Cantonese as Ebonics

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Such a proposition is preposterous on the very face of it.  Yet a commenter to this blog has repeatedly made this claim in all earnestness, and even attempted to back up his claim with various types of evidence.  I asked some friends and colleagues what they thought of such an assertion, and many of the more temperate responses I received have been included in the comments to "No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese", where the comparison was made; see also the earlier "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese", where the same commenter made the identical claim.

More recently, I have received two responses that are too long and too late to append to the earlier threads.  The first is from Denis Mair:

I don't agree with this person. I think it's baffling to speak of any language as "backward." Every language is equal to the needs of articulate people within their particular cultural milieu. In fact it's the articulate people who create the language as they go along.

If this person says that Cantonese is "backward," then Tibetan must be backward, and native languages in North and South American must be "backward." That's crap. Maybe they are impoverished in the sense that a language needs smart young people to immerse themselves in it. Now some of the best young minds can only devote part of their attention to these languages, because they have to shift to world languages for educational opportunity and broad information access. But Cantonese has a thriving youth and media culture, so it's still developing.

I do think that historical circumstances have given Mandarin ascendancy over Cantonese, so if you want to talk about the hard facts of literacy, then Mandarin trumps Cantonese. Modern standard written vernacular is based on Mandarin grammar, so it's what people imbibe in books. But we now live in a culture of images, so traditional literacy is less and less important. A mixture of text and imagery will place less emphasis on in-depth literacy in a hegemonic language. A basic command will be enough, and the dialect languages (and subcultural ideolects of Mandarin) will have a chance to prove their vitality by linking themselves to visual language. The logic of visual/text hybrids has a lot to do with the unique genius of the native tongue. (For example, the strong influence of manga even in translation).

I don't think the "ebonics" comment expressed it clearly, but I do think that Chinese characters have an edge in appeal to graphic/visual memory, and I think graphic/visual memory comes into play in rapid reading. And there is a lot of available capacity for visual memory in the brain. I don't think we sound out anything when reading rapidly in a phonetic alphabet—-we learn to recognize graphic forms at a glance. As graphic forms, words in a phonetic alphabet are just squiggles, but Chinese characters have high graphic contrast values. This is a point I've made many times in the past, but I haven't heard much feedback. Maybe people think I'm just stating the obvious, that Chinese characters look distinctive.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe our rapid reading in English depends on rapid internalized combinatorial analysis of phoneme strings for word recognition. It's something that can be explored through well-designed experiments, and probably has (if we can just find the experimental data and apply it). Intuitively, though, even if we did have subconscious phonetic processing during rapid reading, we would still need rapid visual recognition of  letter strings (not just letters) in order to do the phonetic processing rapidly enough. Intuitively speaking, again, letter strings fall short of character strings in graphic contrast value. If this is true, then phonetic languages have the advantage for learning to read (and ease of writing), but not in rapid reading.

I reluctantly report my own agonizing experience. As someone who started learning the characters at age 21, I have not been able to take "advantage" of this "advantage" in rapid reading. It's an advantage that only comes into play if one learns the characters (stocks one's visual recognition banks) before a certain cutoff point, probably somewhere around age 16-19. Since I learned my characters at 21, I am condemned to a lifetime of dendritic, roundabout processing to recognize characters. I didn't stock my visual memory in the same way that a native reader does. That means I will never be able to take in a whole line of characters at a glance as native readers can do.

Even though I spend my days poring over lines of Chinese text in my translation work, this has not changed this basic disadvantage. I read fast enough for translation work, I guess, because I mull over what I read while reading. But dang-it, I still cannot read rapid movie subtitles in Chinese! I still can't burn through a novel, I must plod through it. I cannot enjoy a lot of good, cheap world cinema DVDs which only have Chinese subtitles, for instance Hiroshima Mon Amour based on the book by Marguerite Duras.

Ach, all the knowledge I have missed by not staying within my own beloved mother tongue!!

The second comment on the Cantonese as Ebonics claim is from Zev Handel:

This is nonsense, of course, on many levels. But there is no arguing with a person like this. I think Eric Vinyl's response ("Ha ha, this is adorable.") is the most appropriate way to deal with ignorance of this sort.

As you can see from the subsequent discussions with this commenter lower down, attempts to engage in rational discussion simply lead to more bombast and frustration.

By the way, a few thoughts on "QUICK QUESTION: how is it that so many of the most common morphemes in Sinitic topolects cannot be written with Chinese characters?"

1. It is more appropriate to say "are not written" rather than "cannot be written". As the example of Cantonese writing shows, anything can be written with Chinese characters.

