OOI Giok Ling

A Cantonese shopper in Macao carries a baby on her back, vegetables in her bag, and an umbrella in her hand. The best known and most populous of the speakers of Cantonese, a language of many dialects, are the people of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Fifty-five million Chinese speak Cantonese (Yue), which makes Cantonese the second-most-spoken language in China after Mandarin. But is Cantonese—and Mandarin for that matter—a language or a dialect of a larger Chinese language? Linguists have long debated the point.

Many people think of Mandarin (putonghua, literally “commoner’s language”) as the modern standard Chinese language. Chinese, in fact, is a group of many languages and dialects, including Cantonese, or Yue. Cantonese is the tongue of some 55 million speakers in China and about 20 million speakers around the world. Cantonese is usually considered the language of southern China; Mandarin, the language of the north. Cantonese is spoken extensively in Guangdong Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Macao, and Hong Kong. Cantonese is also the most common form of Chinese heard in Chinatowns around the world.

Language or Dialect?

Cantonese belongs to the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. This language family contains some 250 languages spoken in East Asia. The Sinitic group comprises the seven recognized major language groups and numerous dialects of China. Most of these languages are not mutually intelligible; that is, speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin cannot understand each other. Whether Cantonese is a true language or a dialect is an ongoing debate among linguists. (For convenience, language will be used here).

Yuehua (Yue speech) is the formal name given by linguists to the Cantonese language, particularly when referring to the many dialects, not just to the standard Cantonese that is the everyday speech of the cities of Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong. Guangdong and Guangxi (a province before it became Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region) are often referred to as the liang guang (two Guangs), liang yue (two yue), or Lingnan (south of the mountain range). The forms of Cantonese are quite diverse. Even in Guangzhou and the surrounding area, there are sharp dialectical differences. Linguists have identified seven dialect areas in Guangdong, most of them in the Zhu (Pearl) River delta and western Guangdong: Guangfu (the speech of Guangzhou), Yongxun, Gaoyang, Siyi (four districts), Goulou, Wuhua, and Qinlan. These are spoken around specific geographical areas.

Origins of Cantonese

At an unknown time, a group of Sinitic people moved across the Nan Ling Mountains in southern China into the Lingnan, or what became the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi. The indigenous peoples of the Lingnan were eventually assimilated into new Sinicized cultural and language groups. The various Yue-speaking people originated in this way. The basic ideograph yue means “to exceed, to go beyond.” It has been extended to mean “frontier,” or “beyond the borderland.”

Separated from the rest of China by the high Nan Ling range, which runs east to west, the people of Guangdong and Guangxi have considered themselves different from other Sinitic peoples. Cantonese speakers are more likely to identify themselves as Tong yen (Yue) or Tang ren (Mandarin), that is, “Tang persons,” rather than Han ren, or “Han persons,” which is how most Chinese identify themselves. This is mainly because it was during the Tang period (618–907 CE) that the homeland of the Yue people became part of the Chinese cultural realm. The Cantonese traditionally speak of classical written Chinese as Tong man or Tang wen (Tang language). Cantonese is closer to ancient Chinese than Mandarin is.

Characteristics of Cantonese

Standard Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, demonstrates a number of phonetic (speech sounds) and grammatical features that set it apart from other Sinitic languages.

Cantonese retains the ancient final consonants that have been lost in the north. These include -m, -p, -t, and -k. The retroflex consonants that characterize Northern Mandarin are absent. (Retroflex sounds are produced with the tongue curled up and back until it touches the hard palate. English has no retroflex consonant sounds). Cantonese has syllables that begin in ng-. Cantonese lacks any phonetic distinction between the sounds s- and sh-, ts- and ch-, and ts’- and ch’- (these last two are not heard in English.) In Cantonese there is a separate series of long and short vowels. Additional vowel sounds and the final consonants in standard Cantonese mean that Cantonese has almost twice the number of syllables that Mandarin has.

