Cantonese is just a dialect… or is it?

In his last post, Wes asked: when you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at? Honestly, before we had this debate that spanned across multiple drinking sessions and all-day iMessage arguments, I had never even thought of it.  It was always something I knew, something I never questioned.  The Anglo-Canadian part of my brain has been probed throughout my life- through education, media and talking to people like Wes.   On the other hand, the Chinese side of my brain has been left uneducated and uncritical.   Having left Asia at a young age, with Mandarin not being my dominant language, whatever I picked up in Asia as a child and whatever attitudes or opinions my parents have on topics that are not directly related to the “western” part of my brain, have been absorbed without question. So here is me unpacking why I agree with the statement: Cantonese is not a language, it’s just a dialect.

When I think about the above statement logically, it sounds ludicrous. Of course Cantonese is a language, in the literal sense. It is a system of communication used by humans in a particular region of the world.  When Mandarin or Cantonese speakers agree to the above statement we are not agreeing that Cantonese is not a system of communication used by a particular group of Chinese people. Rather, it is a reflection of how Mandarin Chinese plays a role in our collective psyche, no matter which part of China, or which Chinese language speaking country we are from.

My family is Taiwanese.  My ancestors moved from southern Fujian providence to Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty, specifically, in 1762.  People who moved to Taiwan during this period brought Min Nan with them, which is the language commonly spoken in southern Fujian.    It became one of the main languages of Taiwan, in addition to Hakka.  (The aboriginal people of Taiwan also spoke their own languages that are not related to any Chinese languages, how those languages are perceived and what happened to them is a whole different discussion.)   When the Communists took over China in the late 1940s, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan.   They called themselves the legitimate government of China.  Since then, they have been “reforming” Taiwan.  One of the things they did was to make Mandarin the national language.   I remember my parents saying that when they were growing up in Taiwan in the 60’s, they weren’t allowed to speak Min Nan- Hua in school.  If someone was caught speaking it, this person was punished and publicly humiliated.  Generations of people were discouraged from speaking it in public.  Growing up, my parents spoke a mix of Min Nan-Hua, Japanese, and Mandarin at home and I developed an ear for Min Nan-Hua at a young age.   When I moved to Taichung, Taiwan with my family at age 6, the only language I spoke was Japanese. As a first grader, I was taught to speak Mandarin even though at home, my parents hardly ever spoke that. As a child, I was stressed out enough learning the new language, and I didn’t even think that it was an entirely different language I was learning.  My brother, who is a two years younger than me, stayed home more, and he learned to speak Min Nan-Hua from the family cook, who only spoke Min Nan-Hua.  Min Nan-Hua was reduced to a mere dialect 方言– associated with the uneducated and the lower class, inferior to Mandarin.

Do I believe this is right?  Of course not.  It is a reflection of Kuomintang imperialism, and I didn’t even realize that I had such a bias until recently.  My people were oppressed by members of the  Kuomintang, our national language reduced to a mere dialect… and yet, it clearly worked.  I am a well-educated individual who has lived and worked in many different parts of the world.  I like to think that I am worldly and open-minded… Yet, I am not immune to truthiness  – Go ahead Wes, make your point already.

Oh, I suppose I should explicitly answer the original question: “When you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at?”

My answer is, there is no truth to this statement.  This is what the Chinese brain thinks:

Mandarin = Language

Everything else = Dialect

Is this right?  No.   What Wes struggled to understand is that there is no logic to this.  Of course we, the Western educated Chinese speakers, know the definition of language.  But when we agree with statements such as the one above, we are not thinking about the actual definition of language, we are thinking about language from an emotional place, from the depth of our collective psyche.  We are just repeating something that was told to us… like we are brainwashed to think this way.   Like I said before, it’s certainly a bias I had never thought about before.

You gotta give it to the Hong Kong people though.  Cantonese is still the primary language in Hong Kong.  They are still fighting… but I am afraid it is a losing battle.  I fear that one day, Cantonese will indeed be reduced to a mere dialect, like Min Nan Hua in Taiwan… Have you heard that they are teaching Chinese language classes in public schools in Mandarin these days?  I work in a supposedly English speaking university- instead of lecturing in English, a lot of professors are teaching their classes in Mandarin.   What I am observing, is that instead of coercing the Hong Kong people, they (Beijing) are just making small changes here and there.  Soon Hong Kong will become something that none of us recognize.

