What I’ve learned from conversations with bloggers and others who are Chinese language speakers, and therefore have a stake in this, is that even thoughtful Chinese people have unwittingly accepted very authoritarian definitions of language and dialect: only officially recognised languages are language, and everything else is dialect. When one says Cantonese is not a language, it’s a dialect, what one is implicitly agreeing to is that Cantonese is inferior, status-wise, nothing more.
Honestly, I already knew that this dialect/language distinction was essentially a denigration of all Chinese languages not just Mandarin. This is precisely why I was so distressed to hear postmodernised, Westernised Mandarin speakers agree to it, and why I was even more distressed, yet driven to understand, when Hongkie friends of mine, particularly ones who I know are no lovers of Beijing, said things like, “I think I agree that Cantonese is a dialect, at least in the linguistic sense.”
This is from a guy who didn’t need anyone to tell him that “that Standardisation of Chinese is artificial and political.” Still, he had accepted Beijing’s definition of language. At this point, many of these people have come around to my position, particularly to the meaning of these English words and how they should refer to Chinese languages. So now I’d like to make a case for the importance of this distinction.
By allowing their language to be denigrated simply because it is not recognised by a sovereign authority, Hong Kong people implicitly give power to Big Beijing. Beijing controls all language, all Hong Kong people have a say in is dialect. And that means that things said in dialect are less serious, less official, less political, than things said in language. The effect is to lower the status and seriousness of discourse in Cantonese, and to elevate discourse written or spoken in the language that Beijing controls.
Big Beijing’s attempt to control the language available for serious discourse among educated adults may be the most truly Orwellian aspect of the 21st Century Chinese state. Sure, Beijing spies on it’s citizens through the 21st century equivalent of Orwell’s telescreens, but the US government makes Beijing look like a bunch of amateurs in this regard. Sure, it censors political speech using the same techniques favored by the repressive regimes of Orwell’s time. What no government has been able to do to the extent that Beijing has, is control language. But this is true only if people accept Beijing’s definition of language, and its denigration of what it calls dialect.
What was so revolutionary about the Luther Bible was that it was written not in Latin but in German, a language not controlled by the Big Brother of 16th Century Europe, the Roman Catholic Church. It’s democratising effect allowed ordinary people to read the Bible, but it may also have contributed to the formation of the Modern High German Language, and so also to German identity and eventual German Nationalism. Language is political, and it’s more politically potent when it’s legitimised.
Elevating the status of ordinary people’s vernacular elevates the discourse of ordinary people up to the level of political elites. A contemporary of Luther’s noted that, “in a few months [after publication of the Luther Bible] such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.” By giving the language of the common people new status, Luther empowered the common people to talk back to the authorities, to take their language outside of their homes and marketplaces and into the political arena.
Bottom line: Big Beijing, like Big Brother, cannot actually control the way ordinary Chinese people talk, not in the Mainland, and certainly not in HK. Even so, it can control language by controlling which languages get called languages, and therefore reducing the languages it cannot control to nothing more than the uninformed ramblings of common folk…if Cantonese speakers accept it. But there is reason to believe that they do not accept it, as evidenced by simultaneous protests in Guangdong and HK over Big Beijing’s attempts to enforce its newspeak on Cantonese speakers.
HK Canto has always struck me as a very democratic language: constantly played with and augmented by the kids on the street, slangy and prescriptive grammatical-rule breaking. By preserving their language, HK people disallow a potential avenue for Beijing’s influence on thought and culture, and many are very aware of this, implicitly or explicitly. But it will be harder to preserve a dialect than a language. So why not call it what it is, if you value it?
So that’s why I think this semantic issue is important. I’ll have to hold off on how or why it’s seemingly so simple for authorities to convince people of the lower status of their own language, discourse, and culture. My thoughts are already quite different from what I had originally planned to write, and the dialectic I’m involved in hasn’t finished teaching me yet.