Newsletter No. 478

478 • 19.5.2016 3 P rof. Samuel H.N. Cheung is Emeritus Professor at CUHK and University of California (Berkeley). A native of Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, he is a language expert with a zealous passion for Cantonese. During his return to Hong Kong in early April to give three Ch’ien Mu Lectures in History and Culture organized by New Asia College, the Newsletter had the opportunity to invite him to talk, from a broader linguistic perspective, on some phenomena of the Cantonese dialect, and at the same time clarifying some common misunderstanding of it. The interview was conducted in Cantonese and the content is summarized below. Will the lazy syllables we abhor today become proper pronunciations one day? It is a natural phenomenon to see pronunciations change with times. Examples can be found in the replacement of the initial velar nasal [ ŋ -] by [ ɔ -] in Cantonese during the past few decades. People tend to attribute it to laziness in articulation. In fact, the loss of [ ŋ -] in some Cantonese syllables happened even more than 100 years ago. As people got used to them, they accepted them as proper pronunciations and did not label them ‘lazy’. Predictably those considered ‘lazy’ today will be accepted as proper one day. Another trend of ‘lazy’ Cantonese pronunciation is the replacement of [n-] by [l-]. Contrarily, in the Sichuan dialect, [l-] is sometimes replaced by [n-], and in southern or Taiwan Mandarin, we find [- ŋ ] replacing [-n], which mean dropping the ‘easier’ pronunciation. I would say that ‘laziness’ is convenient but not sufficient for explaining pronunciation changes. Do the general users of a language determine its pronunciation development? Is it irreciprocal? One may impose standards on pronunciations. But who will have the say? Why? These issues are controversial. Mandarin/Putonghua has been chosen as the national language since the early 20th century, and pronunciations were benchmarked on the Peking dialect. But for some words, there are alternative pronunciations. The government authorities can mandate standard pronunciations on 言,就把英語硬性定為所有學校的教學語言。廣東話和普通 話為甚麼不可以共存?我們熱愛自己的語言,但是也不必抗 拒別的語言。今天許多年輕人都感到政府的決策好像處處 在掣肘或打壓粵語的發展,於是產生一種無以形容的語言 憂慮感,因為憂慮,所以多方推崇粵語,過分的推崇,會形 成一種語言的優越感,從而造成對其他強勢語言的抗拒。從 憂慮到優越,主要是導源於外在社會或政治的誘因。我們 假若不從根本層面來正視、解決這個問題,這問題恐怕會變 得越為複雜。 研究語言給你最大的滿足感是甚麼? 語言並不如想象中那樣古板或死板。相反地,語言是一種有 機體,有蓬勃的生命力,而且不斷在變化。乍看起來,語言似 乎是一堆雜亂無章的聲音和字詞,其實背後的組織和變化 大有脈絡可尋。研究語言首先就要觀察語言是怎麼通過聲 音來表達意思,從聲音字詞的組合,整理其間的關係,歸納 出組合的規律,解釋變化的模式。這些變化可能只屬於說話 者個人的習慣,或方言之間的異同,更可能是古今語言變化 的痕跡。我們甚至可以根據這種規律和模式預測語言日後 發展的路向。研究語言者個人對語言變化的喜惡取捨,無關 重要,最大的責任就在於能不斷的在捕捉、描述、解釋這些 變化,藉此提高或增進我們對這語言的了解。這世界上有多 少種語言,但仔細研究下來,我們會發現人的思維常常是共 通的,而表達思想的各種語言形式和變化也有很多類似的 特點。我們要是不從最細微的素材做起,就難以窺其大觀。 這樣看來,語言研究可以是一種跨時空的探討,挑戰性越 強,我們就越感到興奮。 Photo by ISO staff official occasions, but this artificial intervention will only serve to slow down the pace of natural change minimally. The minority will ultimately succumb to the majority. Cantonese retains the largest number of ancient syllables and is the best vehicle for revealing the beauty of classical Chinese rhymed literature— is it true? Yes andno. Cantonese has a long history, sodoother dialects. Some syllables in Fujianese date back to the Qin and Han dynasties. The most-cited ancient Cantonese syllables are those with final voiceless stops [-p, -t, -k], and the final nasal consonant [-m] which are completely absent in Putonghua now. Interestingly, Putonghua has three sets of palatal [j, q, x], retroflex [zhi, chi, shi] and dental [z, c, s] consonants as in Hanyu Pinyin, whereas Cantonese only has [dz, ts, s]. It is more justified to say that Cantonese has both retained and lost a large number of ancient syllables. Will students write better if they learn Chinese through Putonghua? Not necessarily. It’s true that there are considerable differences between spoken Cantonese and written Chinese, and not much between spoken Putonghua and written Chinese. You may say that one who knows Putonghua can skip the procedure of converting to the written language. But will that mean that all Pekingese can be writers? Writing is not simply transcribing the oral language, and can be enriched only by extensive reading of the classics. What’s your view on adopting Putonghua as the medium of teaching in Chinese language, and abandoning traditional Chinese characters for the simplified ones? If there are political considerations behind language policies, I won’t be able to give you an answer. Otherwise it is better to look at the issues rationally. Let us first ask ourselves: why do we have to choose between Putonghua and Cantonese as a medium of instruction, and between simplified and traditional characters in writing Chinese? What do we want to achieve? The launch of simplified Chinese characters and Romanization of Chinese were aimed at eradicating illiteracy. Is it still an urgent need in Hong Kong nowadays? If it is not, why don't we start by learning the traditional characters, which will enable us to read literatures one or two thousand years ago, contributing to the continuity of cultural legacies? On the other hand, since simplified characters are widely used in mainland China and its publications, knowledge of it is preferable from a pragmatic point of view. Similarly, we should also learn Putonghua since it is the national language. But it doesn’t mean that we should substitute Cantonese with Putonghua. Since Cantonese is the mother tongue of the majority population in Hong Kong, using it as a medium of instruction is undebatable. Why can’t Cantonese and Putonghua co-exist? We love our own language, but there is no need to discriminate against other languages. Many young people today are anxious of the future of Cantonese because they feel that government policies are imposing restrictions and pressure on the language. They react by building up its supremacy and rejecting other languages. The issue will become more complicated if we fail to see the problem for what it is. What satisfaction does language research bring you? The study of languages is nothing pedantic as one would imagine. It is full of fun. Each language is a constantly evolving organic system. The changes may look erratic at first glance, but with careful observation and analysis of the most trivial specimens, one may be able to identify the development patterns and the factors behind, and even predict its future development. This is most satisfying. The role of a linguist is not to judge or condemn any observed changes to his/her dislike, but to capture, describe and explain them. I am amazed that many linguistic development patterns are common among different languages. It shows that people do think alike. The MA thesis handwritten by Prof. Samuel Cheung in 1969 張洪年教授1969年手寫的碩士論文