Get Started in Cantonese

I met an English lady at a social function in the UK. She told me that for many years she’d lived in Hong Kong. When she eventually decided to learn a Chinese language, she chose Mandarin/Putonghua. Her case is not unusual, because Mandarin is the preferred Chinese language in Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. There are many reasons for their choice: for many years, the language has been predominant among the 1.3 billion inhabitants of China and, in terms of tones, it is easier to learn than Cantonese: there are four tones in Mandarin, but six in Cantonese — not to mention on-going debates among scholars on the number of actual tones in Cantonese!

If the world has decided to set Cantonese aside, I as a native speaker of the language feel the need to join those who are preserving it — and hence the outcome of Get Started in Cantonese! I am delighted that Hodder & Stoughton have chosen to publish the book.

Cantonese has long been one of the major languages in China. It is spoken by more than 80 million people in the southern province of Canton (East and West), Hong Kong and Macau/Macao, and is also widely spoken beyond China, in South-East Asia and locales such as Cambodia, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States. It is by no means a slang version of Mandarin. The historical record of Cantonese can be traced to China’s Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when the soldiers were stationed in the modern day Canton. One can also find Cantonese in such ancient Chinese literature as Sī-gīng (in Cantonese), Shī-jīng (in Mandarin), and in English The Book of Songs. Many ancient Chinese elements which no longer exist in Mandarin survive in Cantonese. A notable example is the final stop consonants m, p, t, k, which are now found only in Cantonese. If we recite poems from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), we find that such works will rhyme where Cantonese rhymes, whereas Mandarin fails to produce a similar effect.

Like English and Mandarin there is a number of Cantonese variants. In Get Started In Cantonese (December 2013), I have been using Hong Kong Cantonese as a basis instead of such varieties of Canton East, Canton West and Macau. So as to open the door to non-Chinese-speakers, the book is primarily presented in English. There is however a need to have a version of it in Chinese characters.

Cantonese, in Hong Kong, is used by over seven million people — and is by no means easy. To be able to acquire a range of words and phrases from this book, and use them in appropriate tones, will already be quite an achievement. Languages evolve over the years, and proficiently mastering one of them can be a life-long undertaking. If we enjoy such a challenge, learn Cantonese!

Get Started in Cantonese
Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN – 1 – 4441 – 7499 – 1
ISBN – 978 – 1 – 4441 – 7499 – 1

Jacqueline Lam, PhD, FCIL
was born in Hong Kong and grew up with a range of languages that includes Cantonese, English, Fujianese/Hokkien(ese), Hakka/Hoklo, Mandarin/Putonghua, Shanghainese, Teochew/Chaozhou, and Toishanese/Taishanese. Her sense of ethnicity became strong while studying Linguistics at Exeter, under the influence of her PhD supervisor, Reinhard Hartmann. Her interest in Cantonese has flourished with the encouragement of her husband, Tom McArthur, author of The Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English (1981), and the founding editor of the Cambridge quarterly journal English Today (1989-), and The Oxford Companion to the English Language(1992-).

Welcome all our members to support Ms Lam’s good work!