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The Yuè dialects, also known as Cantonese (Guăngdōnghuà), are one of the major dialect groups of China. They are spoken by 52 million people in the province of Guăngdōng and in the city of Guăngzhōu (Canton), as well as in Hong KongMacau, and in expatriate Chinese communities and Chinatowns in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. The total number of Cantonese speakers is estimated at 62 million people  (Ethnologue)*. The origins of Cantonese are not known due to absence of reliable historical records, however, it is generally agreed that it had developed linguistics traits that distinguished it from other Chinese dialects by the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

*These numbers may be outdated.


People’s Republic of China (PRC)
mapIn PRC, Cantonese is spoken along with Mandarin. The latter is used as the medium of education and government administration. Because of PRC’s language policies, most people in China today are proficient in Mandarin. As a consequence, Cantonese-Mandarin bilingualism is increasing in Cantonese-speaking provinces of the country. However, Cantonese continues to be the language of everyday communication both inside and outside of the home. It is also used in electronic and print media.

Hong Kong and Macau
Cantonese is the de facto official spoken variety of Chinese along with English. It is the language of choice for education, business, government, and the media. For instance, Hong Kong’s important and popular film industry is in Cantonese. It is too early to predict the effects of unification on the status of Cantonese in Hong Kong and Macau.

Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Chinese (all dialects) is spoken in the United States.


Standard Cantonese, also known as Guăngdōng dialect, refers to the most prestigious dialect spoken in Guăngzhōu (Canton), Hong Kong, and Macau.There are numerous other dialects of Cantonese, such as Bobai, Cangwu, Gaolei (Gaoyang), Guangzhou, Guinan, Ping, Qinlian, Siyi (Hoisan, Schleiyip, Seiyap, Taishan, Toisan), Tengxian, Yangjiang, Zhongshan (Ethnologue).


Sound system

Cantonese is considered to be a conservative dialect, its sound system having preserved the final consonants and tones of the Tang Dynasty literary standard.

Syllable structure
Syllables in Cantonese consist of an Optional Initial Consonant + Vowel (accompanied by tone) + Optional Final Consonant (/n/, /ŋ/, /m/, /p/, /t/, /k/). In contrast, Mandarin allows only /n/ and /ŋ/ in final position.

The vowel inventory of Cantonese is a matter of some debate among linguists, with the number of phonemes (sounds that distinguish word meaning) differing, depending on the analysis. All vowels are long in final position. The table below shows 7 vowel phonemes.

Mid  e
  • /y/ = similar to the second vowel in statue
  • /ø/ has no equivalent in English


According to one analysis, Cantonese has 18 consonant phonemes which are given below. Cantonese does not have a contrast between voiceless and voiced consonants such as between /p-b/, /t-d/, /k-g/, /ts-dz/. Instead, there is a contrast between voiceless plain (unaspirated) and voiceless aspirated consonants, e.g., /p-pʰ/, /t-tʰ/, /k-kʰ/, /ts-tsʰ/. Only /p/, /t/, /k/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/ can appear at the end of syllables

Stops plain
Affricates plain
Lateral approximant
  • /ʔ/ = sound between the sullables in uh-oh
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song. /ŋ/ can appear at the beginning of syllables, e.g., nga ‘tooth’ as compared to Mandarin .
  • The nasal consonants /m/ and /ŋ/ are syllable forming, e.g., m means ‘five’ (compare to Mandarin ).


Every syllable in Cantonese has a pitch that is an integral part of the pronunciation of that syllable. Pitch distinguishes one syllable from another. Standard Cantonese has six (seven in some analyses) distinct tones: three level and three contour. A level tone is one which remains at approximately the same even pitch over the course of a syllable or a word, while a contour tone is one which shifts from one pitch to another over the course of a syllable or a word.

There are several ways to mark tones in Cantonese.

  • Pīnyīn marks tones with numbers corresponding to the tones.
  • Yale Romanization, or Yale Cantonese, widely used in books and dictionaries for Standard Cantonese, especially for language learners, uses diacritics and the letter h to mark tones.
  • The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) uses symbols that represent tones. They look like this: ˥ ˦ ˧.


Pīnyīn notation
Cantonese first tone
High rising
Cantonese second tone
Mid level
Cantonese third tone
Cantonese fourth tone
Low rising
Cantonese fifth tone
Cantonese sixth tone

This analysis identifies 6 tones.

