Guest post: Is Cantonese a Language or a Regional Dialect?

Laura-from-My-Chinese-Wedding

Today’s guest post is written by Laura. She comes from a British-German background and has due to her upbringing always been fascinated by intercultural relationships and communication. She works in Nanjing as an English magazine and website editor, while her fiance is in Beijing. She is currently trying (and mostly failing) to organise a Chinese wedding in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, her fiance’s hometown and has been recording her thoughts and experiences on her blog Our Chinese Wedding. Enjoy today’s post!

Is Cantonese a language?

Recently one of my good friends from Austria approached me with a rather interesting and maybe slightly controversial question for her thesis: Is Cantonese a language?

Cantonese

There are certainly many conflicting opinions on the subject, depending on one’s personal perspective and approach, be it cultural or political, linguistic or nationalistic, the answer will probably differ in many cases.

Having studied Cantonese for a while at uni, I certainly have many thoughts on this topic, which I would like to approach from a linguistic perspective.

Cantonese vs. Mandarin Chinese

I would argue that from a linguistic point of view Cantonese is not a dialect of Mandarin, as Mr Chen, the scholar quoted by my friend argued, but rather its own language.

It is right that both languages have the same linguistic roots. Ironically, the language spoken at the time of the founding of Chinese civilization was actually closer to today’s Cantonese than to Mandarin. Therefore, Cantonese is historically speaking the more “original” Chinese language.

Cantonese_01

However, just because two languages share a linguistic basis, this doesn’t mean they are he same language. Take for example Spanish and Italian, both systems that have evolved from Latin, yet certainly seen today as two separate languages.

The relationship between Spanish and Italian is in my eyes an appropriate analogy for the Canto-Mandarin relationship. Both languages are so similar, that an Italian could understand simple sentences in Spanish (or the other way around) just like many Mandarin speakers are able to understand basic Cantonese expressions and vice versa.

However, as soon as we move on to more complex topics, the two languages differ too much to be understood by their opposite without additional learning processes.

Spoken Cantonese vs. Spoken Mandarin Chinese

In terms of the spoken language, Mandarin speakers will be dismayed to learn that in Cantonese there are not only five but seven different tones, even adding something akin to a high and low musical note to differentiate words. In fact, from conversations with Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin, I have discovered that many tend to have more difficulty with tones than speakers of Latin or German-based languages do because they already speak a tonal language; however the tones differ and so it is very confusing to have to learn an entire set of new tones. A simple example is the word tea; in Mandarin it is pronounced cha with the second tone, which rises in the way as if one asks a question in English, while in Cantonese it is also pronounced cha but with a falling tone, the exact opposite of Mandarin. Considering just changing one tone can alter the entire meaning of a word in these language systems, they are arguably a lot more different than one might initially think.

Cantonese Grammar vs. Mandarin Chinese Grammar

In terms of grammar (e.g. sentence structure), words and phrases there are many similarities but also a few substantial differences. The simplest example is the sentence “I’m leaving”, or word by word “I go first”. In Mandarin the sentence goes 我先走 “I first go”, while in Cantonese it is 我走先 “I go first”. Similarly, certain verbs or words are entirely different in the respective language, “we” in Mandarin is “我们” yet it is “我哋” in Cantonese, differing in pronunciation and character. Similarly, “to be” in Mandarin is “是” while in Cantonese it is an entirely different word “係”. While a Cantonese speaker could read the aforementioned Mandarin Characters with a Cantonese pronunciation, they would not use these words in their communication since they are inappropriate.

Cantonese

It is true that in the past many Cantinese pop songs were actually written in Mandarin and just pronounced in a Cantonese way, however in modern times a form of written Cantonese was created by linguists to address the aforementioned substantial language divergence. This once again solidifies the argument that Cantonese is a separate language with a similar but not identical writing system. It is safe to say that this move holds a strong political and cultural significance, since an independent language further manifests the Cantonese language and the Hong Kong geographic region as a separate entity from the mainland, which was quite probably the ultimate goal of a written system considering the tense relationship between the two parties. What is certain is that the largely identical use of characters is the main pillar Chen’s argument of classifying Cantonese as a dialect, yet this approach quickly unravels. After all, even today both Japanese and Korean still use traditional Chinese characters, yet no one would ever consider them dialects of Mandarin.

Traditional vs. Simplified Characters

In terms of characters, there is a further differentiation in the fact that written Cantonese uses the traditional and more complex form of Chinese characters, while the mainland adapted a simplified version under Mao in 1949, a further step in separating the two language systems from each other.

