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The Differences between Cantonese and Mandarin

Updated: May 21

Cantonese and Mandarin are two of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, with about 85.5 million (source: languagemuseum.org) and 1.118 billion (source: lingua.edu) speakers of each language respectively. Cantonese is the official language of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the two languages share some similarities, there are also a great many significant distinctions between them.



Pronunciation


Pronunciation in Cantonese and Mandarin are two of the most noticeable distinctions between the two languages. Cantonese has six tones (you may have heard that Cantonese has nine tones, however the distinction between some tones, such the high falling tone, is not as critical as it used to be), while Mandarin only has four. Because of this, a single word can have a total of six distinct meanings in Cantonese, each of which is determined by the way in which it is pronounced. For instance, the word "yau" (Jyutping: jau) has multiple meanings depending on the tone and the context in which it is used, for example:

  • 優 [jau1] - excellent

  • 黝 [jau2] - jet black

  • 幼 [jau3] - children

  • 油 [jau4] - oil

  • 友 [jau5] - friend

  • 右 [jau6] - right (side)


Mandarin contains phonetic distinctions that are absent in Cantonese, including the phonemes represented by the "zh," "ch," and "sh" sounds. Meanwhile, Cantonese also exhibits several phonetic distinctions that are absent in Mandarin, including the presence of the "ng" sound.



Vocabulary


Cantonese and Mandarin are also very different in terms of their vocabulary. Although both languages share many common vocabulary, there are some words that are exclusive to each language. For instance, the word 得意, pronounced dak1-ji3 in Cantonese and déyì in Mandarin. The Cantonese definition of the word is "cute" (which is a positive term to describe someone with) while the Mandarin equivalent is "complacent" (which has negative undertones); same word but starkly different definitions. Similarly, there are many fruits and vegetables whose names differ significantly between Cantonese and Mandarin, much as there are between British and American English. Some instances are as follows:








In Cantonese, this is called 白菜 [baak6-coi3]













白菜, in Mandarin (báicài), usually refers to this











In Cantonese, this is called a 薯仔 [syu4-zai2], in Mainland China, this is commonly called a 土豆 [tǔdòu], meanwhile in Taiwan, this is called a 馬鈴薯 [mǎlíngshǔ]




As can be seen, there are a number of distinctions that can be made between Mandarin spoken in Mainland China and Mandarin spoken in Taiwan as well.


Another notable distinction between Mandarin and Cantonese lies in their usage of the third person singular pronoun. In Mandarin, the pronoun is pronounced , and there are three different ways to write it: 他 (he), 她 (she) and 它 (it). Contrarily, in Cantonese, the third person singular pronoun is pronounced keoi5, and there is only one way to write it: 佢, which technically makes this pronoun in Cantonese gender-neutral. These are completely different words. Although in certain formal occasions, 他, 她 or 它 can be used in Cantonese, 佢 is never used in Mandarin (apart from some dialects in the south). These are just some of the differences among many others between Cantonese and Mandarin vocabulary.


Grammar


Additionally, there are grammatical differences between Cantonese and Mandarin. Cantonese is more of a colloquial language than Mandarin, meaning it contains many unwritten grammar rules and nuances, making it more difficult to learn than Mandarin. As an illustration, consider the extensive use of final particles in Cantonese. Occasionally, the smallest change in tone can completely alter the mood and meaning of a sentence. This holds true for 啦 [laa1] and 喇 [laa3] as final particles, for example. 啦 [laa1] can be used at the end of a sentence to express a request, suggestion, or invitation; it can also be used to imply that a statement is common knowledge or that the listener should have known it; it is also used for enumeration, and as sarcasm. In the third tone, 喇 [laa3] can be used at the end of a sentence to emphasise a point of current relevance, express a perceptible change in the current state (e.g., time is up, something is about to begin or has just ended), and state a decision, typically in conjunction with 都係 [dou1 hai6] (meaning "might as well" or "also"). Evidently, final particles play a crucial role in expressing context-dependent nuance, and this is more prevalent in Cantonese than Mandarin. A future blog post will be made to explain final particles in Cantonese.


As a language, Mandarin is more standardised and has an official system in place; its grammatical rules are more stringent. However, noting that China is a vast country with a variety of local cultures, there are numerous dialects and colloquialisms in Mandarin spoken throughout the country, therefore, the rules are not as rigid as many believe, but they are considerably more rigid than Cantonese.



Writing system



Due to its predominantly colloquial nature, Cantonese lacks an official, standardised writing system. For Cantonese speakers to write academic or formal essays, they would use standard Chinese, the Chinese most commonly used in China, but written in traditional script. In China, people write with simplified script, which was created by reducing the number of strokes and simplifying the shapes of a significant number of traditional Chinese characters.


