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Cantonese (linguistics)

Cantonese (广东话, lit. "Guangdong dialect" or more formally 粤方言, lit. "Yuet language", yuet being a formal word for the region now known as Guangdong and Guangxi) is one of the major dialectss of the Chinese language. It is mainly spoken in the south-eastern part of Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, by the Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia and by many overseas Chinese worldwide. Its name is derived from Canton, an older name for the city of Guangzhou. It is a tonal language.

It is the lingua franca of the Chinese diaspora, spoken by about 70 million people worldwide, less than for example Mandarin Chinese, but still a major language.

Table of contents
1 Dialects of Cantonese
2 Sounds and tones
3 Cantonese versus Mandarin
4 Romanization
5 Written Cantonese
6 External links

Dialects of Cantonese

There are at least four major dialect groups of Cantonese: Yuehai (including Zhongshan, or Chungshan, and Tungkuan), the dialect spoken in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau; Siyi (sei yap), exemplified by Taishan (Toisaan, Hoisaan) dialect, which used to be ubiquitous in American Chinatowns before 1970; Gaoyang, as spoken in Yangjiang; and Guinan (Nanning dialect) spoken widely in Guangxi. However, Cantonese generally refers to the Yuehai dialect.

For the last 150 years, Guangdong Province has been the home of most Chinese immigrants; one county near its center, Taishan (where the siyi or sei yap dialect of Cantonese is spoken), alone may have been the home to more than 60% of Chinese immigrants to the US before 1965, and as a result, Guangdong dialects such as sei yap (the dialects of Taishan, Enping, Kaiping, Xinhui Counties) and what we understand to be mainstream Cantonese (with a heavy Hong Kong influence) have been the major spoken dialects abroad. As more and different kinds of Chinese emigrate however, the situation is now changing, so that Min (Hokkien, or Fujianese dialect speakers) and Wu dialect speakers are also now heard, as well as Mandarin in increasing numbers from Taiwanese and mainland immigrants.

In addition, there are at least three other major languages spoken in Guangdong Province -- putonghua, which is official standard Mandarin, spoken in official occasions, used in education, and among the many internal migrants from the north seeking work in the relatively prosperous south; Min-nan (Southern Min) spoken in the eastern regions bordering Fujian, such as those from Chaozhou and Shantou; and Hakka, the language of the Hakka (guest people) ethnic minority, with whom the Han ethnic majority (or bendi, natives) fought bloody wars during the Qing Dynasty. Hanyu is mandatory through the state education system, but in the household, the popularization of Cantonese-language media (Hong Kong films, television serials, and cantopop, most notably), isolation from the north, and the economic strength of the Cantonese diaspora ensure that the language has a life of its own. Most wuxia films are filmed originally in Cantonese and then dubbed in both Mandarin Chinese or English.

Sounds and tones

There are six toness:

  1. a high level tone (or high falling tone)
  2. a mid rising tone
  3. a mid level tone
  4. a low falling tone
  5. a low rising tone
  6. a low level tone

For purposes of rhyming, the first and fourth tones are traditionally grouped in the "flat category" (平聲), while the rest are "deviated" (仄聲).

In Hong Kong, the high level tone is often used interchangeably with the high falling tone without affecting the meaning of the words being spoken. Most Hong Kong speakers are in general not consciously aware of when they use and when to use high level and high falling.

It is interesting to note that there are not actually more tone levels in Cantonese than in Mandarin (three - if one excludes the Cantonese low falling tone, which begins on the third level and needs somewhere to fall), only Cantonese has a more complete set of tone courses.

Cantonese versus Mandarin

Linguistically, Cantonese is a more conservative dialect than Mandarin. This can be seen, for example, by comparing the words for "I/me" (我) and "hunger" (餓). They are written using very similar characters, but in Mandarin their pronunciation is quite different ("wǒ" vs. "è"), whereas in Cantonese they are pronounced identically except for the respective tones (ngo5 vs ngo6 respectively). Since the characters hint at a similar pronunciation, it can be concluded that their ancient pronunciation was indeed similar (as preserved in Cantonese), but in Mandarin the two syllables acquired different pronunciations in the course of time.

Cantonese sounds quite different from Mandarin, mainly because it has a different set of syllables. The rules for syllable formation are a lot laxer than in Mandarin, for example there are syllables ending in non-nasal consonants (e.g. "lak"). It also provides a different set of tones.

Cantonese tends to preserve more variations of sound while Mandarin merged many of them. For example, the characters, (藝,憶,懿,邑,譯,佚) all pronounced as yi4 in Mandarin, but all different in Cantonese, they are pronounced as ngai6, yik1, yi3, yap1, yik6, yat6 respectively.

There is another very obvious difference between Cantonese and Mandarin. Mandarin lacks the ending sound of "m" such as "taam6" (譚) becomes tán, "yim4" (鹽) becomes yán, "tim1" (添) becomes tiān, "ham4" (含) becomes hán etc. in Mandarin. The examples are too numerous to list.

However, they have similarity in their pronunciations that word's tones are correspondent in the two dialects. For example, the forth-tone word in Cantonese is usually spoken as second tone in Mandarin.

Despite the popularity of Cantonese, most universities in the US do not and have not historically taught Cantonese, but Mandarin, which is used officially by both the People's Republic of China and Republic of China, and formerly in Imperial China as the court dialect.


There are several major romanization schemes for Cantonese in circulation: Barnett-Chao, Gwohngdongwaa Pengyam, Meyer-Wempe, Penkyamp, and Yale. While they do not differ greatly, Yale is the one most commonly seen in the west today. The Hong Kong linguist Sidney Lau modified Yale for his popular Cantonese-as-a-second-language course, so that is also another system used today by contemporary Cantonese learners. The current one advocated by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK) is called jyutping, which solves many of the inconsistencies and problems of the older, favored, and more familiar system of Yale romanization, but departs considerably from it in a number of ways unfamiliar to Yale users. Some effort has been undertaken to promote jyutping but it is too early to tell how successful it has been.

Written Cantonese

Formally, written Cantonese does not exist; almost always formal written communication is conducted in hanyu. But in fact, over time, Cantonese has modified hanyu characters for unique expressions, syntax, and words. As a result, informally, written Cantonese does in fact exist, although used mostly for transcription of speech and informal forms of communications. However, they are so important for communication, that the government of Hong Kong has incorporated them into a special Supplemental Character Set (HKSCS).

A main problem for the student of Cantonese is the lack of a widely accepted, standardized transcription system. The second problem is with the Chinese characters: Cantonese uses the same system of characters as Mandarin, but it often uses different words, which have to be written with different characters. At least this is the case in Hong Kong, but in mainland China, Cantonese is written with the exact same characters as Mandarin, though the characters stand for words not actually used in Cantonese. An example may help to clarify this:

The written word for "to be" is 是 in spoken Mandarin (pronounced shì) but is 係 in spoken Cantonese (pronounced hai6). In formal written Chinese, only 是 is used. However, in Hong Kong, 係 is sometimes used in colloquial written Cantonese.

See also:

External links