Chinese: Dialects, Topolects, or Languages?

Growing up, my idea of “Chinese” was Cantonese. As an ethnic Chinese born and raised in the States, I primarily encountered English on a regular basis outside and Cantonese at home; I rarely encountered Mandarin when I was young, or even when I did, I didn’t know it was also “Chinese.” My parents and all of their Chinese friends primarily spoke Cantonese, I attended a Chinese school that held instruction in Cantonese, and frequented a Chinatown in which most people I saw as Chinese spoke Cantonese.

Thus, identifying as “Chinese” at school and in the greater American community, Cantonese and Chinese were the same to me. I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese, I went to Chinese school and learned Chinese; in all situations, Chinese seemed synonymous for Cantonese. But perhaps I first learned of Mandarin in first grade when some classmates were also Chinese, but didn’t quite speak the same. It was much later that I learned about “Chinese” in a more general sense – the plethora of “dialects” and the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese.

In recent times, as I find myself more perceptive of people’s perspectives on “Chinese,” I have observed some young family friends (10 years old and younger) who are also American-born Chinese and their perceptions of “Chinese.” In a sense, they are more tied to their Chinese roots than me: they continued to primarily speak Cantonese with parents and schoolteachers perhaps even up to age 10 (while Cantonese was never really the main language I used) and learned Mandarin in Chinese school, additionally visiting Hong Kong quite much more frequently than me (about every other year). But moving on from their backgrounds, perhaps this is telling of Chinese people’s natural perspectives of “Chinese” – these children refer to Cantonese just as “Chinese.” If speaking about both Cantonese and Mandarin, for example, they might ask, “Does he speak Chinese or Mandarin?” In this way, with their frequent visits to Hong Kong, I feel that they have developed the concept of Hong Kong specifically (in contrast to Guangdong or the whole of China) being their ethnic “Chinese” home – where Chinese people speak Cantonese, what they perceive as “Chinese.”

Speaking from my experience and how I believe these young children perceive “Chinese,” from a non-political standpoint, it seems rather odd to deem your native tongue a mere second-class “dialect” when you feel it is a complex and complete language in itself — one you can fully express yourself in. Additionally, while being told that you are “Chinese” and speak “Chinese,” you can’t help but see little reason to make a distinction and call the “Chinese” you speak – Cantonese – something other than “Chinese.”

But in another sense, I think that our interpretations of “Chinese” reveals some disconnect between the way we think about and speak of dialects or languages in English and Chinese. In Chinese, we call Cantonese and Mandarin “方言,” which is seen as the Chinese equivalent of “dialect.” But as this academic paper, Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, suggests, “topolect” seems like a more accurate translation of “方言” and classification of “Cantonese” and “Mandarin”: regional speech. And although reading such a paper may seem like a daunting and laborious task, I would highly recommend it to those interested in thoroughly learning what we should call Chinese “dialects” and why. (Otherwise, I think the abstract (page 3) would suffice.) As a paper published about five years ago (it was published in February 2008), this paper is relatively recent; I found it in part intriguing because of its relevancy to the current(ly being molded) identity of Cantonese in Hong Kong. (In other words, you should read it.)

Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, is just one of many Sino-Platonic Papers at the University of Pennsylvania which present research centered on East Asian studies. While exploring the site, I have also found a paper more on Chinese in general: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms. Although I have yet to read this latter paper, perhaps it would be informative and suitable for those more interested in linguistics and Chinese in general (as evident, I tend to focus on information and readings primarily relevant to Cantonese).

(Yay for happy and leisurely academic readings!)


Resolving the China Infant Formula Crisis

Just thinking about the recent happenings in Hong Kong, Australia, the Netherlands, and so many places, it seems that it’s mainly Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese debating what should be done. And I too have spent some time asking myself, Are the newly-imposed restrictions on taking Hong Kong infant formula out the best way to combat such a problem? Are Hong Kong people being over-sensitive? Are mainland Chinese being over-sensitive? Is either side in the wrong, and if so, how much? (and so on.)

But when it all boils down to what’s at the core, I think the real issue about this doesn’t necessarily involve questions like,

Should Hong Kong not restrict trade? Are Hong Kong people “jealous” of mainland Chinese and discriminatory against them? Do mainland Chinese downright lack ethics? Is this evidence that mainland Chinese are coming to dominate Hong Kong little by little? Continue reading

Hong Kong News Written by Hong Kong People

It’s ridiculous how underrepresented and misrepresented Hong Kong people are in Western media. Sure, Hong Kong is no longer a British colony and is politically a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China, but just because people come to have a new political identity doesn’t mean that their views will likewise change to that of people in the state.

I don’t know how Germans felt when Germany was reunified, but anyhow, many Hong Kong people fled before 1997, fearing communist repression and many who stayed aren’t feeling the love or oneness that they supposedly should. It’s a bit different when you’re “returning” after about 100 years and when the state that you’re “returning” to evidently represses individual freedoms more than the state you formerly belonged to did. Continue reading

Online Cantonese Input Method

Something that I have found interesting about many older Cantonese speakers who do not speak Mandarin (when I refer to “Cantonese speakers” or “Mandarin speakers” later in this post, I mean those who only know Cantonese OR Mandarin, not both) is that they do not know how to type Chinese on a computer. I know quite a few Cantonese-speaking people who only lived in Hong Kong, not mainland China, before immigrating overseas to non-Cantonese-speaking communities long before computers came into use. As these Cantonese-speaking Chinese lived abroad before computer skills became necessary (or at least helpful) for life, they are unable to type in Chinese on computers; many primarily use English on the computer even as they are much more comfortable with Cantonese conversation-wise.