Do Hong Kong People Speak a Language?

“Cantonese is just a dialect, it’s not a language.”

I’ve heard this meme many times since coming to HK four years ago. They always say it as if it’s some sort of linguistic fact.  My interest here is in the ability of this meme to spread, not in it’s truth. But given how much resistance I get (often from very smart people who are not easily dismissed) when I say that it’s not true, I feel like I need to quickly dispatch with the possibility that this sentence says something objectively true, before I can move on to the more interesting question.

I. The Untruth of the Meme

Saying “Cantonese is just a dialect, it’s not a language” and believing it, makes exactly as much semantic sense as saying “A German Shepherd is just a dog, it’s not a mammal” and believing that. For someone to believe this sentence is true, they must be confused (or at least highly imprecise) about what the English words “language” and “dialect” mean. A dialect is “a variety of a language that is characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers,” while language refers to “the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific instance of such a system.” I quote Wikipedia here because I think it represents both the general consensus among English speakers as to what these terms mean, and it is consistent with what the terms mean to linguists.  As such, Cantonese, as it is spoken in Hong Kong, is both a dialect and a language, as is the Mandarin they speak in Beijing, the Mandarin they speak in Taiwan (different dialects, or maybe just different accents, same language), Standard American English (my dialect), Standard Black American English, BBC English, even Australian English. The reason it is said that the Yanks, Brits and Aussies all speak the same language is that we can (mostly) understand each other while each speaking our own dialect. This is not the case when we speak to Germans, so it is said that German is a separate language, even though English and German are both Germanic languages. Anytime fully functional humans speak, they are speaking both a language and a specific dialect of that language. And I humbly submit that Hong Kong Chinese people are fully functional humans. This is why saying Cantonese is a language not a dialect makes about as much sense as saying German Shepherds are dogs, not mammals. All dialects are specific iterations of a language, just as all dogs are mammals. It is impossible to speak a dialect without speaking a language, just as it is impossible to be a dog without being a mammal.

“Black people don’t speak proper English,” says the white American, or “Americans don’t speak proper English,” says the Englishman, as if he speaks some pure form of English, preserved from the 16th century or something and it’s only us-Americans who have diverged. I think these sentences have basically the same sentiment as the sentence I started this post with, and I know plenty of Americans who would agree with the one about black people (as long as no black people are within earshot) and plenty of English people who would agree with the one about Americans  (particularly if lots of Americans are within earshot). No form of English is objectively more of a “proper language” than any other (not even “Received Pronunciation,” which is no more similar to Elizabethan English than is Standard American English). They are just different. It’s totally true that some dialects are better for getting hired in certain locales, and that some dialects are really bad for getting hired nearly everywhere on Earth, but that fact is a reflection of the bigotry of English speakers, and the relationship between dialect and class/education; it does nothing that would allow one to rank English dialects in any objective sense.  

I’ve explained all of the above to believers in the meme, and yet they insist that the sentence still gets at something objectively true, that it’s not just a pseudo-scientific sounding cover for naked sociolinguistic bigotry. Despite this inability to convince people, I think I’m gonna let it go after saying three more things: 1. Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible, and therefore they are without a doubt different languages, not just different dialects. 2. Cantonese did not derive from Mandarin, and is not some bastardized form of some more pure Chinese language, even though Cantonese and Mandarin do likely share a prehistoric mother tongue. 3. Number of speakers and official status are not valid criteria for ranking languages/dialects as superior or inferior to each other. That’s about as good as I can do to convince people of the untruth of this meme. Some memes, in some minds, are impervious to persuasion, and it’s that fact that I find more interesting.

II. The Truthiness of the Meme, and What that Says about Memes, and Us.

I can’t do it.  Can’t move on to this other thing I want to write about, because in the past few days I haven’t convinced a single Mandarin or Cantonese speaker that this meme is not true (though monolingual English speakers seem to think my argument is totally airtight).  At first I suspected that I might be a cultural imperialist, siding with my HK brethren-in-British-colonization against Big Beijing.  But now I’m beginning to suspect that it’s worse than that, since HK people don’t agree with me either.  And if I’m wrong in my assertion, how can I use that assertion to arrive at some secondary conclusion about memes or anything else?

