Today’s guest post is written by Laura. She comes from a British-German background and has due to her upbringing always been fascinated by intercultural relationships and communication. She works in Nanjing as an English magazine and website editor, while her fiance is in Beijing. She is currently trying (and mostly failing) to organise a Chinese wedding in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, her fiance’s hometown and has been recording her thoughts and experiences on her blog Our Chinese Wedding. Enjoy today’s post!
Is Cantonese a language?
Recently one of my good friends from Austria approached me with a rather interesting and maybe slightly controversial question for her thesis: Is Cantonese a language?
There are certainly many conflicting opinions on the subject, depending on one’s personal perspective and approach, be it cultural or political, linguistic or nationalistic, the answer will probably differ in many cases.
Having studied Cantonese for a while at uni, I certainly have many thoughts on this topic, which I would like to approach from a linguistic perspective.
Cantonese vs. Mandarin Chinese
I would argue that from a linguistic point of view Cantonese is not a dialect of Mandarin, as Mr Chen, the scholar quoted by my friend argued, but rather its own language.
It is right that both languages have the same linguistic roots. Ironically, the language spoken at the time of the founding of Chinese civilization was actually closer to today’s Cantonese than to Mandarin. Therefore, Cantonese is historically speaking the more “original” Chinese language.
However, just because two languages share a linguistic basis, this doesn’t mean they are he same language. Take for example Spanish and Italian, both systems that have evolved from Latin, yet certainly seen today as two separate languages.
The relationship between Spanish and Italian is in my eyes an appropriate analogy for the Canto-Mandarin relationship. Both languages are so similar, that an Italian could understand simple sentences in Spanish (or the other way around) just like many Mandarin speakers are able to understand basic Cantonese expressions and vice versa.
However, as soon as we move on to more complex topics, the two languages differ too much to be understood by their opposite without additional learning processes.
Spoken Cantonese vs. Spoken Mandarin Chinese
In terms of the spoken language, Mandarin speakers will be dismayed to learn that in Cantonese there are not only five but seven different tones, even adding something akin to a high and low musical note to differentiate words. In fact, from conversations with Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin, I have discovered that many tend to have more difficulty with tones than speakers of Latin or German-based languages do because they already speak a tonal language; however the tones differ and so it is very confusing to have to learn an entire set of new tones. A simple example is the word tea; in Mandarin it is pronounced cha with the second tone, which rises in the way as if one asks a question in English, while in Cantonese it is also pronounced cha but with a falling tone, the exact opposite of Mandarin. Considering just changing one tone can alter the entire meaning of a word in these language systems, they are arguably a lot more different than one might initially think.
Cantonese Grammar vs. Mandarin Chinese Grammar
In terms of grammar (e.g. sentence structure), words and phrases there are many similarities but also a few substantial differences. The simplest example is the sentence “I’m leaving”, or word by word “I go first”. In Mandarin the sentence goes 我先走 “I first go”, while in Cantonese it is 我走先 “I go first”. Similarly, certain verbs or words are entirely different in the respective language, “we” in Mandarin is “我们” yet it is “我哋” in Cantonese, differing in pronunciation and character. Similarly, “to be” in Mandarin is “是” while in Cantonese it is an entirely different word “係”. While a Cantonese speaker could read the aforementioned Mandarin Characters with a Cantonese pronunciation, they would not use these words in their communication since they are inappropriate.
It is true that in the past many Cantinese pop songs were actually written in Mandarin and just pronounced in a Cantonese way, however in modern times a form of written Cantonese was created by linguists to address the aforementioned substantial language divergence. This once again solidifies the argument that Cantonese is a separate language with a similar but not identical writing system. It is safe to say that this move holds a strong political and cultural significance, since an independent language further manifests the Cantonese language and the Hong Kong geographic region as a separate entity from the mainland, which was quite probably the ultimate goal of a written system considering the tense relationship between the two parties. What is certain is that the largely identical use of characters is the main pillar Chen’s argument of classifying Cantonese as a dialect, yet this approach quickly unravels. After all, even today both Japanese and Korean still use traditional Chinese characters, yet no one would ever consider them dialects of Mandarin.
Traditional vs. Simplified Characters
In terms of characters, there is a further differentiation in the fact that written Cantonese uses the traditional and more complex form of Chinese characters, while the mainland adapted a simplified version under Mao in 1949, a further step in separating the two language systems from each other.
So is Cantonese a Language or a Dialect?
Based on the above reasoning, Cantonese can be considered a separate language, which leaves the question what is a dialect? Looking at the comparison between Austrian German and German spoken Germany, my friends area of interest, it is clear that both use the same written system and mainly the same grammar. The major detectable difference is the use of different words, e.g. Obers in Austria and Schlagsahne in Germany to designate cream. By this logic I would argue that Taiwanese and mainland Mandarin have the same relationship. People from both countries can understand each other without much problem, though Taiwanese are easily recognized by their accent and by different words usage (e.g. 單車 for bicycle, which means single vehicle, as opposed to mainland 自行车 self-traveling vehicle). Of course we have here the added complexity of traditional characters in Taiwan versus simplified ones on the mainland but this only causes minor complications in written exchange, yet that was a political rather than linguistic choice in the past.
Do you agree with my conclusion? Do you think Cantonese counts as a language or a regional dialect or would you argue against this?