case of not having a character for the Minnan morpheme. It is only that they are just trying to come up with "cool" or funny-looking advertising fot their 小攤 (I don't remember the word for that in English, sorry, I mean their "puestos"), just like when metalheads,teenagersand advertisers add umlauts to every kind of nonsense just to make it look more cultured or gothic (mötörhead, haägen dazs, etc.)

  2. Nick Boorer said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:38 am

    Because the establishment in both the mainland and on Taiwan have, in the age of mass literacy, tied themselves ideologically to standard written Chinese as the sole written vernacular. They have systematically sought to undermine and degrade all other dialects in a quasi-fascist manner, thus preventing the development of unified characterisation systems in vernacular dialects. Hong Kong's political separation from both polities throughout the 20th century allowed room for Cantonese to develop a relatively sophisticated system for representing the heterodox elements of written Cantonese, but this space for development has been denied to most other Chinese dialects who are now, in a marginally more relaxed linguistic environment, struggling (and largely failing) to adapt their writing systems to be able to represent this kind of morpheme.

    Interestingly, here in Taiwan, I have always been told that the hiragana "no" is pronounced "de5" as it seems that my Taiwanese friends view it as simply a stylistic incorporation into standard Chinese of a foreign writing system similar to the widespread use of English, Pinyin, and semi-random Roman script in advertising and clothing etc. I have never heard it read in Taiwanese.

  3. Vanya said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:00 am

    how is it that so many of the most common morphemes in Sinitic topolects cannot be written with Chinese characters?
    They can be, theoretically, no? There are certainly characters that have been proposed for "e" It seems to me that people have chosen not to agree on a standard for some reason. Isn't this basically an ideological issue rather than linguistic? You could argue that the inability of ordinary people to write their daily language serves the interests of Chinese elites by strengthening the idea that there is a common Chinese identity and that Standard Mandarin is the shared language of all Chinese people. This doesn't seem to me that different from the situation in the German-speaking world where people will insist it is impossible to write down their native dialect adequately. Sometimes the "inability" to transcribe spoken language may be driven from the bottom-up and a desire to keep outsiders at a distance. Many Swiss Germans seem perfectly happy communicating with the outside world in Hochdeutsch while having an impenetrable dialect to use inside the tribe. Maybe some Taiwanese feel the same way?

  4. Nuno said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    If 的 or 之 were used, how would you know it's Min and not Mandarin? Even the left sign is ambiguous about which language is being used; の is often used in Mandarin as quicker-to-write/fancier variant of 的.

    I'd have read the left sign as "Sù lán de xiāngcháng" without ever guessing it's not Mandarin. No wonder people think there's only one Chinese language!

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    From Grace Wu, master teacher of Taiwanese at Penn:


    Hi Professor Mair,

    According to the two pictures in your language log, I will only pronounce Taiwanese ê. I never pronounce de in this context but not sure about other Mandarin speakers in Taiwan.



    Sure sounds like there's more than one Chinese language here!

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    Many German topolects (in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria) have local literary traditions that are quite different from written Hochdeutsch.

  7. Nuno said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    When people who speak both Mandarin and another topolect see something written in Chinese they presumably get to decide whether they are going to read it in their heads using Mandarin pronunciations or the other topolect's pronunciations or maybe even a mix of the two.

    If you see 冇 in a sentence you can assume it's Cantonese, if you see ㄟ it's Min, etc. However often there's ambiguity. A sign with 素兰の香肠 written on it could just as well have been made by a Beijinger representing a Mandarin speech.

    To those who speak more than one Chinese topolect: How do you approach these kinds of ambiguous writings? How do you do you pronounce them in your head? Does it depend on the context?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    From Melvin Chih-Jen Lee, Taiwanese teacher of Mandarin at Penn:


    I've never heard my friends (myself included) pronounce の as "de." We usually pronounce it as "ê" or sometimes even as "no" (the Japanese pronunciation) but never "de."


  9. Lukas said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    @Vanya: Swiss German can be written (and is, a lot, that's how many Swiss text each other), there's just no generally agreed to orthography (and there's no single Swiss German dialect, anyway, so it's impossible to come up with a generally applicable orthography).

  10. Nick Boorer said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Given what two eminent native Taiwanese speakers have said here about the pronunciation of の, I can only assume that either:

    a) it's an age thing and younger people (my Taiwanese friends are almost all in their early twenties) are more likely to pronounce it in 國語; or

    b) They are telling me the 國語 pronunciation in the absolute conviction that no mere foreigner could ever possibly understand even one word of Taiwanese.

    Either way, the issue has always come up because, for a long time, I was completely unable to stop reading it as "no". I have never asked them directly whether it is a marker for Taiwanese pronunciation.

  11. Nuno said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    From Wikipedia:

    の has also proliferated on signs and labels in the Chinese-speaking world, especially in Taiwan because of its historical connections with Japan. (See Taiwan under Japanese rule.) It is used in place of the Modern Chinese possessive marker 的 de or Classical Chinese possessive marker 之 zhī, and の is pronounced in the same way as the Chinese character it replaces. This is usually done to "stand out" or to give an "exotic / Japanese feel", e.g. in commercial brand names, such as the fruit juice brand 鲜の每日C, where the の can be read as both 之 zhī, the possessive marker, and as 汁 zhī, meaning "juice". In Hong Kong, the Companies Registry has extended official recognition to this practise, and permits の to be used in Chinese names of registered businesses; it is thus the only non-Chinese symbol to be granted this treatment (aside from punctuation marks with no pronunciation value).

    I've seen this kind of usage a couple of times in the mainland where の is to be interpreted as 的.

    This is even supported by some IMEs, where typing "de" will give you not only 的, 地 or 得 as options, but also の.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    I have received more confirmation from Taiwanese speakers, even young ones, that they do not pronounce の as de5.

    Another picture of の on signage:

  13. Nuno said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

    @Victor Mair: That's very interesting. Do Taiwanese people associate の with Min?

    Have you tried asking any Mainlanders and/or Cantonese speakers how they pronounce の? I suspect the answers might be very different.

