Thor's China Diary

Notes on Cantonese (Yue Yu)

@25 March 2000

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The notes which follow were contributed from a discussion amongst Chinese friends, including a native Cantonese speaker, on the nature of Cantonese (Yue Yu in Chinese; the speech of a region can also be named after that region, such as Guangzhou Hua, Wuhan Hua etc.). Although this information does not come from linguists, the participants show a sharp appreciation of language differences and their consequences.

Cantonese (Yue Yu) is regarded as a kind of "dialect" of standard Chinese officially, and by people who live outside of Guandong Province. It is really a different language. The pronunciation of Yue Yu heard on TV, in movies and songs etc. is in fact similar to the daily language of people in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The language which is spoken by people who live within Guandong Province, but outside of the capital, Guangzhou (Canton), isn't standard Yue Yu, but a large collection of dialects. It has been reported that there are more than two hundred dialects in Guandong Province, and some of them are mutually unintelligible. There are also some unrelated minority languages such as Ke Jia and Chao Zhou. Even local speakers cannot understand much of this variation, so in order to communicate they use standard Yue Yu when dealing with non-locals.

The younger generation living outside of Guangzhou city can study standard Yue Yu by watching TV and listening to radio programs. The schools don't officially give lessons in Yue Yu, although it is often used to communicate. As far as the older generation is concerned, especially those who live in remote regions far from the city and cut off from information, well they speak local dialect only and can't understand Yue Yu. The national government does allow Yue Yu TV stations within Guandong province. In the whole of China, only a few provinces are permitted to have local TV stations running in local dialect.

The government still advocates and tries to spread the standard language, but it really is not easy. Children are required to learn the standard language from kindergarten, but the outcomes vary according to the insistence and competence of teachers. Almost all the schools in the small towns teach students using only local dialect. That causes some students to fail when they go to the city for high school or university, where the standard national language (Putonghua) is normally used. By contrast, schools located in the city adopt the standard language for teaching. However, some of these schools still allow teachers themselves to decide which kind of language to use for instruction.

The simplified character set (adopted throughout the PRC) is used for writing within Guandong province. That is different from Hong Kong where the old forms are used. However, because of Hong Kong's proximity, many people can read the complex older characters, although they can't write them.

People from outside of Guandong province can't understand Yue Yu. The biggest difficulty is differences in syntax, such as word order, between Yue Yu and standard Putonghua, as well as vocabulary which is particular to Yue Yu only. Non Yue Yu speakers might be able to understand something if a Yue Yu speaker used only syntax and vocabulary common to Yue Yu and Putonghua, but the pronunciation would still create problems, both in tones and individual sounds (phonemes).

It is especially troublesome for outsiders to understand the Yue Yu use of some consonants. For example, Yue Yu speakers don't distinguish any difference between /n/ and /l/; [this variation is also common in the southern Putonghua areas such as Wuhan (ed.)]. However these differences are tolerated since listeners can decode the meaning in a spoken context. The written forms, characters or even pinyin, can usually eliminate the ambiguity. For Yue Yu speakers, the greatest barrier to correctly speaking Putonghua are the retroflexes (curled tongue) and laterals (tongue flat on the roof of the mouth) found in the standard language. They also fail to distinguish /k/ and /h/. Thus Yue Yu speakers typically speak Putonghua with a heavy accent, and with none of the ease of a native speaker.

The pronunciation of Guangzhou residents and Hong Kong people is almost exactly the same. However, Hong Kong speakers often insert English words into their sentences, and also borrowed forms that are literal translations from English into Yue Yu phonology. For example, they often say "shidou" (store) and "dishi" (taxi). This particular habit is also becoming popular in Guangzhou itself.

"Notes on Cantonese" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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