2. Aside from Cantonese (and a few other historical examples of fully developed writing systems for non-standard varieties of Chinese), educated speakers of Chinese topolects typically write Standard Written Chinese. In the case of colloquial morphemes that are obviously cognate to morphemes in a standard written Chinese (whether it is written Mandarin, i.e. modern Báihuà, or Classical Chinese), topolect-speakers instinctively recognize that those morphemes could be written with the characters that conventionally write the cognate words. For non-obvious cognates, topolect-speakers will intuitively either feel that the word "can't be written" or will invent an off-the-cuff writing method. The most common off-the-cuff method is to use a character whose conventional reading pronunciation is similar to the target topolect pronunciation.

3. It is quite rare to use a character for a Mandarin equivalent (as opposed to a cognate) to write a topolect word, simply because this is a confusing and non-intuitive way to represent colloquial speech. For example, if one were to use "的" to write the Taiwanese possessive ê, it would immediately cause ambiguity about what morpheme is being represented, and make it unclear which language is being written. Recall that there are reading traditions that assign "dialect pronunciations" to all characters that occur in standard written forms of Chinese, and it is these pronunciations that automatically are triggered by the written form of the character.

4. For various reasons, the morphemes that tend to be least often cognate across Chinese varieties are high-frequency morphemes, such as: third-person pronoun; possessive/subordinating particle; completion aspect particle; diminutive suffix; prepositions; verb 'to give'; negative adverbs. This is what leads to the situation where the most frequent morphemes are least easy to write. The rarer a lexical item is, the more likely it is that it is in fact a borrowing from the written or standard language.

To sum up, Cantonese is Cantonese and Ebonics is Ebonics; each is sufficient unto itself, and neither is "backward".


  1. Ellen K. said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    I think the original comment is better read (for purposes of discussions the merits of what he suggests) as not the Cantonese and Ebonics are backwards, but that they are seen as backwards. I find the idea of calling any language backwards rather meritless. But, on the otherhand, it's true that there are some languages that are seen as backwards by others. And it seemed to be that perception of the languages that he was talking about, rather than any qualities of the languages themselves.

  2. Alexander said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

    @VHM- I would be curious to hear from Zev Handel what the "various reasons" are that "the morphemes that tend to be least often cognate across Chinese varieties are high-frequency morphemes, such as: third-person pronoun…" I've occasionally wondered about this fact.

  3. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 11:07 pm

    I think it is at least legitimate to regard non-hegemonic languages as in some sense obsolescent — which does not make them any less worthy either as carriers of culture or as objects of study, merely economically disfavored. But consider also: it is only in a country as large as China that languages spoken natively by hundreds of millions could be so broadly deprecated (by their own L1 speakers, even).

  4. Jonathan Badger said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

    Ignoring the inappropriateness of calling a language "primitive" in a derogatory sense, isn't it true that Cantonese is closer to classical Chinese in terms the number of tones and vocabulary? Wasn't Mandarin influenced more than Cantonese by the influx of the Mongolian raiders?

  5. Simon P said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 1:15 am

    @Jonathan Badger
    It's true that Cantonese is more conservative in terms of pronunciation, especially at the ends of syllables (preserving final m and the stop syllables p, t, k), which is why Tang dynasty poetry often rhymes in Cantonese but not in Mandarin. I think Mandarin has preserved the beginnings of syllables better (q/j, s/sh, c/ch, z/zh), however. Vocabulary-wise, Cantonese is more conservative in some regards (such as the verb "to eat") and less in other (such at the preposition "at"). Overall, my feeling is that Cantonese is slightly more conservative, but I'm not sure if that can be measured, and anyway I'm not a linguist.

  6. dainichi said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 5:33 am

    Ebonics is a version of English which has a strong substrate influence from African languages (if my understanding is correct). Is the commenter implying that Cantonese has a strong substrate influence from some language unrelated to the common ancestor of Standard Mandarin and Cantonese?

  7. Vanya said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    I think the original comment is better read (for purposes of discussions the merits of what he suggests) as not the Cantonese and Ebonics are backwards, but that they are seen as backwards.

    I agree, unfortunately the original commenter seems to have meant it as a disparagement, and was certainly aware that he was being provocative. Even worse though are the replies from defenders of Cantonese who have fallen for the bait and seem to be offended by the comparison, implying that they do see "Ebonics"as backwards.

