Cantonese, the lingua franca of Hong Kong, is a language so difficult that it once reduced me to tears. I first started studying it intensively at the Chinese University of Hong Kong two years ago in a program that, like most language instruction nowadays, prohibits the use of English in the classroom. For the entire first month, I struggled to get my bearings in a language that has a challenging grammar, as well as—depending on which linguist you consult—six, seven, or eight different tones. (Hong Kong linguists Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip have written a terrific, lively, and readable book on Cantonese grammar.)
Finally, one afternoon in the student lounge, I totally lost it over a single syllable: dou.
If you listen very carefully to Cantonese-speaking people talking on the street in Hong Kong or in any Chinatown in the United States (American Chinatowns were originally settled by immigrants who came from Guangdong province, where Cantonese originated), your ear will soon pick out three frequently used sounds: hai, la, and dou.
“Hai” only has two main intonations, so its meanings are easy to grasp—it can either indicate direction (as in, “hai jo bihn“—on the left) or “is” (and as in Japanese, hai is often used like a yes). With beginners, Cantonese instructors usually skip over the other, more perilous intonations of “hai.”(There are two additional ways of saying it—one means crab, the other vagina. That’s why eager Western Cantonese students are a source of endless amusement for Hong Kong’s restaurant waiters.)
“La” is also pretty straightforward. It’s a “sentence final,” a spoken exclamation point. Since Cantonese is a tonal language, it doesn’t easily let the speaker convey emotion or surprise, disbelief or agreement, by raising or lowering the pitch of his voice, as in the English, “Oh really!?” So Cantonese speakers save up all these emotional cues and put them into the little syllables attached to the ends of each sentence. (Linguists, who write theses on these particles, have counted 84 of them.) La! can be a command (as in laih la!—come here), or it can be a declaration that something is over, done, finished. And, in Hong Kong, there’s the very popular variation, “Ge la!” the city’s equivalent of a harried New Yorker’s, “All right already!”
But “dou” is quicksand for the beginner. Depending where you place it and how you pitch it, it can mean here, there, where, more, how much, to, from, able to accomplish, able to reach, everybody, and also. It can also mean gamble and knife. Really, in Cantonese the dou is out of hand. I can remember concentrating intently on the conversations around me, struggling to separate dou from dou, wondering if I was ever going to figure it out and whether I was crazy for even trying.
Language learning happens on its own schedule, like Zen enlightenment, I suppose. Your brain stubbornly refuses to accept a new system of sounds and ideas, and then when you’re not paying attention, wham! One day I was sitting in the MTR train, and I realized I’d been eavesdropping, without thinking, on the cell phone conversation of the guy sitting next to me.
I don’t cry over my dou s anymore. I’ve finally reached the point where Cantonese is fun. This morning, for instance, I ran an errand down on the “ladder street”—the steep old brick-staired lane in the central district—to find the lady who does alterations in her little street stall with a sewing machine and a million spools of different-colored thread. I asked her in Cantonese if she could jing—fix—the rip in my trousers. “Jing dou!” she replied, smiling at me and adding the slightest extra trace of emphasis to the upward swing on the dou, letting me know that yes, absolutely, she could.
I continued down the ladder street, past shoemakers and ribbon sellers. It was the morning business rush, and the jazz improvisation of Cantonese sentence finals was in full flow: inviting las, impatient ge las, and surprised ahs and gahs spun and percolated around me. Cantonese is like Italian to Mandarin’s German. Mandarin only has four tones and far fewer sentence finals and therefore much less room for improvisation. If your ear is tuned to Cantonese, Mandarin sounds like speech run through a compressor.
“One Country, Two Systems” doesn’t say anything about language. But the official language of mainland China, standard Mandarin (called Putonghua), is now drifting inexorably into Hong Kong with the hawkers who come down with their boxes and big plastic suitcases across the border from Shenzhen; with the rich businessmen who fly in from Beijing to cut deals; with the groups of happy, chain-smoking package tourists who arrive from Hunan. Sophisticated Hong Kongers may sometimes sneer at these “bridge and tunnel” mainland country cousins, but they value business opportunity above almost anything else, so they are racing to catch up and get fluent in Putonghua. And why not? Free flow of language is good, and across the border in Guangzhou city, nearly all Cantonese are perfectly bilingual.
But it’s still unclear how much, or even whether, the two languages will be left to flow and evolve freely to find their own balance, and this worries me. The other day the South China Morning Post ran an interview with a mainland Chinese official named Yuan Zhongrui, the head of something called the Putonghua Popularization Office in the Chinese ministry of education. There’s a need to “popularize” Putonghua, the “people’s language,” because in China, Putonghua is nobody’s native tongue—it’s a construct, a national standard language that was officially adopted after the revolution to unite the far-flung regions of China. Even after more than 50 years, something like half the rural residents of China don’t speak it, preferring their local languages and dialects.
“We will not support the trend [away from Putonghua], and we will not support the production of TV and movies in dialects,” proclaimed Mr. Yuan. “In addition, we are discouraging public servants from making speeches on television in dialects.” (Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is ahead of the curve here. He routinely addresses Hong Kong citizens using the “official” national language most of them can’t understand—which is a big reason why Hong Kongers don’t like him.)
I understand the reasons behind the push for Putonghua. China is a big country, and people have to communicate. But messing with Cantonese in Hong Kong—well, that’s going to raise more of an outcry here than any anti-democracy or sedition bill. The swing of every great city is in its native speech, from New Yorker’s English to Rio’s carioca Portuguese to Havana’s swallowed-consonant Cuban Spanish. People identify and take pride in themselves as denizens of a particular place by the way they talk. As I get deeper into Cantonese, the more I understand that Hong Kong’s energy, inventiveness, intricacy, and style is inseparable from the language it speaks. It is worth tears to learn. May it be spoken for 10,000 years.