广州话 / 廣州話
Spoken in  China: central and western Guangdong (Zhongshan, Foshan, Shenzhen), the Pearl River Delta, Hainan, and the eastern and southern part of Guangxi (Wuzhou)
 Hong Kong
 Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Sandakan
 Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho, Bac Lieu, Da Nang, Kien Giang, Quang Ninh
 Laos: Vientiane
 Cambodia: Phnom Penh
 Thailand: Bangkok
 Canada: Metro Vancouver, Metro Toronto, Greater Montreal
 United States: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston
 United Kingdom: London
 France: Paris
 Netherlands: Amsterdam
 Australia: Sydney, Melbourne
 New Zealand: Auckland
Native speakers (unknown)  (date missing)
Language family
  • Chinese
    • Yue
      • Yuehai
        • Cantonese
Writing system Written Cantonese
Official status
Official language in

 Hong Kong

(de facto official spoken form of Chinese in government)
Regulated by Official Language Division [1]
Civil Service Bureau
Government of Hong Kong
Language codes
ISO 639-3 yue
Linguist List yue-can

Cantonese, or Standard Cantonese, is a language that originated in the vicinity of Canton (i.e. Guangzhou) in southern China, and is often regarded as the prestige dialect of Yue Chinese.

In mainland China, it is a lingua franca in Guangdong Province and some neighbouring areas, such as the eastern part of Guangxi Province. Outside mainland China, it is spoken by the majority population of Hong Kong and Macau in everyday life. It is also spoken by overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, the United States, Canada, Peru, Cuba, Panama, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as part of Europe, and is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect in the world.

While the term "Cantonese" refers narrowly to the prestige dialect described in this article, it is often used in a broader sense for the entire Yue branch of Chinese, including related dialects such as Taishanese.

The Cantonese language is also viewed as part of the cultural identity for the native speakers across large swathes of southern China, Hong Kong and Macau. Although Cantonese shares much vocabulary with Mandarin Chinese, the two languages are not mutually intelligible largely because of pronunciation and grammatical differences. Sentence structure, in particular the placement of the verb, sometimes differs between the two languages. The use of vocabulary in Cantonese also tends to have more historic roots. The most notable difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is how the spoken word is written; with Mandarin the spoken word is written as such, where with Cantonese there may not be a direct written word matching what was said. Because of this difference, it is often said that Cantonese is "slang" while Mandarin is "proper" Chinese.[2][3]



In English, the term "Cantonese" is ambiguous. Cantonese proper is the dialect native to the city of Canton, which is the traditional English name of Guangzhou, and later brought to Hong Kong and Macau;[citation needed] this narrow sense may be specified as "Canton dialect" or "Guangzhou dialect" in English.[4]

However, "Cantonese" may also refer to the primary branch of Chinese which contains Cantonese proper as well as Taishanese and Gaoyang; this broader usage may be specified as "Yue" (粤). In this article, "Cantonese" is used for Cantonese proper.

Chinese speakers use some names that do not correspond exactly with the English terms. Customarily, speakers call their language "Guangzhou Prefecture speech" (Guǎngzhōu huà, 广州话 or 廣州話). In Canton province people also call it "Provincial Capital speech".[5] In Hong Kong and Macau, people usually call it "Guangdong speech" (廣東話). Outside of Guangzhou, people also call it "Baak Waa" (plain speech) (白話).[6]

Due to its status as a prestige dialect, it is often called "Standard Cantonese" (simplified Chinese: 标准粤语; traditional Chinese: 標準粵語; Jyutping: biu1zeon2 jyut6jyu5; Guangdong Romanization:Biu1 zên2 yud6 yu5). (With simplified tone markers: biu zeon/ jyut_ jyu= / biu zên/ yud_ yu=).

