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Standard Cantonese

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Standard Cantonese

This article is about the Cantonese language of Guangdong province, Hong Kong, and Macau. For related dialects, see Yue Chinese. For other uses, see Cantonese (disambiguation).
广州话 / 廣州話
Gwóngjàu Wah / gwong2 zau1 waa6
Guǎngzhōu huà
simplified Chinese (right) characters
Native to Guangdong, China
Overseas Communities
Region the Pearl River Delta and neighbouring areas
Native speakers (no estimate available)
Language family
Writing system Written Cantonese
Cantonese Braille
Official status
Official language in  Hong Kong
Regulated by Official Language Division[1]
Civil Service Bureau
Government of Hong Kong
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist List

Cantonese, or Standard Cantonese (simplified Chinese: 广州话; traditional Chinese: 廣州話), is a language that originated in the vicinity of Canton (i.e., Guangzhou) in southern China, and is often regarded as the prestige dialect of Yue.

Inside mainland China, it is a lingua franca in Guangdong Province and some neighbouring areas, such as the eastern part of Guangxi Province. Outside mainland China, it is spoken by the majority population of Hong Kong and Macau in everyday life. It is also spoken by overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia (like Malaysia, Christmas Island), Canada, Brazil, Peru, Cuba, Panama, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States where it is the third most common language in the country.[2]

While the term Cantonese refers narrowly to the prestige dialect described in this article, it is often used in a broader sense for the entire Yue branch of Chinese, including related dialects such as Taishanese.

The Cantonese language is also viewed as part of the cultural identity for the native speakers across large swathes of southern China, Hong Kong and Macau. Although Cantonese shares much vocabulary with Mandarin Chinese, the two languages are not mutually intelligible because of pronunciation, grammatical, and also lexical differences. Sentence structure, in particular the placement of verbs, sometimes differs between the two languages. The use of vocabulary in Cantonese also tends to have more historic roots. One of the most notable differences between Cantonese and Mandarin is how the spoken word is written; with Mandarin the spoken word is written as such, whereas with Cantonese there may not be a direct written word matching what was said.[3][4] This results in the situation in which a Mandarin and Cantonese text almost look the same, but both are pronounced differently. The two have been described as "roughly as similar only as English is to Dutch."[5]


In English, the term "Cantonese" is ambiguous. Cantonese proper is the language native to the city of Canton, which is the traditional English name of Guangzhou, and later brought to Hong Kong and Macau; this narrow sense may be specified as "Canton language" or "Guangzhou language" in English.[6]

However, "Cantonese" may also refer to the primary branch of Cantonese that contains Cantonese proper as well as Taishanese and Gaoyang; this broader usage may be specified as "Yue" (粤). In this article, "Cantonese" is used for Cantonese proper.

Customarily, speakers call their language "Guangzhou speech".[7] In Guangdong province, people also call it "provincial capital speech"[8] or "plain speech".[9] In Hong Kong and Macau, people usually call it "Guangdong speech"[10] or simply "Chinese".[11]

Due to its status as a prestige dialect among all the dialects of the Cantonese or Yue language, it is often called "Standard Cantonese" (simplified Chinese: 标准粤语; traditional Chinese: 標準粵語; Jyutping: biu1zeon2 jyut6jyu5; Guangdong Romanization: biu1 zên2 yud6 yu5).

Cultural role

Spoken Chinese has numerous regional and local varieties, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Most of these are rare outside their native areas, though they may be spoken outside of the country. Since the early 1900s (1909 Qing Dynasty decree), China has promoted Mandarin for use in education, the media and official communication,[12] though a few state television and radio broadcasts are in Cantonese. However, due to the linguistic history of Hong Kong and Macau, and the use of Cantonese in many overseas Chinese communities, international usage of Cantonese has spread far out of proportion to its relatively small number of speakers in China, even though the majority of Cantonese speakers still live in mainland China.

Cantonese is the predominant Chinese language spoken in Hong Kong and Macau. In these areas, political discourse takes place almost exclusively in Cantonese, making it the only variety of Chinese other than Mandarin to be used as the primary language for official state functions. Because of their use by non-Mandarin-speaking Yue speakers overseas, Cantonese and Taishanese are the primary forms of Chinese that Westerners encounter.