So is Cantonese a Language or a Dialect?

Based on the above reasoning, Cantonese can be considered a separate language, which leaves the question what is a dialect? Looking at the comparison between Austrian German and German spoken Germany, my friends area of interest, it is clear that both use the same written system and mainly the same grammar. The major detectable difference is the use of different words, e.g. Obers in Austria and Schlagsahne in Germany to designate cream. By this logic I would argue that Taiwanese and mainland Mandarin have the same relationship. People from both countries can understand each other without much problem, though Taiwanese are easily recognized by their accent and by different words usage (e.g. 單車 for bicycle, which means single vehicle, as opposed to mainland 自行车 self-traveling vehicle). Of course we have here the added complexity of traditional characters in Taiwan versus simplified ones on the mainland but this only causes minor complications in written exchange, yet that was a political rather than linguistic choice in the past.

Do you agree with my conclusion? Do you think Cantonese counts as a language or a regional dialect or would you argue against this?

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

23 comments

  1. Very fascinating post, Laura!

    My husband speaks a local dialect in China and after reading this, I have to wonder if there are also any arguments that one could put forth to claim it is a separate language. Specifically, I’ve noticed that there are completely different words used compared to Mandarin. Though I don’t think the argument is as strong as what you’ve mentioned for Cantonese. Regardless, great read!

    • Thanks Jocelyn, glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Yes you are right as soon as you look at Shanghainese or Hangzhou Huamit gets really difficult to draw the line – it is such a fascinating subject though!

  2. I thought it was clear that it was a language on its own given its big difference from Standard Chinese. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yue_Chinese

    Although my best comparison would actually speak against it: Standard German versus Swiss German, with mainly the same written formal language but totally different pronunciation and slang. SG counts as a dialect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_German

    Not to forget that Mandarin and Cantonese is s politically hot topic…

    • robert

      Swiss German is a dialect because it only exists in spoken form, without a standardized and governed written form, without major literature and press in the dialect. Having literature in a dialect can be a powerful tool to establish a language. Just think of Dante establishing Tuscany’s dialect as standard Italian.

      Although, in the last 10 years I’ve been seeing more and more Swiss people writing the way they talk, doing away with the standard written German, which used to be the predominant form of writing German in Switzerland. Might well be that in 100 or 200 years it’ll be considered a new language.

  3. Suigetsu

    As a general, crude guide, the 80% mutual intelligibility rule is used to determine whether two systems of communication are a language or a dialect to each other.

    Ultimately, regardless of the linguistic merits (or lack thereof), language/dialect is a political distinction. It is said that a language has an army, and a dialect does not.

  4. I am of Cantonese speaking background and I would like to think of it as being a slightly different language. With the many more tones, a little change can make a word a different word (and sometimes a rude one). When I teach my Mandarin speaking wife a Cantonese word, she finds it funny because I use hand signals to tell her to go higher or lower like I am teaching her to sing. Everyday spoken Cantonese is a little different to written Chinese or news reading Cantonese (the latter being sounding a bit more formal). And then you have those almost redundant ahs and lahs at the end of the sentences.

  5. I agree about Cantonese being a language. It is unfortunate that people in HK don’t really value Cantonese much and tend to pressure their kids to learn English and Mandarin first. My boyfriend for example never studied in Cantonese for his entire education. He speaks Cantonese only with his family, does not feel comfortable reading it and pretty much never writes it.

    I understand Cantonese is only spoken in HK and the Guangdong region and that technically Mandarin and English are more useful, but I still think a language is a cultural heritage and identity that people should hold strong onto.

    • I so agree Marghini, I love Cantonese and still would like to continue my studies of it at some point. The experience I have made in Hong Kong whenever I use my broken Cantonese is that people really light up and are so happy. I love seeing the reaction. And I am not even saying anything great at all – asking for the loo is about as far as my Cantonese goes.

  6. Suigetsu

    I should also add that it’s misleading to compare Cantonese to Mandarin and conclude that Cantonese is a stand-alone language because other Chinese dialects have closer relationships with Cantonese. Hakka, for example, has more similarities with Cantonese than does Mandarin; should Cantonese and Hakka then be considered regional variations of the same language?

  7. You raise a really good point Suigetsu – and I was thinking about Hakka when I was writing this – however my primary motive was to answer my friend’s question, and Hakka is a whole other can of worms that would have made this post endless haha. But I’d love to know your thoughts on the topic – what do you think of the Canto-Hakka relationship?

