Cantonese Pronounciation Causing Outrage in Toronto's Chinese Community

Cantonese Pronounciation Causing Outrage in Toronto's Chinese Community

News readers face dispute over Cantonese pronunciation
Group says OMNI, Fairchild usage ‘differs’ from the language that most viewers speak
JAMES RUSK, Globe and Mail

A dispute over the form of Cantonese spoken by announcers on Toronto-based television news broadcasts that has been quietly simmering in the Chinese community is breaking out publicly just in time for the Chinese New Year.

At this weekend’s Toronto Lunar New Year festival, the Cantonese Culture Promotion Society will be seeking signatures for a petition urging Fairchild and OMNI Television anchors to change the way they speak Cantonese, Vivian Tsang, spokeswoman for the group, said yesterday.

Ms. Tsang said the group was set up last year to try to persuade the two stations to reverse a move, begun in the late 1990s, to use a pronunciation standard “that differs from what regular Cantonese speakers would use.”

The stations now use a form of Cantonese that grew out of a movement, which started in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, to improve pronunciation. At that time, many intellectuals were promoting a unique Hong Kong culture before the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, she said.

The languages rectification movement has been driven by one man, Richard Ho of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who bases his rules about the correct pronunciation of Cantonese primarily on his interpretation of a 1,000-year-old dictionary of Chinese rhymes, she said.

The changes to Cantonese pronunciation that he has proposed have been adopted by the public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong and by Hong Kong’s education authorities, she noted.

But the changes have not been taken up in China’s Guangdong province, where most of the 200 million Cantonese speakers in the world live, and many Cantonese intellectuals and scholars take issue with them, she said.

Prof. Ho’s version of Cantonese was brought to Canadian Cantonese-language broadcasting by a number of prominent journalists who moved here from Hong Kong in the late 1990s and early this decade, she added.

Two problems crop up when this version is used here, Ms. Tsang said. Younger Chinese-Canadians learn to pronounce words in a way that most Cantonese speakers, including those in their own family, cannot follow, and viewers of the news programs are often confused by what they hear.

She said, for instance, that during the height of the native occupation in Caledonia, Ont., the broadcasters used a pronunciation of the word “dispute” that most of their viewers would have interpreted as dog fighting.

She said her organization wants the two stations to adopt the form of the language most Cantonese speakers in the Toronto area actually use in their daily lives, but neither station has responded in a way that appears to open a discussion of the issue.

Connie Sephton, assistant manager of Fairchild Television, said the company realizes that there are different schools of thought on how Cantonese should be pronounced, but added, “We don’t want to take any positions on that.”

She said what is important to the company is that it is consistent and uniform in the language it uses and that it uses the form most people understand.

OMNI Television did not respond to a call yesterday.

In the 2001 census, Statistics Canada reported that there were 145,490 people whose mother tongue was Cantonese in the Toronto area.

This probably underestimates the number, as the agency also found that there were 165,120 people whose mother tongue was an unspecified Chinese dialect. Given the pattern of migration from China to Canada, the majority of this group would be expected to speak Cantonese.

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Source: Globe and Mail, 16 February 2007.