WRA 1004 Paper Site

Project 2. Culture Literacy

Yanxuan Li

Professor Marohang Limbu

WRA 1004-009

Culture Literacy

February 27, 2012


Cantonese: Is it a dialect in China or language of the world? (PDF



China is a multi-ethnic and multi language country. It contains about eighty dialects for different ethnic groups. Cantonese is considered as one of those eighty dialects, and also one of language I master. I am proud of it not only because it’s my city’s dialect, but also it’s considered as a language of the world.  It has been used in all over the world now. Cantonese starts from the south of China in about BC 700 years (In figure 1, it shows the original area of Cantonese). It’s been a long history of Cantonese. To some extent, Cantonese is the fossil of Chinese’s evolutionary history.   


Figure 1. Cantonese Speaking Area

In this essay, I will focus on what Cantonese is, what the history of Cantonese is, the sound and character of Cantonese, Where the Cantonese distributed now, and the Dilemma of Cantonese now. The major focus of this essay is to inform the audience that the specific and interesting information about Cantonese.

Definition: What is Cantonese?

Cantonese also named Yue, It is a language that originated from southern China. In Mainland China, it was used at Guangdong Province and some neighboring areas. Outside Mainland China, the majority people from Hong Kong and Macau speak it in daily life, and so do overseas Chinese communities at Asia, the United Kingdom, The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as part of Europe. In the world, about 70 million people are using Cantonese. This number population ranking in third place in China's domestic language, and ranking in tenth place in the world (Leiws).  From my own experience, I lived in Shenzhen, which is a major city of Guangdong province nearby Hong Kong. Although the official language of China is mandarin, in daily life, people use Cantonese to talk to each other, and it sounds familiar and warm, and it is the characteristics of fellow in Shenzhen. Not only we can find fellow through Cantonese in Guangdong province, but also in other cities, provinces, and countries. Even in America, 11,386 mile away from Shenzhen, I can still hear Cantonese almost every day of my life, in campus, restaurants, and on the streets.

History: What is the history of Cantonese?

Cantonese has a long history since about 2000 years ago. At the ancient time  of China, “Han” people dominate the country and speak “Yayu”[1] at the northern China, and the southern part had rare “Han” people live in there, instate of it, there was some minority groups that talked with “ancient Cantonese.” After that, it came to “Qin” (BC221- BC206) dynasty, some “Han” people came to southern area and two languages start to communicate and impact each other, This is the time when Cantonese born.

At “Wei and Jin” dynasty (AD220- AD581), people ran to south continuously because of the big war in north of China. Population in southern grew amazingly high. That was the first flourish time of Cantonese. Then, Cantonese became more specificity; It evolved vocabulary system and grammar system since “Tang” dynasty (AD618- AD907). After “Song” dynasty (AD960- AD1279), because of “Hu” people, who were a minority group in northern China, controlled China at that time, “Yayu” and “Hu” language mixed together, and became to old mandarin. However, because of the marginality and closely of Guangdong province, Cantonese keeps a lot of grammar and vocabulary of “Yayu.” Until now, Cantonese is still using the oldest way of “Yayu.” For example, “Zao”(走) in Cantonese means running away, and “Hang”(行) means walking, those are the same meaning in “Yayu.”

After ‘Qing” dynasty (AD1636- AD1911), China decided to Autarky and only left Guangzhou, a major city of Guangdong province both than and now, as a intercommunicate door to outside of the word. So all of foreigners that came to China learn Cantonese culture and language first, and they only brought back Cantonese culture to their home country. At the same time, some of the southern Chinese also immigrated to foreign countries and distribute Cantonese at all over the world unconsciously.

Although Mandarin is the standard and official language in mainland of China, it has only been around for about 700 or 800 years, compared to the 2000-year history of Cantonese (Cantonese.ca). Also Cantonese is called the fossil of ancient Chinese—“Yayu” (The History of Cantonese). So from a historical point of view, Cantonese should be considering as a language of the world.

Sound: What Cantonese sounds like

Cantonese have nine sounds and six tones, which are high level, high falling, high rising, mid level, low falling, low rising, and low level. Also, there are many different Romanization Systems for writing Cantonese with the Latin alphabet have been devised. These include: Meyer-Wempe, Yale, Sidney Lau, Jyutping and so on (Cantonese.ca). This is an example of Cantonese Tone Indication. Those are almost same pronunciation but different tone, and after that there are different Romanization systems for Cantonese.

 Figure 2. Cantonese Tone Indications

And here is another example that how Cantonese sentence sound like.



Figure 3. Cantonese (Audio)

As an oral language, Cantonese is full of slang and non-standard usage. The language of youth is rapidly evolving, and new slangs are constantly emerging (Cantonese.ca). Some of slang of Cantonese may not fit in to the Cantonese language system, but they are contributing to refresh the system and make the system always follow the step of generation instead of been eliminated by time.

CharactersWhat Cantonese looks like?

Cantonese characters consisted mainly by four methods (Morrison).

The first method is synonyms. Some characters used to represent words in Cantonese are synonyms of words used in standard written Chinese. For example, the character for "not" (不) is the synonym of 唔, the third-person pronoun (他 "he/she") is a synonym of 佢, and the plural pronoun marker (們) is the synonym of 哋. Those are different Chinese characters, but their meanings in Cantonese are the same.