Cultural role

Spoken Chinese has numerous regional and local varieties, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Most of these are rarely heard outside their native areas, although they may be spoken in homes outside of the country. Since the early 1900s (1909 Qing Dynasty decree), China has promoted Mandarin for use in education, the media and official communication,[7] though a few state television and radio broadcasts are in Cantonese. However, due to the linguistic history of Hong Kong and Macau, and the use of Cantonese in many overseas Chinese communities, international usage of Cantonese has spread far out of proportion to its relatively small number of speakers in China, even though the majority of Cantonese speakers still live in mainland China.[citation needed]

Cantonese is the predominant Chinese language spoken in Hong Kong and Macau. In these areas, political discourse takes place almost exclusively in Cantonese, making it the only variety of Chinese other than Mandarin to be used as the primary language for the official state functions of an area. Because of their use by non-Mandarin-speaking Yue speakers overseas, the Cantonese and Taishanese languages are the primary forms of Chinese that Westerners come into contact with.

Along with Mandarin and Hokkien, Cantonese is one of the few varieties of Chinese with its own popular music, Cantopop. In Hong Kong, Cantonese lyrics predominate within popular music, and many artists from Beijing and Taiwan have learned Cantonese to make Cantonese versions of their recordings.[8] Popular native Mandarin speaking singers, including Faye Wong, Eric Moo, and singers from Taiwan, have been trained in Cantonese to add "Hong Kong-ness" to their performances.[8]


The de facto standard pronunciation of the Cantonese language is that of Canton (Guangzhou), which is described at the Cantonese phonology article. Hong Kong Cantonese has some minor variations in phonology.

Hong Kong

The official languages of Hong Kong are English and Chinese, as defined in the Basic Law of Hong Kong.[9] The Chinese language has many different varieties, of which Cantonese is one. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the predominantly spoken variety in everyday life. It is the de facto official spoken form of the Chinese language used in the Government. It is also used as the medium of instruction in many schools, alongside English.

The Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong is mutually intelligible with the Cantonese spoken in the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou), although there exists some differences in pronunciation, accent and vocabulary. The Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong is known as Hong Kong Cantonese.

Written Cantonese

Cantonese has the most developed literature of any form of Chinese after Classical Chinese and Mandarin. It is used primarily in Hong Kong and in overseas Chinese communities, so it is usually written with traditional Chinese characters. Cantonese includes extra characters and characters with different meanings from Standard Written Chinese.


Cantonese romanization systems are based on the accent of Canton and Hong Kong, and have helped define the concept of Standard Cantonese. The major systems are Barnett–Chao, Meyer–Wempe, the Chinese government's Guangdong Romanization, Yale and Jyutping. While they do not differ greatly, Yale is the one most commonly seen in the west today.[citation needed] The Hong Kong linguist Sidney Lau modified the Yale system for his popular Cantonese-as-a-second-language course and is still widely in use today.

Early Western effort

Systematic efforts to develop an alphabetic representation of Cantonese began with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in China early in the nineteenth century. Romanization was considered both a tool to help new missionaries learn the dialect more easily and a quick route for the unlettered to achieve gospel literacy. Earlier Catholic missionaries, mostly Portuguese, had developed romanization schemes for the pronunciation current in the court and capital city of China but made few efforts at romanizing other dialects.

