Sociopolitical meaning of Mandarin-Cantonese code-switching

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Code-switching and borrowing are two sides of the same sociolinguistic coin, since there is a strong positive correlation between synchronic alternations from one language to another and the actual diachronic transfer of linguistic form/pattern from one to the other.

In my last article, I analyzed some very common Cantonese terms borrowed from English and argued that they were adapted to native Cantonese grammatical rules, which reveals some subtleties in the multilingual inventory of Hong Kong people.

Code-switching between linguistic varieties is another prominent sociolinguistic phenomenon that may also have more intricacies than immediately meets the eye, since despite all the fervor about the preservation of Cantonese against Mandarin intrusion, the relationship between these two dialects (not languages) is far more complex than a simple antagonization. This is because Mandarin, being the official Sinitic variety in the whole of China (and most of the Sinosphere), may be more embedded into Hong Kong society than most people think, which makes certain code-switches highly significant and rhetorically effective.

The discourse factors behind the code-switching between Mandarin and Cantonese (and English) in Hong Kong have been extensively investigated, and this is especially relevant in the recent political climate where there have been numerous independence movements that form part of the so-called Umbrella Movement, which contains many linguistic features that are socio-politically significant, as briefly explained in this video:

It has been widely observed that many of the political slogans and art forms contain Cantonese idioms, such as the titular symbol of “umbrella,” which is called 雨傘 (yusan) in Mandarin but 遮 (ze) in Cantonese, and while many international experts refer to the “Umbrella Revolution” as 雨傘革命, the local expression is widely known as 遮打革命, which not only contains the local Cantonese word for “umbrella” (遮) but also 打 “hit,” symbolizing retaliation/resistance, and 遮打 is also homophonous with “Chater,” the name of the street (遮打道 Chater Road) where the protests started in September 2014.

Other important Cantonese features include the verb (chaang), which means “to support/resist” in colloquial Cantonese and does not exist in modern Mandarin, and the exclusive use of traditional characters, which are mainly attested in Hong Kong, Taiwan and expat communities, while the simplified characters are universally adopted in the mainland.

However, it is simplistic to interpret these Cantonese features as straightforward antagonisms of Mandarin, and scholars seem to have overlooked the fact that, some (not all) slogans and graffiti aside, most of the political expressions in Hong Kong are actually written in Mandarin.

What most people do not realize about the Chinese language is that Mandarin is not just the official dialectus francus of China and much of the Sinosphere, it has also been the accepted form of formal writing ever since the 54 movement in the 1911 nationalist revolution, which standardized Chinese writing throughout China.

Cantonese, on the other hand, though being the local vernacular in Hong Kong and much of Guangdong province, is primarily a spoken register used mainly for colloquial purposes, and although written Cantonese vernacular literature does exist, it is widely perceived as informal and possibly vulgar, as seen in Samuel Hui’s (許冠傑) classic Cantonese folk songs and various contemporary Cantonese raps, some of which are used during the protest movement:

The language choice in Hong Kong is hence to a certain extent self-contradictory, as Hong Kong people are faced with a sociolinguistic dilemma when choosing between Mandarin (literary/written plus mainland) and Cantonese (colloquial/spoken plus Hong Kong).

On the geopolitical front, it makes sense to prioritize Cantonese (Hong Kong) over Mandarin (mainland), yet from a literary perspective Cantonese (colloquial/vulgar) is not really appropriate for serious political expression, which surely requires Mandarin (literary/formal) as its literary medium.

For these reasons, it is important to bear in mind that, with the exception of some forms of “low” genres for which colloquial Cantonese is appropriate, all the Cantonese features mentioned above are actually embedded within literary Mandarin, even if it is read/sung aloud in Cantonese.

Here code-switching between Mandarin and Cantonese becomes very striking and ingenious, since Hong Kong political artists, in embedding Cantonese within Mandarin, do so at highly significant junctures, which conveys their message effectively. One of the main songs used during the Umbrella Revolution was 撐起雨傘, which is beautifully rendered in the following a cappella version:

The lyrics of this song are written entirely in literary Chinese, which is Mandarin-based, and every literate Chinese person can certainly understand it by reading.

In the chorus, however, there is a very striking, almost harshly inserted, use of the verb 撐 (Cantonese “to support/resist,” as explained above) in the melodic catchphrase 一起的撐  (“let’s support/resist together”) where 撐, being in essence a colloquial word, seems dissonantly incompatible with the rest of the lyrics. Yet it is precisely this verbal dissonance, used so sparingly (notice that the word for “umbrella” here (一起擧傘 “let’s raise our umbrellas together”) is the standard Mandarin 傘, rather than the politically loaded 遮, as explained above), which marks it out so emphatically that one feels the full force of the meaning 撐 “to support/resist.”

This is a breathtaking example of Mandarin-Cantonese code-switching that powerfully conveys the message of these Hong Kong protesters.

The subtle code-switching between Mandarin and Cantonese in these quasi-literary works further indicates the linguistic creativity of Hong Kong people, since while they obey established sociolinguistic norms of using Mandarin (literary) and Cantonese (colloquial) accordingly, they also switch into Cantonese at artistically significant moments, which underlies their political agenda.

Moreover, this form of Mandarin-Cantonese code-switching reveals another dimension in Hong Kong Chinese that further complexifies the boundaries between these two dialects and the whole issue regarding “language” and “dialect”, especially from a sociolinguistic perspective.

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