The Cantonese dialect is a variety of the Chinese language that is associated with a very exciting and distinct culture well-known both within China and around the world.
Although Cantonese is frequently referred to as a language, it is technically classified as a dialect. As one of the most significant dialects of the Chinese language, Cantonese is spoken by more than 55 million people in China.
Classification and Status of Cantonese in China
China is an enormous country with many different languages and dialects (many of which are mutually unintelligible) spoken throughout its varied provinces. These dialects tend to be regional and may be relatively limited in the area they cover.
The Cantonese dialect is classified as a dialect of the Chinese language, part of the Sinitic group of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The Modern Standard Chinese of which Cantonese is a dialect is commonly known as Guoyo or Putonghua, which translates literally to “common language.”
The majority of Cantonese dialect speakers live in the country’s Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, which are home to a number of major cities, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). The English term “Cantonese” generally refers to the dialect found in the Hong Kong or Guangzhou areas.
Differentiating Between Cantonese and Mandarin
Cantonese is quite different from the Mandarin dialect, which serves as the basis for the modern standard Chinese language and is China’s most important dialect.
Mandarin has long been promoted as the primary language for official use in schools, government and media operations. In the early 20th century, Chinese leaders decided that the use of Putonghua, based on the Mandarin dialect, would be promoted throughout the country in an attempt to establish a common language throughout China.
Although Mandarin is today the more common of the Chinese languages, Cantonese remains an important dialect. Today it is one of the few dialects other than Standard Mandarin used in official contexts, and a number of state television and radio stations broadcast in Cantonese. Areas with higher concentrations of Cantonese speakers, such as Hong Kong and the Guangdong province, for example, are largely dominated by Cantonese media.
Historical Evolution of Chinese Language Dialects
The Chinese language’s varied dialects are thought to have evolved over time, aided in part by geographical features that allowed different dialects to thrive in different regions.
The prevalence of the Mandarin dialect throughout the north of China can in part be explained by the fact that the north consists largely of flat plains, allowing early Chinese to travel and come into contact with other regions. The southern regions where Cantonese developed, however, are more mountainous and have more rivers, which would have prevented early outside contact. This isolation is one factor that is believed to have aided the emergence of a diversity of dialects, including Cantonese.
Characteristics of the Cantonese Dialect
Standard Cantonese is generally based on the Cantonese dialect found in the major cities of Hong Kong, Canton and Macau. Cantonese is unique among the major Chinese languages due to the fact that it has preserved more characteristics of Ancient Chinese than others forms of Chinese. Most Cantonese dialects, for example, have retained a great number of the final consonant sounds distinct to the Ancient Chinese language.
Cantonese is also distinguished from modern standard Chinese because it has far fewer consonant sounds at the start of words than the standard Chinese language. Another key trait of the Cantonese dialect is its use of tones to distinguish between words that are similar in their arrangement of consonant and vowel sounds, and would – without tonal distinction – sound identical. While the modern standard Chinese language has only four tones, the Cantonese dialect has at least six.
Cantonese is associated with a very distinct culture both in China and around the world.
One example is Cantonese cuisine, which is well-known in Western countries. Classic Cantonese cooking is characterized by its use of mellow sauces and ingredients such as spring onions, sugar, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. The prevalence of Cantonese cuisine in the West is largely because most of the Chinese who have immigrated to other countries in the past have departed from Canton and surrounding areas.
Another aspect of Cantonese culture less well-known outside of China is Cantopop, a type of Cantonese pop music. An offshoot of general Chinese popular music, Cantopop is distinguished by lyrics that are written primarily in the Cantonese dialect. A subset of Cantopop includes HKpop, which originated in Hong Kong. In recent years, a number of Mandarin-speaking pop artists have also recorded Cantonese versions of their songs, broadening their appeal throughout China.
Cantonese is written using characters, many of which are not found in standard Mandarin. For this reason, it is often difficult for Mandarin speakers to understand written Cantonese. There is a great deal of literature written in Cantonese, and the dialect offers one of the largest bodies of Chinese language literature.
Efforts to Romanize the Cantonese script and promote the use of a Latin alphabet to write the language date as far back as the early 19th century. There are records of early efforts made by Protestant missionaries who hoped to use a Romanized Cantonese alphabet in order to master the dialect more easily. Although a number of Romanization systems have emerged since then, they have failed to gain any popular favor, and most native Cantonese speakers remain unfamiliar with Romanized versions of the Cantonese script. Many of these more recent systems have developed in Hong Kong, which was under British control until 1997.
Cantonese Around the World
In addition to the more than 55 million Cantonese-speakers in China, there are an estimated 20 million additional Cantonese speakers around the world.
One notable example is Vietnam, a place where many Cantonese-speaking Chinese previously immigrated, working as soldiers and railroad workers. Today Vietnam is home to approximately 1 million Cantonese-speakers. Other Cantonese immigrant groups can be found around the world, in North America, Europe, Australia, and Southeast Asia.
Cantonese Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Yue
Language Family: Sino-Tibetan, Chinese
Spoken by Approximately 97,000,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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