Hong Kong, after the uproar over the Education Department’s denial and alteration of the past in regards to the historic event of the Transfer of Sovereignty in 1997, is once again caught in another furore over Hong Kongers’ identity. This time, it is about our cultural-linguistic identity, when the Education Department uploaded an article (http://www.edb.gov.hk/attachment/tc/curriculum-development/kla/chi-edu/resources/primary/pth/jisi4_24.pdf) by a Chinese pseudo-academic that denied the Cantonese language being the “mother tongue” of Hong Kongers.
This pseudo-academic, Song Xin Qiao, is a professional consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Putonghua Education. According to Hong Kong’s Ben Au-Yeung (a Doctor of Philosophy specialising in the Cantonese language), Song holds no academic degree in linguistics but was arguing that Hong Kong’s “true mother tongue” is the Han Language. Song’s argument is that one’s “mother tongue” is not what one parents’ speaks but what their ethnicity speaks as a whole, and being a supporter of the Chinese people as being of one ethnicity, Song argued that Putonghua (known globally as Mandarin) therefore is Hong Kongers’ “mother tongue” and not Cantonese.
The term “mother tongue” is placed within quotation marks because technically it is a misnomer. In layman’s term, it denotes the language that we, our parents, and their parents grew up with, but Hong Kong being a multi-ethnic city-state meant that there are many “mother tongues” in addition to Cantonese. For example, some Hong Kongers’ parents or grandparents spoke Hakka, Hokkien or Teochew (the most famous example of this one being the tycoon Li Ka Shing), while others whose parents were raised in other parts of the world spoke Hindi, Malay, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and even English to name a few. So saying China’s Putonghua or the Cantonese language is Hong Kongers’ “mother tongue” is incorrect, in that both are ethnocentric designations that denied the legitimate existence of other Hong Kongers. Unlike the populist reaction to the article, Wan Chin has said it best that Cantonese should not be defined as Hong Kong’s “mother-tongue” but should instead be referred to as being Hong Kong’s official language.
However, the purpose of this article is not to argue in regards to whether Cantonese is Hong Kong’s “mother-tongue”, but rather to argue against Song’s assertion that Cantonese is “only a dialect of Chinese”.
Etymology of “Dialect”
In the written Chinese language, the word “dialect” is translated as “the local colloquial language”. For a proper understanding of the term, however, one should look back at linguistic roots of the word, as the term itself did not originate in the East but in the West. Words in the English language are often derived from ancient Greek and the word “dialect” came from the ancient Greek word “dialektos” (meaning discourse, or “through which I speak”), and from this ancient Greek word we have words such as “dialect” and “dialogue”. Therefore, a dialect is the medium through which discourse is conducted and thus the word “dialect” can be synonymous with the word “language”. Hence, a dialect is nothing more than the language employed by a people through which discussion could be had, and not what the Chinese would have people believe that a “dialect” is an inferior linguistic subgroup of a larger, broader language. In this sense, Cantonese is a language that had been reduced to a colloquial state but it is a language in its own right nonetheless.
In addition to an etymological understanding of what the Cantonese language is, there is also a historical and linguistic way to define the Cantonese language. Linguistic classifications are based on similarities in phonetic, morphological and syntactical structures of the languages involved. According to linguistic studies, Cantonese and Mandarin both belong to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic category. Yet while both belong to the same linguistic family, the Sino-Tibetan languages are further sub-divided, and Cantonese is classified as part of the Yue family of languages, whereas Mandarin belongs to another category altogether. In the historical point of view, the relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin is akin to that of the Romance Languages.
Historic Look at Cantonese
What are called the Romance Languages are modern European languages that are derived from Vulgar Latin, a non-standard form of Roman Latin that was employed throughout the ancient Roman Empire. Latin Proper was what the people of Rome wrote and spoke, but as with all empires, the language of the conqueror would spread alongside its military conquests due to the conquering nation’s need to establish its own bureaucracy to maintain its subjugation over the conquered. This bureaucracy would comprise of not only true blue Romans but also the local people who were taught to use Latin in everyday communication. Over the span of Rome’s conquest of those areas, the local people would slowly incorporate Latin into their own language, but since Latin is not their native tongue, the language would end up being bastardised into a nonstandard form which is now defined as Vulgar Latin.
