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?


10 thoughts on “Do Hong Kong People Speak a Language?

  1. Pingback: Cantonese is just a dialect… or is it? | Whimsical Weltschmerz
  2. i cant say i can grasp the whole passage. i used to take on the notion that cantonese is only one of the major regional dialects under the chinese language umbrella sharing the same(to a rough extent) writing system. in this respect, chinese language is as opposed to non-chinese language such as tibetan, mongolian, japanese. but then any dialect is rightfully a language, as any dog is rightfully a mammal.

    as much as the universal aspiration for equality is called for, one key characteristics of civilization is the differenciation of class with different value attachment and the general aspiration for moving upward on the social ladder. to ones liking or not, i think in reality similar differenciation of value attachment also applies to different languages, dialects and accents. in a general impression of the reality, cantonese the dialect/language/accent and its relevant culture has always been viewed with less appreciation by other non-cantonese speaking chinese throughout chinese history. this is also why guangzhou was made the open port for foreign trade back in ming and qing dynasty(a few hundred years ago) because it was viewed as dispensible. guangdong was also made the first guinea pig for china’s economic reform starting in 1980, giving guangdong a headstart in economic affluence but such affluence has been overtaken by the shanghai delta in the last decade once the central authority decided to shift its focus.

    cantonese came into being becoz of the adoption of the spoken chinese from central china by the indigenous people living in the guangdong area after the area being conquered by the first chinese emperor 2000yrs ago. the language is a blend of ancient central chinese with distinctive indigenous accent and expressions. to the many chinese from places of more established civilization such as central china, cantonese is viewed as basterdized form of chinese. this is in a way similar to how ebonics is viewed as improper english by the mainstream english world.

    good or bad, human do differentiate and therefore discriminate. thats probably karma.

  3. “cantonese the dialect/language/accent and its relevant culture has always been viewed with less appreciation by other non-cantonese speaking chinese throughout chinese history. this is also why guangzhou was made the open port for foreign trade back in ming and qing dynasty(a few hundred years ago) because it was viewed as dispensible. guangdong was also made the first guinea pig for china’s economic reform starting in 1980”

    Interesting revisionist history, this may be what they teach in China, but it’s not exactly the history generally accepted by the international community. As I understand it, the UK won the Opium Wars, and as a result China was not able to dictate the terms of the peace treaty; it was the other way around in fact. The UK chose Hong Kong (generally regarded as a useless, infertile rock, precisely because it was near the mouth of the Pearl River, thereby giving the UK trade access to the richest, most important trading city in China, Guangzhou (known as Canton at the time). Similar story for why the Portuguese wanted Macau, and why the Arabs had traders in Guangzhou in the centuries before.

    You make a lot of historical statements that I can’t find references for on the internet. I’m wondering if you could please share your sources with us. It seems like your information might have the same origin as the “Cantonese is not a language” meme, something I have been similarly unable to find the origin of.

  4. And of course, Deng Xiaoping chose to locate the first Special Economic Zone in Guangdong (creating Shenzhen) because it was close to Hong Kong, which had an economic/political system that had allowed Chinese people to get much more benefit out of their dynamic culture than the oppressive, authoritarian system in China, and as a result HK was way ahead of the Mainland in terms of development of human capital (as it still is today). So Deng knew that if he put a Special Economic Zone next to HK, the HK factories would relocate there because of the potential for exploiting Chinese poverty, thereby lowering labor costs, while still benefiting from the logistics being handled by the more educated HK people (the arrangement that continues to this day). The idea that he was sacrificing Guangdong (by making it relatively prosperous) because it wasn’t valued is a new idea that I haven’t come across. Where did you hear this?

  5. First about how hk came to economic prominence. Surely it is much to the credit of British’s rule. But then how many other British colonies in Asia and Africa have also prospered like Hong Kong if the administration system is the only key? India srilanca had been under British rule for much longer than hk and became independent around same time as PRC was founded 60yrs ago and has adopted more of democratic system as opposed to China’s more oppressive system, are they doing better than china? Filipinne was the first few to adopt western system in Asia, but I think it’s government is even more corrupt than china.

