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“Cantonese as a Written Language: The Growth of Written Chinese Vernacular”


wushijiao
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Recently, I just finished an excellent book: “Cantonese as a Written Language: The Growth of Written Chinese Vernacular” by Don Snow.

It’s really a fairly fascinating and very well-researched book about how Cantonese has been able to develop as a written language. Since Cantonese is the only regionalect to have a developed a successful and widely used written system, the question is, how did this happen? After giving a set of general theories on how written languages develop, Snow narrates the unique historical circumstances that bit by bit enabled written Cantonese to become more popularized and used in more various settings.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the analysis of people’s attitudes towards written Cantonese. Generally, people still don’t accept Cantonese in formal or serious texts, and Cantonese tends to be linked, to some degree, with situations that stem from oral Cantonese (ie., verbatim quotes…etc). Also, the degree of the acceptance of Cantonese is somewhat generational, with the younger generations being increasingly more accepting of it in different circumstances.

Anyway, does anyone have thoughts on written Cantonese?

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Until I read your post, I hadn't heard the term "written Cantonese" used before. I was under the delusion that all Chinese dialects used the same set of Chinese characters. Now my head is spinning, and my feet feel wobbly, as I come to terms with the realization that I've been brainwashed all this time through the repeated fabrication that there is only one uniting system of Chinese characters. Aiiiiyaaaaa!!!

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It is mainly the same set of characters, but in Cantonese texts that closely adhere to spoken Cantnese, the percentage of characters that are uniquely Cantonese might be around 25-40%, while in more formal situations of Cantonese, it might be about 10% (like a news broadcast, in which the vocabulary more closely sticks to Standard Chinese rather than a chatty, informal, slang-y version of Cantonese, which would have a higher percentage).

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It is mainly the same set of characters, but in Cantonese texts that closely adhere to spoken Cantnese, the percentage of characters that are uniquely Cantonese might be around 25-40%, while in more formal situations of Cantonese, it might be about 10% (like a news broadcast, in which the vocabulary more closely sticks to Standard Chinese rather than a chatty, informal, slang-y version of Cantonese, which would have a higher percentage).

True and also not true. It's not the same set of characters, we are talking about two languages here. Cantonese is a language ... I am a cantofreak myself and the topic really fascinates me, so (just briefly) here's my point of view: from what I've seen written Cantonese actually has no fixed pattern, some auxiliary words can be written in a number of different characters, like the possessive的 to name one example:it becomes 得 as in唔话得 =没说的; and 得 some Cantonese write it as "德": 希望能德到,or 的becomes just D as in:我D事, and all are used interchangeably to stand for 正式粤语possesssive " 嘅"/ "噶" as in 好可爱噶 ... and of course there's the regional vocab including idioms and popular sayings quite unintelligible to the mandarinspeaking majority; like the regional faux-amis 返工is actually上班while 收工would be下班, etc. 查看:广州话大全,去广州的话用得着 @ http://www.80.hk/bbs/redirect.php?tid=1317&goto=lastpost

And then there's the 香港 anglicisms used in everyday Cantonese which are becoming more and more popular among GZ youth in their identification with HKongers ...茄薯 for cash, 巴士for bus, 曲奇 for cookie and oh k士 (!) for case 情况 + the famous T恤 (T soet for t-shirt) just to name a few ...not to mention the reverse word order of the Cantonese grammar And for the most part 连 written Cantonese 都 needs to be translated into Putonghua for them to grasp the meaning Besides average 普通话 speakers tend to label written Cantonese as: 星人语...哈哈

.... as for the acceptance of Cantonese as a language well, that's another topic From my experience most Cantonese native speakers have a "belittling" attitude towards their own lingo and more so towards foreigners speaking the language, but the young apparently have less prejudice and seem to take more pride in being Canto-speakers

Anyway it is impressive how an ancient language like 白话 has managed to survive and actually develop into a modern pattern (I enjoy reading canto-kids' blogs on the net there's so much to learn form the language point of view and otherwise; I recommend it as the best way to learn spoken Cantonese in the written form)

BUT: good Putonghua is essential if you're planning on learning good Cantonese, and even then it's ...tricky 哈哈哈 Written Cantonese... just another proof of the vitality and adaptability of a fascinating nation :wink:

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The knee-jerk assumption many Cantonese speakers make is that Cantonese is more colloquial than Vernacular Chinese. Upon closer inspection, each language (as they are separate languages) has its own colloquialisms.

Anecdotal example:

Vernacular Chinese: 人人生而自由在尊嚴和權利上一律平等。他們賦有理性和良心,竝應以兄弟關係的精神互相對待。

Cantonese: 人人生出來就係自由忌,在尊嚴同權利上一律平等。其等具有理性同良心,而且應該用兄弟間忌關係來互相對待。

This is from the perspective of Classical Chinese.

Edited by Hofmann
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and 得 some Cantonese write it as "德": 希望能德到

I have never heard of this before. Are you sure it is not just a typo/people confusing 同音字?

的becomes just D as in:我D事, and all are used interchangeably to stand for 正式粤语possesssive " 嘅"/ "噶" as in 好可爱噶

D = 啲 with meanings (and examples) as follows:

(1) 些(xiē) ,的(de) (表示不確定的數量)﹕ 有啲[有些,有的]。

(2) 這些(zhèxiē) ,那些(nàxiē) : 啲書擺喺邊好呀[這些書該放哪兒]?