  8. Vanya said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 6:10 am

    I think it is at least legitimate to regard non-hegemonic languages as in some sense obsolescent

    Non-hegemonic today doesn't mean they will always remain that way. In the late 18th century Czech was a slowly withering Slavic dialect spoken mostly in backwards corners of rural Bohemia. By 1919 it managed to become the "hegemonic" language of a new nation despite the fact that the vast majority of the educated population at the time could speak and understand German – a "world language" – with some level of fluency, if not natively. Then the Czech language went on to become the vehicle for some of the best world literature of the 20th century. So don't be too quick to count out the non-dominant languages.

  9. mollymooly said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    @Simon P:

    Cantonese is more conservative in terms of pronunciation, especially at the ends of syllables (preserving final m and the stop syllables p, t, k), which is why Tang dynasty poetry often rhymes in Cantonese but not in Mandarin.

    By itself, the loss of final consonants would produce more rhymes, not fewer. I presume it is other, parallel, phonetic changes in Mandarin which break the historical rhymes preserved in Cantonese.

  10. Ellie Kesselman said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    Denis Mair is no less derogatory, in conjecturing that Cantonese, Tibetan and languages of the indigenous peoples of North and South America are

    impoverished in the sense that a language needs smart young people to immerse themselves in it…Cantonese has a thriving youth and media culture, so it's still developing.

    Cantonese is neither "young", nor neglected! Consider this possibility. China has many spoken dialects, due to the geographical size of the Middle Kingdom for the past 10 (20?) centuries, but only one written language. Europe was not so fortunate. European geography, as demarcated by the land area spanning Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, Greece and the Urals, is comparable to China. The same limitations due to distance resulted in at least 20 distinct European languages, without even the commonality of alphabet, unlike Chinese.

    The Roman Republic and Empire were Europe's chance to match China's exemplary standardized usage of a single language, as defined by a common grammar and writing. Rome fell in the 5th century. Europe's saving grace was the Holy Roman Empire. And of course, there were, and still are, the Jews! One could say that Latin and Hebrew (for Europe) and Chinese (regardless of dialect, for China) are the most forward languages, NOT English, French, German etc. Without the standardization that Latin, Hebrew and Chinese imposed, civilization could never have flourished in each geographical region, respectively.

    What is the basis for Denis Mair's claim:

    Since I learned my characters at 21, I am condemned to a lifetime of dendritic, roundabout processing to recognize characters

    and that the cutoff point is 16-19 years of age? That sounds like an excuse for lack of proficiency to me, despite his avocation as a translator!

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    @Ellen K.

    Here is what Go for aesthetic appeal said in his (her?) own words:

    "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…."

    "It's wrong to equate cantonese vs mandarin as German vs English. Instead, Cantonese is more like the Ebonics of the chinese language."

    In his many comments on Language Log and elsewhere on the internet, Go for aesthetic appeal has said a lot of negative and prejudiced things against Cantonese language and Cantonese people. Although he is not as vulgar as the notorious Peking University professor, Kong Qingdong ("'Hong Kong people are dogs!'", it is clear that he hates Cantonese (both the language and the people). Maybe he even considers them to be "despicable human scum" (

    It's interesting that the comparison between Ebonics and Cantonese was made, and sharply rejected, by ilona the pest, on January 5, 2007:

    Furthermore, the identical arguments against Cantonese that have been made here on Language Log — including the misguided and insidious Ebonics charge — were made by someone named guocheng in comments to this June 14, 2012 post by Michelle da Silva back on April 13 of this year:

    "Is Cantonese an endangered language?"

    Now, this "guocheng" is the same person as the "Go for aesthetic appeal" who posts the same type of comments on Language Log (whose eddress is guocheng@xxxxxxx).

    He was also extremely active in commenting on this post by HouHou (February 25, 2010)":

    "Why is Cantonese unpopular to foreign ears?",97273

    Go for aesthetic appeal jumped into the discussion on April 12, 2012 with a succession of numerous comments, mostly quite long, and all in the same vein as those he has posted on Language Log.

    Since sheik is an excellent Cantonese language discussion forum, many native speakers — sometimes patiently, sometimes with exasperation — debated with him until May 11, 2012, when a commenter named burgundy wrote the following:


    Oh lawd. "go with aesthetic appeal" is one of the worst stereotypes of internet trolls – he's only half-educated in what he talks about (the worst kind), spews half-truths and opinions (some of them patently, unapologetically racist), as well as baseless, unfounded conclusions, and keeps coming back for more. According to his logic, the emergence of ebonics is the newest pinnacle of the evolution of English. First rule of the internets: stop feeding the troll. It was kind of amusing at first, but it's pointless and he'll never get it, because he doesn't want to (because he's racist!…anti-Cantonist?).


    After that, the debate continued sporadically, with Go for aesthetic appeal firing off a few more salvos, but by May 26, he gave up on that forum, where people kept countering his passion and prejudice with reason and evidence (burgundy's exposure may have had something to do with it as well), and by October 23, 2012, the whole thread came to an end.

