status of Cantonese: a survey-based study

The latest new release from Sino-Platonic Papers is one that I think will be of particular interest to readers of Pinyin News. It’s an extensive study of not only the attitudes of speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin toward the status of Cantonese but also their beliefs about its future, especially in Hong Kong: Language or Dialect–or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese (650 KB PDF), by Julie M. Groves.

This study reports on a comparative survey of three groups of Chinese: 53 Hong Kong Cantonese speakers, 18 Mainland Chinese Cantonese speakers, and 72 Mainland Chinese Putonghua speakers. It was found that the Putonghua speakers held more ‘classic’ views, the majority seeing Cantonese as a dialect. In contrast, only just over half the Hong Kongers and two-fifths the Mainland Cantonese speakers considered it clearly a dialect, while one-third of all respondents favoured a mid-point classification. The differing perspectives held by the groups can be traced to their different political and linguistic situations, which touch issues of identity.

The author notes, “The uncertainties in classification also reflect a problem with terminology. The Chinese word usually translated dialect, fangyan (方言), does not accurately match the English word dialect.” Groves recommends the adoption of Victor Mair’s proposed English word for fangyan: topolect.

Although this focuses on the dialect vs. language debate, it covers much more than that. Those being surveyed were also asked questions such as:

  • Where do you think the best Cantonese is spoken?
  • Do you think Putonghua will eventually replace Cantonese as the main, everyday language of Hong Kongers?
  • Do you think it is possible for someone to consider themselves to be a Hong Konger (or Hong Kong Chinese/Chinese Hong Konger) without being able to speak Cantonese?

The results of the study may also prove useful for those interested in the future of other languages of China and Taiwan, such as Taiwanese and Shanghainese.

Here are a couple of the many graphs found in the study.

HK Cant = Hong Kong Cantonese speakers
MCant = mainland Cantonese speakers
MPTH = mainland speakers of Mandarin (“Pǔtōnghuà“)

graph of responses to the question 'Will Putonghua replace Cantonese as the main language of Hong Kongers?' Most say 'no' -- and this is strongest among mainland Cantonese speakers

graph of responses to the question 'Can a person be a Hong Konger without speaking Cantonese?' Most Hong Kong Cantonese speakers say no; but the answer is closer to a tie for mainland Mandarin speakers

Chinese New Year’s resolutions: a suggestion

Happy year of the rat, everyone!

Several years ago I made some resolutions for Chinese New Year that others might find useful, if you haven’t adopted similar ones already.

  1. If I’m referring to Mandarin I will use the word “Mandarin,” not “Chinese.”
  2. If I’m referring to a language, I’ll call it a language, not a dialect.

Pretty basic. But these greatly help clarity. And they have the benefit of being correct.

The reason you’ll sometimes find the phrase “Mandarin Chinese” rather than just “Mandarin” on my site is I want to help people find this through search engines. But for the most part the inclusion of the word “Chinese” is easily accomplished through tags or mention of “Chinese characters.”

I’d like to note that even many of those who really should know better have things backwards. They might note that “Chinese” is not a language but a family of languages — and even then one that should be known as Sinitic rather than “Chinese.” And they tend to spend a line or so explaining that what many people refer to as Chinese “dialects” are really languages. This is all well and good. But then they go on to use “Chinese” and “dialects” over and over.

The messages they’re sending out:

Chinese Chinese Chinese Mandarin Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese.


Dialect dialect language dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect.

So what people hear is “Chinese” and “dialect” — both of which are usually wrong.

I have made some resolutions of my own for this year: the first being to answer e-mail messages much quicker than my present average of three or more months behind when I should. Although I’m terrible at writing, I am indeed grateful for all of the messages I receive.

Xinnian kuaile!