Cantonese is only rarely included as part of broader discourses on language, but journalist James Griffiths (who lives in Hong Kong) has it as one of three languages considered in detail in his new book Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language. The other two are Welsh (the language of Griffiths’s own heritage) and Hawaiian.
That Speak Not is more politics than linguistics is telegraphed by the title. For Griffiths, language is the single most important aspect of group identity, both as marker and glue: that what makes the Welsh Welsh or Hawaiians Hawaiian is primarily the language, rather than lineage, culture, belief systems or lifestyles. While some might debate this, governments have all too often taken aim at minority languages with precisely this rationale in the name of national unity.
Griffiths takes each in turn, going back a century or more to put the language and language policy in a historical context. Both Welsh and Hawaiian are stories of formal repression and neglect. Less explicitly sinister, but just as harmful, inward anglophone immigration has meant that both are now minority languages in their own homelands. More recent attempts at regeneration and restoration hold out some hope: the jury is still out on their future, but Welsh in particular, writes Griffiths, seems to be on an upswing that may prove sustainable.
In short sections between the longer ones, Griffiths adds discussions on Africaans, Hebrew, Yiddish and, somewhat incongruously, Esperanto.
Cantonese fits less well into this narrative, since any repression, at least as far as Hong Kong is concerned, is hypothetical rather than actual, nor are Hong Kong’s Cantonese speakers in imminent danger of becoming a minority in their own city.
Griffiths’s intention, however, is to show a path by which Cantonese might possibly descend to irrelevance if not oblivion. He first places Cantonese into the context of a more than century-long process of linguistic centralization in China, including the development of Putonghua and the history of romanization of Chinese (something covered in more detail in David Moser’s A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language). The discussion of Cantonese itself is rather brief and it’s never quite clear how the past or present of Chinese language policy makes the jump to apply to Cantonese in Hong Kong.
Setting aside the 60-odd million speakers across the border, Cantonese is in Hong Kong the language of school, Government, courts, popular entertainment and everyday communication—except when it’s English. One can reasonably assume more Hong Kong people will over time become bilingual in Mandarin (for entirely sensible self-interested reasons) and largely gone are the days when Canto-pop artists could sing in Cantonese and hope for a Mainland audience, but neither itself means that Cantonese is endangered, to say nothing of doomed.
This difference of view is to some extent one of time span: in the Cantonese chapter he notes that
Language decline happens very quickly, in a generation or two, and can be exceptionally hard to stop once the process is underway.
In the Hong Kong context, 50-60 years is hardly “very quickly”: it’s almost forever. Furthermore, as Griffiths notes elsewhere, in the same period, Hebrew went from a language that was as essentially dead as Latin to the revived, living national language of Israel. A lot can happen in a generation or two even in places which change more sedately than does Hong Kong.
This is however hardly an argument for complacency. Several years ago, I suggested a “Museum of the Chinese language” modeled (it was hardly an original idea) on the Museu da Língua Portuguesa in São Paulo, which would, being based in Hong Kong, have a substantial section on Cantonese which
could also reference Cantonese-language culture (music, film, etc.) and the Cantonese diaspora, and help establish (or re-establish) Hong Kong as the hub for this aspect of Chinese culture, catalyse links with Cantonese communities abroad, and help develop a sense of Chinese diasporic history.
Macanese patuá, on the other hand: now there’s an endangered language. Griffiths has chosen a particular subset of languages to discuss in depth: those that have, had or might have a politically autonomous territory to go with them. Such languages have some ability to resist the centralizing tendencies of the larger, dominant language: politically by requiring its use, and socially by creating an economic advantage in jobs that require knowing the language. Languages that can’t aspire to this are likely in real medium-term trouble. And there, Griffiths is spot on: the survival of many languages—and perhaps the identities that go with them—depends on politics.