When the Roman Empire fell under Visigoth invasion, the use of Vulgar Latin have been ingrained into the formerly conquered people, and due to the vastness of the Roman Empire, each region’s form of Vulgar Latin would have its own little quirks that later merged with the local native language to form a completely new language, thus forming what are now called Romance Languages. In the Italian Peninsula where the Roman Empire first arose, the Goths destroyed Rome, and the Roman populace dispersed. This led to the eventual extinction of Latin, but elements of the language continue to exist in Italian.
Over in the Orient, the situation had been similar. What is now known as “Old Chinese” was first written and spoken prior to the historic Spring and Autumn Period by peoples from the various kingdoms along the Yellow River valley and delta area, spread by the same process that saw Latin as the lingua franca throughout Europe. By the time of the Spring and Autumn Period and then the Warring States Period, this Old Chinese had evolved into what is now called “Classical Chinese”, the written form of which have lasted to modern times, due to the first Qin Emperor’s linguistic genocide of other forms of writings that had existed at the time. At the time of the Qin, colonists were sent towards to Canton area to set up an outpost, which brought their languages to the area just as the Romans did in Europe.
Academically, it has been discovered that Old Chinese shares similarities with the native languages of the South that were the precursors of languages such as Burmese and Vietnamese, thus the former would have been easily adopted by the native people of the Canton area, who share a common ancestry with what will later become the Vietnamese people, albeit with some corruption of Old Chinese with influence from the native languages. Over time, the Sino civilisation was invaded by other from the west and the north which saw Northern and Central Asian languages mixed with Old Chinese to form what is now known as Middle Chinese, most widely used during the Tang Empire whose dynastic monarchs were of Turkic ancestry rather than the Seven Nations (the main kingdoms which existed prior to the unification under Qin) which later constituted the Han peoples. Upon further invasions from the north and the west, people continue to pour into the south, carrying their languages and cultures with them. Thus it is academically confirmed that Sino languages such as Hokkien and Hakka have preserved linguistic elements from Old Chinese, and Cantonese has preserved elements from Middle Chinese as well. In the north, however, Middle Chinese was further bastardised by northern languages to form what is known as Old Mandarin, first used around the Mongol conquest of the former northern territories of the Sino Civilisation.
The Sino Civilisation became nearly extinct upon the complete conquest of the Song Empire by the Mongols, although remnants tried to revive it during the Ming Empire but much of it had been lost, just as the Roman Empire tried to revive under the Byzantine banner but much of Roman culture had been lost. And just like the Roman civilisation, the conquered Sino civilisation saw remnants of its languages and cultures spread throughout its former dominion, but as with the former conquered nations under Rome, the peoples left behind by the Sino Civilisation went on their own ways to establish their own language and cultures derived from their former conquerors.
Spanish to Italian as Cantonese is to Putonghua
Spanish is an example of the Romance Languages as Spain had been one of the foremost colonies of ancient Rome since the time of Julius Caesar. In Rome itself, as mentioned earlier, the people had dispersed upon Visigoth conquest, and Latin slowly was forgotten as people had to adjust to the language of their conqueror. The Visigoths would naturally try to use Latin themselves to legitimise themselves to the Romans, but they would also naturally bastardise Latin with elements of Visigoth language such as mispronunciations and syntactical errors. What the world ended up with is Italian. However, it would be preposterous to suggest that Spanish is a variant of Italian, right?
Likewise, when the Jurchen, Mongols and Manchurians conquered the northern dominions of the Sino civilisation, they would try to use Middle Chinese to legitimise their rule, but would end up corrupting the language as the conquerors’ were of a different linguistic family altogether. The process of bastardisation would be something akin to many Asians trying to speak English, where their inability to curl their tongues whilst talking render them unable to pronounce the ‘R’ sound properly and end up pronouncing it with the ‘L’ sound. So Middle Chinese up in the north and central areas eventually became Mandarin, similar to how the bastardisation of Latin in Italy became Italian.
Yet unlike Europe, much of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese were preserved in the south where the invaders were perhaps not as widespread. As a result, southern languages such as Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien became living linguistic fossils. These languages share the same written form, again due to the first Qin Emperor’s “unification” of writing systems, but they are as different from Mandarin in the same way that Spanish is different from Italian. However, Chinese today is saying Cantonese is merely a variant of Mandarin and not a language in its own right. By their “logic” then, Spanish is a mere variant of Italian.
What a load of bulldust!