  8. I have to point out that I think you mean Taiwan Mandarin (國語) vs Mainland Mandarin (普通話) and NOT Taiwanese. Taiwanese (台灣話) or Hokkien is NOT mutually intelligible with Mandarin. Taiwanese is classified under the Minnan (閩南語) group of languages or dialects that are mainly spoken in southern China (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwanese_Hokkien and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Min). I always compare Mainland Mandarin and Taiwan Mandarin to British English and American English. Mutually intelligible, same writing system, just different vernacular and sometimes, different pronunciations.

    • Hi Janice, you are of course completely right. I have to admit I did not realise Taiwanese was used to describe Hokkien, since it is spoken in parts of the mainland as well, such as Guangzhou, so that was my mistake, thanks for pointing it out!

  9. robert

    reminds me of the case for Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. They are all very closely related, much closer than Latin languages. The case to call them a language, instead of a dialect, was made on the grounds that each language has independent bodies to govern it, that it is standardized and that its use is bounds to a national entity, i.e. a state, and that there’s a substantial number of speakers.

    I think if Danish is a language – and if you can read Norwegian, you should be able to read Danish, but not understand or speak it – then Cantonese, should be considered one. The Cantonese / Mandarin relationship sounds pretty similar to the Scandinavian languages.

  10. Very interesting topic! I agree with Suigetsu that a big difference is if the language has an army or not.

    I don’t think having a written form serves to distinguish between language and dialect. After all, most of the languages in the world are not written! There are around 6000 recognized languages in the world and not even 10% are written.

    With Cantonese and Mandarin, the difference is only politic. China only wants to have one recognized language, but the thing is that there are many languages inside China. I laugh every time my boyfriend refers to his native language (Suzhounese) as a dialect of Mandarin. French and Spanish are more mutually intelligible than Suzhounese and Mandarin…

    So I vote yes, Cantonese is a separate language 🙂

  11. Antique Tales

    um..interesting and complicated topic. since i am a local HongKonger, i feel like i can help in this subject.

    (Note that China will be used as a geographic-term in my post.
    so, China is in analogy to Europe, Chinese->European)
    for ‘nowadays China/government’, i use PRC)

    Cantonese is a separate language, as well as many other so-called dialects: Hak-Ka,Min-Nan,Wu…etc.
    (Since they dont share any mutual intelligibility, which is a criterion of dialect)
    the meaning of language & dialect has never been clear in PRC, actually, intentionally distorted for political reason, and that is ROC’s fault, PRC just inherited from it.

    ROC & PRC, they all wanted to completely inherit the territory of Qing dynasty, so they adopted
    “Five Races Under One Union” policy. (google is yr friend)
    However, this is rather complicated as Han race is actually a fictitious race, was created for political reason long long time ago.
    (under the official definition, Cantonese,Hak-Ka,Min-Nan,Wu…etc, they are all Han)

    Nowadays, the most misleading concept is that, “All Chinese use Chinese-Characters, so we
    are the same race/culture (Han), so Cantonese/Hak-Ka…etc are dialects)”
    yea, many Chinese have this concept in their head.

    The truth is Chinese-Characters is in analogy to Latin alphabet
    Using Latin alphabet doesnt make European to be a single race/to share the same culture.
    The same logic applies to Chinese.
    (And not to mention that language & Writing system can be consider separately.)

    i may talk more about historical aspect about Han race later if i have spare time.
    Cantonese,Hak-Ka,Min-Nan,Wu…etc, they are not Han but the descendants of different ancient race, their respective true ancestors are not completely ‘trackable’. since there were too many immigration.

    (ps: english is not my 1st language, ask if u dont understand my lame writing :p)

    • Wow that was SUPER interesting thanks so much for sharing, really fascinating stuff 🙂 And interesting that it comes from ROC times this “uniform identity aspiration” – it makes sense though, in Europe many countries are not linguistically uniform (e.g. France and Corse, Spain and Catalonia), yet a uniform identity was artifically created in order to build “the nation” and include certain people and exclude “the other”, hence it is unsurprising that there is still the rhetoric questioning the independence of certain Chinese languages – unity and harmony being priorities.

