Hokkien on its last legs, warns linguist

Sim Tze Wei showing a tree denoting the common descent of the Chinese people.

GEORGE TOWN: A linguist has warned of the impending extinction of Hokkien, popularly regarded as one of Penang’s official languages along with Malay and English.

The linguist, Sim Tze Wei, said Hokkien had been endangered by Han Chinese nationalism, which advocates the use of Mandarin above other Chinese tongues.

He told FMT the nationalism had spread to Malaysia and young Malaysians would hardly ever use Hokkien nowadays.

Sim, an expert in the study of endangered languages, is president of the Hokkien Language Association of Penang. He is currently hosting an exhibition billed as The Death and Life of Hokkien: How an Ideology Wiped Out Your Language.

Sim and some of his exhibits.

The exhibition, held at the Cheah Kongsi in Beach Street, is open from 9am to 5pm. It ends on Oct 25.

He said Mandarin, a language with origins in Beijing, was being pushed to be used as a medium of instruction in schools and day-to-day interactions.

“It’s as good as denying one’s right to speak in one’s mother tongue,” he said.

Sim explaining Hokkien’s roots.

‘Hokkien is not a dialect but a language’

“Chinese schools in Malaysia discouraged the use of anything besides Mandarin. Propagandists see Hokkien and other Chinese languages as dialects or corrupt versions of Mandarin.”

He was vehement in his disagreement with such a view. “Hokkien is not a dialect of Mandarin,” he said. “This is a big fallacy that needs to be corrected.”

He said Hokkien had roots in the Fujian province and noted that it is the lingua franca in many places in Southeast Asia. It has its own written script, a modified version of the Sinitic script, the same source from which written Mandarin is derived.

A page from the oldest book written in Hokkien, Tale of the Lychee Mirror.

According to Sim, many words in the book are unrecognisable by Mandarin readers as it is written in Hokkien and Teochew.

The idea that all Chinese share the same written language is not true, he says.

He described classical Chinese as the mother script which Mandarin speakers, Hokkiens, Cantonese, Japanese, Cuengh, Vietnamese etc. had adapted in producing their own written languages.

He said Han nationalists had falsely created the impression that all Chinese people descended from one common ancestor who spoke the same language. That was not accurate.

“The narrative is that Mandarin is the real Chinese and the rest are ‘dialects’. That is simply not true,” he said.

‘As different as English and German’

“In fact, if you look at the words ‘Hanyu Pinyin’, the term for romanised Mandarin, you’ll see the term implies that Mandarin is equivalent to Han Chinese and the rest are ‘dialects’.” He pointed out that “Hanyu” simply means “Han language”.

The difference between Hokkien and Mandarin is greater than English and German. Why is Hokkien a ‘dialect’ but German is a language?

A tree of Chinese languages divided into seven branches, all with roots in Sinitic.

In essence, Mandarin had been enforced at the expense of other Chinese languages. “It is time for us to do some soul searching, to connect ourselves to our mother tongues and pick them up again.”

He said Han Chinese nationalism provided an ideological basis for the promotion of Mandarin. Without it, Mandarin would be just a foreign language to Malaysia.

He said there was a concerted effort in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1980s to discourage the use of Hokkien through the Speak Mandarin campaign. “Things became worse when Mandarin schools punished us for speaking our mother tongues,” he said.

Speaking of ways to save Hokkien from extinction, he said parents should speak the language to their children and efforts must be made to restart the Hokkien school system, which thrived in Penang in the 1920s.

But Sim knows that this would be a tough battle as most Chinese have been indoctrinated to believe that Mandarin is the only Chinese language to use.

But he is not daunted. “We have close to 40,000 supporters on Facebook and have been running this awareness campaign since 2014. We are confident that we can prevent a complete wipe-out of our culture.”