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Exploring Cantonese with Professor Paternicò from Naples, Italy

An interview with Luisa M. Paternicò to discuss the unique features of Cantonese


In Naples, Italy, Associate Professor Luisa M. Paternicò from L’Orientale University of Naples is renowned for her insightful work on Cantonese, a Chinese language. Driven by a passion to enhance Cantonese language learning, she collaborated with Professor Jimmy Lam from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Their collaborative effort resulted in a 2017 publication exploring the distinctions between Cantonese and Mandarin, shedding light on its unique features. Professor Paternicò advocates for greater recognition of Cantonese in educational settings, alongside Mandarin. Additionally, her research delves into the impact of English on Cantonese in the United States, with the overarching aim of facilitating universal understanding of Cantonese.


Q: How did the idea of writing a book on Cantonese grammar originate? What was the inspiration or reason behind this project?

A: The idea for the Cantonese language primer originated from my personal struggle to find a systematic learning resource for Cantonese. Learning bits from my husband's Cantonese-speaking family, I realized there was a lack of materials in Italian. Existing manuals had different Romanization systems and approaches, and none were tailored for Italian learners. As a Mandarin teacher, I sought materials with Yale transcription for its simplicity. Dissatisfied with what was available, I collaborated with Professor Jimmy Lam from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, the only Cantonese teacher in Italy at the time. Together, we created a basic course to fill the gap for Italian learners.

Q: When was the book published, and what were the main challenges you faced during the writing and publishing process?

A: The book was published in 2017 by Hoepli in Milan. The idea originated when the director of the “Oriental Studies book series,” Professor Federico Masini, was seeking a Cantonese language course. He approached me, and after discussing the concept with Professor Jimmy Lam, we received positive feedback on our book proposal.

One main challenge was addressing the predominantly oral nature of Cantonese while also incorporating characters used in written Cantonese, especially on social media. Recognizing the internet's significance in preserving Cantonese, we aimed to cover both aspects. Additionally, we highlighted differences and similarities with Mandarin to emphasize Cantonese's distinct linguistic features and assist those with prior Mandarin knowledge, a common situation among learners in Italy.

Q: How would you describe the structure of the Cantonese language in comparison to other Chinese languages such as Mandarin? Are there significant differences in grammar or language structure?

A: I consistently emphasize treating Cantonese as a distinct (Sinitic) language, not a dialect—a stance supported by authoritative scholars. Cantonese exhibits grammatical and syntactic differences from Mandarin, not solely as internal language development but influenced by contact with non-Sinitic languages. Notable distinctions include modifier position, varying adverb positions, inverted object order in ditransitive construction, using gwo 過 after adjectives for comparison, broader classifier use, including "bare" classifiers, and expressing potentials through V+ dāk 得.

Q: How do you see the future of learning and teaching Cantonese in Italy or worldwide? Are there any significant trends or changes you anticipate in the near future? And what can be done to preserve the Cantonese language in academic or university contexts?

A: I've observed a growing interest in Chinese languages beyond Mandarin within the scholarly community. Sinitic languages, often labeled as "dialects," are gaining attention in national and international conferences. In Italy, there's a rising focus on Southeast Asia, leading to more university courses in Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. Currently, Ca’ Foscari University in Venice is the sole institution offering Cantonese. Through seminars at “L’Orientale,” I've noted significant interest in Cantonese, and I hope to see future Cantonese language courses being offered as well.

Q: What motivates you to continue working on and teaching Cantonese, and what future projects do you have in store for the Cantonese language?

A: I find Cantonese extremely interesting and challenging from a linguistic point of view. I believe that studying Cantonese can also help better our knowledge of Mandarin and of language contact. I am also a fan of Canto-pop stars like Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Anita Mui. Too bad I do not have much time anymore to sit down and sing karaoke with my husband like we used to do when we were young in China, twenty years ago…

Q: Can you tell us about your ongoing research and publications related to the Cantonese language? What are some of the recent findings or topics you've been exploring?

A: I am currently working on the sociolinguistic influence of English on Cantonese in the US between the mid 19th and early 20th century.

Q: How do these research papers contribute to our understanding of Cantonese and its linguistic nuances? Are there any particular areas of focus or interest within your recent publications? 

A: My research papers utilize overlooked sources, mainly early materials for teaching and learning Cantonese collected from the 19th to the first half of the 20th century by western missionaries and officials. These sources aid in understanding the evolution and changes in Cantonese language aspects such as grammar, syntax, morphology, characters, phonetic transcription, and lexical innovation. They also serve as a mirror reflecting the societies where Cantonese was spoken and the needs of its speakers. The versatility of these works allows them to be studied from various perspectives.

We are grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation with Professor Paternicò and inspried by her commitment to promote linguistic diversity and cultural appreciation. Through her ongoing research and collaborative efforts, she continues to pave the way for broader recognition and appreciation of Cantonese worldwide.

You can find a list of Professor Paternicò's publications here.

Photo provided by Professor Luisa M. Paternicò.

Associate Professor Luisa M. Paternicò from L’Orientale University of Naples