Cantonese, or Yue (粵語), is a major Chinese dialect group or language, a member of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Colloquially, it is also known as 廣東話 (Mandarin: Guǎngdōng huà, Cantonese: Gwóngdùng waah). The exact number of Cantonese speakers is unknown due to a lack of statistics and census data. The areas with the highest concentration of speakers are in Guangdong and some parts of Guangxi in southern mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese is the de facto official language of Hong Kong. Other major groups include Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia. The name has been stated as being derived from Canton; a name in English for Guangdong province, and Canton; a name in English for Guangzhou city.
There are numerous different dialects of Cantonese; the most widely spoken is the Guangzhou dialect, often referred to simply as "Cantonese". The Guangzhou dialect is a lingua franca of not just Guangdong province, but also the overseas Cantonese speaking diaspora. The Guangzhou dialect is also spoken in Hong Kong.
Like other major varieties of Chinese, Cantonese is often considered a dialect of a single Chinese language for cultural or nationalistic reasons, though in practice Cantonese, like many other Chinese language varieties, is mutually unintelligible with many other Chinese "dialects". See Identification of the varieties of Chinese.
There are at least three other major Chinese languages spoken in Guangdong Province— Standard Mandarin, which is used for official occasions, education, the media, and as a national lingua franca; Minnan (Southern Min) spoken in the eastern regions bordering Fujian, such as those from Chaozhou and Shantou; and Hakka, the language of the Hakka people. Standard Mandarin is mandatory through the state education system, but in Cantonese speaking households, the popularization of Cantonese-language media (Hong Kong films, television serials, and Cantopop), isolation from the other regions of China, local identity, and the existence of the non-Mandarin speaking Cantonese diaspora (including Hong Kong) give unique characteristics to the language. Most wuxia films from Canton are filmed originally in Cantonese and then dubbed or subtitled in Standard Mandarin or English or both.
Officially Standard Mandarin (Putonghua/guoyu) is the standard language in mainland China and Taiwan and is taught to nearly everyone with different variations as a supplement to their native local languages (which includes Cantonese in Guangdong). Cantonese along with Mandarin form two of the official languages of Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese is also one of the main languages in many overseas Chinese communities including Australia, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe. Many of these emigrants and/or their ancestors originated from Guangdong. In addition, these immigrant communities formed before the widespread use of Mandarin, or they are from Hong Kong where Mandarin is not commonly used. The prestige dialect of Cantonese is usually the Guangzhou dialect. In Hong Kong, colloquial Cantonese often incorporates English words due to historical British influences.
In some ways, Cantonese is a more conservative language than Mandarin, and in other ways it is not. For example, Cantonese has retained consonant endings from older varieties of Chinese that have been lost in Mandarin, but Cantonese has merged some vowels from older varieties of Chinese.
The Taishan dialect, which in the U.S. nowadays is heard mostly spoken by Chinese actors in old American TV shows and movies (e.g. Hop Sing on Bonanza), is more conservative than the Guangzhou/Hong Kong variants of Cantonese. It has preserved the initial /n/ sound of words, whereas many post-World War II-born Hong Kong Cantonese speakers have changed it to an /l/ sound ("ngàuh lām" instead of "ngàuh nām" for "beef brisket" 牛腩) and more recently drop the "ng-" initial (so that it changes further to "àuh lām"); this seems to have arisen from some kind of street affectation as opposed to systematic phonological change. The common word for "who" in Taishan is "sŭe" (誰), which is the same character used in classical Chinese, whereas Cantonese has changed it to "bīngo" (邊個).
Cantonese sounds quite different from Mandarin, mainly because it has a different set of syllables. The rules for syllable formation are different; for example, there are syllables ending in non-nasal consonants (e.g. "lak"). It also has different tones and more of them than Mandarin. Cantonese is generally considered to have 8 tones, the choice depending on whether a traditional distinction between a high-level and a high-falling tone is observed; the two tones in question have largely merged into a single, high-level tone, especially in Hong Kong Cantonese, which has tended to simplify traditional Chinese tones . Many (especially older) descriptions of the Cantonese sound system record a higher number of tones, 9. However, the extra tones differ only in that they end in p, t, or k; otherwise they can be modeled identically.
Cantonese preserves many syllable-final sounds that Mandarin has lost or merged. For example, the characters 裔, 屹, 藝, 艾, 憶, 譯, 懿, 誼, 肄, 翳, 邑, and 佚 are all pronounced "yì" in Mandarin, but they are all different in Cantonese (jeoih, ngaht, ngaih, ngaaih, yìk, yihk, yi, yìh, si, ai, yap, and yaht, respectively). Like Hakka and Min Nan, Cantonese has preserved the final consonants [-m, -n, -ŋ -p, -t, -k] from Middle Chinese, while the Mandarin final consonants have been reduced to [-n, -ŋ]. But unlike any other modern Chinese dialects, the final consonants of Cantonese match those of Middle Chinese exactly with extremely few exceptions. For example, lacking the syllable-final sound "m"; the final "m" and final "n" from older varieties of Chinese have merged into "n" in Mandarin, e.g. Cantonese "taahm" (譚) and "tàahn" (壇) versus Mandarin tán; "yìhm" (鹽) and "yìhn" (言) versus Mandarin yán; "tìm" (添) and "tìn" (天) versus Mandarin tiān; "hùhm" (含) and "hòhn" (寒) versus Mandarin hán. The examples are too numerous to list. Furthermore, nasals can be independent syllables in Cantonese words, e.g. "ńgh" (五) "five," and "m̀h" (唔) "not".