It seems that I come at this from a very different perspective than do Chinese people, and their position cannot be dismissed because of the semantic trick I pulled above.  The reason I think this is important, and why this post is becoming much longer than I intended, is that this shit is political: political like the difference between Chinese person and  Hong Kong Person, between American Born Chinese and Chinese-American.  Possibly even political like the space where nations and states don’t overlap perfectly. So let me back up, and try to deal with this issue with what David Foster Wallace, writing on a similarly political issue, called a “Democratic Spirit.”

A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.  As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about.  Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity–you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.

II.  The Politics of Dialect and Language

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

Max Weinreich, a Yiddish speaking sociolinguist, popularized this quip, which illustrates how calling someone’s language “just a dialect” can be a form of denigration.  Kendrick Lamar’s lyric, “speaking language only we know, you think it’s an accent,” makes a similar  point about the language he and his homies speak.  Yiddish (the language of Ashkenazi Jews in Europe) is a Germanic language, as is Danish .  The quip implies that the reason people called Danish a Germanic language and Yiddish a Germanic dialect was not really about objective linguistic criteria, such as their degree of mutual intelligibility with German, but the fact that Danish speakers had a nation and a state, while Yiddish speakers had no state (though they may have had a nation).   Kendrick’s line argues that the reason my dialect is  considered a language while his is considered an “accent” is fundamentally about authority, not usage.

Clearly, there are analogues here with the status of Cantonese, but I think this is about where my lecture needs to become a discussion, before I wade into waters I don’t understand.  My argument has been about the meaning of the English words language and dialect, not about 語 (which Google translates as “language”) or 方言 (“dialect”).   But I think these Chinese words and others may be at the root of why I don’t seem to be able to convince anyone who reads Chinese that the English sentence in question is not true.  I’ve run up against that cultural chasm between the way my Anglo-American brain works and the way a Chinese brain works.  I’ve always found that very interesting territory, but profitably entering it requires taking off my teacher hat and putting on my student hat.

I need to understand what this meme means before I can speculate about what its spreadability says about what people will accept as true.  So my question for Kayo, who has both an Anglo-American brain (Canadian brain, close enough) and a Chinese brain, is this: when you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at?

Lives of Others

All the people in these pictures are people I don’t know and their lives are completely different from mine.  Yet, we walk the same streets, and breathe the same (polluted) air.   I took these pictures because they are contrary to the the glitzy, shiny, materialistic image Hong Kong portrays.

During “normal” hours, Queen Road Central is a busy and crowded street.  At 6:15 am though, the newspaper men are my only companions.  I run past them at around 6:15 am.  The butcher typically start chopping up his merchandise by the time I run by him, around 6:25 am or so.  This shop is in Sai Ying Pun.   I see the newspaper men and the butcher 3 or 4 times a week during my morning run, and I had never stopped, paused and wondered what their lives are like, until now.

In Causeway Bay, there is a little area under the overpass where women gather with their Taoist deities.   This is where you go if you need advice on love, business, health, or any other arenas of your life.  I hear these fortune teller ladies can also put curses on someone on your behalf or make someone fall madly in love with you.   I don’t believe in fortune telling, but I do like that they are camped out on the street with their deities.  It’s such a contrast to the bankers.  I wonder if some of their wives visit the fortune tellers and put a curse on their husbands’ mistresses.

I don’t notice street performers very often in Hong Kong, though I did notice this one.   This young guy was parked outside Central Station singing for his supper.   According to the sign in his box, he’s Korean and he does not speak any Chinese.  People seem to be quite generous with him though.  It seems awfully un-Korean (un-Asian in general) to allow your son to travel to another country and earn money this way.  I wonder what his story is.  I gave him $10 HKD.  I hope he got into a decent hostel for the night as it is getting chilly in Hong Kong!

My Particle Theory

By far the cutest thing about the way Chinese people talk is all the ahs and lahs, the sais and mas, that I’ve been told over and over again by locals have “no meaning.”  If pressed further, these locals will tell you (or really they will just agree with you if you propose the idea) that these particles add emotional meaning to the sentences they complete, and wikipedia agrees.  They are spoken punctuation, spoken emoticons.  Until the other day, when I discovered my particle theory, this was about as far as I got in figuring out why Canto is so particle-rich while English is so particle-poor.

