lmp homepage language profiles learning centers publishers about lmp links

about the languages we cover

Cantonese Profile

Alternate Names:
Yue, Guangzhou

Number of Speakers:
Approximately 64 million

Key Dialects:
Yuehai, Siyi
Gaoyang, Guinan

Geographical Center:
Southern China and Hong Kong

Educational Resources:

Proficiency Tests


Cantonese (also known as Yue) is one of several major languages in China and has approximately 64 million speakers (Grimes 1992). Of those 64 million, there are more than 46 million speakers in southern China and over 5 million in Hong Kong. Cantonese speakers are also found in Malaysia (750,000), Vietnam (500,000), Macao (500,000), Singapore (33,000), and Indonesia (18,000). Smaller communities (less than 30,000 speakers) also exist in Thailand, New Zealand, Philippines, Costa Rica, Brunei, and Nauru. Sizeable Chinese communities use Cantonese in Canada (several hundred thousand), the United States (for example, 180,000 in San Francisco), Australia, the United Kingdom, Panama, the Netherlands, and some other European countries.

The various Chinese languages are often referred to as dialects because they have in common the Chinese writing system. Thus, an educated speaker of any of the language varieties recognizes written Chinese, but may pronounce it in his or her own "dialect." These "dialects," however, are not mutually intelligible. Hence, from a linguistic point of view, they are not considered proper dialects but rather as separate languages (Norman 1988). The term language is used here to refer to the major distinctions within Chinese (for example, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, and Min) and the term dialect to refer to further distinctions (for example, Toishan is a dialect of Cantonese).

The term Cantonese comes from the name of the place called Canton, now known as Guangzhou, the port city in southeast China and capital of Guangdong province. However, recent studies (China Encyclopedia Publishers 1988) reveal that Cantonese is exclusively used in less than half of the areas in the province. It is the only or major language in forty counties and cities of the province. It is also spoken in sixteen other counties, co-existing with other variants of Chinese. In the neighboring province of Guangxi, it is used in twenty three counties, usually together with other varieties of Chinese.


As one of the Chinese languages, Cantonese belongs to the Sino Tibetan language family, which also includes Tibetan and Lolo Burmese and Karen (both spoken in Burma). The major linguistic distinctions within Chinese are Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue (Cantonese), and Hakka (See Li and Thompson 1979). Cantonese is more closely related to Min and Hakka than it is to Mandarin and Wu.

Given all the dialects that exist within Cantonese, the language is sometimes referred to as a group of Cantonese dialects, and not just Cantonese. Oral communication is virtually impossible among speakers of some Cantonese dialects. For instance, there is as much of a difference between the dialects of Taishan and Nanning as there is between Italian and French.


According to its linguistic characteristics and geographical distribution, Cantonese can be divided into four dialects: Yuehai (including Zhongshan, Chungshan, Tungkuan) as represented by the dialect of Guangzhou City; Siyi (Seiyap) as represented by the Taishan city (Toishan, Hoishan) dialect; Gaoyang as represented by the Yangjiang city dialect; and Guinan as represented by the Nanning city dialect, which is widely used in Guangxi Province. If not otherwise specified, the term Cantonese often refers to the Guangzhou Dialect, which is also spoken in Hong Kong and Macao.


The basis of the Chinese writing system is characters that are pictographic in nature, unlike the writing systems of other languages that have characters based on sounds or syllables (see Li and Thompson 1979; Li 1992). Little connects the written and spoken language in a logographic writing system, in which the characters do not directly symbolize the spoken language. Because it is ideographic, speakers of all Chinese languages or dialects, regardless of the mutual intelligibility of the spoken form, can read and understand Chinese writing and literature. Thus, written standard Chinese is the same as written Cantonese for the literate native speaker.

Many characters have been created to represent spoken Cantonese, however, and some of them can be traced as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368 1644). These are not often used in formal writing and only sometimes for stylistic purposes in newspapers or magazines. Certain publications in Hong Kong are known as "Cantonese newspapers" (for instance, those that focus on cartoons) because of their relatively large proportion of "Cantonese characters," that is, standard Chinese characters used to represent sounds of the spoken language. Since characters in Chinese are more closely related to meaning than to sound, readers (including native speakers of Cantonese) are often confused by them. This is one reason why some argue against "written Cantonese" using ideographic characters.

Several romanization systems represent spoken Cantonese. Among those most widely used are the Meyer Wempe system, the Chao Barnett system, the Yale system, and the Pinyin system created in 1958 and used in China (see Li and Thompson 1979). By definition Pinyin is reserved for Mandarin. The Defense Language Institute/Foreign Language Center uses its own system in all its teaching materials in Cantonese (including the Cantonese variant of Taishan). The major differences among these systems are found in their ways of representing the vowels and marking the tones of Cantonese.


