Cantonese-related Issue

Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign No More by Tsz-Yan LEUNG


Led by the iconic advocate Professor Richard Ho Man-wui, who is a celebrated Chinese scholar from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign has been promoted in Hong Kong since the early 80s (Asprey, 2007). This campaign is currently gaining publicity with the aid of television and radio programmes pursuing correct Cantonese pronunciation, the establishment of the Association for the Promotion of Proper Cantonese Pronunciation, and the recent implementation of the pronunciation assessment of the Chinese oral exam in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). Castigating Cantonese speakers for mistakenly pronouncing their native tongue, Ho (1995, 2001) accentuates that the correct enunciation should be based on an ancient rime dictionary – Guangyun. Nevertheless, the seemingly conceivable foundation of the campaign is, in fact, unfounded, questionable and misguided. Given the implausible reference as well as the disruption on the natural, beneficial and progressing language change, the promotion of the Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign ought not to be encouraged.

Oppression of the natural, progressing and beneficial language change

Notwithstanding, the promotion of the Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign has gravely interrupted natural language metamorphosis. Forasmuch as every language evolves with time involving multifarious factors, language change is defined as a natural evolutionary process which is inevitable, subconscious and dynamic (Aitchison, 2001; Beard, 2004; Fromkin et al., 2003). It takes place spontaneously in the way a seed germinates and an infant grows up to be an adult. During phonological transformation, which is automatic, simultaneous and beyond conscious awareness, the articulatory system evolves (Aitchison, 2001; Lass, 1997). Nonetheless, language correctness campaigns coerce people into speaking in particular ways which are institutionalized and adopted by a particular interest group. Competing with the transforming speech spoken people in the community, the artificially-corrected speech oppresses and intrudes upon the natural language development.

Inasmuch as its nature is beneficial, language change should not be fixed or regulated. Being a vitally important tool for communication, a language should be convenient, efficient and effective; consequently, language evolves according to the ease of effort and articulation (Aitchison, 2001; Labov, 1994). According to “the principle of least effort” affirmed by Labov (1994), speakers tend to speak as rapidly and with as little effort as is required to be understood by addressees. The resultant sound change and reduction of phonetic form constitutes more economical and efficacious speeches.

However, Ho (1995, 2001) censures that the reduction of articulation resulted from language change is a kind of laziness. He stresses that many native Cantonese speakers produce “lazy” sounds by misarticulating [n] as [l], [kʷ] as [k], [kʷʰ] as [kʰ] and [m] as [ŋ]; for instance, many speakers mispronounce the word [nai5] (meaning “milk”) as [lai5] and [kʷɔk8] (country) as [kɔk8]. Furthermore, he complains that some speakers also omit the word-initial velar nasals [ŋ]; for example, they may misarticulate [ŋɔ5] (I) as [ɔ5]. 

Possessing the meaning of “unwilling to exert any effort”, “laziness” is regarded as a voluntary behavior; nonetheless, the articulation changes or reduction are owing to the physiological and psychological make-up of human beings as suggested by Aitchison (2001). Subsequently, there exists no voluntary laziness in phonological and articulatory transformation, but rather, language change is inevitable and automatic.
A campaign resulting from over-reaction

Indeed, the launch of such campaign is, in fact, merely a consequence of the public’s over-reaction. While language keeps changing according to its nature, minor deviation from the norm was not noticed initially as stated by Aitchison (2001) and Labov (1994). He also stresses that once the deviation has reached the threshold, it would suddenly emerge into public consciousness and the oppositional forces would boycott against these non-standard features. The over-stimulation induces numerous criticisms against the normal but unnoticed conventional transformation. Afterwards, people begin to label these “alien words” as mistaken, incorrect and ill-formed. Given that the unrecognized conventional change does exist and has made significant contributions to the language, it is unfair and unreasonable to disapprove and to disregard such a natural process.

The invasion of traditional convention and history

Language convention as a neutral process

Being a convention through social communication and interaction, language should not be marked by “correctness” (Lass, 1997). Language interacts with different speakers transversely and transforms across different generations longitudinally. Aitchison (2001) asserts that when speakers casually come into contact with others through conversation, they tend to accommodate others’ speech in a minor way; sooner or later, a conventional and traditional change is developed. The same phenomenon happens in Cantonese. Supposed the reduction of articulation begins with a speaker following a sound change from [n] to [l]. This individual change is assimilated into the speech community. Through the spreading process from person to person and from group to group, ultimately, the sounds [n] and [l] come into a free-variation relationship and are accepted by most speakers due to the heritage of tradition. As language is a tradition which changes with people’s needs, as long as speakers can communicate satisfactorily with one another, language change is in no sense wrong.