  12. DAVIDfromHK

    Laura: I enjoy reading your article, which brought back some fond memories. I was born and raised in Hong Kong in a Hakka speaking family, and I emigrated to the U.S. about 30 years ago. In Hong Kong, my siblings and I speak Hakka with our parents and relatives, but we talk in Cantonese among ourselves. Outside our household, of course we speak Cantonese. At school, English was used in class and Cantonese was used outside of the classroom with my classmates and teachers. In terms of the spoken form of various Chinese dialects, you are correct that Cantonese is actually closer to the old Chinese language than Mandarin. The evidence is that many old Chinese poems rhyme better if read in Cantonese than in Mandarin. I have lumped Mandarin with Cantonese (and Hakka) as dialects because originally Mandarin was a dialect commonly spoken around Beijing (Peking at that time) when the Qing Dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China. Even though Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the president of Republic of China at that time, was a Cantonese, the government of the Republic of China chose to use Mandarin was the official spoken language in China. A policy which was adopted by the PRC. As Marghini noted, Cantonese is spoken primarily in Hong Kong, Macau and the Guangdong province. I was surprised to read that you (Laura) have an interest in Hakka. Hakka is a dialect spoken by a group of Han Chinese who migrated from central China to various provinces, including Guangdong (primarily around Shenzhen and the New Territories in Hong Kong) when they tried to escape the invasion of the Mongols near the end of the Song Dynasty ca 1270. In terms of the spoken aspects, nowadays Hakka is in between Mandarin and Cantonese. I wrote “nowadays” because that is all I have to go by based on the Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin that I speak now. I don’t know whether Hakka has changed in these 700 or so years since 1270. It is not surprising that Hakka is in between Mandarin and Cantonese nowadays because Hakka was spoken by some of the Hans who used to live in central China back in 1270. By the way, in my opinion Cantonese and Hakka are two dialects of China. However, for the Hakka speaking people in Taiwan, they may consider Hakka as a dialect of Taiwan, not China. There are also a sizable population of Hakka speaking people in Taiwan (about 20% of the Taiwan population are Hakka speaking). But the Hakka speaking people in Taiwan may not totally identify themselves with the Taiwanese (Minnan) speaking people in Taiwan.

    Marghini: I agree with you that people in Hong Kong should treasure Cantonese as part of their heritage. In fact, I believe that they do. They have not given up conversing in Cantonese despite the recent emphasis on learning to speak Mandarin at school. They want to learn to speak Mandarin and English because they realize that economically they will be better off if they can communicate in Mandarin and English. For instance, other than a few expats like Laura who could speak some Cantonese, how many expats could communicate with the people in Hong Kong without using English. Once the people in Hong Kong enter mainland China, they would need to speak Mandarin beyond Shenzhen and the Guangdong provice. The job prospects force the people in Hong Kong to to learn to speak Mandarin and English, but not in exclusion of Cantonese. However, my impression is that the level of English proficiency in Hong Kong nowadays is lower than what it was when I was a school boy in Hong Kong about 40 years ago (taught by teachers from the UK).

    Laura: Your observation is true that back in the early 1960s, most of the Chinese songs popular in Hong Kong were written for Mandarin. These songs would sound horrible when sung in Cantonese due to the difference in tone, etc. I would cringe when I hear that. Starting in mid or late 1960s, Hong Kong song writers wrote Chinese songs for Cantonese which sound much more natural to the Cantonese speaking populace in Hong Kong. For years, these Cantonese songs were popular even in mainland China, and among people of Chinese descents in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Finally, I like the photos you posted showing the scenaries in Hong Kong. Those vans which ran on certain routes from one neighborhood to another like buses but much faster than buses and cheaper than taxis allowed me to travel in Hong Kong when I was there.

  13. I was originally declared as a linguistics and Chinese major in university, so I took some classes in Chinese linguistics. If I remember correctly, my professor had said that /all/ of the Chinese “languages” are actually considered dialects because they are mutually unintelligible but originated and are spoken in the same country. In fact, there are countless dialects of Chinese and 7 main groups including Mandarin and Cantonese. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are supposed to be considered dialects although they are more prominently spoken than say, Wu dialect.

    I guess the real argument would be whether or not number of speakers can differentiate a dialect from a language, because if mutual unintelligibility and different grammar makes Cantonese a language, all of the other dialect groups should also be considered languages.

    Also, the argument for the similarity between Taiwanese and Mainland Mandarin is pretty null, because the actual Taiwanese language is a dialect and is part of the Minnan dialect family, while Taiwanese Mandarin is basically just Taiwanese-influenced Mandarin, as yangjanice said.

  14. Chris

    I don’t know why you wrote, “Mandarin speakers will be dismayed to learn that in Cantonese there are not only five but seven different tones”

    Mandarin has four tones, and Cantonese has six tones.

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