What’s Punti?

Though not so commonly used in the U.S., the term “putonghua” (普通话)literally translated as “the common language,” is the usual way to describe Mandarin Chinese here in Hong Kong.  It is so common that even the British judge in one of my recent cases referred to the language as such, confusing my American co-counsel who had flown from Boston to attend the hearing. But what I did not know was that “punti” was a reference commonly used to refer to Cantonese here in Hong Kong.

“Punti” or “本地”means “origin language” – and according to wikipedia is meant to

[refer] to the Cantonese-speaking populations of Guangdong province in southern China. They are contrasted with another Han Chinese linguistic group, the Hakka, which settled in the area after the Punti peoples and follow different cultural traditions. 

Like my Bostonian colleague, I first came across this terminology in court by way of the transcripts, in which the Cantonese interpreter was described as having interpreted in punti.

I also learned in my travels in the Mainland that “baihua” (白话), literally  “white language,” is also a common reference to Cantonese.  Why that is, I have not figured it out.  Wikipedia does not shed light on that, and it has entries referring to the modern vernacular Chinese (versus classical “wenyan” or “文言”) as well as some particular dialect of Yunnan’s Bai people.  But I do suspect it has something to do with the fact that Cantonese has much deeper roots in China than Mandarin — something I’ve discussed in previous posts extolling Cantonese. Check out this forum for some relevant discussion.



One response to “What’s Punti?

  1. 白話 does indeed refer originally to the common language most in use in a given region, the market language which may or may not be the 方言, the language of the locality, both opposed to the 文言. This has nothing to do with a literal understanding of “white”. Here, “white” just means “plain”. So 白話 means plain speech, the vernacular. When, barely 80 years ago, a mutt version of Mandarin with some Wu idioms became propagated as the so-called 國語/普通話, this new lingua franca was simply supplanted in the minds of people in southern China for the Literary Chinese 文言 used previously. But technically, all Mandarin tongues are still also 白話. Dream of the Red Chamber was written in a vernacular Mandarin, and is also 白話. It’s a question of context. Upstream from y’all in Guangxi, 白話 means 平話, the local language related to Cantonese. So a person there may speak 普通話, 白話, and one of the local languages such as Guilin City dialect 桂林話 or a Zhuang language 壯語.

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