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.


11 thoughts on “Cantonese is just a dialect… or is it?

  1. You seem to be saying by essentially ‘downgrading’ a language to a dialect, is the first step in essentially ‘cultural cleansing’, and ultimately language death . We have seen this to a certain extent in the UK with Cornish and Welsh. Unesco’s director general, Koichiro Matsuura, said: “The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes.”The UN have set up an atlas to show the location on endangered and vulnerable languages

  2. However, just throwing this out there, but as Cantonese doesn’t have a distinct written form that is different from Mandarin can it truly be a language?

    • Hi Mark, the difference between a language and a dialect is that people speaking two different dialects are mutually intelligible, while Mandarin and Cantonese are NOT mutually intelligible. The difference is not only pronunciation, but also grammar, choice of words and order of words. In fact, I would say the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is bigger than the difference between Spanish and Portuguese, or German and Dutch. I have a Portuguese friend who affirmed me that she can understand 70% or more when someone speaks in Spanish. That is not the case when a Mandarin speaker talks with a Cantonese speaker. Probably s/he can only understand 5-10%, depending on how much s/he has acquainted with the other language. Cantonese and Min-nan are directly inherited from Middle Chinese (used in Tang and Song dynasty) and Old Chinese (used in Han dynasty or earlier) respectively. Mandarin is developed much later, probably after Mongolian occupation in 13th century. So Cantonese, Min-nan and Mandarin should be regarded as separate languages of the Chinese language family, rather than Cantonese and Min-nan being dialects of Mandarin.

      To understand this, we must first understand that Chinese is actually not just one language, but a family of languages. We must distinguish writing system from language. English and Italian share the same set of alphabets, but that doesn’t make them the same language. Written Chinese are developed from ideograms, that the symbols doesn’t always suggest the pronunciation, so the pronunciation and grammar can be so diverse among different regions. Another example of such a macro-language is Arabic. People in Morocco and people in Iraq may use the same Arabic alphabets, but because unstressed vowels are often not notated in Arabic script, the same word would be pronounced very differently across Islamic countries. So instead of calling them dialects, it is much more accurate to call them languages.

  3. Languages do not have to be written, most human languages have probably never been written down. The vast majority of languages that are written imported their writing system from other languages. A good example is English, which has sounds that aren’t very well represented by its alphabet leading to awkward and irregular spelling, because the alphabet was taken, unchanged, from the Romans.

    Cantonese and Taiwanese Mandarin use the same Traditional Chinese Characters (but the two mutually unintelligible spoken languages use different grammar, even when written). True, they use the same script. And why is one a language and the other not? And how do you choose which one gets to be called a language, and which one gets this inexplicably inferior status? Just because Mao and the Guomindang said so?

    • true, many languages do not come together with written scipts but that cerntainly renders these languages a disadvantage thus less influencial than those with a written form. experiences(history) and great ideas(imagination) can be spread far and broad geographically and across time if they can be recorded in writing.

      human settlement in the guangdong area can be tracked back >10,000years ago yet none of the indigenous tribes had developed any writing system therefore there is no recorded history of the area till 2000years ago when guangdong was conquerred and included into the chinese border. chinese language was brought in by the chinese troups. cantonese is a blend of chinese and local languages with the writing in chinese but the spoken form much influenced by the indigenous accent and way of expressions, just like many hk ppl speak english with distinctive cantonese accent and way of expressions despite being in a much more resourceful english learning enviroment facilitated by multi-media.

      korea and japanese also imported chinese for recording but both countries had managed to develop their own scripts later on. i think being able to develop an efficient script from ones own culture is a reflection of the group’s collective mental power and subsequently its potential of cultural influence to others. among many other things, japanese has asserted great influence on the development of the modern chinese language back 100years ago. without such influence, the chinese language would have been very different today.

      vietnamese also adopted chinese script for recording in the ancient time yet their adoption was very simplistic and only phonetically based with little regard towards the actual meaning the script conveys. vietnam (same as many other south eastern nations) never manages to develop its own written script. its current written form is an adoption of the alphabet system from the west(after being colonized by the french) to record its speech phonetically.

      the current cantonese adoption of chinese script to record its speech is in many ways similar to the simplistic phonetic adoption the vietnamese did. its a corruption of the sophisticated script. its also a reflection of the simplistic mindset. this should in a way explain why there is no any notable literary work of cantonese origin that can project influence and inspiration to other chinese.

      mandarin becomes the dominant representative of the chinese language is the result of evolution. mandarin is the dialect spoken across central and northern china plain which has facilitated man flow and communication resulting in a blend of many dialects and languages(eg mongol and manchu) interacting over the course of time. during the process, the chinese language has always remained the dominant force due to the written script. the blend helps mandarin to have evolved faster than other dialects just like english has evolved faster than other european languages after taking in influences from different culture. this is in theory the same as an mind open to different opinions and influences is expected to improve faster than a narrow mind. the communist and the nationalist surely had helped speed up the spread of mandarin but their decision to push it is because mandarin was already in a leading position by comparison. Singapore’s Harry Lee Kwang Yew hates communist and singapore’s chinese population is non-mandarin speaking at time of its founding 60yrs ago but singapore also adopted mandarin as one of its official languages.