  14. leoboiko said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    But hiragana are originally cursive characters anyway, and の was an alternate form of 乃 (Mandarin nǎi). What's the relationship between this word and de/de5 的, and zhī 之? I don't know Chinese but Mandarin nǎi 乃 in the dictionary is “be; just” —not a possessive, then. However, Schuessler in his ABC Etymological Dictionary says Old Chinese *nəʔ > nǎi, written 乃、 was a possessive “your” , which he relates to *naʔ 汝 “you” (Mandarin ). (*nəʔ “your” shared the character 乃, and was homophonous with, *nəʔ "then; now".)

    In Japanese, grammatical morphemes are typically written by sound as hiragana, but sometimes may be written by meaning (morphographically) in Chinese characters. The possessive no の may be written as 乃 (calligraphically its block form) or also as 之、 which is very common in tombstones and such.

    So if I'm getting this right:

    1. Literary Chinese had as its main possessive *tə > zhī 之 (originally a third-person pronoun) and a less frequent “your” *nəʔ > nǎi 乃 .

    2. The Japanese chose the character 乃 (cursive の) to represent the syllable no, phonographically. (But the syllable no also happens to be a possessive in Japanese; so perhaps they were influenced by the "possessive 乃" in Chinese?)

    3. As Japanese script undergoes specialization the form の is always taken phonographically; to represent the possessive no morphographically, the characters 之 (from the main Chinese possessive) and 乃 are both elected into service.

    4. From Song onwards Chinese develops a new possessive de 的、 "thought to be a col. archaism of the classical genitive particle *tə > zhī 之".

    5. Japanese occupation of Taiwan introduces の as a distinct character (as opposed to just a cursive form).

    6. の is reanalyzed morphographically as a possessive, and used to write Taiwanese ê (and sometimes Mandarin de and zhī?)

    7. As a result of this convoluted history, the character 乃 recovers and expands its archaic role as a possessive on Chinese land, under its guise of の!

  15. Movenon said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

    I've interacted with Taiwanese people using の as shorthand for 的 pronounced de5, when writing down random notes. The lady was middle-aged, if that makes a difference. Cantonese in Hong Kong read の as 之 ji1, as in the Japanese chain store seen everywhere in Hong Kong 優の良品 Yau1 ji1 leung4 ban2.

    As far as etymology, I think most agree that the 本字 (original etymological character) for Taiwanese Minnan 'e' as possessive is 個 or 个. Within Southern Min, the Teochew lect possessive is gai, which is the same pronunciation for 個 used as a measure word. The development went gai > ge > e. It is common in some southern Sinitic varieties (including Cantonese) that a measure word can be used as a possessive for something, like Cantonese 我本書 'my book.' The Taiwanese Minnan Recommended Hanzi Usage recommends that when 'e' is used as a measure word, 个 is used, and when 'e' is used as a possessive, 的 is used, but it would be more straightforward if they just used 个 for both like Teochew, even though the expected velar 'g/k' is no longer pronounced so the link is obscure. An analogous development took place in Shanghainese where the possessive is the same as the measure word 个, both originally pronounced geh, but nowadays the 'g' softens into the barely audible breathy voice, which in Wu can even be phonemically analyzed as consonant-less but with the breathy low tone.

    The only other decent explanation I've seen besides 个 is that the Teochew 'gai'/Taiwanese 'e' developed from 其, which some like to write with the 異體字 (alternate character) 亓. The main argument for this one over the other would be the tone, as 'e' and 'gai' when not in 輕聲 are in the Yangping tone (tone 5 in POJ), which matches 其 but not 个. Apparently, this is better preserved in northern Min and and eastern Min such as Jian'ou and Fuzhou, but I'm not familiar enough with those to examine arguments for/against in those languages. So according to this proposal, something like 東漢 e 歷史 would've originally been a grammaticalization of 東漢 其 歷史 (which is comprehensible in Classical Chinese) over time.

    Overall, I prefer the 个 origin, as it makes more intuitive sense to me, as well as matching well in everything except tone, which could be rationalized in other ways too, and it's not a big deal since you'd expect the tone to change seeing how it's the most commonly used morpheme in the entire language! Plus it's been attested in Shanghainese and Cantonese (嘅 derives from 個) so it's the more parsimonious explanation.

  16. David Schak said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    Regarding more examples, there is (was) a shop in the lanes opposite NTU called taiwan ㄟ diam–the Taiwan shop. And much more prominently, there were adverts on Taibei city busses for 台灣啤酒: guan ㄟ bei-a jiu.

  17. Jason Cox said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    I have also seen people, mostly girls, now in their early 30s, who use の in Mandarin personal correspondence. The first time I asked about it, they explained to me it was a stand in for de. So I think it's clear it can be analyzed as either ê or de.

    My intuition says that most Taiwanese would read the entire Sausage sign in Mandarin, and only the peanut stand's large red letters in S. Min.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

    I've seen "e" (the Roman letter) used for the particle in question on many a name card and shop sign.

  19. Michael Cannings said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    @David Schak

    That shop (still extant) has the possessive marker written three ways on various signage: e, ㄟ, and a composite character of 入 on top of 下 that I don't know how to input (if it's even a unicode character).

    As to the の as "de" debate, in my experience, limited to Taiwan, it is still strongly regarded as a signifier of Taiwanese as opposed to Mandarin pronunciation, even among young people. Generalising liberally from the particular, one person I asked (male, white collar, Taipei born and bred, mid-twenties) said "I know it's supposed to be in Taiwanese, but my Taiwanese is terrible, so I just read it as 'de' in Guoyu." The implication is that because he couldn't pronounce the rest of the sign in Taiwanese, he wasn't going to stick the Taiwanese morpheme ê in an otherwise Mandarin utterance.

  20. Nick Boorer said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    This is getting really interesting. After writing my last post, I pressed a couple of my Taiwanese friends on the issue, asking specifically whether they would read the hiragana "no" as Mandarin "de" or Taiwanese "e". I was told specifically that they would always pronounce that as "de" and that it would never occur to them to read it as Taiwanese. They are southerners whose first home language is Taiwanese. One of them has a father and maternal grandmother who are to all intents and purposes functionally monolingual, with only Taiwanese.

    BUT, I must concede that all of them are only literate in standard Chinese and have no idea even how they would go about trying to read in Taiwanese. For them, there seems to be no connection between written Chinese and spoken Taiwanese, despite the fact that their constant code switching in the spoken language.