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary in China published a "Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect" (1828) with a rather unsystematic romanized pronunciation. Elijah Coleman Bridgman and Samuel Wells Williams in their "Chinese Chrestomathy in the Canton Dialect" (1841) were the progenitors of a long-lived lineage of related romanizations with minor variations embodied in the works of James Dyer Ball, Ernst Johann Eitel, and Immanuel Gottlieb Genăhr (1910). Bridgman and Williams based their system on the phonetic alphabet and diacritics proposed by Sir William Jones for South Asian languages. Their romanization system embodied the phonological system in a local dialect rhyme dictionary, the Fenyun cuoyao, which was widely used and easily available at the time and is still available today. Samuel Wells Willams' Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect (Yinghua fenyun cuoyao 1856), is an alphabetic rearrangement, translation and annotation of the Fenyun. In order to adapt the system to the needs of users at a time when there were only local variants and no standard—although the speech of the western suburbs, xiguan, of Guangzhou was the prestige variety at the time—Williams suggested that users learn and follow their teacher's pronunciation of his chart of Cantonese syllables. It was apparently Bridgman's innovation to mark the tones with an open circles (upper register tones) or an underlined open circle (lower register tones) at the four corners of the romanized word in analogy with the traditional Chinese system of marking the tone of a character with a circle (lower left for "even," upper left for "rising," upper right for "going," and lower right for "entering" tones). John Chalmers, in his "English and Cantonese pocket-dictionary" (1859) simplified the marking of tones using the acute accent to mark "rising" tones and the grave to mark "going" tones and no diacritic for "even" tones and marking upper register tones by italics (or underlining in handwritten work). "Entering" tones could be distinguished by their consonantal ending. Nicholas Belfeld Dennys used Chalmers romanization in his primer. This method of marking tones was adopted in the Yale romanization (with low register tones marked with an 'h'). A new romanization was developed in the first decade of the twentieth century which eliminated the diacritics on vowels by distinguishing vowel quality by spelling differences (e.g. a/aa, o/oh). Diacritics were used only for marking tones. The name of Tipson is associated with this new romanization which still embodied the phonology of the Fenyun to some extent. It is the system used in Meyer-Wempe and Cowles' dictionaries and O'Melia's textbook and many other works in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the standard romanization until the Yale system supplanted it. The distinguished linguist, Y. R. Chao developed a Cantonese adaptation of his Gwoyeu romanization system which he used in his "Cantonese Primer." The front matter to this book contains a review and comparison of a number of the systems mentioned in this paragraph. The GR system was not widely used.

Cantonese romanisation in Hong Kong

An influential work on Cantonese, A Chinese Syllabary Pronounced According to the Dialect of Canton, written by Wong Shik Ling, was published in 1941. He derived an IPA-based transcription system, the S. L. Wong system, used by many Chinese dictionaries later published in Hong Kong. Although Wong also derived a romanization scheme, also known as S. L. Wong system, it is not widely used as his transcription scheme.

The romanization advocated by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK) is called Jyutping, which solves many of the inconsistencies and problems of the older, favored, and more familiar system of Yale Romanization, but departs considerably from it in a number of ways unfamiliar to Yale users. The phonetic values of letters are not quite familiar to those who have studied English. Some effort has been undertaken to promote Jyutping with some official support, but it is too early to tell how successful it is.

Another popular scheme is Cantonese Pinyin Schemes, which is the only romanization system accepted by Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau and Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Books and studies for teachers and students in primary and secondary schools usually use this scheme. But there are quite a lot teachers and students using the transcription system of S. L. Wong.

However, learners may feel frustrated that most native Cantonese speakers, no matter how educated they are, really are not familiar with any romanization system. Apparently, there is no motive for local people to learn any of these systems. The romanization systems are not included in the education system either in Hong Kong or in Guangdong province. In practice, Hong Kong people follow a loose unnamed romanisation scheme used by the Government of Hong Kong.

Cantonese outside China, Hong Kong and Macao

Historically, the majority of the overseas Chinese have originated from just two provinces, Fujian and Guangdong. This has resulted in the overseas Chinese having a far higher proportion of Fujian and Guangdong languages/dialect speakers than Chinese speakers in China as a whole.

The largest number of Cantonese speakers outside mainland China and Hong Kong are in Canada and the United States; however, speakers of Min dialects predominate among the overseas Chinese in southeast Asia. The Cantonese spoken in Malaysia is known to have borrowed substantially from Malay and other languages.


