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The 7 Main Differences Between Mandarin and Cantonese

The 7 Main Differences Between Mandarin and Cantonese

Written by Sunny XieUpdated Apr. 19, 2022

Have you been wondering what the real differences are between Cantonese and Mandarin? Have you been able to figure out whether they are different languages or just different dialects? Can someone who speaks Mandarin understand Cantonese? Is it better to learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

Read on to find out what you need to know about the differences before embarking on your trip to China… (the seven main differences follow our general comparison)

Cantonese vs Mandarin: Summary Table

  Mandarin Cantonese
Similarities Chinese (Sinitic) Tonal languages,
Chinese characters
Where They’re Spoken Throughout Mainland China Southeast corner of China
Romanization Systems Hanyu Pinyin, Bopomofo  Jyutping, Yale, Cantonese Pinyin
Pronunciation 23 initials 19 initials
35 finals 58 finals
 5 tones 9 sounds, 6 tones
Spoken Languages Not mutually intelligible
 Grammar Subject, adverb, verb Subject, verb, adverb
Subject, verb, indirect object, direct object Subject, verb, direct object, indirect object
Characters Simplified characters Traditional characters, unique written Cantonese

What are Cantonese and Mandarin?

Mandarin and Cantonese are both tonal languages (different tones indicate different words in the same way that pronunciation does). They both belong to the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. They are two clearly differentiated Chinese languages. They are separate sub-branches of Chinese, not merely dialects or local varieties, and they are largely mutually unintelligible.

Mandarin is the majority Chinese language in China (spoken by about 70% of the population). Cantonese is one of about six less-spoken Chinese languages with the same roots in ancient Chinese, including Wu (Shanghainese) and Min (Fujianese), which also each have about 6% of China's population using them as a first language.

Watch more videos about Chinese culture stories.

Where are Cantonese and Mandarin Spoken?

Cantonese vs Mandarin Map

Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken in China and in overseas Chinese populations and communities, and where you go will dictate which one you will encounter.

Mandarin is the lingua franca of China and the official language of China (you can learn some basics here). It is the main Chinese language used throughout the big cities, but many cities and provinces have also retained their local languages and dialects. Mandarin and its local dialects prevail in most of northern and central China, including Beijing.

Cantonese is the local dialect of the southeast corner of China. It's spoken in Guangdong Province (capital Guangzhou, previously known as Canton, hence "Cantonese") as well as in southern Guangxi Province to the west, and is also Hong Kong's main language, as well as Macau's. Cantonese is also the main dialect of the Chinese diaspora, as historically most Chinese who ended up abroad came from Guangdong Province.

There are an estimated 84 million [2020] native Cantonese speakers in China (4.5% of China's population) compared with 933 million Mandarin first-language speakers (61.2% of people in China).

Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong

In downtown Hong Kong, it's Cantonese first, then English, then Mandarin. While you can use Mandarin in Hong Kong in many situations, this is not received very positively as a rule.

In the author's personal experience, as a Mandarin speaker frequently visiting Hong Kong, Mandarin has been received well in scenarios where English was first used to communicate and not understood. As a backup, and following an apology for poor Cantonese, communicating in Mandarin has then seemed acceptable.

Cantonese use in Hong Kong first In downtown Hong Kong, it's Cantonese first, then English, then Mandarin.

7 Differences between Mandarin and Cantonese

1. Different Romanization Systems

In Mainland China, Mandarin simply uses Hanyu Pinyin for transliteration. While in Taiwan, Zhuyin or Bopomofo is used.

In comparison, the Cantonese romanization system is quite different. Currently, there are over seven systems for Cantonese, but no official or unified one. Among them, Jyutping, Yale, and Cantonese Pinyin are commonly accepted and used.

  • Jyutping uses tone numbers and is easy for typing Cantonese (pronunciation), which is its big advantage over the other systems. 
  • Yale uses tone marks and was created according to Westerner pronunciation, so it is more helpful to foreigners learning Cantonese. 
  • Cantonese Pinyin also uses tone marks but is more similar to Mandarin Pinyin. It is mainly used in Mainland China around Guangzhou.

A good example of the different romanization systems for one Chinese sentence.

A good example of the different romanization systems for one Chinese sentence.

2. Different Pronunciations

In terms of phonetics, both Mandarin and Cantonese include initials, finals, and tones but are different.

Here below, we make compassion of the pronunciation between Mandarin Pinyin and Jyutping.

Initials

There are 23 initials in Hanyu Pinyin, including retroflex initials, zh, ch, sh and r which cannot be found in Cantonese.

