Cantonese (粵語 Jyut6jyu5) - Overview

What's the Difference? Isn't it all Chinese?

Your average American will generally understand "I speak some Chinese", but if you take the time to study Chinese more closely, you'll understand that it's not quite the full story. In America, we actually have two separate "versions" of Chinese that co-exist: Mandarin, the language of modern China, and Cantonese, the historical "version" that was spoken in earnest by early Chinese immigrants to the US. The former is universally understood by anyone today hailing from the People's Republic of China, whereas the latter, Cantonese, is best thought of as a "legacy language" that is spoken by Chinese families who have immigrated earlier and assimilated into America, carrying their langauge of trade and culture with them.

The reason we got to where we are with two dialects is, well, complicated. But you can appreciate the basic idea. Cantonese, our English term, derives from the "cantons", the buildings in China that the British primarily traded in. You see, in the mid-1800s, the Chinese weren't as open as they are now to foreign trade. At the time, Britain was a major naval power, and China was somewhat concerned and restricted foreign trade to just a few ports outside of Hong Kong. All trade was carried out in special "cantons", which were small trading posts. This area around Hong Kong, today known as "Guangdong", but sometimes referred to as Canton, was located very far from Beijing, which is the hearth of the Mandarin "dialect".

Since for a while, foreign trade and influence was limited chiefly to this area, it was these people in Guangdong who most interacted with foreigners, among them British and Americans. They started calling the particular dialect that people spoke here, "Cantonese", the language of the Cantons, even though obviously the natives were using it in day-to-day life. As such, we can reasonably expect native Chinese traders working with Westerners to develop a level of English and be best equipped to trade, and even immigrate. Long story short, this is what ended up happening. The Chinese traders sought out the sunny shores and golden dreams of California in the United States. It was these traders from Guangdong who were best equipped, and naturally, as they moved, they brought their dialect, "Cantonese", with them and formed Chinatowns for mutual protection.

And so, Cantonese has played an important role in American-Chinese identity. The easiest way to think about it that Cantonese represents the "older generations". In general, the Cantonese-speaking families came in the late 19th/early 20th century, and they have well-assimilated into American society. They continue to pass down the language through informal channels and civic places like churches and weekend Chinese schools. However, as it's more of a traditional language, and modern China is the coveted business partner, Mandarin, rather than Cantonese, is now typically taught as "Chinese" via US schools and universities, as well as in Chinese advertising. This is because, more or less, Mandarin has become the official language of China since most of these immigrants left for better opportunity in the United States.

You could basically say that trade with China before it went Communist in 1949 was conducted in Cantonese, but since the communists have come into power, they have made the Beijing-based Mandarin dialect the official language. Everyone in the country learns Mandarin in school in modern China, and uses it for formal purposes, including Cantonese speakers. Think of it like a "national language" everyone has to learn. However, at the end of the day and on the streets, Cantonese is by far the language of choice in Guangdong. Today, Cantonese enjoys its status as the day-to-day language for the residents of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and in most well-established Chinese communities in the US and in other Chinese expatriate countries. Mandarin will still be understood in these places to a limited degree, but Cantonese will get you much further along in day-to-day life.

What are some of the differences?

We've addressed some basic differences between the two in the Mandarin Dialect Basics page, so we won't repeat them here. An easy way to tell Cantonese from Mandarin is that Cantonese keeps the Traditional set of characters. This means that whereas Chinese characters are inherently intricate, the Simplified set used in modern Mandarin in modern China don't all entirely strain your eyes. However, the Traditional set used by Cantonese is especially elaborate. If you see a lot of detail in every character, not just a few, you're likely looking at Cantonese. It is of note however, that Taiwan, which has been separated from modern China, retains these tradiotional characters too, and Mandarin is spoken there as well. But all of that is to say, Cantonese is complicated to learn, and complicated to write!

Quick Facts
Language FamilySino-Tibetan
Script UsedTraditional Chinese Characters
InfluencesMiddle Chinese (older version of Chinese)
Closely RelatedOther Chinese dialects, Tibetan languages
Spoken InHong Kong, Macau, Southern Chinese province of Guangdong, other locations along the Pearl River Delta, opverseas Chinese communities
Number of Speakers 120 million worldwide, nearly 70 million of those in Guangdong Province
Official Language inNot official, but recognized in The People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Malaysia
Typical Sentence Order Subject -> Object -> Verb
Though adverbs, adjectives, grammar, and ending particles differ from Mandarin
WrittenLeft to Right
Uses Articles? (a, the)No

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