While standard Mandarin has four tones, the number of tones in Cantonese varies according to the dialect. Standard Cantonese has nine tones. Speakers in Zhongshan County, located between Guangzhou and Sze-yap, use only six tones. In other counties there are ten or even more tones. Cantonese, unlike many of the other southern languages, has little tone sandhi (changes in tone when tones run together in speech flow). It has none of the unaccented toneless neutral syllables that form parts of compounds and other connected utterances in standard Mandarin. There is a pattern in Cantonese, however, in which a change in a word’s tone can be used to modify it to mean a related term. One example is the word fortobacco, which is a tonal variant of the word for smoke.

Cantonese also differs from standard Chinese in grammar. One difference is the ordering of the indirect and direct object in a sentence. In Mandarin the ordering is similar to that in English. For example, the sentence “give me [indirect] something [direct]” would have the same sequencing in both Mandarin and English. For standard Cantonese, the ordering is more like “give something [direct] me [indirect].”

Linguists believe that the Cantonese spoken in southern China has been heavily influenced by the languages of the peoples who lived there before the coming of the Sinitic peoples. Linguists believe that these languages were related to the Tai branch of Sino-Tibetan. This influence is apparent in word order and grammar. In Tai-related languages, as in Cantonese, the adjective follows the noun. In Mandarin, as in English, the adjective precedes the noun. This is why many two-character terms in Cantonese appear to readers of Mandarin to have been put together in backward sequence. The pattern is especially evident in some dialects of Cantonese, particularly in southwest Guangzhou.

Because the language is so flexible, Cantonese has been able to absorb many foreign words, including words from English, such as salad (sah-lud), bus (baa-see), andtaxi (dik-see). Oddly enough, however, Cantonese has not borrowed as much from northern Chinese as, for instance, the Wu or Min languages have.

Cantonese and Mandarin also differ in terms of written Chinese characters. This is in part because new characters have been added to stand for the words that are apparently exclusive to Cantonese. In some instances characters that are no longer in use in Mandarin have been used to transcribe words in Cantonese. This means that there can be written texts that are uniquely Cantonese that would be difficult for someone from northern China to read without a special study of Cantonese.

Cantonese Speakers

The best known and most populous of the speakers of Cantonese are the people of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The language form that these people speak is composed of many dialects, known to linguists as the Yuehai dialect of Yuehua. The most influential dialect is standard Cantonese. Linguistically, the Yuehai region is rather fragmented, but the core is the so-called Three Districts (Sam-yap in the vernacular) around Guangzhou. The districts are Namhoi, Punyu, and Shuntak.

Other well-known speakers of Yuehua are people of the Four Districts, or Sze-yap (Siyi in Mandarin). The Sze-yap dialect has many features that mark it from standard Cantonese so that speakers of the two would find it difficult to understand each other. Both the tonal pattern and vowels are different.

Guinan is the name usually given to the Cantonese dialects of the interior of Guangxi. Among the Guinan are dialects also, which can be called subdialects. They are known as Wuzhou, Guixian, Cangwu, Guiping, and Tengxian. Many of these Guinan subdialects have pronunciations of certain sounds that are unlike those of other Cantonese dialects. There are initial consonants, like b- and d-, that might not be found in standard Cantonese.

The general impression among the Chinese is that, with the exception of speakers of standard Cantonese, most Cantonese speakers have not played much of a role in the cultural development of China. Consequently, the Guangxi part of the Yue region has been treated more as a cultural backwater, even by other Cantonese speakers. Yet Cantonese speakers have contributed greatly to the large cultural mix known as China.

Further Reading

Moser, L. J. (1985). The Chinese mosaic—The people and provinces of China. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Pan, L. (Ed.). (1998). The encyclopedia of the Chinese overseas. Singapore: Chinese Heritage Centre.

Whitaker, D. P., Rinn-Suip Shinn, Barth, H. A., Heimann, J. M., MacDonald, J. E., Martindale, K. W., & Weaver, J. O. (1972). Area handbook for the People’s Republic of China. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Source: Ooi, Giok Ling. (2009). Cantonese (Yue). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 273–275. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Cantonese (Yue) (Yuè ?)|Yuè ? (Cantonese (Yue))

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