People keep sending me the L.A. Times article “Cantonese Is Losing Its Voice” by David Pierson, so I might as well post it. As John Emerson put it in his e-mail, it’s “a mix of classic stupidities and interesting information.” Among the former: Cantonese is “a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions”; it “is said to be closer than Mandarin to ancient Chinese” and “is also more complicated” (because it has more tones, you see); and (a particular favorite) “it is far more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules and formulas.” But there’s a lot of the latter too:
Popular phrases include the slang for getting a parking ticket, which in Cantonese is “I ate beef jerky,” probably because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. And teo bao (literally “too full”) describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.
Many sayings are coined by movie stars on screen. Telling someone to chill out, comedian Stephen Chow says: “Drink a cup of tea and eat a bun.”
Then there are the curse words, and what an abundance there is.
A four-syllable obscenity well known in the Cantonese community punctuates the end of many a sentence. [...]
Even quintessential Hong Kong-style restaurants, including wonton noodle shops, now have waitresses who speak Mandarin, albeit badly, so they can take orders. Elected officials in Los Angeles County, even native Cantonese, are holding news conferences in Mandarin.
Some Cantonese speakers feel besieged.
Cheryl Li, a 19-year-old Pasadena City College student whose parents are from Hong Kong, is studying to become an occupational therapist and volunteers at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, where most of the patients are Chinese.
Recently, she was asking patients, in Mandarin, what they wanted to eat. When one man thought her accent was off, he said, “Stupid second-generation Chinese American doesn’t speak Mandarin.”
Li responded angrily, “No! I was born here. But I understand enough.”
“We’re in the minority,” she added, reflecting on the incident. “I’m scared Cantonese is going to be a lost language.”
Still, Li is studying Mandarin.
I suspect the “four-syllable obscenity” mentioned in the article is diu nei lo mo, cited by the esteemed Jimmy Ho in an enjoyable LH obscenity thread.
Addendum. See also Amida’s irritated response to the article.