Cantonese is a Language rather than a Dialect - Dr. Cantonese
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Cantonese is a Language rather than a Dialect

Cantonese is a Language rather than a Dialect

According to the Basic Law of Hong Kong, the official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English, but it is not specified whether the spoken form of Chinese is Cantonese or Putonghua (Mandarin). Nonetheless, Cantonese is definitely Hong Kong’s de facto official spoken language.  In accordance with various non-political definitions in linguistics, Cantonese is a language instead of a dialect. China calls Cantonese a dialect simply because China has power. On the other hand, according to “one country, two systems” as stipulated in the Basic Law, Hong Kong does not have to follow China in its language policy.

Since Britain took over Hong Kong in 1842, the language used in official or public occasions (e.g., court, Legislative Council, school, radio, television) has been either English or Cantonese. And the mother tongue of most Hongkongers has been Cantonese. So Cantonese must be the de facto spoken language of Hong Kong.

According to Noam Chomsky (1987), language refers to “an individual phenomenon, a system represented in the mind/brain of a particular individual”. The Hong Kong linguist, Sze-Wing Tang (2014), therefore, thinks that from the point of view of systemic integration, Cantonese is also an independent language.

According to Bernhard Gröschel (2009), Snježana Kordi? (2010), if two speeches are mutually intelligible or comprehensible, then they are variations of the same languages; otherwise, they are two languages, just like French, German and Italian, all derivatives of the Romance language family (Norman 1988:187). Now, it is a fact that Cantonese speakers who have never learned Mandarin cannot communicate with Mandarin speakers who have never learned Cantonese.  So Cantonese and Mandarin (Putonghua) are two different languages.

According to Titi-tudorancea Encyclopedia, many historical linguists view any speech form as a dialect of the older medium of communication from which it developed. Cantonese has a history of three thousand years while Putonghua, even counting Nanjing government language, has a history of only a few hundred years. So Cantonese cannot possibly be a dialect in relation to Putonghua. The other way round may be more sensible.

According to the Columbia University linguist, Zoe Lam (2015), there are around 0.1 billion Cantonese speakers all over the world. By contrast, the population of many European countries is far less than 0.1 billion. For example, Finland has a population of five million. How can Cantonese possibly be a dialect?

In reality, in the last five thousand years, there had never been a universal spoken language in China until the Chinese Communist Party took over China. And as aforementioned, every province, every county, and even every village in China had used their own unique mother tongue in school and in everyday life for five thousand years. What facilitated communication among various places in China and inheritance of orthodox culture was written classical Chinese rather than any national spoken language.

The sociolinguist Max Weinreich has a famous quote, a “language” is often “a dialect with an army and a navy”. (In Mainland China, Putonghua is called language while Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Chiuchow, etc., are called dialect.) According to the “one country, two systems” stipulation in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, Cantonese is supposed to continue to be the de facto official spoken language of Hong Kong.

Learn Cantonese and you will grasp the 3000-year-old beauty of classical China.

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