    In a way, I guess this rather goes back to my original post about the establishment obsession with linguistic homogenisation and the attempts to eradicate "inferior" dialects and languages.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:09 am

    @Michael Cannings

    Thank you very much for letting us know about this additional way of writing the possessive particle ê [e]. We now have の, ㄟ, ㄝ, e, and [入 on top of 下] (did i forget anything?). It seems as though there is great uncertainty over how to write this morpheme in Chinese characters, or, indeed, whether it can be written in Chinese characters at all.

    The inadequacy of the Chinese character system for writing spoken language is born out by, among many other things, the fact that in the very first paragraph of the site for The Taiwan Shop provided by Michael, we find 5 (count 'em, 5!) occurrences of "e" out of 66 characters in a short text that is not even very Taiwanesey in nature. In addition to these 5 occurrences of "e", we also have "di", which must likewise be serving to represent a morpheme for which there is no standard character.


  22. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:49 am

    "Nick Boorer said,
    December 11, 2013 @ 1:38 am

    Because the establishment in both the mainland and on Taiwan have, in the age of mass literacy, tied themselves ideologically to standard written Chinese as the sole written vernacular. They have systematically sought to undermine and degrade all other dialects in a quasi-fascist manner, thus preventing the development of unified characterisation systems in vernacular dialects. Hong Kong's political separation from both polities throughout the 20th century allowed room for Cantonese to develop a relatively sophisticated system for representing the heterodox elements of written Cantonese….."

    The development of a language has always been more or less subjected to the influence of political power. Suppression of the "weaker" / more backward languages by national policy happens around the world now and then. Back a couple hundred years in Britain school children would even be whipped for speaking their own native languages in school when the authority was trying to push the spread of English.

    The unification of the writing system since the first chinese emperor 2000yrs ago in china has helped facilitated the communication between different regions across a land size equivalent of the European continent and china has remained intact as a big country since then. The unification should be given credit for reducing communication cost and conflicts. The same for nowadays sound standardization. The two big countries in Europe France and Germany also went through similar standardization a couple hundred years ago and both adopted the northern prounciation as the standard. China has also adopted the dominant northern dialect as the standard. I believe in the 400year old USA Northern American English is also better perceived than the southern one.

    I m surprised to see one would use " sophisticated " to describe the cantonese way of writing. The chinese writing system was developed in central china along the yellow river and was primarily more "sight" than "sound" based. The system helps the chinese culture thrive for thousands of years and its sophistication is beyond doubt. We perceive the world through our 5 senses with vision and hearing being the most dominant. In chinese the word for intelligent " cong1ming2" literally means "hear well and see well". Modern science suggests that probably more than 80%of our perception is through vision so a communication system based on sight seems a wise choice.

    Cantonese is a very backward dialect of the chinese language family. Its more like the chinese version of Ebonics and has never been well regarded by the rest of chinese yet it had somehow become the reprentative language for china for more than a century bcoz the cantonese clan was the first to explore overseas after the British landed on the cantonese area. The Brits had little respect for the language. Chinese only became the official language in Hong Kong after 1970s and that had more to do with influx of immigrants from the mainland china after 1949 and a

  23. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 7:14 am

    Here is a photograph of a sign on a store that has "e" as the possessive signifier in the top line and 的 in the second line:

    Location on Google Maps:

    This store is in Neiwan, Taiwan, which is known as a Hakka area. If anyone reading this is familiar with Hakka, perhaps they can tell us whether there are any traces of Hakka usage on the signage.

    Hosted on an old "signs" directory on Mark Swofford's website. Browsing around there, he found an odd, richly illustrated tale he wrote up about a man who insisted a sign wasn't in Taiwanese:

    Mark comments that the man's insistence isn't typical of people in Taiwan. This guy was pretty weird, which is probably why he came up to inquire why Mark was taking a photograph of a street sign in the first place.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    @Go for aesthetic appeal

    From a colleague:

    Until he can specify his criteria for a “backward” language, I’m mystified. When, in the equivalent of junior high school, I first began to study French, I discovered that one French word sometimes covered several English ones, thereby sacrificing nuance and connotation. A language that doesn’t make these distinctions would seem to be deficient, though “backward” might be a stretch too far.

  25. Magnus Fiskesjö said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    Hong Kong's set of officially sanctioned Cantonese-Chinese characters can be seen here, f ex:
    GovHK: Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS),

    … with links to commercial providers of the set. … they often shows up in comics, which represent actual speech, …

  26. Pierre said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    The problem of the colleague of yours is probably in the "first began", which implies not being able to notice the nuances of the words from the second language that are "sacrified" by the first language. I know no examples of a pair of languages for which it would not be a n to n relationship. There are deficiencies everywhere !

    and for "@go for aesthetic appeal".
    You're missing the point that China has not remained intact as a country since the first dynasty and that Chinese script was primarily as sound based ( sounds of archaic Chinese of course) as many other forms of writings.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

    From another colleague:

    My response [to "Go for aesthetic appeal"] is that I would not take anyone seriously if their goal is to rank Chinese dialects. This is nothing more than ignorant bigotry and not worthy of serious consideration.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

    Still another colleague:

    What would a botanist think of a claim that “The box elder is a junk tree and landowners consider it to be worthless?”

  29. julie lee said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    On 12/12/13, Julie Wei wrote:

    @Go for Aesthetic Appeal previously (Nov. 28) described Cantonese as
    a "backward and dying dialect of the Chinese language", which "evolved
    much slower than mandarin due to the warm weather in the cantonese
    area," and was "much less pleasant to ears than mandarin", and so on.
    (See Language Log, August 29, 2013, "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and
    Written Cantonese", by Victor Mair.)
    To which @ right wrote that Go for Aesthetic Appeal's above comment
    was "one of the worst (and most misinformed)" he had ever seen, and
    deserved to be deleted.
    To which @ Victor Mair replied: "I agree with you completely, but am
    leaving it up as a specimen of misguided prejudice and gross

    Now @Go for Aesthetic Appeal is at it again. I find his comments on
    Cantonese and Chinese a tissue of Chinese schoolboys'/schoolgirls' clicheed notions about Chinese that are just nonsense, half-baked ideas, and misapprehensions, but which are
    retained by many, if not by most, Chinese well into adulthood and dotage.

