Myths Against Cantonese

This part is extracted from the interview of linguist John McWhorter on Aug 4, 2011. The caller, whom I assume that she is a native speaker of Cantonese, made some really fantastic comments that exhibit many myths of Cantonese :

  1. Cantonese is a dialect…. I love how the caller replied that Cantonese is a dialect after the linguist emphasised that she speaks three languages, which are Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
  2. Cantonese is composed of a lot of slang words. Many people even regard the whole part of Cantonese is just slang.
  3. Cantonese is humorous but with the implication that it is not serious enough.

It is so saddening and ironic that non-Cantonese have always been defenders for Cantonese while Cantonese themselves treat their mother tongue like dirt. The following is a book review of “Dictionary of Cantonese Slang” by a Hong Kong blogger:

此書由兩位絕對無想過寫粗口書教壞人的洋人學者編成,想找本地書商出版卻碰壁,因為書商覺得內容太粗鄙,最後竟然是 出名保守的新加坡的國立大學把書出版。怎麼攪的?最詳細的李小龍特輯和故宮紀錄片由日本人製作。最地道的廣東俗語要由洋人新加坡人為我們做文獻記錄。

Translation: “Local (Hong Kong) publishers regarded this dictionary as vulgar and refused to have it published. In the end, Singapore National University, which is notorious for being conservative, published it. What the hell are we doing? The most detailed documentaries of Bruce Lee and Forbidden City are produced by the Japanese. The most authentic Cantonese slang is recorded by foreigners.”

I don’t think the prejudice against Cantonese can be change. Certainly, the hearts of the native speakers are the most important factor. However, the strong pressure of Mandarin just brings more prejudices against Cantonese. Couples of years ago, I saw a book called “Get Talking Chinese“, which is a Mandarin learning book for children, says the following about Cantonese:

IMAGINE THAT!!!!!!!!

IMAGINE THAT! IMAGINE THAT! IMAGINE YOU WERE BEING SPIT!
Anyway, back to the topic. Hong Kong Cantonese arguably has only six tones. However, no matter how many tones you think Cantonese has, the fact is that the extra three tones of Cantonese, which are syllables that end with consonants p, t, and k , is a feature of Middle Chinese. Mandarin has fewer tones because it doesn’t have consonant p, t, and k at the end of the syllable. That means the “extra difficulty” of Cantonese can bring people towards a fuller appreciation of Sinitic languages. For instance, the character “合” , to combine,  is “hap6”  in Cantonese and “he2” in Mandarin. The final “p” in Cantonese closes the lips and therefore matches with the meaning of “to combine”. How is Cantonese a dialect of Mandarin when Mandarin learning book writers are so keen on blackening the name of Cantonese when the fact that the difficulty of Cantonese equates to the fuller understanding of their so-called “Chinese”?! They just beat their own culture to praise Mandarin!

5 comments

  1. Right on my man!

  2. the author of the book must be a brainwashed mainlander

  3. Kieran Maynard · · Reply

    Great candid comments. I’m with you there! Whether Cantonese is a dialect or not… it just doesn’t matter; Cantonese preserves a lot of fantastic remnants of old Chinese that are totally lost in Mandarin. Just a quick comparison of Korean hanja pronunciations and Cantonese shows that they are much closer than Korean and Mandarin.

    No idea where “eight tones” comes from, but I’ve heard that, too. There are only six… Counting the “entering tones” as tones is ridiculous from the perspective of modern linguistics. Plus, Cantonese has two very distinct rising tones, a falling tone that barely moves, and four flat tones. Way easier than Mandarin, where everyone has trouble pronouncing the third tone correctly.

  4. Kieran Maynard · · Reply

    Sorry, I meant three flat tones, or four if you count the falling tone as a flat tone. Great article!

  5. There is also a psycholinguistic study to support that there are only 6 tones in Cantonese.
    Please check out this article (http://www.patrickchu.net/uploads/9/0/5/3/9053324/2011_plrt_paper.pdf)

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