For many decades and today, Cantonese continues to be the most common Chinese language spoken among Chinese Canadians. According to Canada 2006 Census, there are 361,450 Canadian residents who reported Cantonese as their mother tongue including 166,655 in Greater Toronto Area and 125,940 in Greater Vancouver to lead the way. The total number of Cantonese speakers in Canada however is expected to be greater than those numbers provided by Statistics Canada considering that 456,705 people who reported a Chinese mother tongue either did not specifically specify which Chinese language they were referring to, or specified a languages outside of Cantonese, Mandarin, Chaochow, Fukien, Hakka, Shanghainese, or Taiwanese. Hence among the 456,705 residents, many of them are Cantonese speakers as well.

The majority of Cantonese speakers came from Hong Kong in bunches in the late 60s to mid 70s during and after the Hong Kong 1967 Leftist riots, and came in masses during the 80s to late 90s in response to the Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong back to Mainland China in 1997. Immigrants from Guangdong, Vietnam and Southeast Asia also form an integral part of the Cantonese speaker demographics in Canada.


Cantonese is widely spoken in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya in Selangor, most districts in Perak, Sibu in Sarawak and Sandakan in Sabah. In general, Cantonese is widely spoken in all part of Malaysia, even though large part of Chinese population are non-Cantonese. Cantonese can be regarded as highly influential among Chinese Malaysians. Unlike Hokkien, with the largest population among Chinese Malaysian, the language has very minimal influence on other dialect groups. Viewers in Malaysia enjoyed the programmes in original soundtrack. Pay TV operator, Astro, on the other hand, do offer viewers a choice - in original soundtrack (Cantonese) and Mandarin (dubbed version) in its prime-time drama series. There are four Chinese radio stations - My FM, one FM, 988 and Ai FM. Of these four, three are private-owned, which broadcast mainly in Cantonese together with Mandarin. Ai FM, however, is a government owned station that broadcast solely in Mandarin. The only Cantonese programme used in Ai FM is the news broadcast.

New Zealand

The goldminers who came to New Zealand in the 1860s were mainly from the southern counties of Guangdong province. Through chain-migration between the 1860s to 1920s Cantonese became the dominant language spoken by New Zealand Chinese. Since the late 1980s there has been a large number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese coming to New Zealand either as permanent immigrants or temporary English-language students.


In Singapore the government has a Speak Mandarin Campaign(SMC)[10] which seeks to actively promote the use of Mandarin over other Chinese languages, such as Min-nan (colloquially known as Hokkien) (41.1%), Teochew (21.0%), Cantonese (15.4%), Hakka (7.9%) and Hainanese (6.7%).

Population Profile of Singapore Chinese Language Groups[11]
Dialect Group 1990 2000
Hokkiens 42.1% 41.1%
Teochews 21.9% 21.0%
Cantonese 15.2% 15.4%
Hakkas 7.3% 7.9%
Hainanese 7.0% 6.7%
Foochows (Min Dong) 1.7% 1.9%
Henghua (Puxian/Putian) 0.9% 0.9%
Shanghainese 0.8% 0.9%
Hockchia (Fuqing) 0.6% 0.6%
Others 2.4% 3.7%

This was seen as a way of creating greater cohesion among the ethnic Chinese. In addition to positive promotion of Mandarin, the campaign also includes active attempts to dissuade people from using other Chinese languages.

Most notably,all non-Mandarin Chinese programmes on TV and radio were stopped after 1979.[12] The prime minister then, also stopped giving speeches in Hokkien to prevent giving conflicting signals to the people.[12]

Hong Kong (Cantonese) and Taiwanese drama series are not available in their original languages on TV although Japanese and Korean drama series are available in their original languages. Cantonese drama series on non-cable TV channels are dubbed in Mandarin and broadcast without the original Cantonese soundtrack. Supporters of non-Mandarin Chinese languages who feel that dubbing causes the series to lose its natural flavor often buy original and VCDs from Taiwan and Hong Kong to keep in touch with their mother tongues.