    When I was a schoolgirl I too thought Mandarin superior to Cantonese, and looked down on Cantonese, just as the English may once have looked down on Welsh. When I was growing up, many of us Chinese were ashamed of our regional speech. My brother was, but not now. When my mother asked a Taiwanese relative if she spoke Taiwanese, she said: "Oh no, I don't know Taiwanese. I've always spoken Mandarin." She was ashamed of admitting to speaking Taiwanese. An old Cantonese friend recently became very proud of Cantonese, his native speech, because he just found that it was a very ancient language, older than Mandarin. However, many Chinese people still hold to the old prejudices.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

    From a Cantonese speaker:

    Has any one heard classical poems read in Cantonese? The intonation is beautiful. It has nine tones, while Mandarin has only five. Is deduction simplification or sophistication?

  31. Ki-Tsìng said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

    In this case I think the left line is more likely to be read in Mandarin. Yes `no' is a cue for Taiwanese reading. But the final two characters 香腸 (literally scented-sausage) strongly suggests Mandarin reading here — if it were Taiwanese, 煙腸 (ian-tshiâng, literally smoked-sausage) would have been used. I don't know of any Taiwanese dialect that has 香腸 instead of 煙腸 for sausages.

    On the other hand, if requested to read this in Taiwanese, I believe that most Taiwanese will read `sòo-lân ê ian-tshiâng', unconsciously doing the translation without complaining that it is not even Taiwanese.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

    From an expert on the Cantonese writing system:

    This is utter gibberish. It's pretty obvious to me the person who wrote this nonsense knows nothing about Cantonese and its history in Hong Kong.

    In my view Hong Kong Cantonese is by far THE most interesting variety of Chinese being spoken and written today. This is because its speakers have been speaking, writing, and developing it as they see fit and without heavy-handed official/government intervention/manipulation/suppression.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    From a German who grew up in Hong Kong:

    Um. I'm not a linguist. But it seems to be a ridiculous statement. Cantonese is an extremely complex and sophisticated language. Has the writer tried learning it? It's both archaic and ultra-modern, and I reckon, far more difficult than Mandarin.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 12:40 am

    From someone who is completely fluent in Swedish, English, and Mandarin, and who has spent many years in Hong Kong:

    I seem to have learned somewhere that the Tang poems rhyme with a Cantonese pronunciation, that Cantonese was how Chinese was spoken in Chang'an during that period. Subsequently, the spoken language evolved into Mandarin at the center of the Chinese culture sphere, with Cantonese surviving on its periphery, much as the most archaic, and best, Swedish, has been preserved on the periphery of the Swedish culture sphere, among the Swedish-speaking communities in Finnish Österbotten.

    That would contradict the notion of Cantonese as a less sophisticated type of Chinese, no?

  35. Eric Vinyl said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 4:01 am

    Cantonese is a very backward dialect of the chinese language family. Its more like the chinese version of Ebonics and has never been well regarded by the rest of chinese

    Ha ha, this is adorable.

  36. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 5:48 am

    I haven't quite finished my last comment but my device was off power. Chinese was made the official language in hk after a red riot in late 1960s. I don't know if there had gone thru any debate back then over whether to take on mandarin or cantonese but I learned from a mid aged hk guy that in the 70s when he was in primary school it was supposed to teach chinese in mandarin but there were not enough mandarin speaking teachers. The population in hk is largely cantonese (>90%) and most of them could not speak mandarin back then. A retired primary school teacher also mentioned that some primary schools were still trying to use mandarin teaching chinese in the 80s. There is one school founded by immigrants from the changjiang delta area(Shanghai, Zhenjiang, jiangsu) having insisted on mandarin teaching all these years. Many affluent non-cantonese families send their children there. Bcoz of war and later change of power, some affluent families from the changjiang delta area moved to hk in 1940-50s and brought long with them capital and business know how. Hk's economic take off in the 60-70s had a lot to do with this group of immigrants. Despite they only made up a small percentage of the hk population, they have been overly represented among the elites. The first chief executive hand picked by bj after the handover is of shanghai origin. Btw, Out of the 3 head of hk after the hand over, only one is of cantonese origin.

    I doubt the British had much respect for the cantonese clan. Otherwise they wouldnot have taken the long route to recruit policemen from the far north in shandong and these policemen were then to be stationed in the affluent neighborhood where the expats congregated. The current hk chief executive's father was one of these policemen. Shandong is at the yellow river delta. The ppl there have always enjoyed a good reputation for their great sense of honor(cantonese the worst in this regard which the British might have also come to be aware of). The yellow river delta area is home to Confucius and many great thinkers, writers and scholars.

    I would much like to be enlightened about any notable original thinkers and scholars of cantonese origin since cantonese is claimed to be so archiac and sophisticated. I don't take dr sun yatsun as one. He was merely a messenger of the western influence.

    Southern chinese dialects such as cantonese and Hakka and fujianese all rhyme better than mandarin when reading ancient poems origined in central china. The implication is that the mordern aesthetic level of the southern pronouciation is probably closer to that prevalent in central china back a couple thousands of years. It is also the evidence that the southern dialects have progressed or evolved slower. I guess Italian Spanish native speakers might also be better than English German with ancient poems from roman time?

    Funny that cantonese natives like to tag themselves with "ancient " but resent "backward". It seems to me merely a play of words. If ur state of being now is same as that of others in ancient time, isn't that equivalent as backward from the other's perspective? If we intuitively aspire to improvent and progression, naturally we would dispise the backward. Older is better? Latin definately older than English but it's dead.

    Hanzi the chinese writing was developed in central china. It was brought to the cantonese area by soldiers and prisoners when the first chinese emperor conquered the cantonese area( used to belong to Vietnam). These first settlers married the indigenous women and their children would take on the chinese language but with an accent closer to their mothers indigenous tongue as the mother was usually the main carer. It might have taken many generations a few hundred years for the chinese language to overtake the indigenous languages. Over the time the pronouciation and way of expression must have developed quite different from that in central as the exchanges between central china and the cantonese area is hindered by the mountain segregation (which is also why the cantonese area is referred as ling3nan2 mountain south). The main human inflow from central china were prisoners and condemned civil servants sent to be exile there. I have often come across comments about Cantonese sounds more like Vietnamese and Thai than mandarin. Both also more tonal than mandarin. If losing tone simply means losing sophistication, how to read less is more? Ancient Greek was also tonal. Most if not all modern European languages are non-tonal(probably except norwaygian slightly tonal?). Japanese and Korea also non tonal.