Along with Mandarin and Hokkien, Cantonese has its own popular music, Cantopop. In Hong Kong, Cantonese lyrics predominate within popular music, and many artists from Beijing and Taiwan have learned Cantonese to make Cantonese versions of their recordings.[13] Popular native Mandarin speaking singers, including Faye Wong, Eric Moo, and singers from Taiwan, have been trained in Cantonese to add "Hong Kong-ness" to their performances.[13]


Main article: Cantonese phonology

Generally speaking, Cantonese is a tonal language. Guangzhou Cantonese traditionally has seven tones, but Hong Kong Cantonese has six with the high-falling tone having merged with the high tone.

The de facto standard pronunciation of the Cantonese language is that of Canton (Guangzhou), which is described at the Cantonese phonology article. Hong Kong Cantonese has some minor variations in phonology. These differences include the tendency of Cantonese vowels to be further back than their Mandarin analogues, such as M. ai, ui, vs. C. oi; M. ei vs. C. ai; M. a, e, ao vs. C. o. For consonants, some differences include M. xi, ji vs. C. h, g; M. r vs. C. y; and a greater syllable coda diversity in Cantonese (such as syllables ending in -t, -p, or -k).

Hong Kong and Macau

Main article: Hong Kong Cantonese

The official languages of Hong Kong are English and Chinese, as defined in the Basic Law of Hong Kong.[14] The Chinese language has many different varieties, of which Cantonese is one. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the predominantly spoken variety in everyday life. It is the de facto official spoken form of the Chinese language used in the Government. It is also used as the medium of instruction in many schools, alongside English.

A similar situation also exists in its neighbor Macau, where Cantonese is an official language along with Portuguese. The majority of the population speaks Cantonese. There is no difference in the Cantonese language between Hong Kong and Macau.

The Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong and Macau is mutually intelligible with the Cantonese spoken in the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou), although there exist minor differences in accent and vocabulary. The Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong is known as Hong Kong Cantonese.

Written Cantonese

Cantonese is used primarily in Hong Kong and other overseas Chinese communities, so it is usually written with traditional Chinese characters. Cantonese includes extra characters and characters with different meanings from Standard Written Chinese.


Cantonese romanization systems are based on the accent of Canton and Hong Kong, and have helped define the concept of Standard Cantonese. The major systems are Barnett–Chao, Meyer–Wempe, the Chinese government's Guangdong Romanization, Yale and Jyutping. While they do not differ greatly, Yale is the one most commonly seen in the west today. The Hong Kong linguist Sidney Lau modified the Yale system for his popular Cantonese-as-a-second-language course and is still widely in use today.

Transcribing Cantonese using Mandarin pinyin, easily done by copying Chinese characters into online pinyin generators, has the disadvantage of being unable to show all the Cantonese tones or final consonants (-p, -k, -t, -m), and highlights the differences in pronunciation between Mandarin and Cantonese. Even though actual European languages (including English) do not necessarily match their sounds to their own writing systems, in this case, the final consonants would be pronounced and not represented in writing, unlike, say, final consonants in French. Cantonese can also be loosely Romanized using the Sino-Vietnamese alphabet (see Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary), but it is also inexact.

Early Western effort

Systematic efforts to develop an alphabetic representation of Cantonese began with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in China early in the nineteenth century. Romanization was considered both a tool to help new missionaries learn the dialect more easily and a quick route for the unlettered to achieve gospel literacy. Earlier Catholic missionaries, mostly Portuguese, had developed romanization schemes for the pronunciation current in the court and capital city of China but made few efforts to romanize other dialects.

