When most people say “Chinese,” they are likely thinking of Mandarin. Mandarin is the official language of China, Taiwan and Singapore. It also is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
To be precise, however, the term Chinese actually refers to a group of languages that are used by the people in China, Taiwan and elsewhere around the world. It includes many regional languages such as Mandarin (Putonghua), Cantonese (Yue) and Hokkien (Min). That in mind, while there are over 1.3 billion speakers of Chinese, not all of them are speakers of Mandarin Chinese.
This article will summarize some differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.
Mandarin vs Cantonese at a glance
So what is Cantonese?
With over 80 million native spakers, Cantonese is the official language of Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, the Guangdong Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is also widely spoken amongst the overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia and throughout the Western world.
Because of the popular and energetic culture of Hong Kong (movies and Canto-pop), Cantonese has become the most widely known and influential Chinese language, after Mandarin.
Is Cantonese a language or dialect?
Surprising as it may sound, there is no universally accepted way to distinguish languages from dialects. Some dialects are very similar and have only very slight accent differences, while others are mutually unintelligible — different languages, for all intents and purposes.
To be brief, Cantonese has a very different set of linguistic features than Mandarin. The languages are similar in some ways, but Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers can not understand each other when speaking. They're as different as Portuguese and Spanish or Catalan and French; perhaps more different. That in mind, from a purely linguistic perspective, they would seem to be different and independent languages.
Unfortunately, things aren't so simple in reality.
It is said that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. In other words, the decision to classify something as a language or a dialect is often not merely a linguistic issue, but also a political one. Cantonese has been defined as a dialect by China’s government, and in some places around China, it is forbidden to speak Cantonese in school or during formal situations. Such policies are one of the reasons that increasingly fewer members of the younger generations can speak Cantonese.
That all in mind, regardless of whether we call Cantonese a language or just a dialect, just know that Mandarin and Cantonese are quite different both linguistically and culturally.
Differences between Mandarin and Cantonese
Both Cantonese and Mandarin use Chinese characters in their written language, but they aren’t necessarily using the same characters.
In some situations, Cantonese and Mandarin share a concept or word, but Cantonese uses its own (unique) characters to represent that concept — similar to how people from the US say apartment but people from the UK say flat.
There are also situations in which a particular character is shared between Cantonese and Mandarin, but Cantonese speakers use it in a different way than it is used in Mandarin:
- 晒 (saai3) follows verbs and indicates that the verb’s action applies to all of the following objects (to read all of the books); in Mandarin, it refers to the sun shining
- 早晨 (zou2 san4) means good morning in Cantonese; in Mandarin it is not a greeting, and simply refers to the early morning
As such, the fact that both languages make use of Chinese characters doesn’t mean that someone who knows only Cantonese or Mandarin could comfortably read the other language. This is something that's easier to show than to explain, though, so in the Grammar section we'll examine a few sentences in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
(Editor's note: I have an intermediate level of Mandarin. The third example sentence about studying languages is similar enough to Mandarin that I could guess its meaning, but the other two sentences look like gibberish to me. I recognize most of the characters, but they don't mean anything in Mandarin in the particular order presented below.)
Written Cantonese used to be seen as an inelegant and generally inferior language. Even today there still isn’t an officially-recognized way that Cantonese should be written. These factors in mind, two approaches to writing Cantonese have emerged:
- Formal materials — documents, textbooks, newspapers — are written in standard Mandarin instead of Cantonese. (This is possible because most Cantonese speakers are bilingual and studied Mandarin in school.)
- Things more related to daily life — entertainment magazines, social media, advertisements — are written in Cantonese.
While some people say that written Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually intelligble, this is because the "Cantonese" texts they're looking at are really just localized versions of Mandarin, rather than being "true" Cantonese texts. If you were to write out the words that a random Hongkonger was actually saying — similar to the examples we've included in the Grammar section below — you'd find that Mandarin and Cantonese aren't really mutually intelligible, even in writing.
Furthermore, in recent years, Cantonese speakers have become more proud of their language. As such, they have increasingly been choosing to write in Cantonese, rather than in Mandarin (or in something resembling formal Mandarin) — even in situations where Mandarin would typically have been used in the recent past. As such, it’s possible that the two written languages may grow further apart in the future.
The grammar of Mandarin and Cantonese is similar, but there are still some distinct differences to be found if you look closely. For example, indirect objects are placed before the direct object in Mandarin, while we do the opposite in Cantonese (indirect objects are represented in green in the first example):
Another obvious difference is that adverbs always come after verbs in Cantonese, whereas adverbs come before verbs in Mandarin:
In most cases, however, the grammatical structure of the two languages is basically the same. Many of the individual words used in Mandarin and Cantonese are different, though, as you'll notice if you compare the example sentences.
To wrap things up, here's an example of a sentence that's quite similar in Mandarin and Cantonese:
(Note: All of the words used in the examples are in traditional characters, though Mandarin is written with simplified characters in China.)
