Cantonese and Mandarin: the similarities and differences

“Which is more difficult to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?”

Many people have asked this question. Some give a simple answer, saying “Cantonese is more difficult because it has more tones.” Although it is a true fact, it does not reflect the whole picture, and tones are unnecessarily emphasised. We speak sentences, not tones. 

Both Mandarin and Cantonese are very difficult to learn. In this article, as a native Mandarin speaker who has lived in Hong Kong for decades, I’d like to share some of my experiences and understandings about the similarities and differences between Cantonese and Mandarin. 

The default Chinese language in Hong Kong is Cantonese. Traditional Chinese characters are used in online and print medias. 

Hong Kong is a fabulous place to study Mandarin. It is the best place to learn Cantonese.

History 

Cantonese has a longer history than Mandarin. It is said that Cantonese speaking people were originally refugees from the central part of China. They came to the South to escape the war, and therefore retained a version of old Chinese. 

Mandarin, as today’s modern standard Chinese, is the result of many gradual changes. 

Another dialect, Hokkien, is believed to be even more ancient than Cantonese. But that’s another story.

Newspapers, Journals and Books

I was brought up learning simplified Chinese characters, but I don’t have any problems reading newspapers, journals and books printed in traditional Chinese characters as long as the texts use standard written Chinese. 

The ability of reading traditional characters was easy to acquire. The character simplification process has its logic, and for all Chinese-literate readers, the knowledge of one system can be transferred to the other.

However, I find it difficult to read articles or advertisements which are written in vernacular Cantonese, which borrows a character for its phonetic quality, not for its meaning. For example, “而家” does not mean anything in Mandarin. But if people read this combination in Cantonese, they would know that it means “now”. 

Using Chinese character phonetically is quite common in Cantonese writings. 

Chinese characters do not represent sounds. The same character is pronounced one way in Mandarin, yet another in Cantonese. When my Cantonese was bad, Cantonese texts were hard to understand. After my Cantonese got better, more and more Cantonese texts became intelligible, but not all.

There are still many areas I need to study.

Special Chinese Characters

Cantonese has some sounds which do not have any equivalents in Mandarin. Special Chinese characters were created to write down these sounds. 

One good example is to express “have not”. In Mandarin, it is “没有”, which has two distinctive sounds “mei” and “you”. In Cantonese, it is only one sound “mou”, and a special character “冇” was created to represent the sound. The way to create this special character is interesting. The creator got rid of the two strokes inside of “有”, and it is quite fitting to have a character “冇” which means “have not”. 

However, this kind of special characters are very limited. Overall, Cantonese and Mandarin use the same writing system.

Archaic Expressions in Cantonese

As Cantonese is an older version of Chinese than Mandarin, it has preserved many archaic expressions. For example, “to walk”, in Mandarin it is “走”, and in Cantonese it is “行”. “To drink” is “喝” in Mandarin, “饮” in Cantonese. “To eat” is “吃” in Mandarin, “食” in Cantonese. 

I don’t find these terms difficult to learn. It might be that I have seen all these expressions in classical Chinese texts.

Loanwords in Cantonese

In Hong Kong, Cantonese has many loanwords from English. These words I found quite difficult at the beginning. I needed someone to point out that these words are phonetic translations from English. For example, “” means “ball” in Cantonese, “士多” means “store”, “” means “elevator, lift”. 

Given the history of Hong Kong, it is very natural for local people to borrow some English words and make them their own. But I am not sure whether Cantonese spoken in other places, such as Guangzhou, also has these loanwords. 

Mandarin also has quite a bit of loanwords. And sometimes Mandarin and Cantonese use different loanwords for the same object. For example, “sofa”, it is “沙发” in Mandarin, “梳化” in Cantonese. Interestingly enough, both words are phonetic translations of the English word “sofa”.

Cantonese Grammar

Cantonese and Mandarin sometimes use different word order. 

First example, “I go first”, it is “我行先” in Cantonese, “我先走” in Mandarin. “He gives me three books”, it is “佢畀三本书我” in Cantonese, “他给我三本书” in Mandarin. 

But the majority sentence construction follows the same rules.

Tones

How many tones does Cantonese have? Some people say six tones, while others say nine. I think this disagreement proves that tones are of the least importance.

I have the same view when it comes to learn Mandarin. The importance of tones are often exaggerated.

There are jokes playing around tones, such as the waitress mistook  “dumplings” for “to sleep” and slapped the customer, a guy as it's always is. But it never happens. 

I get some my tones wrong when I speak Cantonese, and sometimes I need to rephrase it a little, but it has never caused any serious problems.


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