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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Cantonese Is Losing Its Voice

Speakers of the spicy tongue that can make words of love sound like a fight are having to learn its linguistic kin, the mellower Mandarin.

January 03, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Carson Hom's family has run a thriving fortune cookie and almond cookie company in Los Angeles County for 35 years.

And for much of that time, it was a business that required two languages: Cantonese, to communicate with employees and the Chinese restaurants that bought the cookies, and English, to deal with health inspectors, suppliers and accountants.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Cantonese dialect -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about the decline of the Cantonese dialect in North America's Chinese communities identified Cantonese speaker Victor Law as an accountant. He is a pharmacist.

But when Hom, 30, decided to start his own food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn't enough anymore.

He checked out the competition at a recent Chinese products fair in the San Gabriel Valley and found that he couldn't get much further than "hello" in conversing with vendors.

"I can't communicate," said Hom, whose parents are from Hong Kong. "Everyone around used to speak Cantonese. Now everyone is speaking Mandarin."

Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.

It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China's link to the West.

But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China's official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can't be done with Cantonese alone.

Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin any way they can -- by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for expensive immersion courses and even making more Mandarin-speaking friends. This is no cinch. Although Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language, they are spoken as differently as English and French.

At the same time, few people are learning Cantonese. San Jose State University and New York University offer classes, but they are almost alone among colleges with established Cantonese communities. The language is not taught at USC, UCLA, Pasadena City College, San Francisco State or Queens College in New York, to name a few.

With the changes, some are lamenting -- in ways they can do only in Cantonese -- the end of an era. Mandarin is now the vernacular of choice, and they say it doesn't come close to the colorful and brash banter of Cantonese.

"You might be saying, 'I love you' to your girlfriend in Cantonese, but it will still sound like you're fighting," said Howard Lee, a talk show host on Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430). "It's just our tone. We always sound like we're in a shouting match. Mandarin is so mellow. Cantonese is strong and edgy."

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Cantonese is said to be closer than Mandarin to ancient Chinese. It is also more complicated. Mandarin has four tones, so a character can be intonated four ways with four meanings. Cantonese has nine tones.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Chinese government tried to make Mandarin the national language in an effort to bridge the myriad dialects across the country. Since then, the government has been working to simplify the language, renamed Putonghua, and give it a proletarian spin. To die-hard Cantonese, no fans of the Communist government, this is one more reason to look down on Mandarin.

Many say it is far more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules and formulas. Image-rich slang litters the lexicon and can leave anyone ignorant of the vernacular out of touch.

"You have to really listen to people if you want to learn Cantonese," said Gary Tai, who teaches the language at New York University and is also a principal at a Chinese school in Staten Island. "You have to watch movies and listen to songs. You can't learn the slang from books."

Popular phrases include the slang for getting a parking ticket, which in Cantonese is "I ate beef jerky," probably because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. And teo bao (literally "too full") describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.

Many sayings are coined by movie stars on screen. Telling someone to chill out, comedian Stephen Chow says: "Drink a cup of tea and eat a bun."

Then there are the curse words, and what an abundance there is.

A four-syllable obscenity well known in the Cantonese community punctuates the end of many a sentence.

"I think we all agree that curse words in Cantonese just sound better," said Lee, the radio host. "It's so much more of a direct hit on the nail. In Mandarin, they sound so polite."

His colleague, news broadcaster Vivian Lee, chimed in to clarify that the curse words were not vindictive.

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