Differences also arise from Mandarin's relatively recent sound changes. One change, for example, palatalized [kʲ] with [tsʲ] to [tɕ], and is reflected in historical Mandarin romanizations, such as Peking (Beijing), Kiangsi (Jiangxi), and Fukien (Fujian). This distinction is still preserved in Cantonese. For example, 晶, 精, 經 and 京 are all pronounced as "jīng" in Mandarin, but in Cantonese, the first pair is pronounced "jīng", and the second pair "gīng".
A more drastic example, displaying both the loss of coda plosives and the palatization of onset consonants, is the character (學), pronounced *ɣæwk in Middle Chinese. Its modern pronunciations in Cantonese, Hakka, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese are "hohk", "hók" (pinjim), "ha̍k" (Pe̍h-ōe-jī), học (although a Sino-Vietnamese word, it is used in daily vocabulary), "학" (hak) (Sino-Korean), and "gaku" (Sino-Japanese), respectively, while the pronunciation in Mandarin is xué [ɕyɛ].
However, Mandarin's vowel system is somewhat more conservative than Cantonese's, in that many diphthongs preserved in Mandarin have merged or been lost in Cantonese. Also, Mandarin makes a three-way distinction among alveolar, alveopalatal, and retroflex fricatives, distinctions that are not made by modern Cantonese. For example, jiang (將) and zhang (張) are two distinct syllables in Mandarin or old Cantonese, but in modern Cantonese they have the same sound, "jeung1". The loss of distinction between the alveolar and the alveolopalatal sibilants in Cantonese occurred in the mid-19th centuries and was documented in many Cantonese dictionaries and pronunciation guides published prior to the 1950s. A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect by Williams (1856), writes: The initials "ch" and "ts" are constantly confounded, and some persons are absolutely unable to detect the difference, more frequently calling the words under "ts" as "ch", than contrariwise. A Pocket Dictionary of Cantonese by Cowles (1914) adds: "s" initial may be heard for "sh" initial and vice versa.
There are clear sound correspondences in, for instance, the tones. For example, a fourth-tone (low falling tone) word in Cantonese is usually second tone (rising tone) in Mandarin.
This can be partly explained by their common descent from Middle Chinese (spoken), still with its different dialects. One way of counting tones gives Cantonese nine tones, Mandarin four, and Middle Chinese eight. Within this system, Mandarin merged the so-called "yin" and "yang" tones except for the Ping (平, flat) category, while Cantonese not only preserved these, but split one of them into two over time. Also, within this system, Cantonese is the only Chinese language known to have split its tones rather than merge them since the time of Late Middle Chinese.
Historically, written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese. Newspapers have also done likewise to capture more exact quotes. Its popularity and usage has been rising in the last two decades, the late Wong Jim being one of the pioneers of its use as an effective written language. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, and instant messaging. Some tabloids like Apple Daily write colloquial Cantonese; papers may contain editorials that contain Cantonese; and Cantonese-specific characters can be increasingly seen on advertisements and billboards. Written Cantonese remains limited outside of Hong Kong, even in other Cantonese-speaking areas such as Guangdong, where the use of colloquial writing is discouraged. Despite the relative popularity of written Cantonese in Hong Kong, some disdain it, believing that being too accustomed to write in such a way would affect a person's ability to use standard written Chinese in situations that demand it.
Forms of written Chinese in Hong Kong:
For colloquial vernacular usage, written Cantonese incorporates an entire range of characters and particles specific to the Cantonese spoken form. This is commonly used in publicity and journalistic writing in Hong Kong and Hong Kong-influenced regions. It reads exactly as Modern Standard Spoken Cantonese.
For literary and artistic reasons (such as calligraphy), standard literary Chinese, the classical wenyanwan is used.
Records of legal documents in Hong Kong also use written Cantonese sometimes, in order to record exactly what a witness has said.
Colloquial Cantonese is rarely used in formal forms of writing; formal written communication is almost always in standard written Chinese, albeit still pronounced with Cantonese sound values. However, written colloquial Cantonese does exist; it is used mostly for transcription of speech in tabloids, in some broadsheets, for some subtitles, for personal diaries, and in other informal forms of communication such as Internet bulletin boards (BBS) or e-mails. It is not uncommon to see the front page of a Cantonese paper written in hanyu, while the entertainment sections are, at least partly, in Cantonese. The vernacular writing system has evolved over time from a process of modifying characters to express lexical and syntactic elements found in Cantonese but not the standard written language. In spite of their vernacular origin and informal use, these characters have become so common in Hong Kong that the Hong Kong Government has incorporated them into a special Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS), along with special characters used for proper nouns.
