American-Born Cantonese Perceptions of Cantonese

This is just a short note of some observations, after meeting with a group of around 10-15 primarily university-aged American-born Cantonese (most of whom’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong) today.

While priding themselves in being Cantonese, however low their fluency in it may be, they themselves call Cantonese terms “slang.” Mandarin was never really mentioned in conversations as an H language to which Cantonese would be an L language; Cantonese seemed like an L language with respect to Standard Chinese (by this I am referring to the written Mandarin) that they had perhaps learned when learning to write Chinese (with spoken Cantonese or spoken Mandarin) in a formal classroom setting. I didn’t hear the term “slang” as resulting from the concept of Mandarin having considerably more social or practical value today than Cantonese as the language of mainland China, so I’m not sure if the term slang was used because they haven’t thought of a more precise term of understanding Cantonese as a vernacular or even as having many colloquial expressions (I wouldn’t expect them to have been exposed to a term like “topolect” unless they had purposefully researched Cantonese before), but it seemed like they were quite ignorant of written Cantonese.

Through some old Cantonese language textbooks, they learned and were thoroughly surprised to find that terms in spoken Cantonese that differ from their Standard Chinese counterparts indeed have written forms of their own; further, I’m not sure if they realized that these terms were not created out of thin air, but have different meanings in Standard Chinese and/or were used in older forms of Chinese but are not used in Standard Chinese. So they were clearly unaware of the process by which spoken Mandarin became the standardized form of written Chinese (although, realistically, who would be familiar with it if they had not researched it themselves?).

Though they read through the Cantonese language textbooks, they did not have much interest in reading a book like Cantonese as Written Language by Don Snow, although in part understandably so because it seems like a dense book unless or until you have developed a greater interest in Cantonese. So they were not interested in the social implications of Cantonese’s language status and the phenomenon of its developed written form, having only recently been exposed to it.

I don’t blame them for their ignorance, but it does kind of motivate me to return to actively learning about Cantonese and possibly blogging. But at the same time, I don’t know if this is the most profitable use of my time. I guess the bottom line is this: I still love Cantonese and think its development as a written vernacular is novel and super cool, but am not sure how much I should commit to learning about it.

P.S. It’s kind of odd writing in these linguistic terms again after a long time of not.


One thought on “American-Born Cantonese Perceptions of Cantonese

  1. Peter Chum says:

    I feel touched to learn that there is a group of American-born Cantonese out there who care about the dialect enough to share their thoughts for research purposes. I am a Hongkong-born Cantonese and I support the continuity of the dialect here in our city!

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