There are people outside of Hong Kong who think that Hong Kong is a part of China like it is actually a part of China.  For instance, I have a friend who posted a picture of the awe-inspiring skyline of Hong Kong Island, and above it the status read: “I am in China!”  I also have friends asking me on Messenger, “How’s life in China?” Sure, geo-politically, Hong Kong is indeed part of China.  Culturally, however, many Hong Kongers proudly identify themselves as non-Chinese.  Ever since the takeover, the Hong Kongers have been desperately trying to maintain their identity by fighting to keep Cantonese in the public arena.  Many Hong Kongers are resentful of the Mainland Chinese speaking Mandarin and trying to impose on them.  In previous posts, Wes and I had discussions about how Big Beijing try to assimilate an area by reducing the local language to a mere dialect.  Today, I experienced a Hong Konger’s passive aggressive attempt to maintain his cultural and linguistic identify in a rather perverse, but in some ways, charming, manner.

It was pouring rain after Thomas and I had lunch at this crazy spicy noodle place in Sham Shui Po. Since I didn’t have an umbrella, I decided to buy one at the Circle K at the end of the block.  I walked into the little cramped store, and there was a young man working at the counter.

In Mandarin, I asked, “Do you sell umbrellas?” I learned very quickly when I first started to work in Sham Shui Po that people’s English ability is limited in this neighbourhood.  In fact, many looked relieved when I switched from English to Mandrain.   As a result, I automatically speak Mandrain when I conduct my daily business during the work hours.

The young man working at the counter looked to be in his early 20’s.  He  looked at me as I was speaking to him, and he nodded his head ever so lightly.

“How much is it?”

He mumbled something in Cantonese under his breath.  I shook my head and gave him a quizzical look.  He looked up and without looking at me, repeated what he had said previously in an annoyed, louder tone, as if my presence was bothering him.  I’ve had this experience with other Hong Kongers; they seem to believe that by speaking louder, this imperial language speaking fool would instantly understand what was said.

At that moment, Thomas came up closer to me.  He is a tall, good looking white guy.

“How much is it?”  I said, in English this time.

The clerk noted Thomas’ presence.  “The big one is $49 and the small one is $42.” He spoke back to me in English, his tone audibly calmer and more pleasant.

“May I see them?”

He turned around and bent down to reach the cupboard  to fetch the umbrellas.  He then put them down on the counter for me to inspect.

“I will take this one.” I said as I pointed to the small umbrella.

As I was groping around my bag for my wallet, the clerk carefully cut off the tag on the umbrella for me.  Then I gave him some money and he gave me the change.

“Thanks” I said as I picked up the umbrella from the counter, and walked out the store with Thomas behind me.

I opened my brand new Circle K umbrella as I stepped out into the rain.

“Did that just happen?” Thomas asked.

I laughed.  “Yup, it sure did.”

My lazy unwillingness to learn Cantonese had made me appear to be a Mainlander speaking the imperialistic language imposing on the local population.   Next time, I better greet the store clerk with, “M’goi.” Then I can speak whichever language I want without coming across as an imperialistic fool.


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?

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.