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Mandarin Vs Cantonese

If you’re from North America, you might be forgiven for thinking that Chinese can be divided into Mandarin vs Cantonese. Although there are quite a few more Chinese varieties to learn about, these two get almost all the attention. What’s the story here? What is Mandarin, what is Cantonese, and what’s the difference? Is the pronunciation different? How about the writing? You’ll find out the answers to these questions and more in today’s article.

Chinese: An Overview

“The Chinese Language” is a nebulous concept. Linguists divide the related languages spoken in and around China into up to eleven families, but because there’s so much internal variation, it’s often hard to define languages and dialects. Mandarin is one family all its own, and it has the most speakers by far. The governments of China, Taiwan, and Singapore promote the use of Modern Standard Mandarin (or MSM) in government, broadcast, and education.
There are plenty of people who grow up speaking Mandarin in their homes. But many hundreds of millions of Chinese people also speak something else. They learn MSM in school and hear it every day, but feel much more comfortable speaking the language of their community – such as Cantonese.
When Portuguese sailors reached South China in the sixteenth century, they were told (in Cantonese) that the port city which greeted them was the capital of the province called 廣東 or Gwóng-dūng. The sailors adopted this into Portuguese as Cantão, referring to the province and the city itself. In English, the name turned into Canton, and thus the language spoken in and around the city walls became known as Cantonese.
Mandarin Vs Cantonese
It’s a little bit confusing, and even more so since today we use the Pinyin romanization of the Mandarin pronunciation of these characters – and so on maps the province is called Guǎngdōng. But that’s a perfect introduction to some of the differences between these two language varieties. That capital city is written 廣州 in Chinese characters. A Mandarin speaker would read those characters as Guǎngzhōu. A Cantonese speaker, however, would say Gwóngjāu.

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Mandarin Vs Cantonese in Writing

Because China’s writing system is so old, the characters aren’t necessarily tied to the pronunciation of any one dialect. Educated Chinese people learn the pronunciation in MSM, but you can also read written Chinese with the pronunciation of other dialects. Again, it’s not the easiest concept to master, so an example from English might make things more clear.
Imagine you write the word “hand” and ask a German speaker and an English speaker to read it aloud. The meaning is the same in both languages, and it clearly comes from the same word, but it’s pronounced differently. It also has slightly different usage – you can’t translate “hand me a pen” into German with the same words. The same concept applies to Chinese characters like 我, 山, and 水 (I/me, mountain, and water). A Mandarin speaker would read these out as wǒ, shān, and shuǐ, while in Cantonese they’re ngóh, sāan, and sēoi.
Mandarin Vs Cantonese
So it’s clear that Cantonese pronunciation is different from Mandarin. It’s not as simple as just shifting sounds, though, or reading characters in a different accent. Cantonese has several sounds and sound combinations that don’t exist in Mandarin, as well as six tones to Mandarin’s four. Lots of common words don’t come from the same root as the Mandarin equivalent. To write these more accurately, some Cantonese speakers use the etymologically correct character, and in fact some new characters have been created entirely from scratch. For “no/not” you write 不 (bù) in Mandarin and 唔 (m̀h) in Cantonese, and “he/him” is 他 (tā) in Mandarin but 佢 (kéoih) in Cantonese.
All this means that without additional knowledge, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers definitely wouldn’t be able to understand one another. It’s a pretty different situation but it’s not too far off from imagining monolingual English and Swedish speakers trying to communicate. Near impossible at first, but after a lot of exposure more pieces fall into place. A lot of Cantonese speakers can speak fluent Mandarin after a few years of education or simply watching enough TV.

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Where Can You Hear Cantonese and Mandarin?

You can hear people speaking Cantonese in Guangdong, for one. The language is alive and well in that province, and you can hear it spoken by people from all walks of life. Different types of Chinese dialects can be found in the various cities of the province, but the standard is generally accepted to be the speech of the capital, Guangzhou. Hong Kong is perhaps even more well known for its use of Cantonese – it’s the first language for virtually all the locals, as well as the language of radio, music, TV, film, and more. You may already be familiar with Hong Kong cinema through the work of Jackie Chan or Wong Kar-Wai. The population of nearby Macau is much smaller but they speak Cantonese just as well.
Mandarin Vs Cantonese
Most of the Chinese-American population of the US and Canada has their roots in southern China or Hong Kong. A lot of the communities have a tradition of using Cantonese as a common language. So if you’ve ever been to the Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, or Vancouver, you’ve definitely heard Cantonese spoken around you. Some of those residents and business owners might not be as comfortable speaking Mandarin, since they can get by so comfortably with Cantonese and English. As population trends shift, though, more and more Mandarin-speaking Chinese are moving to North America. Today you’re more likely to hear Mandarin than Cantonese from Chinese students studying in the US.
Are you interested in picking up Cantonese? Or perhaps you’ve decided you’re more of a Mandarin type? Maybe you’d like to have a look at some other Chinese varieties? Native speakers will appreciate your effort no matter what you choose. Learning Chinese is a long journey, but every step is worthwhile.

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Alex Thomas started seriously studying languages five years ago and will never stop. He has traveled to many of China’s cities, big and small, and cannot wait to return.

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