    How to deal with Go for aesthetic appeal here on Language Log? I think that we should follow the advice of Mandy, Burgundy, and many other friends and colleagues: don't feed the trolls. Above all, he should have known that stigmatizing Ebonics as "backward" is a nonstarter on Language Log. To do the same with Cantonese, and then to link the two, only compounds the difficulty of having anyone here take him seriously. 'Nuff said.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    Ellie, a language doesn't need to be young to be developing. Change is a part of language, and languages do keep developing, regardless of how new or old they are. And it seems to be rather likely to be true that a language that has no young people speaking it is a language that is dying.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    Victor, I read that comment. Thus my comment. I would not have commented on it without reading it. I'm puzzled why you assume I hadn't read the very comment I was talking about. :(

  14. Jongseong Park said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    Ellie Kesselman: Without the standardization that Latin, Hebrew and Chinese imposed, civilization could never have flourished in each geographical region, respectively.

    Those are rather curious claims. So the ideal situation is one in which everyone uses the same literary language that no one actually speaks? How does that compare with the standardization imposed worldwide by English now, which is actually natively spoken by huge segments of the world population as well as non-natively by even more people, instead of being just a literary language? Or is it more forward to standardize according to a literary language that no one actually speaks?

  15. Morse-Gagne Elise said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    Just a quick note in response to the suggestion that for some words, alphabetic characters are processed as graphic units rather than phonemically decoded: this has in fact been researched. The work I've read about is pretty old, but is well summarized by Marilyn Jager Adams in Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (1990). If I remember correctly, I was surprised to find that we do in fact apparently continue to link phonemic structure to the written representation, even when reading common words.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    @Ellen K.

    I didn't make the assumption that you assume I made.

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    Would the idea of graphic structure of phonetic processing fit with those recent experiments where interchanging the initial and final characters of words didn't affect reading comprehension?

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

    As to dainichi's point, the extent of any substrate effect from West African languages in AAVE is I believe a contentious and unresolved issue (and there are no doubt other ways in which MSM:Cantonese::SAE:AAVE is a not-very-strong analogy), but as to substrate I was interested to see that wikipedia claims that "The colloquial layers of Yue dialects have a number of elements influenced by the Tai languages formerly spoken widely in the area and still spoken by people such as the Zhuang." Of course, for all I know that may be a contentious and disputed issue among Siniticists, and I believe there are also generally considered to be some sprachbund/areal things going on between Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages in that part of the world which might further complicate the analysis.

  19. phspaelti said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

    As graphic forms, words in a phonetic alphabet are just squiggles, but Chinese characters have high graphic contrast values. This is a point I've made many times in the past, but I haven't heard much feedback.

    I think this is completely wrong. As someone who has used the roman alphabet all my life, I think that the alphabet (and words written in the alphabet) have high graphic contrast value, and it's the Chinese characters that are just squiggles on the paper.
    In fact your own experience with the characters confirms this, although you seem to want to find fault with yourself rather than with the characters.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    @Ellie Kesselman

    "Europe was not so fortunate."

    I celebrate the diverse richness of European (and Indian) literature and lament the fact that the topolects of China have not developed their own written literatures. Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic was strictly a book language, while Modern Standard Mandarin is a sort of artificial construct (see "The world’s only speaker of standard Mandarin in 1923" []). Consequently, for the last two thousand and more years, the literature of China has not been based upon anyone's spoken Mother Tongue, but has been confined by the dictates of the demanding script (see "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language" []).

  21. julie lee said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 2:33 am


    I too didn't quite agree with Denis Mair's remarks that the phonetic alphabet are just squiggles and Chinese characters not. If they are just squiggles, then Chinese characters are just squiggles too.

    People who love Chinese characters always stress their beauty. Chinese calligraphy as an art form is indeed beautiful. But so is Arabic calligraphy, Thai calligraphy, Tibetan, Mongolian, etc. calligraphy. Likewise the English handwriting in many old documents. Steven Jobs was one of those who loved the beauty of calligraphy and took courses in calligraphy, not Chinese calligraphy but calligraphy in the roman alphabet.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 6:40 am

    @phspaelti @julie lee on "squiggles"

    I third the motion!