There are 19 initials in Cantonese, among which gw, kw, and ng are not found in the initials of Mandarin Pinyin.

The initials of Cantonese follow the ancient Chinese sounds more closely. Some pronunciations are completely different from those in Mandarin, and it is difficult to find any corresponding relationship.

Finals

Cantonese has more finals than Mandarin: 53 in Cantonese vs 35 finals in Mandarin.

For example, the finals of uk (example: 屋uk1) and it (example: 热 jit9) are not available in Mandarin.

Tones

Mandarin has five tones, while Cantonese has nine different "tones". These tones are vital when trying to convey your meaning, making Cantonese harder to learn than Mandarin.

In Hong Kong Cantonese, three of the nine "tones" (syllables ending in p, t, or k sounds) have merged with three of the tones, and so in reality there are only six tones at the moment ('nine sounds six tones' is the common way of summarizing this transition).

Generally speaking, Cantonese speakers easily confuse the first, second, and fourth tones of Mandarin. When speaking a Mandarin word in Cantonese, one usually speaks Mandarin tones but uses the Cantonese Romanization System.

The Five Tones of Mandarin Using Ma in Hanyu Pinyin:

Simplified/ Traditional Characters Hanyu Pinyin Tone Description Meaning
妈/媽 1 High Mother
2 Rising Numb
马/馬 3 Low Horse
骂/罵 4 Falling Scold
吗/嗎 Ma 5 Neutral Tone A question word

The 'Nine Sounds Six Tones' of Cantonese Using the Syllable Si in Jyutping:

Simplified/ Traditional Characters Jyutping Tone Tone Name Description Meaning
诗/詩 Si 1 1 Dark-flat High level,
high falling
Poet
Si 2 2 Dark-rising Medium rising History
试/試 Si 3 3 Dark-departing Medium level Try
时/時 Si 4 4 Light-flat Low falling,
very low level
Time
Si 5 5 Light-rising Low rising City
Si 6 6 Light-departing Low level Yes
Si-k 7 7 (or 1) Upper-dark-entering High level Color
Si-k 8 8 (or 3) Lower-dark-entering Medium level Stab
Si-k 9 9 (or 6) Light-entering Low level Eat

3. Different Spoken Languages

In terms of speaking, Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible, and on that basis should be called different languages. While, in essence, the same character-syllable base is used, the pronunciation varies… sometimes radically.

Someone who only speaks Mandarin will not generally be able to understand Cantonese, and vice versa.

As an example, 'hello' (你好) in Mandarin Pinyin is nǐhǎo, pronounced nee-haow (find out more about pronunciation here), but in Cantonese, it is nei5 hou2 in Jyutping.

Another way of greeting someone in China is to ask whether they have eaten yet. In Mandarin, you would say, "nǐ chīle ma?" (你吃了吗? ). But in Cantonese, you would ask, "nei5 sik6 zo2 mei6 aa3?" (你食佐未呀? ). You can see how someone who speaks Mandarin would not understand Cantonese, and vice versa!

4. Different Characters for Written Mandarin/Cantonese

The characters used for Mandarin and Cantonese share the same roots in ancient Chinese, but Mandarin now uses simplified characters, which were set as the standard by the Chinese government in the 1950s, while Cantonese speakers still tend to use traditional characters. As the name implies, simplified characters are less complex, and have fewer character strokes than traditional characters.

Those who read traditional characters are usually able to figure out simplified characters, but those who read simplified have a difficult time understanding traditional characters.

As an example, 'dragon' is written like this in Mandarin (simplified characters): 龙, but like this in Cantonese (traditional characters): 龍. The Mandarin version has 5 strokes, but the "Cantonese version" has 16 strokes! (Taiwanese, i.e. their Mandarin dialect, Hokkien, and other Chinese languages in Taiwan, also use traditional characters.)

Another example is Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, which is written as 广州 in Mandarin, but 廣州 in "Cantonese". You can tell there are a few similarities, but it would also be difficult for a Mandarin speaker to understand Cantonese writing.

Written Cantonese

With the spread of electronic communication, a form of written Cantonese was introduced to represent idiomatic sounds and words in Cantonese. These words and characters have no connection with classical Chinese words/characters but are widely used in informal occasions, like online chat, instant messages, network websites, and local magazines, etc.

