December 2, 2007

Evil Sounds

The controversial "Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Movement" (粵語正音運動) started in Hong Kong in the 1970s by a university professor Richard Ho (何文匯). The original purpose of his language rectification movement was to correct the mispronunciations of many Cantonese words by the general public.

Dr. Ho based some of his rules on his interpretation of a 1000-year-old dictionary of Chinese rhymes (廣韻). Some of his suggested pronunciations just sound bizarre to modern Cantonese speakers. Note that the problem with the dictionary is not because it is too old. Rather, it is well-known for its inaccuracy and it can only represent a narrow period of time in history. In fact, a lot of Cantonese pronunciations dated back earlier than that period. The "廣" (gwong2) in the name does not stand for "廣東" (Canton), but rather it means "general".

It was rather unfortunately that this movement was backed by the Hong Kong government and its broadcast station RTHK.

There has been a counter-movement lead by Dr Ho's rival Mr Wang Tingzhi (王亭之) and other pronunciation experts. Mr Wong has been refuting Dr Ho since the beginning of Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Movement. This counter-movement has been gaining momentum in recent years.

Early this year, Mr Wong's voice successfully made it into the many Chinese newspapers, and even the Canadian national Global and Mail.

The sounds proposed by Dr Ho are sometimes referred to as "evil sounds" (邪音), a wordplay with the "correct sounds" (正音), which can also mean 'righteous sounds'. They are also referred to as "viral sounds" (病毒音) or "weird sounds" (怪音) by others.

Here is a clip I found in YouTube, which nicely illustrates the confusion raised by Dr Ho's movement.