Cantonese vs Mandarin
Chinese

Cantonese vs. Mandarin: some key differences along with examples

There are a large number of Chinese dialects. In fact, there are hundreds of Chinese dialects. The two most commonly spoken Chinese dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese. People often get confused regarding which dialect to choose between two. The debate between Cantonese vs. Mandarin can be sorted by looking at their fundamental differences.

There are some key differences between two beautiful Chinese dialects Cantonese vs. Mandarin. In this post, we will attempt to address all the key differences between these two Chinese dialects.

Do you know what the difference between the Chinese language and the Chinese dialect is? Language is regarded as a generic term that includes dialects or variants of the language. Dialects are mutually intelligible.

In the case of Chinese, Chinese is considered a language, whereas Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects. The dialects are not mutually intelligible when spoken, but written Chinese can be understood by the speakers of all dialects. It means that written Chinese can be understood by speakers of any Chinese dialect.

Cantonese vs. Mandarin

Cantonese and Mandarin are two of the most widely spoken languages in China. As a result, they are the two most studied Chinese languages in the world. Because of their popularity in certain parts of Asia, Mandarin and Cantonese are also among the best business languages to learn.

If you are planning to visit China for business purposes, you need to learn Chinese online to build your command over these two extremely popular and widely used Chinese dialects.  

Now, let’s look at some of the main differences between Cantonese and Mandarin:

1. Colloquial-spoken Cantonese differs from colloquial-spoken Mandarin as it has nine tones, whereas Mandarin only has four or five.

2. Both of them do not hold the same vocabulary and grammar. If you are fluent in one dialect that doesn’t mean that you will be able to understand the other one without learning.

3. Mandarin is spoken in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, while Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong and Guangdong provinces.

4. Cantonese implements the Jyutping romanization system, whereas Mandarin incorporates Pinyin.

5. Cantonese uses traditional Chinese characters, whereas Mandarin uses simplified Chinese characters.

Differences between Mandarin and Cantonese in tone

Chinese is renowned for being a tonal language, which means that the tone, or pitch, of a word, determines its meaning. Tones, predictably, scare people away from learning Chinese because they are widely regarded as too difficult to learn.

The number of tones used by each dialect differs between the two tonal systems. Mandarin has four major tones, but some linguists consider the neutral tone to be a fifth.

  • First tone (flat tone)
  • Second tone (rising tone)
  • Third tone (dip tone)
  • Fourth tone (falling tone)
  • Fifth tone (neutral tone)
Mandarin tones
Mandarin tones

Cantonese, on the other hand, has six major tones as well as three additional high, mid, and low tones. That adds to an incredible nine tones – four more than Mandarin!

  • High (level)
  • Low-mid to high (rising)
  • Mid (level)
  • Low-mid to low (falling)
  • Low to low-mid (rising)
  • Low-mid (level)
Cantonese tones
Catonese tones

Differences in Vocabulary and Grammar

Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible, which means that the speaker of one cannot understand the speaker of the other.

However, keep in mind that Mandarin is China’s official language, which means that even Cantonese speakers are required to learn Mandarin in school. In fact, Mandarin learning programs can be found in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the dominant language.

That is the reason that most Cantonese speakers can understand Mandarin. But not many Mandarin speakers know Cantonese. If you wish to learn Cantonese or Mandarin, you get to seek professional training from Chinese teachers using the platform, italki. Here, you will not only learn to read Chinese but will also develop a command of spoken Chinese.

Now, let’s take a look at some examples of different Cantonese and Mandarin vocabulary words.

Cantonese vocabulary examples

  • 你好 (néih hóu) — Hello
  • 好耐冇见 (hóunoih móuhgin) — Long time no see
  • 你叫做乜野名呀? (néih giu jouh mātyéh méng a?) — What’s your name?
  • 你係邊度人呀? (néih haih bīndouh yàhn a?) — Where are you from?