Some of the reasons for this are:

1. the easiest method of typing Chinese on the computer involves using Mandarin pinyin (while many former Hong Kong citizens only know Cantonese, not Mandarin);

2. alternate methods of typing Chinese involve handwriting Chinese characters on an IME recognition pad, or learning unique codes for parts (not exactly radicals) of characters, that may seem complex or time-consuming; and

3. they do not know that there is exists a method that they can use to type Chinese using Cantonese jyutping.

This third option refers to Cantonese Input, which is very helpful in allowing such Cantonese speakers easily to Chinese characters. This input method is what I would call the Cantonese equivalent of pinyin – the phonetic method that many Mandarin speakers use to type Chinese characters on the computer. For those who can reasonably relate Cantonese pronunciations of Chinese characters to their romanized jyutping equivalents, this method allows them to type on the computer using Cantonese, the language that they primarily speak and think in.

Although many have become fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin recently, for those who primarily speak Cantonese and might be unable to speak Mandarin at all, or just feel more comfortable using Cantonese for daily use (both of which describe me in certain ways), this site is extremely helpful.

But a large disadvantage about this input method could be that the lack of very standardized Cantonese romanization or the complexity of Cantonese pronunciation in general might render one unable to start typing using this method right away; it can be difficult for Cantonese speakers to use this method by sounding-out Chinese words to find their romanization, as they learned Cantonese pronunciations by hearing, not by relating romanized sounds to them as foreign-born/raised Cantonese might have.

But despite this, I think this input method is the easiest and fastest for Cantonese speakers (unless they have already perfected using another method), just as pinyin has become (what I believe is) the most widely used method to type for Mandarin speakers. Additionally, the fact that Cantonese Input is online for all those who might come across it alone makes it so pleasantly free and accessible; if  you are considering what method to use in typing Chinese, try it out!

(In case you missed the link:


I can’t help but feel that the term “Chinese” used in universities and seemingly everywhere is very centered on what the People’s Republic of China’s government has defined as “Chinese,” even as it is supposed to cover the whole political region of China in which over 1 billion people live.

If you just think about it, even if a region that is inhabited by so many people is just one political state, there is bound to be more than just one language within the region – we just conveniently simplify these languages in deeming the language of China solely “Chinese.” So why aren’t these languages called languages, but dialects? Perhaps if one attempted to draw parallels in linguistic differences among Chinese “dialects” and Western European “languages,” he might find that they were equal in distinction. But in today’s context, that doesn’t seem to mean anything: why? Because China is one political state, while western Europe is made up of numerous? I can’t help but feel a bit wronged. Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to push for Cantonese to be recognized as a distinct language, but I still feel that this distinction must be addressed for anyone who might learn “Chinese,” which most likely refers to Mandarin and simplified Chinese, the language that supposedly over 1 billion people speak as their “native” language. I feel that too many think that the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese are as simple as “Hello” and “Howdy” and one area using the term “hella” or “hecka” in conversation, with another area using the term “wicked.”

Maybe I’m just terribly afraid of the possibility that Cantonese will fade away and die with Hong Kong becoming just another city in the People’s Republic of China. And although I know that no matter how much I might wish for it, Cantonese will likely never come to be considered an actual language, I want people to know about Cantonese. How ~70 million people speak it and how interesting it is that Cantonese would flourish in Hong Kong, even as its use was never promoted by any government. How unique the situation of Cantonese is and how much of a pity it would be to see a language used by so many disappear on a state’s mere political necessity to “unify” its people. It just doesn’t seem fair, killing a language so that another might be exalted and reign supreme, especially if the possible death of such a language might currently be considered so insignificant that it wouldn’t even be found worth recording in the history books.

Research on Cantonese: Cantonese as Written Language by Don Snow

When I first wanted to learn more about Cantonese, I didn’t put much effort into searching for general research done on Cantonese; although I was interested in studying Cantonese, I would only study it if reading material on Cantonese somehow came into my possession.

Perhaps I really started to consider learning about Cantonese and Hong Kong culture when I visited Hong Kong in summer 2010. While at a bookstore, a book’s title caught my attention: Cantonese as Written Language The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. I had never encountered any book, or even any article or piece of literature, on Cantonese before. Yet while the book interested me, I only saw it in passing and decided against buying it, seeing that it cost around 300 HKD.

But a few months later, in early 2011, it resurfaced to my mind when I was thinking about buying books. And after previewing it, I had a great urge to buy it and read it. And so I did. It was the most expensive thing I had ever purchased online, and one of the only books I had ever bought in my life. And perhaps, I read this book more quickly than every other book I have read because I felt a sense of urgency to read it – I wanted to find out what the fate of Cantonese would be.

Around $50 (USD) and two years later, I don’t regret this decision. Maybe this book opened me up to learning more about Cantonese – not just the language, but its role in Hong Kong society. As, might I say, nerdy, as it sounds, after reading this book, I became more interested in reading nonfiction papers and research papers, which I try to do in my free time now.

Granted, most people probably won’t find this book as intriguing or fascinating as I do, but if you’re interested in Cantonese and its future or current role in Hong Kong society, just preview the first few pages available for free (link above). But also feel free to buy it if you’re ever so inclined as I am.

Cantonese Dictionary

It seems that a straightforward and simple way to start this blog off would be to provide a link to an online Cantonese dictionary. Here you can search using Cantonese Jyutping, Mandarin pinyin, Chinese characters, English and much more. The site additionally provides phrases and sentences for some Chinese characters, and even provides (and indicates) unique Cantonese words or phrases. Unfortunately it does not have every Chinese word you might find in your studies or online, but it is the only online Cantonese dictionary I have found so far and it is my go-to dictionary whenever I see an unfamiliar Chinese phrase online.