An offshoot of SMC is the Pinyinisation of certain terms which originated from southern Chinese languages. For instance, dim sum is often known as dianxin in Singapore's English language media, though this is largely a matter of style, and most Singaporeans will refer to dim sum when speaking English. However, Cantonese is still spoken in large proportion of Cantonese family compared to other dialect groups. The situation is very different in nearby Malaysia (especially in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh), where even most non-Cantonese speaking Chinese can understand the language to a certain extent through exposure to the language.[citation needed]


The Chinese (including those of mixed ancestry) of Thailand are overwhelmingly descended from Chaozhou dialect areas in southern China. Today they constitute around 50% of Bangkok's total registered population, making it the city with the largest number of people of Chinese ancestry outside China. Nationally, Chinese make up 30% of Thailand's population, most were descendants of Chaozhou dialect speakers but 20% are descendants of Cantonese speakers.

United Kingdom

The majority of Cantonese speakers in the UK have origins from the former British colony of Hong Kong and speak the Canton/Hong Kong dialect, although many are in fact from Hakka-speaking families and are bilingual in Hakka. There are also Cantonese speakers from south east Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, as well as from Guangdong in China itself. Today an estimated 300,000 British people have Cantonese as a mother tongue, this represents 0.5% of the total UK population and 1% of the total overseas Cantonese speakers.[13]

United States

For the last 150 years, Guangdong Province has been the place of origin of most Chinese emigrants to Western countries; one coastal county, Taishan (or Tóisàn, where the Sìyì or sei yap dialect of Yue is spoken), alone may have been the home to more than 60% of Chinese immigrants to the US before 1965. As a result, Yue dialects such as Siyi (the dialects of Taishan, Enping, Kaiping and Xinhui Districts) and Cantonese (with a heavy Hong Kong influence) have been the major Yue dialects spoken abroad, particularly in the United States.

The Zhongshan dialect of Cantonese, with origins in the Pearl River Delta, is spoken by many Chinese immigrants in Hawaii, and some in San Francisco and in the Sacramento River Delta (see Locke, California); it is a Yuehai dialect much like Guangzhou Cantonese, but has "flatter" tones. Yue is the third most widely spoken non-English language in the United States.[14] Many institutes of higher education, such as Stanford, Duke, and Yale, have Cantonese programs. The currently most popular romanization for learning Cantonese in the United States is Yale Romanization.

This situation is now changing in the United States; recent Chinese emigrants originate from many different areas including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Recent immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan in the U.S. all speak Standard Chinese (putonghua/guoyu),[15][16] with varying degrees of fluency, and their native local language, such as Min (Hokkien and other Fujian languages), Wu, Mandarin, Cantonese etc. As a result, Mandarin is increasingly becoming more common as the Chinese lingua franca among overseas Chinese.

In some metropolitan areas with large Chinese populations, separate neighborhoods and enclaves segregated by the primary language or dialect spoken have begun to arise. For example, in New York City, Cantonese still predominates in the older historic Chinatown in Manhattan, while the newer Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn have large numbers of Mandarin and Fukienese speakers respectively.


In Vietnam, Cantonese is widely spoken amongst the ethnic-Chinese (Hoa) community, however many have been influenced by Vietnamese, hence speak it with a slight Vietnamese accent.


Life in Hong Kong is characterised by the blending of Asian (mainly south Chinese) and Western influences, as well as the status of the city as a major international business centre. Influences from this territory are widespread in foreign cultures. As a results, many loanwords are created and exported to China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Some of the loanwords are even more popular than their Chinese counterparts. At the same time, some new words created are vividly borrowed by other languages as well.

