A Very Brief Introduction to Cantonese
Dr. Cantonese (Chapman Chen, Ph.D.)
Cantonese is one of the most elegant, time-honored and sophisticated languages on Earth. With a history of at least three thousand years, and still being spoken by 0.1 billion people all over the world, it is a living fossil of orthodox Chinese culture, organically combining the ancient Pak Yuet language, classical Han languages, and Western loan words.
Cantonese originates from the Pak Yuet people. As early as The Spring and Autumn period (771 – 476 BC) of ancient China, the Pak Yuet people and language began to come into contact with Han peoples and languages. Ever since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Central Han China had often been invaded by “barbarian” tribes from the North, which drove the Han people to migrate from Central China to Southern China as the periphery, and merge with the Pak Yuet people there genetically and linguistically, gradually giving rise to Cantonese as a mature language.
Owing to generations of separation by passes, fortresses, and mountains, Canton and Hong Kong have remained relatively unpolluted by Northern barbarians so that the periphery has actually retained classical Han pronunciation, classical Han characters, classical Han phrases, classical Han grammar, classical Han style, and, ultimately, orthodox Chinese culture, which gradually became lost in the centre. Throughout the dynasties, due to persecution by the Central Government, intellectuals moved from Central China to Canton and Hong Kong, which have thus produced revolutionaries like Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
During Britain’s 150-year reign of Hong Kong, Cantonese was conserved rather than ruined, and it developed sturdily, absorbing Western loan words and concepts, and became together with English the de facto official spoken languages of Hong Kong. However, many Cantonese words and phrases are so old that their correct forms of writing are often forgotten, and some Hongkongers have invented informal characters for them, giving them a provincial and uncouth look. In view of this, I have compiled the Elegant Cantonese Dictionary (????), Part I (2016) and Part II (forthcoming), in order to trace the exquisite and vintage origins of Cantonese words and phrases. On the other hand, as a consequence of the Chinese Communist Party’s national policy of replacing all Han languages with Putonghua (which has a history of three to four hundred years at the most) as the medium of instruction at schools in China, China Cantonese has been declining rapidly since 1949.
Learn Cantonese and you will grasp the 3000-year-old beauty of classical China with Western characteristics.