Mandarin vocabulary examples

  • 你好 (nǐ hǎo) — Hello
  • 好久不见 (hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn) — Long time no see
  • 你叫什么名字? (nǐ jiào shénme míng zi?) — What is your name?
  • 你是哪国人? (nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?) — Where are you from?
Cantonese sentence vs Mandarin sentence

Regions where Cantonese is spoken

Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong. Cantonese, unlike Mandarin, is not spoken or understood throughout China. But that doesn’t change the fact that 73.4 million people speak it. Furthermore, it is used in some of China’s most populous and tourist-friendly areas.

RegionWritten languageSpoken language
GuangdongTraditional ChineseCantonese
Hong KongTraditional ChineseCantonese
MacauTraditional ChineseCantonese
Cantonese spoken regions

Cantonese is the most widely spoken language in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, where it is recognized as the lingua franca – the common language, but not necessarily the native language. Malaysia and Macau also speak it.

Cantonese media, like Mandarin media, is abundant and ready for enthusiastic learners to consume. Cantonese music, TV shows, and other captivating content abound on the internet.

Regions where Mandarin is spoken

Most people think of Mandarin once they hear the word ‘Chinese’. It is also China’s most widely spoken dialect, as well as the official language of Singapore and Taiwan.

While there are several regional dialects of Mandarin, they are all understandable to any Mandarin speaker. Because Mandarin is the official language of three countries, it is also the language used in the majority of Chinese films, television shows, and music.

Whether you are studying Mandarin for a long time or doing intensive immersion, you will need a lot of exposure and listening comprehension practice to distinguish different Mandarin varieties and understand them.

Simplified vs. traditional characters

There are two Chinese writing systems: simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. Traditional Chinese was the most widely used writing system for centuries until the 1950s and 1960s.

traditional Chinese characters vs simplified Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese characters vs. Simplified Chinese characters

To reform the country, the Chinese government declared simplified Chinese to be the new common writing system in 1949. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still many people (or places) who use traditional characters today.

Traditional characters are primarily used by Cantonese speakers. It is, in fact, the most widely used writing system in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

In contrast, simplified characters are used in Mandarin. However, traditional and simplified characters are recognizable and relatively easy to read regardless of which system a person prefers.

Examples of simplified characters

  • 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — I love you
  • 我喜欢学中文 (wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén) — I like studying Chinese
  • 我是美国人 (wǒ shì měi guó rén) — I am American

Examples of traditional characters

  • 我愛你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — I love you
  • 我喜歡學中文 (wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén) — I like studying Chinese
  • 我是美國人 (wǒ shì měi guó rén) — I am American

The Romanization systems

Pinyin

It is the Romanization system for Mandarin words and tones and instructs students on how to pronounce them. It was not, however, designed for that purpose. Pinyin was developed in the 1950s to aid in the improvement of literacy rates in China.

For example:

  • 我喜歡學中文 (wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén) — I like studying Chinese
  • Did you find the pinyin?
  • wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén is the perfect example of what pinyin looks like.

Jyutping

Cantonese has its own Romanization system known as jyutping. Jyutping, like pinyin, uses the Latin alphabet to spell out Cantonese words and marks and numbers to represent tones.

Types of Jyutping

  • Yale Jyutping is the most commonly used type and uses diacritics to mark tones (similar to pinyin).
  • Sidney Lau Jyutping uses numbers to mark tones. It is less popular nowadays, but many older textbooks still use it.
  • LSHK Jyutping is similar to Sidney Lau in that it marks the tones with numbers. It does, however, include a few pronunciation refinements. It is the most recent type of jyutping, and the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong promotes and recommends it.

For example:

  • Yale Jyutping: 你叫做乜野名呀 (néih giu jouh mātyéh méng a?) — What is your name?
  • Sidney Lau Jyutping: 你叫做乜野名呀 (neih2 giu jouh ma1tyeh2 meng2 a?) — What is your name?

Many people wonder that is Chinese grammar easy to learn. The answer is simple, learning Chinese may not seem an easy task at first. But, if you remain consistent you can develop your command of the language.

Conclusion

Engage yourself with Chinese media, texts, and other relevant resources. Make flashcards to help you retain the grammar rules and vocabulary words. On deciding your preferred dialect, you need to sure with whom you want to communicate and what is your reason behind learning Chinese. After establishing this you can decide whether you want to learn mandarin or Cantonese.

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