Do Hong Kongers speak a language?



“Cantonese is just a dialect, it’s not a language.”

I’ve heard this meme many times since coming to Hong Kong four years ago. They always say it as if it’s some sort of linguistic fact. My interest here is in the ability of this meme to spread, not in its truth.

But given how much resistance I get (often from very smart people who are not easily dismissed) when I say that it’s not true, I feel like I need to quickly dispatch with the possibility that this sentence says something objectively true, before I can move on to the more interesting question.

I. The Untruth of the Meme

Saying “Cantonese is just a dialect, it’s not a language” and believing it, makes exactly as much semantic sense as saying “A German Shepherd is just a dog, it’s not a mammal” and believing that. For someone to believe this sentence is true, they must be confused (or at least highly imprecise) about what the English words “language” and “dialect” mean.

dialect is “a variety of a language that is characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers,” while language refers to “the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific instance of such a system.” I quote Wikipedia here because I think it represents both the general consensus among English speakers as to what these terms mean, and it is consistent with what the terms mean to linguists.

As such, Cantonese, as it is spoken in Hong Kong, is both a dialect and a language. Similarly, the Mandarin they speak in Beijing, the Mandarin they speak in Taiwan (different dialects, or maybe just different accents, same language), Standard American English (my dialect), Standard Black American English, BBC English, even Australian English are all dialects as well as languages.

The reason it is said that the Yanks, Brits and Aussies all speak the same language is that we can (mostly) understand each other while each speaking our own dialect. This is not the case when we speak to Germans, so it is said that German is a separate language, even though English and German are both Germanic languages. Anytime fully functional humans speak, they are speaking both a language and a specific dialect of that language.

I also humbly submit that Hong Kong Chinese people are fully functional humans. This is why saying Cantonese is a language not a dialect makes about as much sense as saying German Shepherds are dogs, not mammals. All dialects are specific iterations of a language, just as all dogs are mammals. It is impossible to speak a dialect without speaking a language, just as it is impossible to be a dog without being a mammal.

“Black people don’t speak proper English,” says the white American, or “Americans don’t speak proper English,” says the Englishman, as if he speaks some pure form of English, preserved from the 16th century or something and it’s only us-Americans who have diverged. I think these sentences have basically the same sentiment as the sentence I started this post with, and I know plenty of Americans who would agree with the one about black people (as long as no black people are within earshot) and plenty of English people who would agree with the one about Americans  (particularly if lots of Americans are within earshot).

No form of English is objectively more of a “proper language” than any other (not even “Received Pronunciation,” which is no more similar to Elizabethan English than is Standard American English). They are just different. It’s totally true that some dialects are better for getting hired in certain locales, and that some dialects are really bad for getting hired nearly everywhere on Earth, but that fact is a reflection of the bigotry of English speakers, and the relationship between dialect and class/education; it does nothing that would allow one to rank English dialects in any objective sense.  

I’ve explained all of the above to believers in the meme, and yet they insist that the sentence still gets at something objectively true, that it’s not just a pseudo-scientific sounding cover for naked sociolinguistic bigotry. Despite this inability to convince people, I think I’m going to let it go after saying three more things:

  1. Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible, and therefore they are without a doubt different languages, not just different dialects.
  2. Cantonese did not derive from Mandarin, and is not some bastardised form of some more pure Chinese language, even though Cantonese and Mandarin do likely share a prehistoric mother tongue.
  3. Number of speakers and official status are not valid criteria for ranking languages/dialects as superior or inferior to each other. That’s about as good as I can do to convince people of the untruth of this meme. Some memes, in some minds, are impervious to persuasion, and it’s that fact that I find more interesting.

II. The Truthiness of the Meme, and What that Says about Memes, and Us

I can’t do it.  I can’t move on to this other thing I want to write about, because in the past few days I haven’t convinced a single Mandarin or Cantonese speaker that this meme is not true (though monolingual English speakers seem to think my argument is totally airtight). At first I suspected that I might be a cultural imperialist, siding with my HK brethren-in-British-colonisation against Big Beijing. But now I’m beginning to suspect that it’s worse than that, since HK people don’t agree with me either. And if I’m wrong in my assertion, how can I use that assertion to arrive at some secondary conclusion about memes or anything else?

It seems that I come at this from a very different perspective than do Chinese people, and their position cannot be dismissed because of the semantic trick I pulled above. The reason I think this is important, and why this post is becoming much longer than I intended, is that this shit is political: political like the difference between a Chinese person and a Hong Kong Person; between American Born Chinese and Chinese-American. Possibly even political like the space where nations and states don’t overlap perfectly. So let me back up, and try to deal with this issue with what David Foster Wallace, writing on a similarly political issue, called a “Democratic Spirit.”

A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity–you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.

II.  The Politics of Dialect and Language

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

Max Weinreich, a Yiddish speaking sociolinguist, popularised this quip, which illustrates how calling someone’s language “just a dialect” can be a form of denigration. Kendrick Lamar’s lyric, “speaking language only we know, you think it’s an accent,” makes a similar  point about the language he and his homies speak.  Yiddish (the language of Ashkenazi Jews in Europe) is a Germanic language, as is Danish.

The quip implies that the reason people called Danish a Germanic language and Yiddish a Germanic dialect was not really about objective linguistic criteria, such as their degree of mutual intelligibility with German, but the fact that Danish speakers had a nation and a state, while Yiddish speakers had no state (though they may have had a nation). Kendrick’s line argues that the reason my dialect is  considered a language while his is considered an “accent” is fundamentally about authority, not usage.

Clearly, there are analogues here with the status of Cantonese, but I think this is about where my lecture needs to become a discussion, before I wade into waters I don’t understand. My argument has been about the meaning of the English words language and dialect, not about 語 (which Google translates as “language”) or 方言 (“dialect”).

But I think these Chinese words and others may be at the root of why I don’t seem to be able to convince anyone who reads Chinese that the English sentence in question is not true. I’ve run up against that cultural chasm between the way my Anglo-American brain works and the way a Chinese brain works. I’ve always found that very interesting territory, but profitably entering it requires taking off my teacher hat and putting on my student hat.

I need to understand what this meme means before I can speculate about what its spreadability says about what people will accept as true. So my question for Kayo, who has both an Anglo-American brain (Canadian brain, close enough) and a Chinese brain, is this: when you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you? What was the truth that sentence got at?

Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

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3 replies

  1. Hello, I live in Hong Kong and I speak Cantonese.
    The reason why we always call Cantonese as a dialect is because we don’t have written words for Cantonese, it is spoken but we don’t have words for written purpose. In schools, we use the formal Chinese just like in China, only we use Traditional Chinese characters.
    Most likely when you read a formal letter or e-mail that is from Hong Kong, many Taiwanese (if it’s in Simplified Chinese, Mainland Chinese will understand too) will also be able to understand it as the sentence structures used are the same as they read out. It is quite hard to explain if you don’t know Cantonese and Mandarin. (And surely I don’t know if you know Cantonese or not.)
    Like for the word ‘slide’ (the one in the playground), in Mandarin or written Traditional Chinese, we write or speak it as ‘滑梯’, but in Cantonese, we just call it ‘sir wat tai’ (we can only say it out but not write down, we do have the word but many of us (except for the experts in Chinese characters) won’t know how to write it out). This makes Cantonese this dialect even harder because it has no written words at all and its usage of words are quite different from written ones.


    • Many languages have no written form, writing simply isn’t part of the definition of the English word “language”. The language the HK government writes in is written Cantonese (Traditional Chinese with Cantonese grammar).



  1. China, Hong Kong and Cantonese: Dialect dialectic | China Daily Mail

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