(3) 一點兒(yīdiǎnr) ,一些(yīxiē) ﹕食多啲啦[多吃點兒吧]。

(See 港式用語診症室)

I do not think that 啲 and 嘅 are truly interchangeable.

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The knee-jerk assumption many Cantonese speakers make is that Cantonese is more colloquial than Vernacular Chinese. Upon closer inspection, each language (as they are separate languages) has its own colloquialisms.

This is one thing the book talked about. From the Cantonese speaking person's point of view, historically, Standard Chinese replaced Classical Chinese in the 20th century in terms of the being the socially prestigious written form of expression, but both had very little connection to their spoken form of language. On the other hand, from a Beijinger's point of view, there was a big change from Classical to Standard, the change from a written language to one that very closely corresponded to daily life.

Also, teachers in HK tend to teach Standard Chinese in Chinese class in the written form, with little emphasis on the fact that it actually corresponds to a spoken from, however formal, that people in some areas speak.

This process ends up giving Standard Chinese a much more formal, educated, prestigious connotation than Cantonese which is seen as either more intimate, and cozy, but also more vulgar (because it is associated with emotions and feelings of daily life, as opposed to classroom homework exercises). Perhaps subconsciously, Standard Chinese is also seen as the inheritor to Classical Chinese and the language of high politics and historical greatness of the Chinese world, which also gives Standard Chinese extra prestige. (As a side note, I’ve often read with a bit of amusement the ridiculously absurd discussions that take place on line between which dialect is the true inheritor of “ancient Chinese” (as if that were a unified static thing emanating from one place). But those debates make sense if viewed within the context of liberating oneself from the weight of a society’s self-imposed inferiority complex using the appeal to nationalism as a way to defend a dialect’s use).

In any case, Snow’s book was published in 2004, and I’d bet (without doing an exhaustive survey like he did) that the scope of what is socio-linguistically acceptable to be written in Cantonese is expanding. Two minor examples, I saw some articles in Next Magazine talking about the 立法會選舉 that were all in Cantonese. (Were articles about “high politics”, granted, HK politics, frequently using complete Cantonese 5,10, 20 years ago?) Also, I even saw a political add for the民建聯 (the pro-Beijing, pro-corporate party) that used Cantonese.

Anyway, since I little to compare this to, other than Snow’s findings, I wonder if anyone else has noticed whether the scope of Cantonese usage has been slowly expanding? Maybe it’s so slow and subtle that people in HK could barely notice?

As far as what actually makes up written Cantonese and whether or not it has been formalized it terms of grammar and vocabulary usage, I’m really not that interested in that, as it seems to me (a person with an intermediate Cantonese level, but able to fluently read Standard Chinese) most written Cantonese should be pretty obvious to any person whose native language is Cantonese. One of the unique things that Snow points out is that the Cantonese reading community formed a de facto set of widely accepted written standards without setting up language control committees, like some countries or language communities have done. Written Cantonese is a market driven phenomenon, to a large degree, rather than a politically driven activity (like some written Taiwanese is, apparently).

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the book seems to overlook the contribution of the Taiping rebellion. During the short-life dynasty ruled by the King Hong Xiu-quan, a Hakka born in the Guangdong province, written cantonese or a hybrid of it was extensively used in the Royal Edicts. It's possibly an influenced by the missionaries who tend to use vernacular to communicate with locals.

Since Cantonese is the only regionalect to have a developed a successful and widely used written system, the question is, how did this happen?

And don't miss Minnanese too.

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I am not against dialects but I think Chinese as a one standard (at least written) language has a better chance to compete with other world languages and it won't face the fate of Arabic where native speakers of different dialects are more fluent in English or French than in the common standard language and foreigners face the constant problem of which language to focus on. China, Taiwan and Singapore are doing the right thing in promoting one standard language, leaving the dialect as the personal matter. Just my opinion.

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China, Taiwan and Singapore are doing the right thing in promoting one standard language, leaving the dialect as the personal matter.

I think all the 'chinese' places have always promoted the standard (written) language. The mentioned places promote standard spoken Mandarin whereas the others are less pro-active in this regard. The problem with promoting mandarin in China, Taiwan and Singapore are the suppression of dialects, to the point where older generations do not teach the younger ones their heritage dialect. This is the essence of the never-ending dialect vs mandarin debates found everywhere on the web.

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This is the essence of the never-ending dialect vs mandarin debates found everywhere on the web.

I think with written Cantonese, the interesting thing is that most people who write in written Cantonese can read and write in Standard Mandarin. So, the question of whether to use written Cantonese is, as atitarev says, a personal matter, or a question of tone, register, style...etc. The book also points out that Standard Mandarin is used when discussing Chinese national events, partly because a publisher would want to attract as many customers as possible, but also partly because, to some degree, it is assumed that one should write to the broadest possible audience when writing about national affairs.

I think this ability to be able to widely read and write Standard Chinese among the vast majority of Hong Kong people shows that the issue around using Cantonese is not so much the usual "dialect vs. national language" debate (that calibre2001 talked about), but more an issue of "code switching" in a diglossic language environment.

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