Examples of Idiomatic (Informal) Cantonese:

Gloss Classical Cantonese Idiomatic Cantonese
They 他們/taa1 mun4 佢哋/keoi5 dei6
Know 會不會/wui6 bat1 wui5 識唔識/sik1 m4 sik1
Speak 說/syut3 講/gong2
? (question indicator) 嗎/maa3 呀/aa3

5. Different Vocabulary

In terms of vocabulary, Cantonese and Mandarin often use different words/characters for the same things. The most common examples are nouns for family members.

A good example is 'paternal grandmother', which is奶奶 (nǎinai) in Mandarin and 嫲嫲 (maa4 maa4) in Cantonese. However, 'mother-in-law on the husband's side', is 婆婆 (pópo) in Mandarin, but 奶奶 (naai4 naai2) in Cantonese. Can you see a big contradiction? 奶奶 is used in both Mandarin and Cantonese, but refers to different family members!

In addition to the appellation of family members, Cantonese and Mandarin are very different in terms of verbs, adjectives, and other vocabularies. The differences in vocabulary, even at the written level, make those accustomed to speaking Cantonese out of touch with Mandarin and vice versa.

Examples of Differing Mandarin/Cantonese Vocabulary:

  Mandarin Cantonese Meaning
Verbs 哭/kū 喊/haam3 Cry
站/zhàn 企/kei5 Stand
睡/shuì 训/fan3 Sleep
看/kàn 睇/tai2 Look
吃/chī 食/sik6 Eat
Adjectives 美丽/měilì 靚/leng3 Beautiful
可怜/kělián 陰功/jam1 gung1 Pitiful
结实/jiēshi 实净/sat6 zeng6 Solid

6. Different Grammar

There are many differences in grammar between Cantonese and Mandarin, but the order of adverbs and double objects are particularly obvious:

In Mandarin, adverbs are usually placed before verbs, while in Cantonese, many adverbs can be placed after verbs.

For example, we say "你先出去" (nǐ xiān chūqù 'you first go out') in Mandarin, while in Cantonese, we say "你出去先" (nei5 ceot1 heoi3 sin1 'you go out first').

Another big difference is in their double objects. Mandarin and Cantonese have their double objects in the opposite order. In Mandarin, the indirect object comes before the direct object, while in Cantonese, the direct object goes before the indirect object.

For example, we say 他给我钱 (tā gěi wǒ qián 'he gives me money' — subject, verb, indirect object, direct object) in Mandarin, while in Cantonese, we say "他給錢我"  (keoi5 bei2 cin2 ngo5 'he gives money [to] me' — subject, verb, direct object, indirect object).

7. Different Expressions and Idioms

Both languages use different idioms and expressions, too, so that even if someone from Hong Kong was able to read a piece of simplified Chinese writing, they may not be able to understand what is actually being conveyed by the writer if idioms or colloquialisms were used (and more so vice versa).

One great Cantonese expression to sum up all of the above, used in reference to Mandarin and Cantonese speakers trying to understand each other, is: 'the chicken talking to the duck'. Basically, it means that while outsiders may think they understand each other, they don't really!

Cantonese vs Mandarin: Which One to Learn?

1. Is it better to learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

To learn Cantonese or Mandarin definitely depends on your personal choice and your reasons for learning, e.g. which people you want to interact with.

Local people in certain areas tend to learn Cantonese naturally through exposure to their parents, whereas Mandarin is generally taught in schools, and only learned at home at an early age when there is no other local language in use.

2. Which is easier Cantonese or Mandarin?

Without a unified romanization system, you may find a lack of learning resources for Cantonese. While, Mandarin, is studied China-wide, including in schools in Hong Kong, as well as more broadly internationally.

In terms of punctuation, Cantonese has more finals and tones which make it harder to learn, not to mention using traditional characters, which are about twice as complicated as simplified Chinese characters generally used for Mandarin.

3. Can Cantonese understand Mandarin?

Although spoken Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible phonetically and have differences in grammar and vocabulary, someone who speaks Mandarin will have many clues and a similar language framework to use to begin understanding Cantonese and vice versa.

They share written forms, though simplified/traditional character conversion is needed, which makes the reading of the two languages similar and generally mutually understandable.

Discover More about China and Its Languages with Us

Maybe you know someone who speaks Cantonese and wants to make a trip to the Cantonese heartland. Or perhaps you'd like to learn more about Mandarin… We're here to help you overcome the language difficulties and have a great China experience.

Here is our most-selected sample tour that takes in both Mandarin-speaking and Cantonese areas, not to mention a great range of Chinese cuisine. We'll tailor it to suit you:

Our customizable 4-Day Hong Kong Family Tour makes it easier to discover this incredible city with kids.

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