Inversion of language history
Admonishing Cantonese speakers for mispronunciation of words as due to wrong reference, Professor Ho argued that every pronunciation of Cantonese word should retrieve its reference from Guangyun (Wong, 2007). According to Biggerstaff and Teng (1971), composed during the Song Dynasty from 1007 to 1011 and completed in the Northern Song Dynasty, Guangyun is a Chinese rime dictionary recording the sound of Middle Chinese, which is believed to be the origin of Cantonese. In attempting of maintaining its stability, the campaign emphasizes that language should be mastermind, regulated and shaped officially based on the above reference (Asprey, 2007).


The reference of the Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign not only violates the natural language transformation but also reverses language history. Basically, the modern Cantonese pronunciation is far different from that of the Middle Chinese used in the Song Dynasty, owing to phonological changes. An evidential instance is that there are only five contour tones (Shangpin, Xiapin, Shang, Qu and Ru) in the Middle Chinese whilst there exist nine tones (Pin, Shang, Qu, Ru with Yin or Yang combination and Zhongyinru) in modern Chinese (Mak, 2006). Such reference of pronunciation severely disregards the profound contribution to Cantonese phonological development made by the Yuen, Ming, Qing Dynasties and the modern generation (Mak, 2006); subsequently, the campaign overturns the language history and even capsizes the Chinese civilization fostered throughout the last one thousand years.

Problematic prescriptive approach

Based on a prescriptive approach, Ho (1995) accused native speakers of the mistaken pronunciation of Cantonese due to the lack of phonetic awareness and knowledge of word origin. This approach lays down a rule-controlled system and obliges an arbitrary standard of correctness (Aitchision, 2001; Beard, 2004; Fromkin et al., 2003); that is, if the pronunciation deviates from the artificially standardized phonological and phonetic rules, it is perceived as “incorrect”. 

Nonetheless, the prescriptive approach is doomed to fail owing to the dynamic nature of language (Fromkin et al., 2003). This approach tries to earmark an artificial “correctness” on the language system with finite and preset rules set up by a group of people with a special interest, mainly linguists. Nonetheless, as the rules are fixed and unchanged while the language keeps transforming naturally, the rules can never properly and accurately prescribe a language as time elapses. Additionally, the prescriptive approach only concerns itself with language correctness but overlooks the contribution human beings have made on the language. It is human who give language its life and subsequently, one should not use prescriptive rules to bind language development.

An artifice of language policy

Hidden agendas from the government

Across the globe, governments consider language as a representational tool to manipulate political, social and educational agendas (Shohamy, 2006). They shape a language into a finite and closed system since they assume the status of language should be parallel to the finite and closed society (Hutton, 1999). Shohamy (2006, p.43) also states that “language…is used as a symbol and as an ideological tool in order to create and consolidate group membership and indicate the degree of inclusion, patriotism and loyalty to the state”; Hong Kong is not exception. Shaping and regulating the language by legislation and language policy, the nationalists utilize language as an artifice to maintain the unity of the territory in Hong Kong.

Language education policy is closely associated with government agendas (Shohamy, 2006). The most prominent intervention of the Hong Kong government in language development is the alteration of the testing system in the HKCEE. The government created a standardization of Cantonese pronunciation by implementing the pronunciation assessment on the Chinese oral exam with no questions asked with respect to the quality and the appropriateness from the public. Since what is taught by teachers is always assumed to be correct and appropriate, the students and parents blindly follow what they have been told. Ultimately, the government has successfully imposed a very strong language manipulation.

Problems with language policy

Despite the “politically correct” intention to maintain language unity, this kind of language policy severely violates democratic principles (Shohamy, 2006) and the majority of speakers do not have the right to speak in their own way. Moreover, the language policy merely represents a view of a minority group toward the standardization of Cantonese pronunciation and therefore, the policy lacks representation.


The promotion of the Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign involves unnatural manipulation of language which severely distorts the nature of the language system and the basic principles of linguistics. It not only upends the language’s history, language convention and language tradition, but also deforms the Chinese civilization as it has developed throughout generations. Worse still, aim at manipulating the territory, this campaign is contaminated by the hidden agendas from the government and it subjugates the freedom of speakers and the independent status of language. Given the evidence of all of these reported fallacies, the promotion of the Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign should no longer be encouraged.



