Local languages vital for China’s resilience

12.11.2015 - Tony Henderson

Local languages vital for China’s resilience
Chatting together at a Taoist Temple in Fanling (Image by Tony Henderson)

HK Magazine reporter Adrienne Chum penned an article titled: So You Think You Know Cantonese? in the October 14 issue this year, which tells of translator and etymologist Dr. Chapman Chen’s book, A Comprehensive Dictionary of Orthodox Cantonese Characters and Phrases. The book explores the history of Cantonese in use today, and the author informs the magazines Hong Kong readership of the elegance of the language and the need to keep things local.

Chapman Chen says that the Cantonese language has about 3,000 years of history… “so I’m making a comprehensive dictionary with about 1,500 entries. The purpose of the dictionary is to prove that Cantonese is an elegant language—rather than a colloquial dialect, as Beijing claims. Many Cantonese phrases come from Chinese classics. They have an extremely ancient origin, so the correct written forms are often forgotten. Modern Cantonese speakers have invented informal characters for them, which look uncouth. The dictionary will show the correct way to write them.”

Dr Chen says Cantonese reflects orthodox Chinese culture, and is a carrier of Hong Kong’s identity and that Hong Kong is to China what Ukraine is to Russia. Telling it straight he also says Putonghua is an artificial language imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, not a naturally evolved language.

He was inspired to put the book together because he had already noted that some Hongkongers are trying to preserve Cantonese, just as the Scots are trying to preserve their language, and the Barcelonans are trying to preserve Catalan, he adds.

“Putonghua is actually the colloquial language while Cantonese inherited final consonants from Tang Dynasty speech, so reading old poems in Cantonese sounds much better, more musical. Putonghua doesn’t have these sounds.”

Concerning possible pressure for Hong Kong to switch from Cantonese to Putonghua, Dr Chen opines: “The government says they don’t force schools to teach Putonghua, but provides many millions of dollars to support Putonghua education. The Education Bureau encourages schools to teach Chinese classes in Putonghua and to adopt it as the medium of instruction—schools get subsidies.”

The article also speaks of Linguist Robert Bauer who conducted a study on the subject and he estimates that in 10 years, Cantonese will become a sub-class and sub-culture language, similar to how it is in Guangdong.

Clarifying, Dr Chen says… “there is no problem with learning Putonghua, but we are against using it as the medium of instruction. We need to educate parents too: Some parents think that learning Putonghua as the main language will give their kids an advantage in academics or when looking for work, but it’s not true. We need to give priority to and protect local interests.

On the sometimes touchy issue of Cantonese as a language or a dialect question Dr Chen says, “it’s definitely a language, not a dialect.” He collaborates with cultural preservation charity C for Culture.

For the full article in HK Magazine go to: http://hk-magazine.com/city-living/article/so-you-think-you-know-cantonese


Categories: Asia, Education
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