I have recently heard the lamentations of a Canadian whose children’s Cantonese class is due to shut down due to lack of enrolment.  This, to me, is very sad, but predictable.  Firstly, mainland emigrants are becoming more and more prevalent in previously Hong Kong and Guangzhou-dominated Chinatowns, whereas many Hong Kongers have returned to Hong Kong.  Secondly, even among Hong Kongers, there is a notion that Mandarin is more practical to learn, especially for business purposes.

First of all, I want to emphasize that while Cantonese and Mandarin belong to same Sinitic language family, they are separate languages.  In Cantonese one might ask 「你哋今日去咗邊度?」 whereas in Mandarin they might ask「你們今天去了哪裡?」 instead (both mean “Where did you (plural) go today?”).  So as you can see, the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin go way beyond pronounciation; even the vocabulary is different.

Mandarin was in fact the standard written style for only a century or so.  Before, Chinese was written in a style called Classical Chinese, which had remained largely unchanged since the days of Confucius, but had no relation to the way any modern Chinese spoke.  When the change finally happened, it was great for those whose written language now resembled their spoken language, but for many others (not just speakers of Cantonese), it was no different from an English speaker changing his written language from German to Dutch.

Despite the vast variation between different Sinitic languages, when most people outside China or Hong Kong think about Chinese, they only think about Mandarin.  This is because of the central government’s success at promoting Mandarin as the “one true Chinese” everywhere but in Guangdong.  Even there, Cantonese is in danger.  In 2010, the Chinese government tried to promote the increased use of Mandarin in Guangdong television programming, leading to the following scenes:

File:Cantonese speak Cantonese poster.png

“Guangdong people speak Guangdong speech. Those who can’t understand, go back to your home villages!”

File:2010-07-25 Guangzhou mass assembly.jpg

Even as Beijing attacks Cantonese in Guangdong, the language is still alive and kicking in Hong Kong.  The two major local television companies both broadcast primarily in Cantonese, Cantonese is still the medium of instruction in schools (albeit using Mandarin grammar), and internet forums are full of colorful Cantonese expressions that would make even sailors blush.  But can a language survive if it is only used locally?  Only time will tell.

I think if Cantonese is to thrive, it first needs to lose its status as a “low” form of Chinese.  That includes the acceptance of written Cantonese as mainstream, the return of Cantonese songs like the Sam Hui songs of yesteryear (as opposed to Mandarin-grammar Cantonese), and the idea that one learns language not just to communicate with business tycoons from the north but as part of one’s own culture.



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