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary in China published a "Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect" (1828) with a rather unsystematic romanized pronunciation. Elijah Coleman Bridgman and Samuel Wells Williams in their "Chinese Chrestomathy in the Canton Dialect" (1841) were the progenitors of a long-lived lineage of related romanizations with minor variations embodied in the works of James Dyer Ball, Ernst Johann Eitel, and Immanuel Gottlieb Genăhr (1910). Bridgman and Williams based their system on the phonetic alphabet and diacritics proposed by Sir William Jones for South Asian languages. Their romanization system embodied the phonological system in a local dialect rhyme dictionary, the Fenyun cuoyao, which was widely used and easily available at the time and is still available today. Samuel Wells Willams' Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect (Yinghua fenyun cuoyao 1856), is an alphabetic rearrangement, translation and annotation of the Fenyun. To adapt the system to the needs of users at a time when there were only local variants and no standard—although the speech of the western suburbs, xiguan, of Guangzhou was the prestige variety at the time—Williams suggested that users learn and follow their teacher's pronunciation of his chart of Cantonese syllables. It was apparently Bridgman's innovation to mark the tones with an open circles (upper register tones) or an underlined open circle (lower register tones) at the four corners of the romanized word in analogy with the traditional Chinese system of marking the tone of a character with a circle (lower left for "even," upper left for "rising," upper right for "going," and lower right for "entering" tones). John Chalmers, in his "English and Cantonese pocket-dictionary" (1859) simplified the marking of tones using the acute accent to mark "rising" tones and the grave to mark "going" tones and no diacritic for "even" tones and marking upper register tones by italics (or underlining in handwritten work). "Entering" tones could be distinguished by their consonantal ending. Nicholas Belfeld Dennys used Chalmers romanization in his primer. This method of marking tones was adopted in the Yale romanization (with low register tones marked with an 'h'). A new romanization was developed in the first decade of the twentieth century which eliminated the diacritics on vowels by distinguishing vowel quality by spelling differences (e.g. a/aa, o/oh). Diacritics were used only for marking tones. The name of Tipson is associated with this new romanization which still embodied the phonology of the Fenyun to some extent. It is the system used in Meyer-Wempe and Cowles' dictionaries and O'Melia's textbook and many other works in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the standard romanization until the Yale system supplanted it. The distinguished linguist, Y. R. Chao developed a Cantonese adaptation of his Gwoyeu romanization system which he used in his "Cantonese Primer." The front matter to this book contains a review and comparison of a number of the systems mentioned in this paragraph. The GR system was not widely used.

Cantonese romanization in Hong Kong

An influential work on Cantonese, A Chinese Syllabary Pronounced According to the Dialect of Canton, written by Wong Shik Ling, was published in 1941. He derived an IPA-based transcription system, the S. L. Wong system, used by many Chinese dictionaries later published in Hong Kong. Although Wong also derived a romanization scheme, also known as S. L. Wong system, it is not widely used as his transcription scheme.

This system was preceded by the Barnett-Chao system used by the Hong Government Language School and a most effective system it was: https://en.World Heritage

The romanization advocated by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK) is called Jyutping, which attempts to solve many of the flaws and inconsistencies of the older, favored, and more familiar system of Yale Romanization, but departs from it in a number of ways unfamiliar to Yale users. The phonetic values of some consonants are closer to the approximate equivalents in Pinyin/IPA than those in Yale. Some effort has been undertaken to promote Jyutping with some official support, but the success of its proliferation within the region has yet to be examined.

Another popular scheme is Cantonese Pinyin, which is the only romanization system accepted by Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau and Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Books and studies for teachers and students in primary and secondary schools usually use this scheme. But there are teachers and students who use the transcription system of S. L. Wong.

Despite the efforts to standardize Cantonese romanization, those learning the language may feel frustrated that most native Cantonese speakers, regardless of their level of education, are unfamiliar with any romanization system. Because Cantonese is primarily a spoken language and does not carry its own writing system (written Cantonese, despite having some Chinese characters unique to it, primarily follows modern standard Chinese, which is closely tied to Mandarin), it is not taught in schools. As a result, locals do not learn any of these systems. In contrast with Mandarin-speaking areas of China, Cantonese romanization systems are excluded in the education systems of both Hong Kong and the Guangdong province. In practice, Hong Kong follows a loose, unnamed romanization scheme used by the Government of Hong Kong.

Cantonese outside Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau

Historically, the majority of the overseas Chinese originated from two provinces, Fujian and Guangdong. This has resulted in the overseas Chinese having a higher proportion of Fujian and Guangdong languages/dialect speakers than Chinese speakers in China as a whole.

