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Kazuyuki Nomura (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Abstract ID: 236
Topic: Humiliation, insecurity, and languagised pride: Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin into the third decade of postcolonial Hong Kong

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Panel Abstract

In January 2018, a group of students occupied the language centre of a Hong Kong public university to protest against the exemption test for a compulsory Mandarin (Putonghua) course, claiming that the test was unreasonably rigorous. This incident has sparked a widespread controversy as to whether Mandarin—China’s official language and the nationally/globally accepted standard—should be a compulsory language in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China where Cantonese has been spoken as its dominant vernacular since the British colonial era. Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible yet linguistically affiliated languages, sharing a written standard.

Whilst the significance of Mandarin is widely acknowledged in Hong Kong due to the overwhelming presence of mainland China (Lai 2011), Cantonese seems increasingly associated with a strong local identity especially after the Umbrella Movement in 2014. From a critical sociolinguistic perspective, this ethnographic study explores the indexicality of Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin in contemporary Hong Kong through in-depth interviews of local Hongkongers and participant observations of classrooms, workplaces, and personal gatherings. The findings suggest that the participants tend to feel humiliated and insecure because the socioeconomic dominance of Hong Kong vis-à-vis mainland China has diminished since the 2000s. This triggers fear that Mandarin can oust Cantonese from its regional dominance in the near future.

Consequently, a strong sense of languagised pride in Cantonese has arisen alongside a subtle antagonism towards Mandarin. Many Hongkongers—especially youngsters—have come to defend Cantonese as an emblem of Hong Kong’s locality and linguistic uniqueness rather than a mere ‘dialect’ of Chinese as they conceived in the past.

This shift in Cantonese’s indexical value can be contextualised in the current globalised, deterritorialised climate, in which ‘languages are reinvigorated as symbols of unity and essential life-skills in a time of fragmentation’ (Jurgen and Madsen 2016: 246). Even so, Hongkongers are yet to imagine themselves as having an ethnicity independent of the Chinese. Imagining Cantonese as an independent local language still evokes the romanticised past of ancient China. In fact, Cantonese is ideologically tied up with linguistic purism; Cantonese is even believed less ‘degraded’ than Mandarin, influenced by the languages of the past northern conquerors.


Jaspers, Jurgen and Lian M. Madsen. 2016. Sociolinguistics in a Languagised world: Introduction. Applied Linguistic Review 7: 235-258.

Lai, Mee Ling. 2011. Cultural identity and language attitudes – into the second decade of postcolonial Hong Kong. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 32: 249-264.