There are two phonetic/transliteration systems in Mandarin: hànyǔ pīnyīn (漢語拼音, mainly used in China, uses the Latin alphabet) and Zhùyīn (注音, mainly used in Taiwan, uses unique symbols).
There are various systems used for Cantonese, but Jyutping (widely used in learning materials) and Yale (created according to English pronunciation, so it might be more accessible to western learners) are the most accepted systems.
To demonstrate the differences between these systems, here is how the word 香港 (Hong Kong) looks in each one.
Pinyin: xiāng gǎng
Zhuyin: ㄒㄧㄤ ㄍㄤˇ
Jyutping: hoeng1 gong2
Yale: hēung góng / heung1 gong2
Hong Kong was a British colony for over a hundred years, and Canton (also known as Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong) has long been the most important port for western traders. Due to these close connections with the western world, Cantonese ended up borrowing many more words from English than Mandarin did. Here are two particularly notable examples:
The reverse is also true — there are quite a few loanwords from Cantonese in English (though most of them are related to food.) Did you know that ketchup isn't English?:
Sometimes the same word exists in Cantonese and Mandarin, but the character sequence is AB in Cantonese and BA in Mandarin. These are known as “morpheme-inversed” words. Here are a few examples:
Cantonese is a tonal language with six phonetic tones. More specifically, there are six tones for syllables that end in a vowel or nasal sound (sounds like M, N, or NG), but only three of those tones can be used for syllables that end in a stop (sounds like P, B, T, or D). As the consonant tones are a subset of the vowel tones, there are really only six unique tones, in the srict sense of variations in pitch. Nevertheless, it is often said that Cantonese has “nine sounds and six tones.”
- Tone 1 = high flat tone
- Tone 2 = medium rising tone*
- Tone 3 = medium flat tone
- Tone 4 = low falling tone*
- Tone 5 = low rising tone*
- Tone 6 = low flat tone
(Note: an asterisk indicates that the tone is not used for syllables which end in stops.)
In Mandarin, there are four tones and a neutral tone.
- Tone 1 = high flat tone
- Tone 2 = low-to-high rising tone
- Tone 3 = very low falling-and-rising tone
- Tone 4 = high-to-low falling tone
- Neutral tone = the 2nd syllable of some 2-syllable words is sometimes reduced to a neutral tone, and many particles are pronounced with a neutral tone
Generally speaking, Cantonese pronunciation is more difficult than Mandarin. It retains several similarities with older forms of Chinese (Middle Chinese), particularly those of the Tang and Song dynasties, which are not present in Mandarin. One notable such feature is the checked tone, which means that syllables in Cantonese can end in stops, such as P, T, K, or a glottal stop. (Checked "tone" is an unfortunately confusing translation, as this term refers purely to a syllable type that ends in a consonant, and has nothing to do with accentual tones.) More simply put, this means that sound combinations like pot or gap could exist/be replicated in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin.
As such, most poems from the Tang and Song dynasties (which are considered to be the dynasties that produced the most prestigious literature in all of Chinese history) will rhyme better if chanted in Cantonese instead of Mandarin.
We invite you to further explore the sounds of Mandarin and Cantonese on Wikipedia, but here are a few interesting things I feel are worth highlighting:
- Cantonese has many more vowel sounds than Mandarin, and unlike Mandarin, some Cantonese vowels are longer in length/duration while others are shorter
- Cantonese words can begin with /ŋ/ (the ng sound in song), but Mandarin words can't
- Mandarin has an R-sounding consonant and a vowel with r-coloring, but Cantonese doesn't have any sort of R sound
- Mandarin includes some retroflex consonants and vowels, but Cantonese does not
- Cantonese stops (P T and K) come in three flavors: they are aspirated at the beginning of a syllable, unreleased at the end of a syllable, and pronounced with very little aspiration in the middle of a syllable (like the P in span vs the P in pan)
Should you learn Cantonese or Mandarin?
The answer really depends on where you live and work, plus your personal interests. If you’re interested in Hong Kong, Macau, or their nearby cities, learn Cantonese. If you’re interested in China or Taiwan, learn Mandarin. If you really want to learn both — focus on one of them first, and it will be easier to learn the other later on.
As Mandarin is generally taught in schools, most native Cantonese speakers can speak Mandarin. Furthermore, if you know English and Mandarin well but don’t know any Cantonese, you can still easily find work in Hong Kong or Macau SAR. This means that learning Cantonese likely won’t bring you anything special, financially speaking. Then, because Cantonese is a minority language with comparatively few learners, you may struggle to find resources for it.
No matter what, Mandarin is more popular than Cantonese, and the use of Cantonese is declining globally. Some netizens even believe that it will disappear in the near future. Having said that, every language has its points of beauty. If you are willing to give it a try, you may find that Cantonese is an interesting language, too.
Want to explore Chinese langauges in more detail?
- Differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese
- Free download: 10-language Dictionary of Chinese Characters (includes Cantonese!)
- Which is Harder: Japanese, Korean, or Mandarin Chinese?
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