The Cantonese Language

Cantonese is a predominant Chinese variety spoken mainly in Guangzhou, (southeastern China), Hong Kong and Macau. It is also a dialect spoken amongst many overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, and some parts of the Western world such as Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA. Altogether there are about 80 million Cantonese speakers all around the world.

Although Cantonese shares a lot of vocabulary with Mandarin, the two languages are mutually unintelligible because of their differences in intonation, lexicon, grammar, and pronunciation. In terms of sentence structure, the placement of verbs sometimes differs between Mandarin and Cantonese.

 

Example

 

He wants to introduce a friend to me.

 

In Cantonese:

佢要介紹一個朋友俾我

kui yiu kaai shiu yat ko pang yau bei ngoh.

 

In Mandarin (simplified):

他想向我介绍一位朋友

tā xiǎng xiàng wǒ jièshào yī wèi péngyǒu.

 

Notice that 俾我” (bei ngoh) and 向我” (xiàng wǒ) are two very different phrases but yet have the same meaning, which means “to me”. Moreover, in Mandarin, placing 向我” (xiàng wǒ) before the verb 介绍” (jièshào) (means to introduce), makes more sense in the sentence. On the other hand, for Cantonese speakers, the verb 介绍” (jièshào) would precede the subject 俾我” (bei ngoh), which is in this case, “to me”.

Also, the way the phrases are written in Cantonese differs from that of Mandarin simply because they are pronounced differently.

 

Example

佢要 is pronounced as “kui yiu” in Cantonese, which means “He wants”. While this phrase in Mandarin would pronounced as “qú yào”, which literally means “Drain wants” in English. It does not make any sense at all.

In Mandarin, there are a variety of ways to describe things in terms of their numbers just like how it is spoken in English. For instance, in English, we have phrase such as “a flock of sheep”, “a school of fish”, “a pack of wolves”, or perhaps “a stack of hay”.

 

In Mandarin, you have varieties such as:

 

一个人

yī gè rén

A man

 

一只狮子

yī zhī shī zi

A lion

 

两本书

liǎng běn shū

Two books

 

三杯牛奶

sān bēi niú nǎi

Three cups of milk

 

For something huge or in bulk, or for humans, the word “” (gè) is used. For animals and other creatures, “” (zhī) is used to describe them. When there is something related to books or scrolls, “” (běn) is used to describe them. Likewise, for things stored in cups, the word “” (bēi) is used to describe them.

In Cantonese, the phrase “一個” (yat ko) (also pronounced in traditional Mandarin “yī gè”), is used for most of the references including man, animals, and things. When introducing somebody, “一位” (yat wai) (also pronounced in simplified mandarin “yī wèi”) is used in the sentence to refer to a specific person.

History of Cantonese

Cantonese emerged as the prestige variety of the Yue Chinese when the city of Guangzhou became one of the most prosperous regions of China during the Song Dynasty. It was during this time when the port of Guangzhou was linked to many trading network stretching as far as Arabia and beyond. Cantonese also appear in several distinct classic Chinese literature as well as folksongs. In the 17th and 18th century, Guangdong (eastern Guangzhou) was the only Chinese province allowed to trade directly with foreigners. Because of this, many westerners at that time learned Cantonese. It was such an important language that it almost became the official language of the Republic of China. Cantonese simply lost by a small margin of vote to Putonghua (Mandarin).

The 6 Tones of Cantonese

The Six Tones of Cantonese Language

Cantonese is a tonal language with six phonetic tones.

  1. High flat (e.g., 詩 )
  2. High rising (e.g., 史 )
  3. Middle departing (e.g., 試 si)
  4. Low flat (e.g., 時 sìh)
  5. Low rising (e.g., 市 síh)
  6. Low departing (e.g., 是 sih)

Some sources state that Cantonese has nine tones instead of six. This is because there were an additional three tones that were considered to be ‘checked tones’, as what the Chinese would call it “入聲”, which means the “entering tone”. According to the diachronic convention, checked tones are not tones per se but rather syllables that ends in a stop consonant or glottal stop. These checked tone syllables all end in /p/, /t/, or /k/. These three tones have the following tone contours:

The Three Checked Tones of Cantonese Language

These three tones can be considered separate from the other six because, historically, they corresponded to different tones in the Middle Chinese tonal system.

  1. High level ⟨55⟩ (e.g., 識 sīk)
  2. Mid level ⟨33⟩ (e.g., 錫 sek)
  3. Low level ⟨22⟩ (e.g., 食 sihk)

Middle Chinese  (historical Chinese era from ca. 600 to 1000 A.D.) had 4 tonal categories, “ (píng)、上 (shàng)、去 (qù)、入 (rù)”, whereby each of them were divided into 2 subcategories, “” (yīn) and “” (yáng). Cantonese preserved the Middle Chinese tonal system even though the Middle Chinese tone “陰入” was further split into “” (shàng) and “” (x) (higher and lower) tones.

Useful Cantonese Everyday Phrases

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Cantonese Time, Duration, and Seasons - Learn Cantonese Vocabulary, Grammar, and Useful Phrases

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Cantonese Time and Duration (Part Two) - Learn Cantonese Vocabulary, Grammar, and Useful Phrases

Useful Cantonese Phrases Used on a Daily Basis

The following are useful Cantonese Phrases that are used on a daily basis. They can certainly help you if you are trying to find your way around cities and provinces like Hong Kong, Macau, or Guangzhou. These Cantonese phrases are also used colloquially by many in places such as Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, the UK, and the USA. 

Useful Cantonese Everyday Phrases