Leih hou (你好)! Like the majority of Cantonese speakers elsewhere in the world, I’ve never been formally taught the Cantonese dialect; but rather, we’ve been taught to write Standard Written Chinese and speak Mandarin Chinese in school instead. I’m a native Cantonese speaker—that is to say that I’ve been exposed to it since I was born, and spoke it while I was growing up in Singapore.
What is Cantonese?
Cantonese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, and like its more renowned relation, Mandarin, it developed from Middle Chinese. Its script is represented in monosyllable ideograms, which means that each Chinese character stands for an idea but there is no indication as to its pronunciation. In the classification of modern Han Chinese languages, Cantonese is one of seven major dialects (specifically, Yue in Mandarin or Yuht yuh in Cantonese) the others being Mandarin, Wu, Gan, Xiang, Hakka, and Min.
Until recent times, the word “Canton” referred to Guangzhou, the capital city of southern China’s Guangdong province. While there are many tales as to the origins of the people who named Guangzhou city “Canton”, according to the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences (广东省社会科学院), the first foreigners to set foot in Guangzhou were the Portuguese, in the 16th century, which was around the time the first instance of the word “Canton” appeared in text. While “Canton” was an approximation of the pronunciation of “Guangdong,” it actually referred to Guangzhou city, where the language first originated. Various other Han Chinese dialects existed alongside Cantonese in Guangdong, but the use of Cantonese propagated so quickly and popularly through the robust trade hub that it was soon adopted as the language of not just the capital city, but also of the wider province. Today, Cantonese is the third most widely spoken Chinese language, with an estimated 60 million speakers worldwide.
While Mandarin (or Putonghua) is the official spoken language across Mainland China, Cantonese is the spoken language of choice in Guangdong province. Elsewhere in the world, Cantonese can also be heard in Hong Kong (where it is the de facto official language), Macau (where it is has official status) as well as in Singapore, not to forget the many “Chinatown”s around the world.
The Cantonese language thrives in the speech of the people of these aforementioned regions; unfortunately, the same can’t be said about its written form. We often take for granted that written language is derived from spoken language—a thought that occurred to me very often in my search for a written Cantonese. Formal written Chinese, the written equivalent of spoken Mandarin, is used across China’s culturally and linguistically diverse landscape. However, when it comes to penning other Chinese dialects like Cantonese, there are some differences in the way words and grammar are expressed. Cantonese was mostly a spoken language. When people decided to put Cantonese to paper, standard written Chinese was used as a guide to fit the sounds of Cantonese into the already established written forms based on Mandarin. However the written form of the Chinese characters differs for each dialect such that core vocabulary for one dialect could consist of the peripheral vocabulary of another. A very basic example at the word level is what Chinese people say to each other before a meal, much like the Bon Appétit of Chinese culture. In Mandarin, 吃饭 (chī fàn, literally ‘eat rice’) is commonly used, however, as the word for ‘eat’ in Cantonese is 食, we say sek fan (食饭) instead!
Language or Dialect?
A common definition of “dialects” is that language varieties must be intelligible (or understandable) to its collective speech communities, quite like how English spoken in the UK can be understood by English-speakers in the USA, New Zealand, India, Singapore, etc. By this definition, Cantonese and Mandarin are separate languages rather than dialects—despite sharing the same written form as mentioned above—because a Cantonese speaker would not be entirely intelligible to a Mandarin speaker. So why then did I start off this article by calling Cantonese a dialect?
In China, the term “dialect” (方言, fāng yán) has been used by the government to refer generally to individual Han Chinese languages spoken in China. In spite of its relatively large number of speakers, Cantonese is neither taught in schools nor used in government communications, mostly because of its lack of a standard written form and official status. In a nod to the norms of the land of the Chinese language, countries like Singapore have adopted the same labelling system. As such, when people in Singapore refer to the “Chinese language”, they are usually referring to Mandarin, while someone who refers to “Chinese dialects” would more generally be referring to Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hainan, or Min Nan.
Mandarin vs Cantonese
Compared to languages from several other language families, Chinese languages could come across as easy to learn—if one could get past the obstacle of learning to read and maybe write Chinese characters. For starters, there are no case forms, no verb conjugations, and minimal inflectional forms to learn. However, we shall soon see that even speakers of one Chinese dialect could find it challenging to learn another, even if they could express their dialects using a shared pool of written Chinese characters—that is, Traditional Chinese (繁体) in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, and Simplified Chinese (简体) in China and Singapore. Nonetheless, the notion of “one syllable, many character homophones” certainly plays a big part in comprehending the tonal system of Chinese languages in general.