To promote literacy and broaden access to written Chinese, language reforms in mainland China in the 1950s and 1960s included the simplification of Chinese characters. This reform aimed to make characters easier to learn by standardising their strokes and making other structural changes. Hong Kong, however, remained a British colony until 1997. During British rule, traditional Chinese characters were utilised, and this practice continued after China reclaimed sovereignty. The use of traditional characters is a reflection of Hong Kong's distinct cultural identity and its historical ties to traditional Chinese culture, according to popular belief. Moreover, the education systems of mainland China and Hong Kong have historically been taught using different character sets. Hong Kong continued to teach using traditional characters, while mainland China have been using simplified characters for its curriculum since it was first introduced. Consequently, each continued to utilise their own writing systems to avoid confusion and maintain tradition (especially in the case of Hong Kong).


Apart from Mainland China, Mandarin is also the official language of Taiwan, but like Hong Kong, they have continued to use traditional script. Using traditional characters reflects a sense of historical continuity and identity for many in Taiwan, who see it as a way to preserve their cultural legacy and stay connected to their historical roots. Reading and writing in Traditional characters is a staple of the Taiwanese educational system, as it is in Hong Kong's. Changing the writing system would necessitate major revisions to educational programmes and materials. In addition, traditional characters may have deeper linguistic and historical connotations than their simplified counterparts. This is especially true when attempting to convey complex ideas, historical events, or nuanced meanings from one culture to another. Furthermore, there is also an aspect of linguistic consistency in keeping Taiwanese Mandarin in traditional writing; as Taiwanese Hokkien, a Minnan dialect, is extensively spoken in Taiwan and employs traditional script, it makes sense for Taiwanese Mandarin to be retained in traditional script as well. Therefore, there are a variety of reasons why, although being more difficult than the simplified version, traditional writing is still in use in many modern Chinese-speaking areas.


Now going back to the topic of Cantonese writing, although Cantonese does not have an official writing system, there is an informal form of writing typically used on social media. Cantonese-only words like "he/she/it," as well as "to return to" and "a few," are given characters that correspond to their sound; like 佢 [keoi5], 返 [faan1] (another character commonly used for [faan1] is 翻), and 啲 [di1] respectively. In standard and formal Chinese, these are never used.



Usage


Cantonese is primarily spoken in southern China, Hong Kong, Macau, and some parts of Southeast Asia. Mandarin is the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore. It is also widely spoken in other parts of the world, such as the United States (mainly in California and New York) and Canada (mainly in Toronto and Vancouver).


Can a speaker of Cantonese comprehend a speaker of Mandarin and vice versa? In most cases, the answer is no. Even though both languages are tonal and part of the Chinese language, they are not necessarily mutually intelligible; much like how dialects like Hakka, Hokkien and Shanghainese have unique and different characteristics when compared to Mandarin Chinese. However, it is now common for schools in Hong Kong to teach Mandarin (普通話 Putonghua), which means that many people in Hong Kong can understand Mandarin, even if they cannot speak it well. But the same cannot be said for other Cantonese-speakers from other regions, like Vietnam for example.


As is the case with other regional dialects, the majority of people in China outside of southern China (primarily the Guangdong province) are unable to understand nor speak Cantonese.



Which one should you learn?


The decision of which language to learn depends on your personal circumstances and goals. If you are interested in learning about Chinese culture, then it is a good idea to learn both Cantonese and Mandarin. However, if you are only interested in learning one language, then the best choice for you will depend on where you live and what your goals are.


If you live in southern China, Hong Kong, or Macau, then it is a good idea to learn Cantonese. This is because Cantonese is the primary language spoken in these areas. If you live in mainland China, Taiwan, or Singapore, then it is a good idea to learn Mandarin. This is because Mandarin is the official language of these countries. If you are interested in business, then it is also a good idea to learn Mandarin. This is because Mandarin is the more widely spoken language in the world.


Regarding Cantonese, the majority of my students who are learning this language do so for a variety of reasons:

  1. their spouse is from Hong Kong or their family speaks Cantonese, so they want to learn it to communicate better with their family;

  2. they are of Cantonese descent, e.g. American-born, Canadian-born, or British-born Chinese children, who have lost touch with their Cantonese roots and would like to rediscover it to communicate better with their families; and

  3. they have a general interest in the language and Hong Kong culture.


Ultimately, the best way to decide which language to learn is to consider your own needs and goals. If you are still not sure which language to learn, then you can always consult with a language learning expert.

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