    Hk’s economic boom had much more to do with benefiting from China’s misfortune. Hk’s population increase sharply between 1940-50s with influx of immigrants from war torn china. The change of power also drove a group of affluent families mainly from the shanghai delta to hk. They brought along with them capital and business know how. The influx set the stage for hk’s economic boom in 1960-70s. At the same time, China adopted 30 years of close door policy to indulge in ideology pursuit which led to stagnant economic development. Hk was the only channel for trading exchanges between china and the west legally and illegally. For example The famous Fok family got rich by smuggling weapons for china. The tension between the Taiwan strait also helped money pour into hk. In all, hk was blessed with good luck which was based on China’s misfortune. But luck is the coincidence of many events and such coincidence is most unlikely to repeat. China started to adopt economic reform 30 yrs ago and hk’s prominence is slowly losing its charm by comparison with cities like Shanghai and Beijing and that tendency will only continue in gaining momentum as china continues its open connection with the rest of the world. That’s situation back on the track of norm.

    The British system and the economic affluence do help draw in human capital for Hong Kong but the best chinese brains are still in central china. Education and more international exposure help smart up hk ppl but hk’s average IQ is only 107 whereas Shanghai is at 112 and even Zhejiang province(including both urban and rural) is also higher at 110. Average East Asian IQ is about 105. I came across some older provincial IQ data before, Guangdong guangxi hainan these cantonese speaking area always are listed near the low end. Guangdong picked up a bit since the economic reform with lots migrant worker from other provinces came to work and settle in Guangdong.

    U r right about Guangdong’s proximity to hk being the key reason it was picked as the test field for reform. But then being a test field also means an element of “dispensable” in the consideration.

    Disrespect for cantonese by other chinese is wide spread by folk talks and small chats. If u can read chinese, go and have a read about on chinese forums. Famous scholar back 1000years ago even left poems noting cantonese people as monkey lookalike. In the old time, prisoners and condemned civil servants were sent there as punishment just like how the British shipped their convicts to Australia. Bias against cantonese ppl is very deep rooted among chinese but then of course such politically sensitive or incorrect info is probably not to be found on official sites.

    the British must have also learned to be wary of the cantonese people who has a bad reputation for their poor sense of honour, otherwise they wouldn’t have made such effort to go a long way up to the north to recruit policemen from shandong, where the people there have always enjoyed a good reputation for their great sense of honour. These policemen were put to station in the more affluent neighborhood where the expat congregated in Hong Kong. The current hk CEO Leung Cheng ying’s father was one of those policemen. He actually stationed in the governors house where his son now offices. Shandong is in the yellow river delta. Yellow river is birth place of chinese culture including the script and Taoism which is the very essense and cornerstone of chinese culture. Shandong is also home to Confucius and many great scholars and writers. By comparison, despite with a township history >2000years and human settlement >10,000 years, the cantonese area(pearl river delta) has hardly produced any notable scholars or literary work of influence to other chinese. Dr sun yat sun is merely a messenger for the western influence. With western influence taken away, pearl river delta would have mattered little in the course of chinese civilization.

    Despite being not so well regarded in china, cantonese became the representative for chinese overseas in the last couple hundred years and that again has to do with British,s landing on hk. Cantonese became the 1st group of chinese to explore overseas as they were recruited to replace the African slaves as contract labour when slavery was banned in the west and the British worked as agent. Theses cantonese actually represented the least competitive human resources in then china as chinese culturally are not migratory ppl and would not seek fortunes away from homeland unless driven desperate. The death rate of these laborer was very high.

    Emigration of the Mandarin speaking chinese only started to pick up 20 years ago. They will soon replace the cantonese to voice for china.

