Saturday, January 07, 2006

Cantonese vs. Mandarin

Putonghua is winning over Guangdonghua.

Having just returned from that part of the world, and having delightfully tried to spot the different cadences and sounds of the two languages (I was pretty good, if I might say so myself, by the time I left Guangzhou. Like many other polylingual places -- like India -- it was common to hear the same radio-program having a mixture of both languages in the same show.), naturally this LA Times piece caught my attention.
But when Hom, 30, decided to start his own food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn't enough anymore.

He checked out the competition at a recent Chinese products fair in the San Gabriel Valley and found that he couldn't get much further than "hello" in conversing with vendors.

"I can't communicate," said Hom, whose parents are from Hong Kong. "Everyone around used to speak Cantonese. Now everyone is speaking Mandarin."

Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.

It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China's link to the West.

But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.
Well, the loud, cackling character of Cantonese is quite clear -- that was Kem's description of the language, "it sounds like they're always fighting." (Something, incidnetally, northern/western Indians say especially about Tamil. And, for that matter, Gujaratis say about Marathi-speakers. Having been at the receiving end of the invective of Bombay's legendary "macchiwaalis" [fisherwomen], I can concur!)

Anyway, Kem's friend M had also said that Cantonese wasn't really taught in the schools, and though still pretty commonly spoken in many areas of Guangdong province, it was slowly being displaced by Mandarin, both by virtue of the latter's having official backing, and by Mandarin-speaking immigrants settling from other parts of th China. [M also thought that Cantonese didn't have any tones. The Lonelyplanet guide says that it has six or seven. The LA times article says nine. I guess, a native speaker simply doesn't think about her language in the same way as an outsider.]

My favorite Cantonese expressions? "Chhowlaaaa" (Hey, get a move on! or Let's go!) and, the all purpose, "Hailaaa!" (Hey! Oh! Woah!)

[Yes, I'm up early. Since 430 am to be precise. It's called jetlag ... *sigh*]

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