    Like thai and Viet, Cantonese also retains more sound particulars to convey meanings. This is another backward sign. Language is constructed through logic and reasoning. Sound particulars are more an utterance of emotions and it's difficult to sort them by logic. True cantonese is more difficult to pick up than mandarin. Another backward sign though. Our ape ancestor howled to signal food and danger rather than showing off s/he can overcome great challenge to make difficult sound. A more evolved communicative tool should be more polished and easier to pick up just like mobile phone has evolved to become more and more user friendly.

    Before the import of Hanzi, there is no written record about the cantonese area as none of the indigenous languages had developed any writing system. That in a way tells the level of civilization in that area. Even in its 2000years of inclusion into china, the area never really loses its less civilized reputation. Cantonese is often mocked mean-spiritedly? Other than "ugly, unpleasant", another word commonly associated with cantonese is "vulgar". Go to any major chinese forum, u can find lots of relevant links.

    The current cantonese way of writing in hk is far from "sophisticated". They simply adopt some characters to represent the sound. This is in a similar simplistic mentality as how the Vietnamese adopted chinese characters of the appropriate sound to record their speech before they changed to adopt the alphabetical system after becoming a French colony. many other south eastern countries also adopted alphabets for recording their speech upon western influence in the last few hundred years whereas Korean and Japanese have managed to develope their own writing system. Why so? I reckon that's a reflection of different mental power and ultimately different evolutionary rate. Central china was invaded and ruled by non-chinese twice for about half of the last 1000years. These invaders were all
    Normals from the north: Mongols and Manchus. Well before the invasion, the chinese had always been very wary of the northern normads which is why they built the Great Wall along the northern border of central plain. Being conquered means being outsmarted.

    We can easily accept individual differences in capabilities yet talking about group differences could easily invite oneself to moral condemnation.

    Chinese is of binary compound with both sight and sound element because speech after all is exchanged via the sound medium. However based on my reading the language was first developed based more on sight as it was developed for treasury records rather than for speech. China did went thru some short periods of split but overall it remains intact as a big country. Roman Empire was bigger than ancient china but over the last 2000 years it has splited into many countries with different languages becaused sound based language is more prone for changes.

    Not sure if I have responded to all the different opionions. Yes these are my half baked ideas which is why I welcome any different opinions as they help supplement and consolidate my thought process.

    Btw I m not in the linguist field. For those who pointed out my comment is only nonsense, u shouldn't have wasted ur valuable time on me. I m sure the log followers here are intelligent enough to make their own conclusion. Insensible comment would only come back to slap ones own face.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 6:43 am

    Upon being asked to comment on the "Cantonese = Ebonics" claim, a distinguished colleague replied:

    You must surely be joking. I'm not even going to look. My policy is (as far as I can manage to control things) mostly not to allow comments, and in cases (like Lingua Franca) where there have to be comments, never to look at them. Respond to the allegation that Cantonese is like black English vernacular? I'd rather eat live worms on cold toast.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    This PRI article, which I noticed when it first came out at the beginning of the month, may be relevant here:
    "Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the 'common tongue'"

  39. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    without a common tongue is a blessing or curse? I was told that in the story of babel, God punishes man by making them speak different languages so man cannot work together.

    In Taiwan, less than 20% of the population are of non-fujianese origin( referred as wai4sheng3ren2 meaning ppl from outside provinces). among these "outsiders", probably less than half are from the northern mandarin speaking area, yet mandarin was still taken as the official language in Taiwan. In Singapore, majority of the chinese population are fujianese, Hakka and cantonese. Native mandarin speakers are even less than in Taiwan yet again mandarin was also made the official language and the authority has also made some conscious effort to promote mandarin.

    Is Ebonics viewed with of lesser value than the main stream English by the distinguished colleague? Why so? If there can be an intuitive value system to rank English and Ebonics, why should it be so odd if cantonese is viewed with less respect by the more main stream chinese speakers? Ebonics origins from black ppl adopting English whereas cantonese has its origin from the indigenous ppl in southern china adopting the chinese language prevalent in central china so the two appear quite comparable. the big difference probably is Ebonics' adoption happened less than 300 yrs ago whereas cantonese adoption can date back 2000years. Disrespect and distaste for cantonese is recorded in history, for example the cantonese civil servants had been requested to attend "correct pronouciation class" by the central authority.

    I would expect a distinguished mind to be open and tolerant of different opinions rather than "not to allow comment" as first to mind.

  40. julie lee said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Re Cantonese and Cantonese people (people from Guangdong province of China), let us not forget that Cantonese is an ancient language that is not dead but still living and developing, and that Guangdong province has given us some great minds, among them:

    Shing-Tung Yau (Chinese: 丘成桐; in Mandarin: Qiū Chéngtóng), professor of mathematics at Harvard University and winner of the Fields Medal in 1982 (see Wikipedia). The Fields Medal is the highest international prize in mathematics, comparable to the Nobel. His work is of importance to both theoretical mathematics and theoretical physics.

    Kang Youwei康有為 and Liang Qichao梁啓超, two of the most seminal thinkers and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

  41. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

    Being so ancient pls do come up with some notable ancient names of cantonese origin who had casted significant influence in the chinese history of civilization before the western influence set foot upon china. Has there been any notable literary work produced in Guangdong that is of influence to the other chinese?

    Sun yatsun, kang youwei ang Laing qichao are probably the only three to a cantonese mind but they all are from the late Qing dynasty in around 1900 and played merely as the messengers of western influence bcoz of their overseas experiences allowed them to witness how much more backward china was then by comparison with the west. Western influence in Asia probably started near the late Ming dynasty around 400 years ago. They brought over the world map for chinese to realize that china is not the centre of the world. Since then almost all the south eastern countries except Thailand had become colonies to the west. Most of these countries did not have their own written language until they adopted the alphabet system to record their speech. The weakest link in china started in GuangDong which was soon made the only open port for foreign trade and that eventually led to opium war about 200years ago and hk being ceded to the British. Cantonese was the west's first taste of chinese, which is why a lot of chinese names / terms were of cantonese pronouciation in early western record about china. For example Peking. One interesting thing is despite cantonese being the first major dialect to be exposed to western influence, there has still not yet a standard roman-based phonic system for cantonese been worked out, not even now.