    Will come back another time for more

  6. As I understand it, Western influence first reached china probably around 400-500 yrs ago near late Ming dynasty. The missionaries brought over the world map for chinese to realize that china is not the centre of the world and the possibility of stronger nations out there. Chinese is probably more of a sedentary and self-contained culture if to compare with the more adventurous nomadic culture of the west. Such culture’s approach for survival would be more on the protective side. (Here perhaps i can take on turtles approach as an example. Chinese worships turtle for its longevity but also uses it as a figurative insult for being a coward. Turtle is said to have evolved very slow. It might have co-existed with dinosaur. ) chinese then decided to tighten its border and close its sea front, kind of a close door defence policy. This policy was also adopted by the later Qing dynasty for nearly 300 yrs. during this period Europeans went thru enlightment and industrial revolution. The British in particular was busy building its empire thru trade and navy fleet. The whole southern and South-Eastern Asia was pretty much under western control by 1800. The only country escaping colonial history is probably just Thailand. The west also demanded open trade with china but given the circumstance, China had every reason to be reluctant or even fearful despite China’s previous long dominance in the east might also lead to contempt from some chinese towards such demand. Besides, culturally chinese preferred to be self contained and did not value foreign trade much. By tradition, even commerce and trading business were of low rank on the social order in china. guangzhou became a trading port becoz of its proximity with the neighboring southeastern countries but it was never much valued by the central authority. The trade did make the port prosper and the people living there could be feeling fairly complacent but it was never the richest city nor a city of much influence in china before the western influence came. a lot of online info in English is influenced by western educated cantonese people and I have gathered the impression of a over-glorified cantonese history from time to time. The very reason I started digging info about the cantonese language is to do with a Canadian from Vancouver telling me her choice of learning cantonese over mandarin was becoz a hk person told her cantonese is spoken by chinese elites and is more proper chinese. Of course she much regrets that choice when she came to china to realize the opposite. She even notices facial feature differences between the general public in hk and Shenzhen and wonderred why. A bit far fetched. Back to the previous line of thought, if the British were allowed to, they surely would have wanted all the coastal ports to be open. The very reason that Guangzhou was made the only open port for the British to land and open their trading companies there is that the narrow minded central authority considered the cantonese area as dispensable. China was indeed forced to open more ports later on after losing more battles, eg Tianjin, Shanghai and wuhan. Wuhan is actually an inland port along the long river ( changjiang) which runs across central china. I came across a reading about the cargo thru wuhan already overtaking Guangzhou soon after wuhan was forced open.

    Perhaps a comparison of people’s impression of hk back in the old time could help give a clue about where Guangzhou, hk and shanghai stood in terms of status and prosperity. Dr sun yat sun is said to be very impressed by hk when he first visited the place and considered it a model for china. This happened before 1900. In the documentary “a tale of 2 cities” ( not sure if it was made by HSBC, but it’s about the downfall of shanghai and rise of hk regarding HSBC’s experiences in china), a businessman originally from shanghai recalled his impression of hk as a shabby village place when his family planned to move business from shanghai to hk when china was thru internal war between the communist and the nationalist. That’s a few decades after sun yat sun’s time.

    My comment merely represents my view about the world and history based on my exposure thru school, media and hearsay. I m open to doubt and criticism. After all, even the most prudent historian can not escape bias and the limitation of his exposure. Criticism would only help me improve.

  7. I came across a linguists perception of various eastern Asian languages. He found both cantonese and Vietnamese unpleasant to ears. To a 3rd party’s ear, cantonese actually sounds more like Vietnamese than other major dialects of chinese despite Vietnamese and cantonese do not belong to the same linguistic system.

    Cantonese ppl also look more like Vietnamese than other chinese. The following observation is by an American:

    “Regarding the superficial references….this has nothing to do with tv/movie stars. I live in San Francisco where theres a large Cantonese population and growing numbers of mainlanders. I dont deny that the lines are extremely blurry, but for the most part, its not very hard to tell the difference between Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers.

