It’s easy to forget that not far behind the most widely spoken Chinese language is the lovable Cantonese, of which most of us know of, and often hear, but are perhaps too afraid to explore further.
I’ve been thinking recently about the fact that, having now spent almost two years in the heart of Guangdong, my exposure to the local Cantonese language has been really limited, virtually null. My initial reaction of grateful relief upon finding out that basically everybody in the fair city of Dongguan speaks Mandarin was quite natural; after all it’s nice to not be completely dumbfounded by an incomprehensible language environment the moment you arrive to your new home. But after a year or two? How come the linguist in me hasn’t made an attempt to pick up the challenge?
Admittedly, Cantonese is by far the more difficult of the two languages. I don’t know about you, but its nine tones are certainly enough to intimidate me. Like most other foreigners, I’m still struggling with Mandarin’s puny four. Not that I’m completely tone-deaf, but it means that there’s one more thing to remember about each new syllable you learn, in addition to which sounds it contains, what it means and the character it’s represented by, you need to remember its tone as well. And I’m sure I don’t need to convince you of how vital it is to use the right tone when speaking Chinese. By now we’ve all experienced plenty of times the genuinely uncomprehending gawk of a taxi driver or a waitress when trying to convey a simple Chinese word, delivered with ever so slightly the wrong tone. I myself have been haunted for years now by my inability to pronounce one particular basic word, cha [茶] “tea” well enough for any waiter to ever understand what drink I’d like to order with my food. Seriously, it’s come to the point where I’ve simply given up and order kai shui [开水] “boiled water” instead.
The language is at its most useful when visiting our beloved next-door neighbors, Hong Kong and Macau, and there they still insist on using the ancient script without the simplifications that we’re all so grateful for.
Then there is the scary possibility that learning Cantonese might involve getting exposed to those beautiful cobwebs, the traditional Chinese characters. After all, the language is at its most useful when visiting our beloved next-door neighbors, Hong Kong and Macau, and there they still insist on using the ancient script without the simplifications that we’re all so grateful for. I don’t want to dispute the valid argument that traditional characters, unlike their simplified peers, might hold clues as to the meaning of the words they represent—yet their elaborate strokes and dashes are just so incredibly complicated! I’m simply in awe with anyone who can quickly write with traditional characters, it appears to be an impossible skill to acquire at my age though.
And so Cantonese remains slightly out of reach for the time being… Yet from time to time I get reminded of exactly how much I’m missing out on by not making the effort of learning the second-biggest Chinese language. Just the other day my Mandarin teacher finally managed to explain something that’s been bothering me for a long time: how come the name of my country, Sweden, [瑞典], sounds so different in Mandarin, “RuiDian?” It turns out, the same Chinese characters are pronounced “SeoiDin” in Cantonese. And all of a sudden it made sense. I remember visiting the ancient port area of Huangpu in Guangzhou a while ago. There was this rather small but exquisite museum there, relating the fascinating story of the first maritime contacts between China and the West. I was most impressed by the detail in which the Swedish East India Company was featured in the exposition, an entire room being dedicated exclusively to the Royal ship G?theborg, first launched in 1738, and its meticulously reconstructed modern-day replica visiting the port yet again in 2006. So, of course, it should come as no surprise that even the name of the country must have appeared first in Cantonese, the pronunciation of its name’s English version rather accurately, and charmingly, conveyed by the characters for “auspicious” [瑞] (seoi), and “standard” or “law” [典] (din).
So maybe one of those days I’ll need to pay my respects to Mandarin’s Southern cousin, Cantonese, if only to discover that it’s too much of a challenge for me…