  23. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    Further to my note @ Ellie Kesselman just above:

    When it comes to written forms of the many Sinitic languages, it is as though a "one-child policy" were in effect. Then again, since there are actually many living languages in the Sinitic family, perhaps we can say that — except for one of them — all the others have been subject to a custom of "bound hands" so that they would be incapable of writing what they spoke.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    Still further to my note @ Ellie Kesselman above:

    Think what European literature would be like without Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes, Rabelais, and all the other countless literary giants who wrote in the European vernaculars. Think what Indian literature would be like without Tagore, Kabir, Tulsidas, Hemchandracharya, Nannayya, Iqbal, Ghalib, and numerous other outstanding representatives of the vernacular literary traditions in India (there are twenty-two *official* vernaculars in India still today), many of which go back to the medieval period and even earlier.

    Except for a single written vernacular that began to develop after the Middle Ages and Cantonese to a very limited extent, all of this fruitful panoply of literature tied directly to spoken mother tongues is essentially absent in China.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    On Y. R. Chao as the world's only speaker of standard Mandarin in 1923, see also this long interview:


  26. Piyush said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

    I saw some of the comments by "Go for Aesthetic Appeal" and was rather puzzled by his incessant and confident claims that evolution is somehow faster in colder climates.

    Now, I always thought that it was a given that the most biologically diverse areas in the world are the equatorial rain forests . These are as far from "cold climates" as one can get,and so their biological diversity seems to fly in the face of GfAA's claims. Is there some well known principle of evolutionary biology that GfAA is twisting here to get to his colder climate -> faster evolution claim? Or is he just inventing stuff as he goes along like in the rest of his comments?

  27. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    From Anthony C. Yu:

    As a speaker of Cantonese from birth who acquired quite fluent Mandarin speech at 13 after re-location to Taiwan with parents (until 17 when I left upon high school education), I shall add herewith some comments. Whether Cantonese should be labeled "Ebonics" is of little concern to me. Whether Mandarin should be considered the official, and thus "true", language of China as spoken (and derivatively, written) language is a weighty and serious issue that should receive continual discussion.

    Numerically on popular usage, Cantonese cannot surpass the speech patterns and sounds obtaining between the two great rivers from about the late Song-Yuan periods down to the Ming. The articulated patterns of sound became conventionalized as "official speech 官話," which also classify it sociologically as that prevalent among certain strata of society–i.e. mostly officials and probably merchants–that had both need and privilege to travel. To my knowledge, no reliable scholarly survey is available on exactly what sort of spoken topolects/dialects obtained in the entire mid-section of China, area by area, during those centuries of late medieval to early modern times.

    The age and validity of a topolect like Cantonese (and also Shanghainese and Amoynese that I know something of) for me rests mainly on the value of pitch or tone, 聲, it conventionally assigns to a graph. This issue is of little or no concern to the illiterate or a user of the language not concerned with the tonal dimension of the language. But it is an all important, indeed an indispensable, concern for those seeking to understand and practice literary language in both prose and poetry. The assignment of sound, understood here as the standardization (or conventionalization) of the tonal value of a phoneme, is arbitrary, in the sense that it did not derive from live, active speech pattern or habit.
    The Chinese literati, ancient and modern, have always had to learn a literary way of using the language, not just in terms of grammar and syntax, but also in terms of sound or pitch value (crucial difference from alaphabetical languages). For these women and men, the working linguistic world is one of established or fixed tonal value of all known graphs, because they are all classified not just semantically but sonically.

    Personal testimony:
    Yu Ying-shih, native of Anhui (?)
    Chow Tse-chung, native of Hunan
    D.C. Lau, native of Panyu, standard Cantonese in practice
    Anthony Yu, born in HK

    All four of us have written classical verse of one kind or another throughout our lives, and our speech efficacy varies significantly during conversation. Prof Chow and I could barely converse because we had great difficulty understanding each other (he with his heavy Hunanese accent and mine of Cantonese when we conversed in "Putonghua"!), but when we scanned the verse each of us had written, there was never a disagreement or even a moment of doubt concerning our sense of 聲韻, or 聲律. It is this fixed but arbitrary convention of sound, maintained probably by rote memory, that provides fundamental unity to literary Chinese. For me, to expect the same unity of living demotic speech that would unite China is frankly more than utopian.

    Conclusion: for "literary" sounds in Chinese, they have been all classified and memorized.

    Whether Cantonese or any other topolect should be considered Ebonics is not my concern.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 7:54 am

    From a specialist on Cantonese language and writing, commenting on the notes by Anthony C. Yu just above:

    I tried reading the material above on Language Log but found the writing strange, contorted, abstract — the author's meaning was essentially impenetrable to me. When he reads Chinese poetry, is it aloud or silently? If aloud, is it with Cantonese or some other topolectal pronunciation? Does he enjoy it because he is responding to it aurally?

  29. Chandra said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

    With all due respect, isn't this entire discussion "feeding the troll"?

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