All the Chinese dialects are very similar syntactically although phonologically they are quite different. They are "isolating" languages where grammatical functions are not marked by inflection as in English or Russian; rather, words are immutable and not marked for subject agreement, tense, grammatical gender, number, or case.

Cantonese is a tonal language where the meaning of words and sentences is affected by the pitch with which they are spoken. It has either six or nine tones (depending on the method of classification) that interact in complex ways, called tone sandhi. Its tonal system is more complex than the four-tone system in Mandarin. There are seven vowels that may be either short or long. Some distinctive phonological features of Cantonese are the contrastive voiceless aspirates and unaspirated stops, and the lack of palatalized consonants. Unlike Mandarin, Cantonese also allows consonants to end words. Words in Cantonese are characteristically monosyllabic in contrast to Mandarin where polysyllabic words are frequent.

Compared with Mandarin, the number of borrowed words from English in Cantonese is much greater.


Although used extensively by native speakers on many occasions, Cantonese is not the medium of education even in Guangdong. Nor is it the language used on official occasions in the Peoples' Republic of China because Mandarin is the official language. In Hong Kong, however, it is the medium of instruction in many schools.

Both Guangdong province and Hong Kong have television and radio programs in Cantonese, but only in Hong Kong are most television and radio programs in Cantonese. Hong Kong's important and popular film industry is in Cantonese; but the effects that unification will have on the language is uncertain. In Guangdong province, Cantonese is used alongside Mandarin, while in Hong Kong it is used alongside English. Because of its status in Hong Kong, it is the language of choice for official government functions, in contrast to Guangzhou where Mandarin functions officially. The dialect of Guangzhou is a prestige variant and the model for the rest of Guangdong province. Whether Cantonese is losing ground among speakers in favor of Mandarin is uncertain. A limited number of television programs in Cantonese also air in North America.

Because of Mainland China language policies, begun in 1949 and articulated through the National Language Standardization Conference (October 1955), most people in China today are fluent in Mandarin. As a consequence, bilingualism is increasing in Cantonese speaking provinces and other dialect areas (Li and Thompson 1979).


The origins of Cantonese can only be guessed at due to the lack of historical records. Dialectal differences in ancient China were noted as early as the Chunqiu (770-476 BC) period. Some sources speculate that Cantonese, along with the Wu and Xiang variants, took shape as early as the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). Toward the end of the Qin Dynasty, the Linnan (now Guangdong and Fujian) area was colonized by the Han people, who brought the Han language. Han, which is also referred to in the literature as the Northern dialect, was used as the standard language during the Qin Dynasty. A long period of political turmoil and geographical separation after the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD) was responsible for the drift of the local variety away from the Northern dialect. Interactions with local people also helped to form a distinctive dialect that is now known as the Yue dialect. Although not clearly stated in historical records, it is generally agreed that by the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Cantonese had all the linguistic characteristics that distinguish it from any other variety of the Chinese dialects.


Cantonese is taught in over a dozen universities in the United States and Canada (Linguistic Society of America 1992). Many weekend schools in North America, especially those set up by Chinese communities, do offer Cantonese to school age children. Brigham Young, Cornell, and Indiana universities offer Cantonese on a regular basis.


Arendrup, B. 1994. "Chinese." In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2:516-524. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

_______. 1994. "Chinese Writing System." In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2:530-534. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1-2. London: Routledge.

Central Intelligence Agency. 1990. "Chinese Linguistic Groups." (Map number 719766 (545114) 9 90).

Chan, M., and H. Kwok. 1982. A Study of Lexical Borrowing from English in Hong Kong Chinese. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, Center for Asian Studies.

China Encyclopedia Publisher. 1988. The Encyclopedia of China. Volume on Languages and Characters. Beijing, China: China Encyclopedia Publisher.

Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Li, C. 1992. "Chinese." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 1:257-263. New York: Oxford University Press.

Li, C. N. and S. A. Thompson. 1987. "Chinese." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 811-833. New York: Oxford University Press.

______. 1979. "Chinese: Dialect Variations and Language Reform." In T. Shopen, ed. Languages and Their Status, pp. 295-335. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Winthrop Publishers, Inc.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada: 1993. Washington, DC.

Norman, J. 1988. Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ramsey, S. R. 1987. The Languages of China. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Yuan, J. 1960. An Outline of the Chinese Dialects. Beijing, China: Wenzi Gaige Chuban she.

Wang, W. S.-Y. and R. E. Asher. 1994. "Chinese Linguistic Tradition." In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2:524-527. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Return to the profile list menu