Cantonese is a variant of the Yue language branch, a primary branch of the Chinese language. Cantonese is therefore a variety of Chinese. The name ‘Cantonese’ is often used to describe the entire language branch, including some mutually unintelligible varieties of Yue, such as Taishanese. This is due to Cantonese being considered the prestige (the most common and correct variety of a language or dialect) variant of the Yue language branch.
In mainland China, specifically in the province of Guangdong, as well as some neighboring areas, Cantonese is a lingua franca, or common language. It is the majority language of Hong Kong and other regions, including the Pearl River Delta. Cantonese is one of the major varieties of Chinese spoken by overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and is the predominant variety spoken in the Western World, including the United States, Canada, and Europe. Today, there are an estimated 80 million Cantonese speakers in the world.
It is often disputed whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect. In fact, in 2014, Hong Kong’s Bureau of education deleted an article from their website claiming “Cantonese is not an official language” after it garnered much criticism from Hong Kong locals. While some people say that Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, others insist that it is its own language. Who is right- and how do dialects differ from languages anyway? To quote from The Economist:
“Two kinds of criteria distinguish languages from dialects. The first are social and political: in this view, ‘languages’ are typically prestigious, official and written, whereas ‘dialects’ are mostly spoken, unofficial and looked down upon. […] Linguists have a different criterion: if two related kinds of speech are so close that speakers can have a conversation and understand each other, they are dialects of a single language. If comprehension is difficult to impossible, they are distinct languages.”
So, by linguistic or academic criterion, Cantonese is not a dialect of Chinese. Rather it is a language, as are Shanghaiese, Mandarin, and other kinds of Chinese, which are not mutually comprehensible. Applying a social or political criterion, Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese.
Countries/Territories where Cantonese is spoken
Cantonese Speaking Country Data:
Population: 1.357 billion
Current Government headed by: President Xi Jinping
Currency: Renminbi (CNY)
GDP: 11 trillion
Government Type: Communist Party of China
Industries: Mining, iron and steel, aluminum, coal, machinery, armaments, textiles and apparel, petroleum, cement, chemical fertilizers, food processing, automobiles and other transportation equipment including rail cars and locomotives, ships, and aircraft, consumer products.
Cantonese History & Development
Cantonese was developed from Middle Chinese (formerly known as Ancient Chinese). The word Cantonese is derived from the word Canton, the former English name of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong. This is the birthplace of Cantonese. Guangzhou was once considered the home of the most perfect form of Cantonese, however, through decades of media and pop culture evolution, Hong Kong is now recognized as the cultural epicenter of the Cantonese language.
Although Mandarin is the standard and official language of mainland China, it has only existed for about 700 or 800 years, while Cantonese history dates back roughly 2000 years. Cantonese is mostly an oral language, and is full of slang and non-standard usage.
Interesting Facts about Cantonese:
- Spoken and written Cantonese differ, with written Cantonese being very similar to Standard Chinese and Mandarin.
- Cantonese is generally thought to have six different tones, which are used to differentiate words.
- Most schools in Hong Kong teach Cantonese instead of Mandarin
- It can actually be considered culturally inappropriate to speak Mandarin to Hong Kong residents while in Hong Kong. According to the Basic law of Hong Kong, Cantonese is the official language, and should be treated as such.