The second method is Cognates. There are certain words that share a common root with words in standard written Chinese. However, because they have diverged in pronunciation, tone, and meaning, they are often written using a different character. Here is an example that  the charters 来 (Mandarin) and 嚟  (Cantonese),  both meaning "to come." They share the same meaning and usage, but because people are used to use different words, so they keep it until now.

The third method is native words: Some Cantonese words have no equivalents in Mandarin-based standard modern Chinese. Cantonese writers have from time to time reinvented or borrowed a new character if they are not aware of the original one. For example, some suggest that the common word 靚, meaning pretty in Cantonese but not in Chinese.

The last one also the fourth method is Loanwords: New characters have been created to represent new concepts or loanwords. Like 巴士 for Bus,的士 for Taxi,they pronounce almost exactly like English pronunciations.

Here are some examples for Cantonese Characters; we can easily find out that the Cantonese characters are all different Standard Written Chinese characters. However their English meanings are the same for each line.

Figure 4. Cantonese and Chinese Characters

Distribution: Where are the Globalize Cantonese now?

In English, the term "Cantonese" is ambiguous. Narrow sense may be specified as "Canton language" or "Guangzhou language" in English (Ingram). However, Cantonese is also the dominant language in overseas Chinese communities. This comes from the fact that, around the world, the largest flow of Chinese immigrants originates from Hong Kong.

At United Kingdom, there are a large group of Cantonese speakers because of the former British colony of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s immigration after colony. 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 (Ingram). At United State, for the last 150 years, Guangdong Province has been the place of origin of most Chinese emigrants to Western countries; As a result, Cantonese have been the major language spoken abroad, particularly in the United States. For example, Cantonese still dominates in the Chinatown. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Cantonese historically predominated in Chinatown, San Francisco and Chinatown, Oakland and today in large areas of San Francisco, Daly City, and near East Oakland (Lai). There are also Cantonese speakers from south East Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.

Nowadays, the western linguists believe that Cantonese is a language as the same level as Chinese because it’s been broad used in all over the world. “Cantonese are often called "dialects," but in actuality their differences are great enough to consider them separate languages (Cantonese Language)”. Also all of those statistics show that Cantonese is not only a dialect of Chinese now, it is also a globalize language that are been using in the whole world.

Dilemma: How is Cantonese?

Nowadays, Cantonese is facing a lot of problem than ever before. Because of the State Policy to promote a common spoken language[2], Mandarin, Cantonese speaker is becoming lesser and lesser. For example, in a 2009 newspaper commentary entitled "Destroying Cantonese, Beginning in Kindergarten? ” the writer complained that more and more primary school children could only speak Mandarin. Some of her friends spoke Cantonese to their husbands but Mandarin to their infant children. She attributed this to the policy of promoting Mandarin, the use of Mandarin as the instructional language in kindergarten, the employment of non-Cantonese nannies, and parental indifference (Is Cantonese in Danger).

More ironically, the New York Times reported in 2009 that Mandarin is eclipsing Cantonese in New York's Chinatown. In July 2010, the New York Times published a commentary by Hong Kong writer Verna Yu complaining that many Hong Kong parents were speaking in their less-than-perfect English to their infant children to prepare them for admission to prestigious international schools, with the result that those children could not speak their mother tongue at all. 

Figure 5. Girl's Picture 

 (Girl's poster: "Grandma, please speak Mandarin." Grandma (in Cantonese): "You got to be kidding!")


From the political point of view, Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese. However from the historical, vocal, and distribution point of view, Cantonese is a language in worldwide. In my opinion, whatever it is, Cantonese is always the legacy of ancient Chinese culture, and a perfect language culture of the world. For my hope, people who are interesting in Cantonese should learn it, because they learn not only a language, but also the most ancient Chinese culture, which those are inseparable in all the time. 


Works cited 

 "Cantonese" Learn Cantonese! 學廣東話! Ed. Cantonese.ca. Cantonese.ca. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.


Ingram, and Rebecca. Cantonese Culture. Hong Kong: Asia 2000, 1995. Print.

"Is Cantonese in Danger? " China Notes. Blogspot.com, 20 Aug. 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.


Lai. Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions. Walnut Creek, CA:

AltaMira, 2004. Print.

Lewis, ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 16th ed. Print.

Morrison. ”Cantonese” A Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect. London: Ganesha, 2001. Print.

Omniglot. "Cantonese Language" the Guide to Languages. Omniglot.com. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.


"The History of Cantonese" 粤语的历史. Ed. Jia Wang. 16 July 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.



[1] An ancient Chinese language and the official language of China about 1000 years

[2] In 1956 Mandarin was established as the official language, and top leaders like Zhou Enlai strongly advocated the national promotion of Mandarin for building central power and national unity.

[2] In 1956 Mandarin was established as the official language, and top leaders like Zhou Enlai strongly advocated the national promotion of Mandarin for building central power and national unity. 

[2] In 1956 Mandarin was established as the official language, and top leaders like Zhou Enlai strongly advocated the national promotion of Mandarin for building central power and national unity.