You know how sarcasm and other subtleties that are so easy to express in speech fall flat in text?  Emoticons solve that problem.  But what if all that tone-of-voice stuff we use to express things like sarcasm, or soften our statements, make them more polite, clarify that they were said in jest, etc., what if all that stuff had the potential to change the semantic meaning of the words we use?  In tonal languages, tones change the meaning of sounds, make them different words, as any Westerner who has ever tried to say the number 9 in Canto knows all too well.  (Digression I can’t resist sharing: I once tried to use sarcasm in Cantonese when people were acting ridiculously afraid of the dog I was walking.  I tried to say “It’s a dog, not a tiger,” but ended up saying, “It’s a penis, not an old lady.”  How many tones does Canto have?  Penis.  Diu 😉

Ergo, because Cantonese uses tones for semantic content, they are less available for expressing emotional content.  But as the email/texting revolution has taught us, that emotional content must be expressed in normal day-to-day communications; in many instances it’s more important than the semantic content of our words.  So Canto evolved a solution: lots of spoken emoticons, called particles, liberally and adorably used.

Plunge, Retake

Wes thinks we should blame Hong Kong’s lack of music/art scene and shitty dating on “women who consider the starving artist type undateable“.  Frankly, I disagree.

We can make these women public enemy #1, seek them out in Soho and throw rocks at them.  Actually, I also feel like throwing rocks at the douchy bankers these women sought after.   Now the question is, which came first, the douchy bankers or the women who find starving artist types undateable?

Hong Kong is one of the financial capitals in the world, expected to surpass London and New York in the very near future.  The city attracts and recruits the brightest and the shrewdest to work in its thriving financial sector.   As a result, it is a materialistically driven, superficial city.  People living and working in Hong Kong have high earning potential, they are able to afford luxury goods and have large, comfortable accommodations.  In this highly competitive environment, people have to demonstrate that they are the best of the best.    Men will flaunt their earning potential by wearing an expensive suit, driving a luxurious car, living in a penthouse of a fancy building in a trendy neighbourhood.  Women want men with high earning potential because walking around with expensive handbags and having the newest gadgets that you did not have to earn is high status.   Having a rich man provide for you, so you can sit around and look pretty, is high status.   To attract these men, women also need to play the part by conforming to the conventional standard of beauty.  In Asia, the golden standard of beauty is slenderness.  The mothers of daughters groom them to be submissive, uncritical, to dress and act conventionally in order to be pleasing to a man, with the dream that one day, their daughter will become a mute, beautiful trophy wife to some wealthy executive that will also look after them in their old age.   This is the Asian dream.

The worst thing that could happen to a woman in Hong Kong  is fall in love with a man with low status.   God forbid she might have to work so her artist husband can hopefully become the next Picasso.  An artist can only gain high status when his art sells for a lot of money, like Picasso.  Before an artist becomes famous and starts raking in millions, they are undateable.  (Note the galleries in Central and how expensive bad art cost.  It doesn’t matter if the art is bad as long as it fetches a lot of dough). Artists have poor earning potential and by default, low status in Hong Kong society.   As do people working in education and NGO sectors.  The “hipster” status, the idea of being “cool”, or the idea that you might be doing something with your career other than just making money, seems impractical in Hong Kong.  It might be desirable to have a “cool” job as a game designer because you make decent money but your career is also driven by passion or a geeky niche.    Being passionate, geeky, or cool is not practical, it does not make money, and therefore not valued in Hong Kong.  This is why the creative types in general are less likely to come to Hong Kong, and this is why the music and art scenes are rather pathetic here.

I don’t blame the women who find artist undateable.  I don’t really blame the douchy bankers either, but I find their vanity plate extremely distasteful.

'nuff said.

’nuff said.

Christmas Portraits From Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, people are unusually obsessed with using their smart phones to document their lives by taking pictures of everything- performances, scenery, outings, food.  I have been fascinated with the local Chinese people taking pictures  in front of elaborate Christmas decorations all over Hong Kong (some of these decorations are just plain weird– almost like Tim-Burton weird but not quirky enough).  This is a meta-documentation of my life in Hong Kong, through other people’s pictures:

A young couple having their picture taken standing in front of bizarre Christmas  decoration in Causeway Bay.

