Why you should stop sharing these infographics about Cantonese history and obscure characters
Cantonese is the very core of Hongkongers’ cultural identity and it is just natural for Hongkongers to feel pride in their mother tongue. Despite the unwavering sense of belonging to the language, the public seems to lack meta-linguistic and historical knowledge about the language, as reflected in the low coverage of any romanization system by native speakers. The school curriculum is definitely to be blamed for its heavy bias towards written or classical language, and probably even teachers do not know enough to discuss Cantonese linguistics or history with their students. The combination of strong pride and lack of knowledge results in a dangerous level of inaccuracies in the public discourse, amplifying stereotypes that label Cantonese as an old and unlearnable language.
These two recurring themes are often beautified, and glorified, and sadly, explained with incorrect descriptions about the language’s history and orthography. Unaware speakers may feel that they are sharing the cultural pride and happily share unverified information, without knowing how these misinformation is already damaging the vitality of the language.
1 Cantonese is promoted as “an old language”
The highlight of many of these posts are similarity between the phonologies of T’ang or Song poems and modern Cantonese. This undermines the uniqueness of Cantonese as a separate variety. If “being similar to some poems” is what makes Cantonese special, then we implicitly refuse to acknowledge the development of all features that made Cantonese the Cantonese that we speak today.
2 Cantonese is labelled as difficult
Philologists before the time of modern linguistics tried to associate Cantonese with obscure words found in old books, which is seen as a way to prove the legitimacy of local “dialects”. Their work needs to be understood in their context, where classical Chinese was abruptly replaced by Mandarin vernacular and they were both reminiscent of the classical language as well as in need of support to give local dialects some value to be preserved. Since the legitimacy of local dialects originates from similarity to classical work, the…