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The Fight For Cantonese

26/11/2015 10:44 | Updated 26 November 2015

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(Photo: Sarah Kwong)

We all know that language is more than just a set of words. It's the backbone of an entire population, providing an identity, connection to history and a togetherness. So it's no surprise that many Hong Kongers are feeling adrift right now.

Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong natives (and smaller populations in Southern China), is at risk of becoming obsolete. The reason? In simple terms, China's forceful push of Putonghua (or Mandarin, as it's known in the Western world).

This particular struggle isn't new. China has long deemed Cantonese a 'colloquial dialect' rather than a sophisticated, solid language, even though it's steeped in 3000-year-old history. For many Cantonese-speakers, that's the real kicker. "Putonghua is an artificial language imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, not a naturally evolved language," Dr Chen, an etymologist, told HK Magazine.

While the Hong Kong government's official stance on language wholeheartedly embraces 'trilinguism' across English, Cantonese and Putonghua (the latter literally translates as 'common speech'), in 2008 an official document stated that teachers using Putonghua in schools was the long-term goal. Three years later, a government census found that for the first time, Putonghua overtook English as the second most spoken language in Hong Kong. Back in 2001, only a third could speak the language of Mainland China.

Legally, Hong Kong has its own autonomy (until 2047), meaning it can function as a separate entity to China, with its own currency, laws and freedom of speech - but in reality, looking at China's disregard for Cantonese, and the Hong Kong government's lack of power, that isn't entirely the case.

With Hong Kong's language struggling to stay afloat, a whole culture is set to struggle, too. Locals are proud of their nine (or sometimes six) tones, their quick, melodic language that sings on street corners and at Sunday dim sum. Yes, their pride comes rooted in the history of the language, and the way of life it has paved for them, but also within its difference. It distinguishes them from other countries and cultures, particularly Mainland China. This must add fuel to China's ever-increasing fire against Cantonese. So slick is their mission to eradicate the language that signs have even been spotted in Southern China encouraging people to 'be civilised' by speaking Putonghua. In this region, the use of Cantonese in the media has also been banned.

It's a complicated matter, made even more complex by the written word. Putonghua sets the standard for written Chinese, even though the characters have been simplified down from the original Cantonese versions. Most children in Hong Kong schools speak Cantonese but aren't allowed to write in Cantonese, because it isn't 'as refined'.

But it isn't just a localised problem. Worldwide, there are currently 70 to 100 million Cantonese speakers, which sounds positive, but according to UNESCO, it's not the 'now' we need to be worried about. They've found that a language can disappear in just a few generations, thanks to 'heritage' speakers who live in other parts of the world (so not Hong Kong or China). They learn the language from their parents, but tend to speak English to their children.

Still, encouragement can be found in the fact that keeping Cantonese alive is a fight, and Cantonese-speakers will not stay silent. In 2012, masses protested when a new café printed a menu in just Putonghua and English, resulting in the business changing the signage and apologising. Last year, the Education Bureau posted a statement describing Cantonese as a 'dialect' of Chinese. It caused outrage in Hong Kong, and the post was retracted a week later.

"Lots of people in Hong Kong are resisting the pressure China is trying to put on it," Robert Bauer, a Chinese linguistics teacher at the University of Hong Kong told Time Out Hong Kong.

The urgency to protect their mother tongue extends further than Hong Kong. In Vancouver (which has a Chinese population of just over 400,000), a group of Chinese seniors living in a community house launched a program this summer centred around Cantonese, inspired by the 80-strong Chinese elders who visit the house to cook meals for residents every week.

This isn't an argument for which language is better or more useful. It can't go unsaid that for young Hong Kongers hoping to take their careers overseas to China or grow a business, having Putonghua under their belt is important. And, of course, being adept at more languages is considered a strength. But languages can be mutually exclusive. We can open our minds to new lexicons, and still preserve others. The death of Cantonese would mean the death of millions of identities. The essence of people and an entire history, removed. That isn't a world that many of us would like to live in.

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