Written Cantonese – For or Against?


Written Cantonese is not a new thing. There are books in the archives from 1800s that are printed in Colloquial Cantonese. Colloquial Cantonese in Cantonese opera scripts are another source of usage. However, it was only in the last few decades that written Colloquial Cantonese was used more widely, mainly due to the increasing popularity of messaging and chatrooms.

Nonetheless, there has been varying levels of acceptance and adoption for written Cantonese, from absolute resistance to partial resistance – that it has its time and place,  to fully embracing and promoting it. here I list various arguments I have seen for and against Written Cantonese, so that you can have a deeper understanding of the landscape, and decide how you might want to use Written Cantonese (or not).


The Supporters Say:


Closer to the heart for native speakers

As Colloquial Cantonese is a mother tongue while Formal Cantonese is a taught language, the former feels closer to the heart. To many, reading Colloquial Cantonese literature is like someone speaking to you. A review of The Little Prince in Colloquial Cantonese mentioned how heartwarming it is to read it. For many writers they find writing in Colloquial Cantonese more natural too.


Communicating a Heritage

Language is tied in with cultural identity, and Cantonese reflects the rich vibrant heritage of Cantonese people. There are many Colloquial Cantonese expressions that are just not found in Standard Chinese.


Preserving a language

A language dies every fortnight, and as many as half of the world’s 7000 languages are expected to be extinct by the end of this century. More than half of the languages have no written form and are “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” When they disappear, they leave behind no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.

A written form of an oral language helps record and preserve it. The need is not so evident when immersed in a predominantly Cantonese environment such as Hong Kong, but more evident among second and third generation of overseas Chinese. Because most of Cantonese is oral, many ABCs struggle to communicate well in Cantonese and to pass it on to the next generation.


Helps one learn or improve their level of Cantonese

Learners of Cantonese have found it very helpful to have a written form of Cantonese as it aids learning. Whether a beginner or an advanced learner, one benefits from reading more Written Cantonese.


A richer experience

Having another written form of a Chinese language would enrich Chinese culture, and add more dimensions to it. It is not a zero sum game, and it is good to learn both Standard Chinese and Written Cantonese. Learning more languages can enrich our lives.


The Critics Say:


Confusion between Written Cantonese and Formal Cantonese

Many Cantonese speakers who have gone through the Hong Kong education system have always been taught in school that Colloquial Cantonese should not be written in their coursework, essays, etc, and they would be reprimanded if they couldn’t differentiate the two. Hence they believe that children should not be taught written Cantonese, as they would mix it up, and should only learn it when they are older, that Cantonese should be spoken only, or used in informal occasions. They also argue that written Cantonese might bring down the standard of Chinese, similar to how texting might affect spelling standards.


Belief that Standard Chinese is the Only Chinese that should be written

Some people, believe that the only written form is Standard Chinese, and that Cantonese is an oral language/ dialect only. In addition, some people do not realise that Colloquial Cantonese has a written form, and that it has been around for centuries. Some have argued that Written Cantonese does not look proper.

This is especially true for those who are more traditional, as well as for many Hong Kongers who migrated overseas after having spent some years in the Hong Kong education system and have not been as exposed to written Cantonese while living outside Hong Kong, as is not used to seeing Chinese characters written that way.

A Smaller Audience

Some hold the view that Standard Chinese would be understood by all Chinese speakers, while written Cantonese is only understood by Cantonese speakers, and hence limiting. Hence, if one is writing a book, one might prefer to write in Standard Chinese, which would be understandable to other Chinese speakers. Writers of Cantonese Literature argue that some of the topics which they write about are only interesting and relatable  to Hong Kongers.


Prejudice Against Dialects

There are also a number of non-Cantonese speakers feel that Cantonese and other Chinese language and dialects are not needed in any form, and that everyone should speak only Mandarin.  A few years ago, a school in Guangzhou published a textbook teaching Cantonese and later was accused of “inciting subversion”.


A Personal Decision

Ultimately, how you feel about written Cantonese is very personal, and there is no right and wrong. You might choose to embrace it or reject it, or a hybrid, where you reject certain usage  of it. Certainly Standard Chinese remains important whichever you decide.

For me, written Cantonese resources have been helpful to reconnect to with the language and culture, as well as equip me with tools to teach my kiddo. I don’t teach her Written Cantonese per se, but I often have a script to guide me how to read a book, learning more vocabulary so that I can express myself better to her. I am also mindful of emphasizing the difference between the two so that she doesn’t get confused. Written Cantonese has also help me improve my command of Cantonese, and given me more tools to be able to engage on social media. I have also enjoyed reading The Little Prince in Cantonese. I can see the benefits of it, while also understanding the importance of Standard Chinese.

Understanding the arguments for and against Cantonese has helped shaped my response to it and how I use it. How about you? Do you find Written Cantonese useful?


This post is part of the About Cantonese series


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One thought on “Written Cantonese – For or Against?

  1. Tim says:

    For foreign-born Cantonese speakers (such as myself), learning (and teaching) spoken Cantonese is much more important than the formal, Standard form (which one would probably only learn in a Chinese school or through a classroom setting). In English, about 95% of my daily communication is in written form, and as the world moves towards online communication, their languages will, too, move towards written as well. As you’ve mentioned, it is increasingly important to preserve what once were oral-only languages into a written form.

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