Background to Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar

Can you imagine what it’s like to arrive in Hong Kong not being able to understand and speak Cantonese? On his arrival in Hong Kong in 1990, Stephen, the first author, felt the same sense of being lost as most foreigners do, not knowing how to speak the language of the community.

Born and raised in the UK, Stephen read Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge. Why did he come to Hong Kong? He met Virginia (his future wife and co-author) in 1986 while studying for the PhD in Linguistics at the University of Southern California (USC). Virginia, born and raised in Hong Kong, grew up speaking Cantonese and acquired English as a second language. He specialized in language typology and she in language acquisition. They first conversed in English and in basic Mandarin, which Stephen was learning from his Chinese roommates, and later switched to Cantonese while visiting Virginia’s friends and relatives in San Francisco and Vancouver.

In summer 1989 they came to Hong Kong and became engaged. Virginia was recruited by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a year later Stephen joined the University of Hong Kong. They were married in Hong Kong in December 1990, with wedding receptions at the former Regent Hotel in Tsimshatsui and at Beth’s in Southampton, England.

In his early days in Hong Kong, Stephen studied Cantonese from phrasebooks and textbooks, particularly those produced by Sidney Lau in the 1960s. While such textbooks included notes on grammatical points, the lack of a systematic grammar to refer to was a recurrent source of frustration. He began to make notes to organize his observations on the structure of Cantonese, and soon envisaged developing them into a grammar book. Since there was no grammar available in English, even a sketch grammar would be an original contribution: so why not write one? Stephen and Virginia then proposed a grammar to Croom Helm which in the meantime had been taken over by Routledge. Simon Bell at Routledge commissioned the book.

The first edition was completed back at USC where Stephen was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in 1993-94. It was followed by Basic Cantonese (1999) and Intermediate Cantonese (2000). At the time, including Chinese characters would have been technically challenging and prohibitively expensive.  The second edition remedies this shortcoming by including Chinese characters for all the example sentences, as requested by many readers of the first edition of the Grammar.

So this is the story of how our Cantonese Grammar came to be. And the story continues…

It’s now 2011! Time flies like an arrow. In the last two decades, Stephen and Virginia have brought up three Cantonese-English bilingual children who are featured in the award-winning book The Bilingual Child: Early Development and Language Contact, published by Cambridge University Press in 2007 (see book website). We set up the Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre in 2008 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in an effort to promote bilingual language acquisition and the acquisition of Cantonese in a multilingual environment. It is our hope that not only our own children Timothy, Sophie and Alicia appreciate Cantonese as part of their bilingual heritage, but children around the world who are raised to speak Cantonese also cherish their heritage and pass it onto the next generation.


Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip
Hong Kong
New Year’s Day 2011