The largest number of Cantonese speakers outside mainland China and Hong Kong are in Canada and the United States; however, speakers of Min dialects predominate among the overseas Chinese in southeast Asia. The Cantonese spoken in Malaysia is known to have borrowed substantially from Malay and other languages.


For many decades, Cantonese has continued to be the common Chinese language spoken among Chinese Canadians. According to Canada 2006 Census, there are 361,450 Canadian residents who reported Cantonese as their mother tongue including 166,655 in Greater Toronto Area and 125,940 in Greater Vancouver to lead the way. The total number of Cantonese speakers in Canada however is expected to be greater than those numbers provided by Statistics Canada considering that 456,705 people who reported a Chinese mother tongue either did not specify which Chinese language they were referring to, or specified a language outside of Cantonese, Mandarin, Teochew, Fukien, Hakka, Shanghainese, or Taiwanese. Hence among the 456,705 residents, many of them are Cantonese speakers as well.

The majority of Cantonese speakers came from Hong Kong in waves in the late 60s to mid 70s during and after the Hong Kong 1967 Leftist riots, and came in masses during the 80s to late 90s in response to the Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong back to Mainland China in 1997. Immigrants from Guangdong, Vietnam and Southeast Asia also form an integral part of the Cantonese speaker demographics in Canada.


Cantonese is also spoken among the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.


Cantonese is also spoken among the Calcutta Chinese in India.


Cantonese is widely spoken in Sabah.

As a result of business traveling in the 1950s and '60s or even earlier, many people came to do business in Sandakan, especially those from Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Due to the popularity of Hong Kong drama series, Cantonese is widely understood by Chinese in all parts of Malaysia, though large part of Chinese population are non-Cantonese. Cantonese can be regarded as highly influential among Malaysian Chinese; although the Hokkien dialect group is the largest among Malaysian Chinese, the language has minimal influence on other dialect groups.

Television stations in Malaysia regularly broadcast Hong Kong TV programmes in the original soundtrack. Pay TV operator, Astro, offers its prime-time Hong Kong drama series in dual channel - the original soundtrack in Cantonese and the dubbed version in Mandarin via two popular Cantonese-medium channels named Astro Wah Lai Toi and Astro On Demand. There are four Chinese radio stations - My FM, one FM, 988 and Ai FM. The first three are private-owned, which broadcast mainly in Cantonese with some Mandarin. Ai FM, which is run by government-owned Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), broadcasts solely in Mandarin; the only Cantonese programme on Ai FM is the Cantonese news broadcast.

New Zealand

The goldminers who came to New Zealand in the 1860s were mainly from the southern counties of Guangdong province. Through chain-migration between the 1860s to 1920s Cantonese became the dominant language spoken by New Zealand Chinese. Since the late 1980s there has been a large number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese coming to New Zealand either as permanent immigrants or temporary English-language students.


In Singapore the government has a Speak Mandarin Campaign(SMC)[15] which seeks to actively promote the use of Mandarin over other Chinese languages, such as Hokkien (41.1%), Teochew (21.0%), Cantonese (15.4%), Hakka (7.9%) and Hainanese (6.7%).

Population Profile of Singapore Chinese Language Groups[16]
Dialect Group 1990 2000
Hokkiens 42.1% 41.1%
Teochews 21.9% 21.0%
Cantonese 15.2% 15.4%
Hakkas 7.3% 7.9%
Hainanese 7.0% 6.7%
Foochows (Min Dong) 1.7% 1.9%
Henghua (Puxian/Putian) 0.9% 0.9%
Shanghainese 0.8% 0.9%
Hockchia (Fuqing) 0.6% 0.6%
Others 2.4% 3.7%

Notably, all non-Mandarin Chinese TV and radio programs were stopped after 1979.[17] The prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, then, also stopped giving speeches in Hokkien to prevent giving conflicting signals to the people.[17]

Hong Kong (Cantonese) and Taiwanese dramas are unavailable in their original languages on TV, though Japanese and Korean drama series are available in their original languages. Cantonese drama series on non-cable TV channels are dubbed in Mandarin and broadcast without the original Cantonese soundtrack. Supporters of non-Mandarin Chinese languages who feel that dubbing causes the series to lose its natural flavor often buy original VCDs from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

An offshoot of SMC is the Pinyinisation of certain terms which originated from southern Chinese languages. For instance, dim sum is often known as dianxin in Singapore's English-language media, though this is largely a matter of style, and most Singaporeans will refer to dim sum when speaking English.