Aitchison, J. (2001). Language change: Progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Asprey, D. (2007, June 16). Toned up, tuned in, turned off by coarse language

. South China Morning Post.


Beard, A. (2004). Language change. London: Routledge.

Fromkin, V., Hyams, R., & Rodman, R. (2003). An introduction to language. Boston: Heinle.

Ho, M. W. (1995).《粤音教學紀事》[Records of the career of my Cantonese pronunciation teaching]. Hong Kong: Wu Duotai zhongguo yuwen yanjiu zhongxin.

Ho, M. W. (2001).《粤音自學提綱》[An outline for the self-study of Cantonese pronunciation]. Hong Kong: Xianggang jiaoyu tushu gongsi.

Hutton, C. (1999). Linguistics and the third reich. London: Routledge.

Labov, W. (1994). Principles of linguisitc change. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Lass, R. (1997). Historical linguistics and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mak, C. C. (2006, December 26).《粵語正音運動的謬誤》[Yueyu zhengyin yundongde miuwu. Message posted to

Shohamy, E. (2006). Language policy: Hidden agendas and new approaches. New York: Routledge.

Biggerstaff, K., & Teng, S. Y. (1971). An annotated bibliography of selected Chinese reference works (3rd ed.). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Wong, T. C. (2007, June).《正音事件的來龍去脈》[Zhengyin shijiande lailongqumo]. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from

7 responses

14 05 2010
Jomin Lee

feel only those basic cantonese pronouns from here. wish to have more. thanks.

25 10 2011

I agree with you totally. French goverments have waged a silmilar campaign to preserve the ‘purity’ of their language and have ended up looking stupid as a result.
Languages everywhere change and grow, and trying to stop this is like trying to hold back the tide.
Language is one area where democracy really does rule. Those in power may try and exercise some control, but ultimately all they will do is make themselves look foolish.
Long live Cantonese, however it ends up sounding!

21 01 2014
Go for aesthetic appeal

3 Out of 4 major ethnic chinese communities( china, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) adopt mandarin as official language. The only exception is Hong Kong whose 7 million population is dominantly cantonese. Cantonese was made the additional official language in Hong Kong in early 1970s. However the spoken form of cantonese is incompatible to the written standard as seen in school textbook and formal document, making the learning process far more difficult. Cantonese learning material is also far less to be found. Besides cantonese is only spoken in the southern province Guangdong and Hong Kong whereas mandarin is spoken and understood all over china. Children in Hong Kong are also expected to learn mandarin. Some schools even switch to teach chinese in mandarin as it is far more efficient. Standard written form of chinese is much compatible with spoken mandarin.
Cantonese came into being because of the indigenous people living in the Guangdong area adopting the chinese language from the more civilized central china in the ancient time. Its written standard is chinese but it’s spoken form is much influenced by the local accent and way of expression of the indigenous people, pretty much like the African slaves in America adopting English to become Ebonics. As much as Ebonics is considered as improper English by the mainstream English world, cantonese has always been taken as the bastardized form of the chinese language and it’s accent is generally viewed by other chinese as unpleasant to ears and has a stigmatizing effect on the speaker. There is no any notable literary work of cantonese origin that can project influence and inspiration to other chinese.

Despite being a not so well regarded dialect in china, cantonese somehow took on a representative role for chinese in the last couple hundred years as the cantonese clan was the first group of chinese to explore overseas. They actually represented the less competitive human resource in china as chinese culturally were not migratory people and would not seek fortune away from homeland unless driven by desperation. The emigration of the mandarin speaking chinese only started to pick up after 1990s which is only 2decades ago.

Language learning is time and energy consuming. It’s much much wiser to invest the resources solely into mandarin for chinese learning.

19 01 2016
Confusing 'L' with 'N' on Nathan Road - Checkerboard Hill

[…] ‘Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Campaign’ No More by Tsz-Yan Leung […]

23 05 2017
Karen Leanne Sandberg

Chinese communities( china, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) adopt mandarin as official language. 7 million population is dominantly Cantonese. Cantonese was made the additional official language in Hong Kong in early 1970s.’ Chinese was example language resource study CHINA interrelates…..!

26 08 2017
karen leanne sandberg

Chinese community China,Singapore,Taiwan,”adopt mandarin as official language. 7.42% million people with dominantly Cantonese. Chinese was example language resource “CHINA inter-relates”….

8 07 2018

Where does has about China Taiwan Vietnam “made lots of historian custom culture Chinese,Taiwanese,Vietnamese,dominantly dual citizen how they understand basic language approach countries?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: