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.


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.