The Chinese (including those of mixed ancestry) of Thailand are overwhelmingly descended from Chaozhou in Guangdong Province and their Teochew dialect belongs to the Min Nan language group. A minority of the Thai Chinese are of Cantonese extraction.

United Kingdom

The majority of Cantonese speakers in the UK have origins from the former British colony of Hong Kong and speak the Canton/Hong Kong dialect, although many are in fact from Hakka-speaking families and are bilingual in Hakka. There are also Cantonese speakers from Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, as well as from Guangdong in China itself. Today an estimated 300,000 British people have Cantonese as a mother tongue, this represents 0.5% of the total UK population and 1% of the total overseas Cantonese speakers.[18]

United States

For the past 150 years, Guangdong has been the origin of most Chinese emigrants to Western countries; one coastal county, Taishan (or Tóisàn, where the Sìyì or sei yap dialect of Yue is spoken), alone may have been the home to more than 60% of Chinese immigrants to the US before 1965. As a result, Yue dialects such as Siyi (the dialects of Taishan, Enping, Kaiping and Xinhui Districts) and Cantonese (with a heavy Hong Kong influence) have been the major Yue dialects spoken abroad, particularly in the United States.

The Zhongshan dialect of Cantonese, with origins in the 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 a Yuehai dialect much like Guangzhou Cantonese, but has "flatter" tones. Yue is the third most widely spoken non-English language in the United States.[19] Many institutes of higher education, such as Stanford, Duke, and Yale, have Cantonese programs. The currently most popular romanization for learning Cantonese in the United States is Yale Romanization.

This 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. Most recent immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan in the U.S. speak Standard Chinese (putonghua/guoyu),[20][21] with varying degrees of fluency, and their native local language, such as Min (Hokkien and other Fujian languages), Wu, Mandarin, Cantonese etc. As a result, Mandarin is increasingly becoming more common as the Chinese lingua franca among overseas Chinese.

In some metropolitan areas with large Chinese populations, separate neighborhoods and enclaves segregated by the primary language or dialect spoken have begun to arise. For example, in New York City, Cantonese still predominates in the older historic part of Chinatown in Manhattan, surrounding Canal Street and west of the Bowery, while the newer Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn, as well as the expanded part of Manhattan Chinatown around East Broadway and east of the Bowery have large numbers of Mandarin and Fukienese speakers respectively. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Cantonese historically predominated in Chinatown, San Francisco and Chinatown, Oakland and today in large areas of San Francisco, Daly City, and near East Oakland, while Mandarin is more spoken in Silicon Valley and Fremont, California, as well as Hercules, California further north.


In Vietnam, varying degree of Cantonese is widely spoken among ethnic-Chinese (Hoa). However many have been influenced by Vietnamese, and hence speak with a Vietnamese accent.


Main article: Hong Kong Cantonese

Life in Hong Kong is characterized by the blending of Asian (mainly south Chinese) and Western influences, as well as the status of the city as a major international business center. Influences from this territory are widespread in foreign cultures. As a result, many loanwords are created and exported to China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Some of the loanwords are even more popular than their Chinese counterparts. At the same time, some new words created are vividly borrowed by other languages as well.

Many Mandarin words originally of foreign origin come from dialects which borrowed them from the original foreign language. The Mandarin word "ningmeng" (檸檬), meaning "Lemon", originated from Cantonese, in which the characters are pronounced as "lìng mung".[22][23]

See also


External links

  • (the University of California) (Digitized Jul 15, 2010)
  • Chinese and English phrase book : with the Chinese pronunciation indicated in English by Benoni Lanctot (1867)
  • Robert Morrison (1828)
  • Hong Kong Government site on the HK Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS)
  • Learn Cantonese (with Cantonese–English / English–Cantonese Dictionary)
  • USA Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Cantonese basic course
  • Online Cantonese Editor

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