    Chinese emigration to America started in mid 19century and the first few waves since then were almost all of cantonese. The emigration coincidented with black slavery being banned and the Americans were looking for contracted labour to replace the Ebonics speaking slaves and the British acted as agent to recruit the desperate peasants in Guangdong. Cantonese has a term for the activity as 卖猪仔 meaning selling the piglets, which in itself is very telling of the aesthetic level of the language and its culture. Simply bcoz of such shameful history, cantonese, a dialect being much looked down upon in its own country, had taken on the representative role for china for more than a century, to the extend of associating with archaic grace. How ironic and sad!

    The Indians and Filipinos also adopt English as their official language. would an Indian accent ignite any association with archaic grace?

    In all, if with western influence taken away, cantonese area matters little in China's development.

  42. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    Btw, sun yatsun being high hailed in both mainland and Taiwan is merely for each' political agenda. He is in fact in incompetent leader whose cantonese nickname means talking big. It's said he was actually doing the dishes in a chinese eatery in America when the Qing dynasty was overthrown. His incompetence earned him the position of the republic's 1st president as warlords of real power could not agree on who was more powerful among themselves. Sun came in as a political convenience. During his 10years in position, he had done little to help china progress.

  43. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

    Google decline of cantonese in hk to see what a linguistic professor in hk university said.

    The international schools in hk all adopt mandarin for teaching chinese. Many affluent local families send their kids to these school. Some young native cantonese parents even choose to speak mandarin to their kids at home and such trend is gaining ground in hk just like what has happened in Guangdong much longer ago. Cantonese is often viewed as vulgar and uncivilized by the younger generation in Guangdong. That could well be part of the propaganda effect but deep inside ourselves we are intuitively tuned to the more pleasant the more aesthetic appealing.

    Chinese emigration from the non-cantonese area only started to pick up after 1990s which is only 2 decades by now. They will gradually replace the cantonese lot to voice for china.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    Pertinent comments from someone who knows both Cantonese and Mandarin well:


    The commenter has also continued on the other thread:

    I would think that it's either the 五毛党

    like commenter Mandy suggested earlier

    or it's a true case of prejudice and misinformation. Sometimes one can differentiate trolling from sincere but very misinformed ranting, sometimes not. Practically it's not always necessary to do so, but I'd let the comments stand (for now, to see where it goes) because they show something about the extent of the misinformation that's out there. There might be other commenters addressing some of that person's material, and if not, comments showing that much misinformation won't be taken seriously, at least not on LL.

  45. Anonymous said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

    Many Taiwanese that I personally know actually think like @Go for aesthetic appeal does, which is kind of sad. Therefore I am always an advocate of linguistics education in primary schools.

  46. julie lee said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 1:05 am

    @Go for Aesthetic Appeal:
    When you ask for "notable ancient names of Cantonese origin" you probably mean notable names of the ancestors of the present-day people of Guangdong. . We should remember that the people of Guangdong (so called "Cantonese people") are mostly descended from people who arrived in Guangdong in mass migrations from the north over the course of centuries, starting from the Han dynasty. When the Tang and Song dynasties fell, there were also mass migrations of refugees towards the south, including Guangdong. Thus the notable names among the ancient ancestors of the present-day Cantonese people would be of northern origin and not, to quote you, "of Cantonese origin",
    I'm sorry to hear you say that Sun Yat-sen, Kang Youwei, and Liang Qichao were merely messengers of Western influence. Just to take one example, Kang's "Da Tong Shu" (Treatise on a Commonwealth) is influenced not only by the West, but by the "Da Tong" chapter of the ancient Chinese Confucianist classic "Li Ji" (Book of Rites), a collection of writings dating from the 3rd century B.C. to first century A.D. It is also influenced by Daoism and Buddhism . Far from being backward Cantonese people, Sun Yat-sen, Kang Youwei, and Liang Qichao were advanced Chinese thinkers of their time. Hu Hanmin was another influential Cantonese intellectual of that era. I am sure I have read about many other eminent scholars and thinkers from Guangdong in history but I don't have their names off hand.

  47. Go for aesthetic appeal said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 5:52 am

    Another common claim by cantonese about their ancestory root tying back to ancient central china. Anyone see the irony here, even a cantonese is also less willing to associate with the much looked down south. There indeed had been a few mass migration from central china towards the changjiang river delta ( Zhejiang and jiangsu)and further south(fujian and Guangdong) either bcoz of war or famine but they only represented a small percentage of the central population and these new migrants also only counted as minority as compared to the southern natives. chinese culturally are not migratory ppl and would not leave homeland unless desperate. Central china in particular was much under Confucius teaching of not to travel far away from parents. For those who did migrate, most settled in the changjiang delta, esp the more affluent ones, which is why there had been many literary works with that area as backdrop after the Song Dynasty around 1000 years ago. Su dongpo is a well known scholar and official from that time. He was later condemned to be in exile in Guangdong and left a poem describing the natives there as monkey-lookalike and bird-talk alike. Similar notion was also left by another well known scholar Han yu a few hundred years further back in Tang Dynasty. Those migrating to Guangdong were of scarce numbers. If u compare modern cantonese ppl with ancient paintings and the terracotta warriors, u will see obvious difference in facial features whereas those from the changjiang delta have more similarities. The biggest mass migration from central china to Guangdong is probably the first settlers sent by the 1st chinese emperor. They were either soldiers or prisoners. Despite as minority to start with, their Y-gene did gradually outdo the indigenous one, so now most cantonese men do share the same Y-gene as other Han chinese despite many cantonese ppl actually look more like Vietnamese. Probably over the course of 2000years the climate and the environment have weathered the local effect into the gene to become apparent. There are another two group of ppl in Guangdong whose origins are different from those first settlers. One group gather near the northern border of Guangdong, adjacent to jiangxi and fujian. The area is called chaozhou and the dialect is more associated with fujianese. Another more recent group scattered among the more mountainous area and these ppl refer themselves as Hakka, meaning guest families, this group in particular were more reluctant towards inter-marriage with the cantonese native. Both groups moved from central china to Guangdong in the last 1000yrs or so. Their facial feature and skin complexion are more alike the other Han chinese.

