A flag-raising ceremony for the 24th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on July 1, 2021. Photo: Hong Kong Government

The dialectal density and diversity of Chinese is something that has escaped many people’s attention, since, contrary to widespread popular (mis)conceptions of Chinese as bidialectal (Mandarin vs Cantonese), it actually consists of hundreds of thousands of regional dialects that are distributed throughout the Chinese-speaking world.

In addition to the wide array of variation among the seven major dialect families – Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), Hakka, Wu, Min, Xiang and Gan – there is a significant amount of micro-variation among the various sub-varieties of the same dialectal groups.

This has been noted for Cantonese, which, as mentioned before, is not only a major dialect spoken in the southeastern parts of China but also a heritage language in the West, with several generations of speakers in North America.

A major dialect like Cantonese consists of numerous sub-dialects that can be distinguished by their unique characteristics and among which there is a range of infinitesimally small micro-variations, as demonstrated in the following rap battle where local forms of Cantonese from different parts of the Canton province are represented in turn:

YouTube video

As urban centers and big cities have great influence in terms of population movement, sociopolitical prestige and (social) media coverage, it is no surprise that the speech of urban communities tends to be taken as the norm and disseminate beyond the boundaries of their precinct.

Of all the major urban centers in which Cantonese is spoken (Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, Xiamen etc, all of which are represented in the rap video linked above), Hong Kong is without doubt a prominent hub, not only because it is a cosmopolitan international city that attracts visitors from the mainland and all parts of the world, but also because its semi-autonomous status as a Special Administrative Region is such that its societal and sociolinguistic norms are quite different from those of mainland China.

In contrast to the mainland, Hong Kong Cantonese permeates society from top to bottom and is used for nearly all sociolinguistic functions, including many traditionally high (H) functions for which Mandarin is standardly used in the mainland, for example education, public media, and literature.

This subtle yet crucial discrepancy in how H functions are conducted between Hong Kong and mainland Cantonese cities carries far-reaching consequences and significance.

As remarked before, the code-switching between Cantonese and Mandarin is not determined purely in terms of geography (HK/Canton versus the rest of China) but also in terms of literary formality, since in addition to being perceived as “local,” Cantonese is also commonly seen as “colloquial/informal/spoken” (even “vulgar”), whereas Mandarin is not only the official lingua franca in mainland China but also the register that underlies the common literary language (白話), which makes it “literary/formal/written.”

The use of Cantonese as the language of instruction in both school (primary and secondary) and higher education (university), therefore, is consequential, since children raised in Hong Kong have a relatively high level of Cantonese literacy as compared with their mainland Canton counterparts, and Hong Kong schoolchildren and students have a stronger ability to read, write and recite in Cantonese (as pointed out to me by Sik Dennig, former Cantonese lecturer at Stanford University).

Hong Kong children and students also have a wider sensibility and versatility in their use of Cantonese as they are able to tailor and adapt their Cantonese for discussing a range of topics, both informal (mundane) and formal (academic), all in Cantonese, including Mandarin-based literary Chinese (白話).

Mainland Cantonese speakers, however, have been shown to have a lower ability in using Cantonese for formal academic discussions, which can be explained by the fact that they use Mandarin at school for all academic subjects.

The other side of the coin is that mainland Cantonese speakers do have a significantly higher level of proficiency and fluency in Mandarin than people in Hong Kong, but as argued before, there are still good reasons for keeping the status quo of Cantonese education in Hong Kong, since the level of Mandarin in the city can be raised effectively by implementing foreign language teaching methods of Mandarin, which is in line with the fact that Mandarin is mainly used in Hong Kong when dealing with external visitors such as those from the mainland (in effect rendering Mandarin a super-H/foreign variety).

Another major use of Cantonese is in public media, that is, literature, journalism, television, radio and cinema, where Cantonese is standardly used for official announcements, such as news coverage and press releases, and different forms of entertainment such as TV shows, films, books, magazines and plays.

The former ties in with the use of Cantonese in schools as described above, since people in Hong Kong have acquired the ability to conduct formal discourse and use literary Chinese in Cantonese, while the latter has given rise to artistic and commercial products in Cantonese that have become crucial in disseminating Cantonese to other parts of the world.

The use of Cantonese in the Hong Kong entertainment industries has a profound effect in promoting Cantonese abroad, since such media products as Cantonese music (Cantopop), films, and TV series have entered the mainland and foreign markets, which has increased global awareness and familiarity of Hong Kong Cantonese.

One major incentive for learning Cantonese among foreigners is their interest in and exposure to Cantonese forms of art and entertainment, which has inspired many people both in the mainland and abroad to learn Cantonese.

Hong Kong Cantonese media and written products (books, magazines, comics, music, TV shows, films) are also instrumental in preserving cultural heritage in Cantonese-speaking diasporic communities abroad, since Hong Kong publications are immensely popular among expats in the West who rely on these for cultural connection.

It is without doubt that Hong Kong Cantonese is a major driving force in the internationalization of Cantonese, and the quotidian nature of Cantonese in Hong Kong not only has a robust effect in preserving Cantonese within Hong Kong but is also replicated abroad in the commercialization of media merchandise.

One final important aspect of Hong Kong Cantonese is the formalization, establishment and education of Cantonese as a linguistic variety in its own right, since the study of Cantonese linguistics has become a major field of research in Hong Kong universities.

The formal academic study of Cantonese did not begin in Hong Kong, since from as early as Chao Yuen Ren scholars were already interested in comparing Chinese dialects, as seen in Chao’s seminal Mandarin and Cantonese primers.

In recent years, however, while the study of Cantonese has become a research topic of international reach as there have been international conferences organized exclusively and specifically for Cantonese linguistics, academics in Hong Kong universities have initiated some radically important developments that have revolutionized the study, research and teaching of Cantonese.

An example is the formal description of Cantonese grammars at different levels and the formal definitive codification of Cantonese phonemes and phonology – yuetping (粵拼) – which are among the pioneering developments in promulgating the study of Cantonese both in Hong Kong and beyond.

Such formal descriptions of Cantonese grammar and pronunciation are highly influential as they have provided a standardized way for referencing and teaching Cantonese (on a par with Mandarin pinyin) and vastly facilitated the learning and teaching experience of Cantonese.

All this is a credit to the many scholars based in Hong Kong universities whose work on Cantonese has modernized the teaching and research in Cantonese and thereby improved its credentials as an object of study for foreigners and locals alike.

In this piece, I have tried to show that Hong Kong, being a predominantly Cantonese-speaking city where that language is used from top to bottom (sociolinguistically speaking), is especially powerful both for the maintenance of Cantonese as a unique and independent linguistic variety and the exportation of Cantonese to other parts of the world, which can all be tied to the various H functions that are uniquely conducted in Cantonese in Hong Kong, namely education, media and research.

Contemporary Hong Kong, therefore, serves as a model of how Cantonese is conducted as the predominant language variety in society that can be exported and replicated abroad, as seen in the various Cantonese-speaking expat communities scattered all around the world.

Keith Tse is a professional linguist who studied classics and modern languages at Balliol College, Oxford, after which he trained as a public service interpreter and language teacher.