    I dont have the luxury of actually comparing the features of people in China. I can only base my assumptions on those who migrate to my area. Those who speak Mandarin have a look much more similar to Koreans and Japanese compared to their Cantonese counterparts. Those in the North tend to have larger nose and noseridges, more of a “white” skin color, small slanted eyes and taller in height… As for the Cantonese people, for the most part, there are a mixture of “pure” Chinese blood and tribes of South Asia or a more malayan look”

    Reluctance to be associated with cantonese is also reflected by how some ppl from Guangdong specifically stress they are from chaozhou or they are Hakka. Chaozhou locates near the northeastern border of Guangdong adjoining to fujian and jiangxi province. People there speak a dialect more related to fujian’s minnan dialect. Many of the families there moved from central china probably back in Ming dynasty bcoz of war or famine. Harry lee kwang yew, Lee Ka sing both have root there. Hakka is a more recent group also from central china( probably in Qing dynasty). Most of them scatter around the more mountainous area in Guangdong. This group in particular is reluctant to marry the cantonese native. Hakka literally means guest family in chinese. It’s said some small Hakka villages only started to socially interact with neighboring cantonese village as late as 1990s. There used to be quite some conflicts between the different groups. In a general impression, Chaozhou ppl and Hakka ppl are more like the chinese in central china in terms of height, facial features and skin complexion.

    The following complaint was posted by a cantonese:

    “I find that other Chinese, especially Mandarin-speaking people have a lot of negative stereotypes about us Cantonese people.

    For example, they say we eat all sorts of rubbish and caused SARS, are ugly, short and dark etc. I swear I have never eaten cat before.

    Anyway, I’m starting to have a complex about it and starting to hate other Chinese people, especially northerners. Especially we are getting more and more immigrants from other parts of China here, they don’t speak Cantonese and they don’t like us.They even look down on us.

    What do other Cantonese people think? What should we do? Can you think about any good things about being Cantonese (other than Guangdong province being rich)?

    Nowadays, to say ‘u don’t look like cantonese’ to a cantonese (especially girls) has even become a subtle compliment.

    Hk and Guangdong s recent economic affluence in the last few decades has led cantonese ppl to develop a false sense of betterment towards other poorer chinese. They need a remind of the reality.

    • Yes, Cantonese and Vietnamese are related in ancient time. The name ‘Viet’ (越) is synonomous in Cantonese to ‘Yuet’ (粵) which actually means Cantonese. In fact, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771B.C. – 256 B.C.) the people who lived in the south are called Bak-yuet (百越) (Bai-yue in Mandarin), they reside in modern day Fujian, Guangdong and Guanxi province and Vietnam. So we do share the same origin. Modern research confirm that Baiyue belongs to the Austronesian that resides in SE Asia, Taiwan, Australia and Pacific Islands are coming from the same strand of DNA haplogroup. While another strand of DNA haplogroup migrates north into Mongolia, then south to Northern China, Korea and Japan.

      But then there are many times in the history that Han tribes move to the south to escape from invasion by nomadic tribes from the North. And thus they have mixed with local Baiyue. Cantonese develops from Middle Chinese in Tang and Song dynasty and retained a lot of linguistic traces of Middle Chinese. Vietnamese split with Cantonese, although they borrowed Chinese words, their grammar and basic structures are closer to other south east asian languages. Mongolian and Manchurian occupation has affected the development of Mandarin in the north. Thus I would say none of us can claim to be purely “Chinese”, neither in terms of DNA or language. So it’s not a matter about good or bad, or who is more Chinese. I think the most important thing is, it is important to respect regional differences, rather than blindly enforcing one language (Mandarin) and tries to eliminate the others.

      • And I would say although Korean and Northern Chinese do look similar, Japanese looks quite different. Being in an isolated group of islands, they have developed a much different language and culture. Korean, Japanese, Mongolian and Turkish languages all belong to the Altaic language family, they share the same sentence structure and linguistic characteristics. Both Korean and Japanese borrowed many Chinese words, but their grammar is very different from Chinese.

  8. Pingback: An Open Letter to the CCP Concerning Press Freedom in HK | Whimsical Weltschmerz

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