After posting this picture on Facebook, are they going to look at it again?

Our phones are altering our memory and how we interact with the world.  Since we have tools to capture our lives quickly and easily, we now live in a state of distracted amnesia, oscillating between the Instagram and Facebook apps on our smart phones.   Who needs to remember special moments when we can take a picture of everything and anything and post them onto the collective memory… umm, I mean, Facebook?   Look how early we start indoctrinating our young:

The beginning of a digitally enabled amnesia.  Age 5.

The beginning of a digitally enabled amnesia. Age 5.

Remember back in the days when films and development of films cost money, we were more cautious about creating images?  Those days seem like a lifetime ago.  Our parents have bound albums of old photographs in the attic and we occasionally look at them.  At least with a photo album, we can just open it and browse.  “Oh, look, there’s me when I was 5 covered in jam!  How cute!”   And when our parents took those pictures, they took them with the intention of looking at them, together, and remembering.  When I look at people taking pictures today in HK, it’s hard to imagine that they have the same purpose.  By the time our children are grown, how would they retrieve old digital images from a 30 year-old portable hard drive?!?!   Our children will be inundated with digital trash in the form of hard drives…  of selfies.

Future attics will be filled with hard drives with selfies.

Selfies: trash in the digital and physical realms.

Asians are famous for taking pictures of the food they eat.  Only after taking the perfect picture, posting it on Facebook/sending it to their friends via Line, can they enjoy the food before them.   Apparently though, we enjoy food more if we don’t Instagram it.  Let’s regain our lives by not obsessively documenting our mundane lives with our smart phones.  Let’s teach our children to remember special moments by telling them a story.  Let’s not be so narcissistic, and if we must, let’s spend that energy pampering our loved ones.   Why not attach the selfie in an email and write a proper letter to that special someone in your life?  We will be happier and actually live our lives to remember each passing moment when we are not preoccupied with getting the perfect Instagram.

I propose an Instagram/Facebook moratorium.  I’ve started already.

Why the United States Owes China Money (sort of)

Reese's Kit Kat 2 for $1 Counter Mat 10x7[1]

2 for 1.  What does this mean to you?  If you’re American, it means that you get 2 of something, and only pay 1.  If you’re Chinese, it means you pay 2, and get 1.

In the English speaking world, our signs tell what we get first, and what we give second.  As a result, we’ve already decided we want it before we see the price.  So we buy, even if we can’t actually afford it.  There’s only one way to keep this going indefinitely, and that’s to borrow indefinitely.  It’s worked well so far, and presumably will continue to work as long we have the strongest military in the world.  (It’s rude to refuse a friend, or frienemy, in need.  Being rude to a friend, or particularly a frienemy, is a bad idea when that friend can achieve air superiority anywhere on earth within hours.)  So far, the US has yet to get that angry letter from the credit card company, threatening to garnish wages.


$10 for 9 eggs: the fact that they’re from “Holland” rather than Holland, is a little disconcerting though.


In the Chinese speaking world, the signs first tell customers what they give, then what they will get in return.  To me, this is obviously bad marketing.  And it’s one of many outward signs of a lack of instinctive empathy, a disinclination to get into stranger’s minds, that is more common in Chinese culture than my own.  But it does make people more likely to make responsible decisions with their money, and therefore less likely to rely on extortion to finance their spending habits.


In HK, the signs translate not only the language, but the way of thinking as well.  The sign above offers me (in English) 15% off, and asks Chinese people to pay 85%.  Mathematically, this is the same of course, but psychologically it is not.  I look at it and think, “wow, I get 15% off, and I get a bottle of wine!” and I trot up to the register, only then reminded that I have to also give them some of my money.  Incidentally, this type of thing may also explain why my Chinese students are quicker than my American students in doing mental calculations like the one required by this sign.  Americans do two calculations (take 15% of the total, then subtract it from the total), whereas Chinese do one (take 85% of the total).  If I have to do two calculations to figure out how much I have to pay, I might not bother, and just pull out the credit card.  I’ll find out how much it cost when I get the bill.