    If any of these refugee desendant is to represent chinese, cantonese would be the worst choice.

    It is really a shame and unfortunate for china to be represented by its least respected member for more than a century.

    Just like Hanzi, Li ji and Taoism were also born along the yellow river thousands of years ago and has influenced China's development in various ways. Other than being the receiving end of influence(both west and east ), What original thinkings have pearl river delta given rise to for china all along? It's said Human settlement in the pearl river delta can trace back more than 10,000year. What else to boast about other than the 3 messengers?

    地杰人灵 rings a bell here?

    Claiming the descendants of refugee does not justify ones representation of the ancestral homeland. We are a product of our natural enviroment. 100,000years ago humans ancestors walked out of Africa. I dare not say I can be representative of ancient Africa.

  48. julie lee said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    @Go for Aesthetic Appeal:
    Just a few comments here. You cite Sun Dongpo and Han Yu. Yes, they were exiled to the south and probably wished they were back north where the inhabitants looked and sounded like themselves, not like these southerners in Guangdong who looked to them like monkeys and squawked like birds. Su and Han were great writers, but even great writers are not always above xenophobia and racism. I read somewhere that even Abraham Lincoln was not above chauvinism and racism when he said that negroes and women shouldn't be given the vote because they couldn't think for themselves.
    You do sound racist. You wrote in an earlier post (see under Language Log, August 29, 2013, "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and Written Cantonese"):
    "Google or baidu comments/ discussion about cantonese in chinese forum, never short of negative links. Cantonese people being physically unattractive( or simply ugly, the more straight forward way) and the cantonese language being unpleasant to ears are notably the most often mentioned. To say " u don't look like cantonese" has even become a subtle compliment. Check on chinese history, cantonese has never been well regarded by other chinese. Cantonese ppl are referred to as Malay monkeys….
    Ever wonder why people near the tropical tend to have big and thick lips? does it affect pronouciation? Is it possible big lips also more likely to be with a big tongue? Does it affect pronouciation? Is it also possible big lip big tongue more likely coming together with less refined hearing system….."

    Just a note on thick lips. I thought it interesting that Hollywood now fancies thicker lips. Many famous Hollywood female stars have paid for surgery to have their lips thickened and have emerged with thick lips. Actually I thought their original, thin, lips just fine.
    You say: "It is really a shame and unfortunate for china to be represented by its least respected member [the Cantonese people] for more than a century."
    For much of the twentieth century, some of the most famous representatives of the Chinese people were the Soong sisters, Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Sun Yat-sen. They were Cantonese because their father was Cantonese. They were highly respected in both China and the West. Their father had thick lips and they also inherited this feature to some degree. Both were also renowned for their beauty, despite the thickish lips (which were beautiful). Kang Youwei also had thick lips.
    Sun Yat-sen, despite being Cantonese, was highly respected both in China and the world. Another person representing China to the world was Eugene Chen, Sun Yat-sen's foreign minister and China's representative at the Versailles Peace Conference. He too was Cantonese and was highest respected both in China and abroad.
    You keep bringing up the point that the Cantonese were low-quality people (soldiers, prisoners, laborers) and not worthy of representing China. This is like saying Australians are descended from convicts and should be despised. The desperately poor people of Guangdong who left poverty to work in America, like the poor of Ireland who escaped the famine, should be admired, rather than despised. It is because the poor Chinese laborers and farmers in America worked hard, saved, and prospered, and bought real-estate in American towns and sent their Chinese children to American schools that there arose a racist backlash against the prospering Chinese, resulting in a ban on Chinese immigrants to America. This ban was only lifted with World War Two when China became an ally of America.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    From Apollo Wu:

    Cantonese is a rich language as it has absorbed words and expressions from diversed sources, similar to that of English. Cantonese has a lot of mataphoric expressions like baiwulong 摆乌龙,patou 爬头,zhuangban 撞板 (which means act under misconception, overpass the car in front, getting blocked respectively). Cantonese speakers are proud to be able to read the Tang dynasty poems in correct rhyme.

    The idea of visual communication miss the point that all writings employ visual mean to communicate. Phonetic based writings associate closely with speech, thus easier to learn and use. For a child with Mandarin as mother language, it is much easier to learn Baba mama wo ai nin, than 爸爸妈妈我爱您。Today, nothing seems to be able to reverse the megatrend of Chinese people rapidly loosing their ability to handle the complex Hanzi system.

  50. John Hill said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 4:22 am

    I don't know if this will throw any light on the debates above but I thought it might be of some interest. Years ago I met a totally bilingual young Italian woman poet who said she always wrote her poems in English. I was astonished and asked her why and added that I thought that Italian was more mellifluous than English and was therefore a natural medium for poetry.

    She explained that she wrote in English because it has a much larger vocabulary containing a far greater range of of words with similar meanings allowing one to write with subtler shades of meaning and with less repetition of the same words. However, she emphasised that when she spoke she preferred to use Italian because the body and sign language that accompanies speech allowed for a greater range of emotions and meanings than was possible in English.

    Could something similar hold true in the various forms of Chinese?

  51. Mandy said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 12:59 am

    Go for aesthetic appeal, stop talking about Hong Kong as if you know anything about it.

    To say that the former HK Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa was selected because of his Shanghainese heritage is so ludicrous that I'm not even going to waste my time debating. I think people with functional brains would realize how absurd this claim sounds.

    Since you style yourself as an expert of of all things Hong Kong and Cantonese, let me ask you something. Tell me, which one of the "original" families of Hong Kong (香港四大家族)is of non-Cantonese extraction? Migration from the Jiangzhe (江浙) area didn't happen until more than half a century later, when rich people from Zhejiang (mostly from Ningbo) migrated to Hong Kong because of the deteriorating political situation in the mainland. Yes, they set up merchants associations and schools (苏浙公学 — since your "friend" neglected to tell you what the school is called), but what do you find it so strange that people establish their own cultural associations and schools in foreign towns? You find it strange because you're not actually from Hong Kong and talk about its history in a cultural vacuum. There are numerous Cantonese gilds and cultural associations within Hong Kong, how about that?

