The 5 Main Differences Between Mandarin and Cantonese

The 5 Main Differences Between Mandarin and Cantonese

By Sunny XieUpdated Oct. 12, 2021

Have you been wondering what the real difference is between Cantonese and Mandarin? Haven’t been able to figure out whether they are different languages or different dialects? Or did you think they were the same?

Read on to find out what you need to know about the difference before embarking on your trip to China…

1. Where They’re Spoken

Mandarin and Cantonese are both dialects of Chinese, not different languages. Other dialects of Chinese include Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and Hakka.

There are an estimated 63 million Cantonese speakers in China (5% of China’s population) compared with 933 million Mandarin first-language speakers (67% of people in China).

Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken throughout different parts of China, and where in China you go will dictate which one you will encounter.

Mandarin is the lingua franca of China and is the official language of China (you can learn some basics here). It is the main dialect throughout the bigger cities, but many cities and provinces have also retained their local dialects. It is the local dialect of 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 use in Hong Kong first In downtown Hong Kong, it’s Cantonese first, then English, then Mandarin.

Cantonese is also the main dialect of the Chinese diaspora, as historically most Chinese who ended up abroad came from Guangdong Province.

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.

Watch more videos about Chinese culture stories.

2. The Characters

The characters used for Mandarin and Cantonese share the same roots in ancient China, but Mandarin uses simplified characters, which were set as the standard by the Chinese government in 1950s, while Cantonese still uses the traditional characters. As the names imply, traditional characters are more “complex”, being built on many more character strokes than the simplified characters.

Those who read in traditional characters will be able to figure out simplified characters, but those who read simplified will 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 in Taiwan has also retained 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 that it would also be difficult as a Mandarin speaker to understand Cantonese writing.

3. The Spoken Languages

In terms of speaking, Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible (and on that basis could 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” in Mandarin is nǐ hǎo, pronounced nee-haow (find out more about pronunciation here), but in Cantonese, it is néih-hóu.

Another way of greeting someone in China is to ask whether they have eaten yet. In Mandarin, you would say, “Chīfànle ma?” But in Cantonese, you would ask, “Lei sik dzo fan mei a?” (tones excluded). You can see how someone who speaks Mandarin would not understand Cantonese, and vice versa.

4. The 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 have merged, and so in reality there are only six tones at the moment. These six are named dark flat, dark rising, dark departing, light flat, light rising, and light departing.

5. Expressions and Idioms

Both languages use different idioms and expressions, too. Meaning that even if someone from Hong Kong is 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 are 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, while outsiders may think they understand each other, they don’t really.

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