A problem for the student of Cantonese is the lack of a widely accepted, standardized transcription system. Another problem is with Chinese characters: Cantonese uses the same system of characters as standard written Chinese, but it often uses different words, which have to be written with different or new characters. An example of Cantonese using a different word and a different character to write it: the Mandarin word for "to be" is shì and is written as 是, but in Cantonese the word for "to be" is haih and 係 is used in written Cantonese (係 is xì in Mandarin). In standard written Chinese 是 is normally used, though 係 can be found in classical literature and modern formal writing. In Hong Kong, 係 is often used in colloquial written Cantonese and therefore actively avoided and discouraged in formal writing; on the other hand, the use of 係 is relatively widespread in both mainland China and in Taiwan, in government publications and product descriptions, for example.
Many characters used in colloquial Cantonese writings are made up by putting a mouth radical (口) on the left hand side of another more well known character to indicate that the character is read like the right hand side, but it is only used phonetically in the Cantonese context. The characters, 叻, 吓, 吔, 呃, 咁, 咗, 咩, 哂, 哋, 唔, 唥, 唧, 啱, 啲, 喐, 喥, 喺, 嗰, 嘅, 嘜, 嘞, 嘢, 嘥, 嚟, 嚡, 嚿, 囖 etc. are commonly used in Cantonese writing.
As not all Cantonese words can be found in current encoding system, or the users simply do not know how to enter such characters on the computer, in very informal speech, Cantonese tends to use extremely simple romanization (e.g. use D as 啲), symbols (add an English letter "o" in front of another Chinese character; e.g. 㗎 is defined in Unicode, but will not display in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0, hence the proxy o架 is often used), homophones (e.g. use 果 as 嗰), and Chinese characters of different Mandarin meaning (e.g. 乜, 係, 俾 etc.) to compose a message.
For example, "你喺嗰喥好喇，千祈咪搞佢啲嘢。" is often written in easier form as "你o係果度好喇，千祈咪搞佢D野。" (character-by-character, approximately "you, be, there (two characters), good, (final particle), thousand, pray, don't, mess, he/she, genitive particle, thing"; translation: "You will only stay there, don't mess with his/her stuff").
The words represented by these characters are sometimes cognates with pre-existing Chinese words. However, their colloquial Cantonese pronunciations have diverged from formal Cantonese pronunciations. For example, in formal written Chinese, 無 (mòuh) is the character used for "without". In spoken Cantonese, 冇 (móuh) has the same usage, meaning, and pronunciation as 無, differing only by tone. 冇 is actually a hollowed out writing of its antonym (有). 冇 represents the spoken Cantonese form of the word "without", while 無 represents the word used in formal Chinese writing (pinyin: wú) . However, 無 is still used in some instances in spoken Chinese in both dialects, like 無論 ("no matter what"). A Cantonese-specific example is the doublet 來/嚟, which means "to come". 來 (lòih) is used in formal writing; 嚟 (lèih) is the spoken Cantonese form.
The largest number of Cantonese speakers outside mainland China and Hong Kong are in south east Asia, however speakers of Min dialects are predominate among the overseas Chinese in south east Asia. The Cantonese spoken in Singapore and Malaysia is also known to have borrowed substantially from Malay and other languages
The Taishan dialect, one of the sei yap or siyi (四邑) dialects that come from Guangdong counties that were the origin of the majority of Exclusion-era Guangdong Chinese emigrants to the USA, continues to be spoken both by recent immigrants from Taishan and even by third-generation Chinese Americans of Taishan ancestry alike.
The dialect of Zhongshan in Pearl River Delta is spoken by many Chinese immigrants in Hawaii, and some in San Francisco and in the Sacramento River Delta (see Locke, California); it is much closer to Cantonese than the Taishan dialect, but has "flatter" tones in pronunciation than Cantonese. Cantonese is the third most widely spoken non-English language in the United States. The currently most popular romanization for learning Cantonese in the United States is Yale Romanization.
The dialectal situation is now changing in the United States; recent Chinese emigrants originate from many different areas including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Recent immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan in the U.S. all speak Standard Mandarin (putonghua/guoyu), with varying degrees of fluency, and their native local language/dialect, such as Min (Hokkien and other Fujian dialects), Wu, Mandarin, Cantonese etc. As a result Standard Mandarin is increasingly becoming more common as the Chinese lingua franca amongst the overseas Chinese.
In Hong Kong, Hong Kong Cantonese is the main and dominant form of spoken Chinese and is used in education, the government, public life, the media and entertainment (e.g. Hong Kong cinema), and in business dealings with Cantonese speaking overseas Chinese communities.
Nowadays, due to Putonghua (Mandarin) being the medium of education on the mainland, many youngsters in the Cantonese speaking region in mainland China do not know specific historical and scientific vocabularies in Cantonese but do know social, cultural, entertainment, commercial, trading, and all other vocabularies. Cantonese is widely spoken and learned by overseas Chinese of Guangdong and Hong Kong origin.
The popularity of Cantonese language media and entertainment from Hong Kong has led to a wide and frequent exposure of Cantonese to large portions of China and the rest of Asia. Cantopop and the Hong Kong film industry are prominent examples of modern Cantonese language media.