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