    By the way, rich people from Fujian also did this. You know the nickname of North Point, brainaic? It's called "Little Fujian" (小福建). You find all sorts of Chinese regional associations (XX同乡会)and Chinese language schools all over the US. Based on your twisted logic, the reason they do this must be because they detest the English language?? WTF.

    While we are at it. I'm sure you know who these people are: Li Ka-Shing, Lee Shau-kee, Michael Kadoorie, Lau Luen Hung…are they from Zhejiang?

    I used to interact with your kind A LOT. I've since learned not to waste time on people like you (自干五) because your arguments make no sense; and when you're being rebuffed, you will turn to talk about something else which has nothing to do with the issues under discussion. This is a common technique used by your kind.

    But you're right about one thing — one day, Hong Kong will be populated by your kind (CCP called you people "new" Hong Konger 新香港人)to replace locals like me. When that day arrives, that will be the end of Hong Kong.

    For those who've defended the Cantonese language, as a native Cantonese speaker, I appreciate the effort, but may I suggest you to stop responding to bigot like him? You can present him with 10,000 facts, but it's no use, because he's not after facts. Please spend your precious time elsewhere.

  52. julie lee said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    As a schoolgirl in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, the local luminaries who greatly impressed me were Sir Robert Hotung and Sir Kenneth Fung and their prominent families. There were also the brothers Aw Boon Haw (Hu Wenhu in Mandarin) and Aw Boon Par (if I spell their names correctly), who had started as poor laborers or hawkers and rose to become mega-millionaires and movie magnates, tycoons of the Hong Kong movie industry. One of the Aw daughters, Sally Aw, was in my class at school. (My first term there, she ranked 38 out of a class of 38, and I ranked 34. We were both new and hadn't yet adjusted.) Later I read a review of Sally in the New York Times. She had become editor-in-chief of the Xingdao Ribao [Sing Dao Daily], a major newspaper owned by the Aw family. A daughter of the illustrious Fung family was also in my class. These were all Cantonese people. Another Hong Kong luminary I know of is Sir Tony Tang, business tycoon, art collector, accomplished pianist, traveler, and wit. I enjoy his humorous columns on interior design, real estate, and style in the London Financial Times. He too is Cantonese. He can be heard on Youtube speaking in Cantonese, and also debating in English at Oxford University.

  53. julie lee said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

    p.s. I meant "a long interview of Sally Aw", not "review of Sally".

  54. julie lee said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    pps. That should be "Sir David Tang", not "Sir Tony Tang".

  55. Alan Chin said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 2:03 am

    I write from Toishan City (台城, 台山)where I'm spending some time. It used to be that speaking standard Cantonese here was hoity-toity and clearly a sign that you weren't local, let alone Mandarin. However, these days there's are plenty of people from other parts of China here, Mandarin speakers, and most Toishanese in public are used to speaking to customers in shops, etc. in standard Cantonese. And even though I'm a native Toishanese speaker, sometimes I reply in standard Cantonese too. So for sure, topolects all over the world including in China are in danger of fading. But the anger and rage that some people seem to feel against Cantonese boggles my mind. Yet I've become used to it, the way one becomes used to racism even when it's abhorrent and criminal. Sometimes a robust response is necessary. At other times, like this one, it may have been better for Prof. Mair to simply delete the comment.

  56. Vanya said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 5:45 am

    Respond to the allegation that Cantonese is like black English vernacular? I'd rather eat live worms on cold toast.

    Wow, "allegation"? Did your colleague intend to be so nasty and condescending towards African-American dialects? "Ebonics", for lack of a more convenient term, is a very productive and creative version of English that has had a significant impact in vocabulary and even syntax on standard English. Comparing Cantonese to African-American English is obviously silly for long list of historical, cultural and linguistic reasons. But it should certainly not be seen as an insult, even if the original poster probably meant it as one.

  57. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 7:05 pm


    "But it should certainly not be seen as an insult, even if the original poster probably meant it as one."

    The original commenter unmistakably DID mean it as an insult:

  58. Tan Gebuen said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

    @aesthetic appeal
    "I guess Italian Spanish native speakers might also be better than English German with ancient poems from roman time?"

    English and German don't actually come from Latin; they're from Germanic. They're therefore unrelated to Spanish and Italian. English does have a lot of Latin-derived words for a different reason, because… (see below)

    @John Hill
    "She explained that she wrote in English because it has a much larger vocabulary containing a far greater range of of words with similar meanings allowing one to write with subtler shades of meaning and with less repetition of the same words.
    Could something similar hold true in the various forms of Chinese?"

    English has a wide vocabulary in large part because of the Norman invasion of England. They brought French over and added its Latin-derived words to a Germanic language. I think about a third of our words come from that event. French was basically the language of the aristocracy, so they tend to be words associated with culture, law, and knowledge – and when the word already existed in English, the French one often adopted a "higher" connotation. The Normans also screwed up our spelling by trying to transliterate Anglo-Saxon English with their own orthography.

    Anyway, it wasn't a natural phenomenon, so I wouldn't expect one Sinitic language to have a much wider vocabulary than others.

  59. Wentao said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    It fascinates me how Mr "Aesthetic Appeal", whatever a bigoted moron he is, clings to hanzi, the most antiquated writing system that exists in the world, while at the same time condemning the phonological conservatism of Cantonese. Doesn't he say ancient is a sign of backwardness?

    Also, there is no logic whatsoever in (i) how many ancient philosophers were natives of Guangdong and (ii) whether Mandarin and Cantonese are comparable in terms of "superiority". It should be common knowledge that a Polynesian language without writing system is as linguistically valuable and sophisticated as Latin and Greek. Apparently Mr "Aesthetic Appeal" is of the opinion that while the latter should be sanctified as the hallmarks of civilization, the former is no different from dog barks and the sooner it is eradicated the better.

    Mr "Aesthetic Appeal" also makes an analogy between linguistic diversity with God's punishment in the story of Babel. It is at the same time shocking/saddening to see that one's attitude towards cultural variety in the 21st century stays in the time of the Old Testament. It is an even more disturbing thought that such sentiment is by no means rare.

    It is evident, as Mr "Aesthetic Appeal" himself confesses, that he is utterly ignorant in linguistics. He not only attempts to read Classical poetry in German, but also knows that Ancient Greek is tonal. I thank Professor Mair for keeping his incoherent comments on display, as a wondrous specimen of monumental idiocy.

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