Unlike Mandarin, which has been standardised and studied in terms of romanisation (through the propagation of Pinyin) since the 1950s, Cantonese has had a more chequered experience in terms of identification of its tones and its romanisation—most of which is based on Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong, given its prominence and status there. Most of us are familiar with the idea of Mandarin having four tones. I say “most of us” because I’ve since learnt that non-Mandarin speakers often have problems differentiating between the second and third tones—which could make all the difference between saying someone is shy and blushing (niǔ, 忸) or calling someone a cow (niú, 牛). While the number of tones in Cantonese may depend on the system used to analyse it, it is widely accepted that there are six clearly identifiable Cantonese tones in Hong Kong Cantonese that can be categorised into upper tones (falling, rising, level) and lower tones (falling, rising, level). An example of a difference between these two tone groups is perhaps more evident in the character 会, which, read with an upper tone (wui) would mean ‘meeting’, as in ‘to hold a meeting’ (开会), whereas if read with a lower tone (wuih), it would render the meaning ‘he/she will’ (佢会). Both pronunciations are realised in an upper-rising and lower-rising tone respectively, where only the letter ‘h’ is used to tell them apart. Can you hear the difference?
|憂 yāu ‘rest’ (in compounds)
|油 yáu ‘paint’ (noun)
|幼 yau ‘thin’
|油 yàuh ‘oil’
|友 yáuh ‘friend’
|又 yauh ‘again’
If one were to imagine what Middle Chinese sounded like, Cantonese would perhaps be a good start. In terms of lexicon and sound system, Cantonese had more in common with Middle Chinese than Mandarin did. In terms of vocabulary, some common terms retained from Middle Chinese are: hai (係) ‘to be’ and wat dat (鶻突) ‘ugly’ – both of which cannot be understood in Mandarin. For example, wat dat would hold no real meaning in Mandarin, and Google Translate displays this perfectly, for it renders the nonsensical translation “falcon sudden.” When it comes to phonetic repertoire, a comparison of the number of base syllables of each dialect would hint at just how different they can be. In the realm of Chinese languages, base syllables are defined as monosyllable units of speech that are independent of tone. Mandarin has 420 base syllables, while Cantonese has 625.
What caused the divergence of these dialects? In a nutshell, Northern China—where Mandarin was first spoken—experienced comparatively more socio-political turbulence than the South, and its people often had contact with people of other ethnic Chinese groups and foreign languages. Over time, this resulted in a blend of the phonetic system with that of contact languages, causing it to lose multiple other tones and filtering the phonetic inventory into just four tones in what we know as Mandarin today. By contrast, the southern regions were more socio-economically, politically, culturally, and thus linguistically stable.
Cantonese in Singapore: 星加坡／新加坡？
For me, the transcription of Chinese in Singapore attests to the diverse socio-historical background of Singaporeans, and in this case, the local Chinese culture—what with migrants from China’s southern regions coming to Singapore from the early 1900s in search of a collective Singapore Dream. As aforementioned, the romanisation of Cantonese has yet to universally agree on a single standardisation system, and this fact is reflected in Chinese names. For instance, a typically Cantonese surname “Loke” (陆) could also be romanised as “Luk”. In fact, the standard name of Singapore in Chinese is 新加坡, Xīn jiā pō in Mandarin, and Sun gah bo in Cantonese. As you might have noticed, the Cantonese version doesn’t really sound like the word “Singapore”. Thus, most Cantonese speakers usually substitute the first character to Sing (星 ‘star’) to create a name that sounds more like the official name.
As a third generation Cantonese speaker in Singapore, I find it rare to get the chance to practise speaking the dialect with someone of my generation. Chinese dialects are very rarely an option in formal school curricula, given that Mandarin is the official Chinese language of Singapore, and as families see no real need to learn dialects—apart from the smattering of dialect already part of the national macaronic vernacular, Singlish—they are hardly touched upon in the home front too. Slowly and surely, English is taking the lead as the language of choice in the average Singapore home. And from what little I know of the experiences of Cantonese-speaking friends in China and Hong Kong, I find it hard to believe the dialect would ever be anything more than a vernacular. On the bright side, the impressive pool of Cantonese speakers around the world is a promising sign of the times—that languages can survive even in locales where its status is solely socio-cultural.
Cantonese Primer by Yuen Ren Chao (1947), The Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar by Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip (1994), Routledge: London and New York
Early Child Cantonese by Shek-Kam Tse and Hui Li (2011), De Gruyter Mouton.