      english become the global “putonghua” is also not any single person/ party’s effort or decision.

      cantonese is a backward dialect/ language due to the warm weather and the segregation from the rest of china by big mountains. its accent is generally percieved as unpleasant to ears by other chinese and therefore has a stigmatizing effect on the speaker. from a unity point of view, a common script is a bless to china for remaining intact and reducing communicating cost and misunderstanding. a common tongue should be seen as a bless too.

      • There’s a lot of disinformation here, and I’m going to go ahead and trust that any reader with unfettered access to the internet can fact check anything they’re interested in verifying/falsifying. So let me just pick on what seems to be the crux of the argument being made here:

        “the current cantonese adoption of chinese script to record its speech is in many ways similar to the simplistic phonetic adoption the vietnamese did. ”

        English did not develop it’s own script. The script I’m writing in is called the Roman Alphabet. English uses it unaltered, which is why many sounds in English aren’t represented very well by it’s “simplistic phonetic adoption” of Roman letters. Vietnamese at least altered Roman script, made it its own, so as to better represent the language phonetically.

        “the blend helps mandarin to have evolved faster than other dialects just like english has evolved faster than other european languages after taking in influences from different culture. this is in theory the same as an mind open to different opinions and influences is expected to improve faster than a narrow mind.

        I agree that the tendency for English to evolve is due to it’s taking influences from other cultures. English is a hybrid language, not a “pure” one (whatever that means), much like the above commenter’s description of Cantonese.

        Language evolution is facilitated by accepting influence from other cultures (hence English’s faster evolution than French’s), and it is slowed down by government standardization/official status. Cantonese seems like a very fast evolving language, though I’m unclear about whether our commenter thinks evolution is good or bad, since he/she seems to be saying both at different times.

  4. Do a wiki check, u will find cantonese is described as more conservative than mandarin. Conservative is a politically correct way of saying, meaning it retains more older forms in terms of pronounciation and expression. My straight forward way of saying would be “backward”. Cantonese people also like to claim cantonese being more ancient therefore the more chinese. Ancient is just a glorifying way of playing with words. In the process of development, if ones current state of being stays at a level similar to others past, from others perspective, that’s backward. I think both the warm weather and the mountain segregation are the 2 key factors for slowing down cantonese development. Warm weather breeds complacency whereas cold weather induces a sense of insecurity or crisis thus kicks in more pressure to improve for the sake of survival. Such pressure should affect all sorts of human behavior including speech. There has been research claiming cold/ harsh enviroment improves memory and problem solving ability in birds. Segregation means reduced interaction with central china where the civilization was more established and the more affluent located.

    I think latin spinoffs like Spanish also evolves slower than English becoz of the weather. I find latin spinoffs sound more corse to ears than the Germanic line. i think Being unpleasant to ear is a backward sign for language. I can come back on the reasoning later on.

    I don’t know if there is ever a way to define the purity of a language or there is any point to it. Ebonics is a blend of English with African accent and ways of expression, if cantonese’s blending is to be cherished and aspired to, then perhaps Ebonics should be considered the modern pinnacle of English?

    I will come back on the script later. Pls bear in mind chinese script is different from the pure phonetic quality of the alphabet system for speech record.

    • You are certainly “backward” in regarding some languages are more backward than the others. In fact, Cantonese has adopted some English words in their modern language too, does it make it more “advanced”? Who say that Cantonese didn’t develop? And who say that development is always a good thing? Do you know that the same expression, which can be described in Classical Chinese in just one word, is often necessary to be explained in two or more words in Mandarin? That is because in older Chinese, there are more tones, but some of the tones disappeared in Mandarin. On the contrary, these tones are preserved in Cantonese, meaning that we can converse an idea with fewer words, that means we can be much more efficient when we converse.

      Would you regard British English as “backward” if you compare it to American English? Hey, British people still write “colour” instead of “color”, “doughnut” instead of “donut”. Please tell the Queen how backward she is.

    • Oh yes, British Empire and Hollywood movies made English a world language, but that doesn’t mean local languages should not be preserved. The issue here is NOT about learning a second language to converse with others. I have no problem about that. In fact, I speak Cantonese, Mandarin, English and German to some degree.
      The problem is that Chinese government pushes forward the domination of Mandarin and they want to wipe out the so-called “dialects”. You can compare it to how Welsh and Irish were being oppressed, how Catalan was being seen as inferior to Spanish, etc.

      What if one day everyone in the world forget his/her own language? Is French still a French if he doesn’t speak French? Do you think globalisation is always a good thing?

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