See also

Portal icon China portal
Portal icon Languages portal


  1. ^ Official Language Division, Civil Service Bureau, Government of Hong Kong
  2. ^ Cantonese: a comprehensive grammar, p.5, Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip, Routledge, 1994
  3. ^ Cantonese as written language: the growth of a written Chinese vernacular, p. 48, Donald B. Snow, Hong Kong University Press, 2004
  4. ^ Ramsey and Ethnologue, respectively
  5. ^ simplified Chinese: 省城话; traditional Chinese: 省城話; Jyutping: Saang2seng4 waa2
  6. ^ simplified Chinese: 白话; traditional Chinese: 白話; Jyutping: baak6waa2
  7. ^ Minglang Zhou, Hongkai Sun (2004). Language Policy in the People's Republic of China: Theory and Practice Since 1949. Springer. ISBN 1402080387, 9781402080388. 
  8. ^ a b Donald, Stephanie; Keane, Michael; Hong, Yin (2002). Media in China: Consumption, Content and Crisis. RoutledgeCurzon. p. 113. ISBN 0700716149. 
  9. ^ "Basic Law, Chapter I : General Principles". 
  10. ^ "Speak Mandarin Campaign". Retrieved 2010-10-07. 
  11. ^ Edmund Lee Eu Fah, "Profile of the Singapore Chinese Language Groups", Social Statistic Section, Singapore Department of Statistics (2000)
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ Cantonese speakers in the UK
  14. ^ Lai, H. Mark (2004). Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions. AltaMira Press. ISBN 0759104581.  need page number(s)
  15. ^ Mandarin Use Up in Chinese American Communities
  16. ^ As Mandarin language becomes standard, Chinatown explores new identity

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cantonese — ► NOUN (pl. same) 1) a person from Canton (another name for Guangzhou), a city in China. 2) a form of Chinese spoken mainly in SE China and Hong Kong. ► ADJECTIVE ▪ relating to Canton or Cantonese …   English terms dictionary

  • Cantonese — [kan΄tə nēz′, kan΄tənēs′] adj. of Canton (China) or its people, language, or culture n. 1. pl. Cantonese a person born or living in Canton, China 2. the variety of Chinese spoken in Canton …   English World dictionary

  • Cantonese — 1857, from Canton, former transliteration of name of Chinese region now known in English as Guangzhou …   Etymology dictionary

  • Cantonese — [[t]kæ̱ntəni͟ːz[/t]] (Cantonese is both the singular and the plural form.) 1) ADJ Cantonese means belonging or relating to the Chinese provinces of Canton and Kwangtung. 2) N COUNT: usu pl The Cantonese are the people who live in or come from the …   English dictionary

  • Cantonese — noun (plural Cantonese) Etymology: Canton Guangzhou, ultimately from Portuguese Cantão, from Chinese (Guangzhou) Gwóngdūng Guangdong Date: 1857 1. a native or inhabitant of Guangzhou, China 2. the dialect of Chinese spoken in Guangzho …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Cantonese — /kan tn eez , ees /, n., pl. Cantonese, adj. n. 1. a Chinese language spoken in Canton, the surrounding area of southern China, and Hong Kong. 2. a native or inhabitant of Canton, China. adj. 3. pertaining to Canton, China, its inhabitants, or… …   Universalium

  • Cantonese — 1. adjective /kæn.təˈniːz/ a) Relating to Canton. b) Relating to Cantonese people. 2. noun /kæn.təˈniːz/ a) An inhabitant of Canton; a person of Canton descent. b) A Chinese language mainly spoken in the south easte …   Wiktionary

  • cantonese — can·to·né·se agg., s.m. e f. CO agg., di Canton: cucina cantonese | agg., s.m. e f., nativo o abitante di Canton {{line}} {{/line}} DATA: sec. XX. ETIMO: der. di Canton, nome di una città della Cina meridionale, con ese …   Dizionario italiano

  • Cantonese — Can|ton|ese [ ,kæntə niz ] adjective connected with the Guangdong region of southern China, or its language, food, or culture: a delicious Hong Kong style Cantonese meal …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • Cantonese — noun (plural same) 1》 a native or inhabitant of Canton (Guangzhou), a city in China. 2》 a form of Chinese spoken mainly in SE China and Hong Kong. adjective relating to Canton or Cantonese …   English new terms dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.