This analysis identifies 7 tones



Cantonese, like all other Chinese languages, is predominantly an isolating, or analytic, language, meaning that for the most part, words have only one grammatical form. Grammatical functions are expressed through word order, particles, prepositions, and discourse, rather than by suffixes attached to nouns or verbs, such as in Indo-European languages. Because of the lack of inflections, Chinese grammar may appear quite simple as compared to that of Indo-European languages.

Noun phrase

  • Number and gender are not marked grammatically, except in pronouns and polysyllabic nouns referring to people. Otherwise, they are understood through context.
  • Cantonese nouns require classifiers when counted. Hence one must say ‘two [head] cow’, not ‘two cows’. Each noun has one classifier. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of classifiers that must be memorized for various classes of nouns, e.g., round objects, flat objects, book-like objects, animate beings, etc.


Verb phrase

  • Tenses are not marked grammatically, rather they are indicated by adverbs of time, e.g., ‘yesterday’, ‘today’, ‘now’.
  • Aspect is marked by particles that indicate completion of an action or change of state.
  • Mood is marked by modal particles.


Like Mandarin, Cantonese is a topic-prominent language. This means that the topic of the sentence (defined as old or known information) precedes new or added information. In Cantonese, direct objects precede indirect objects, and certain adverbs precede verbs, while the opposite is true in Mandarin.


Cantonese shares most of its vocabulary with Mandarin and other Chinese varieties, but the number of English loanwords in Cantonese, especially in Hong Kong, is much greater than that in Mandarin.

Below are the numbers 0-10 in Cantonese (in comparison to Mandarin).

Character for one
Character for two
Character for three
Character for four
Character for five
Character for six
Character for seven
Charater for eight
Character for nine
Character for ten



The first written documents in Cantonese date back to the 19th century. Today, written Cantonese is used mainly in personal correspondence, popular newspapers and magazines, and in fiction. Mandarin is used for all formal and official purposes.

Cantonese can be written in two different versions:

  1. a formal version that can be easily understood by Mandarin speakers but that does not accurately represent the spoken language;
  2. a colloquial version that is relatively incomprehensible to speakers of Mandarin but is close to spoken Cantonese. It is written in a mixture of standard Chinese characters and hundreds of extra characters specifically adapted to represent spoken Cantonese.

Romanization systems for Cantonese
There are several competing systems for writing Cantonese with the Latin alphabet. They differ mostly in the representation of vowels and tones.

  • Pīnyīn is used in Mainland China. It marks tone with a numeral after the syllable.
  • Yale Romanization, or Yale Cantonese, is still widely used in books and dictionaries for Standard Cantonese, especially for language learners in the U.S. It marks tones with diacritics.


Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Cantonese in Yale Romanization. For the sake of comparison, the same text in Mandarin is also given. Although the characters are the same, they are pronounced quite differently in the two dialects.

Article 1 UDHR in Cantonese
Cantonese (Yale Romanization)
Yàhnyàhn sáang yì jìh jihyàuh, hái jyùnyihm tùhng kyùhnléih seuhng yātleuht pihngdáng. Kéuihdeih fuyéuh léising tùhng léuhngsàm, tùhngmàaih yìnggòi yíh hìngdaih gwàanhaih ge jìngsàhn wuhsēung deuidoih.
Mandarin (Pīnyīn)
Rénrén shēng ér zìyóu, zài zūnyán hé quánlì sháng yīlū píngdĕng. Tāmen fùyŏu lĭxìng he liángxīn, bìing yīng yĭng yĭ xiōngdì guānxì de jīngshén hùxiāng duìdài.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

Cantonese words in English

English has borrowed a number of words from Cantonese. Below are a few of them.

Chop suey from Cantonese tsap sui ‘odds and ends’
Dim sum from Cantonese dim sam ‘appetizer’
Kumquat from Cantonese kamkwat, from kam ‘golden’ + kwat ‘orange’
Tea from Malay teh, or directly from Amoy dialect of Chinese t’e. The Mandarin word is chá. The distribution of the different form of the word reflects the spread of the beverage. The modern English form tea, along with French the, Spanish te, GermanTee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy dialect. The Portuguese form cha, Russian chai, Arabic shay, and Turkish çayall came from the Mandarin form chá.
Tycoon From Cantonese tai ‘great’ + kiun ‘lord’.
Tong ‘Chinese secret society’, from Cantonese tong ‘assembly hall’


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Cantonese?
Cantonese is considered to be a Category IV language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

19 Responses to Cantonese

  1. Raymond Chui

    Cantonese is not a language, it is the same as Chinese language.
    Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. are dialects. There are many dialects in China.

    • Sonya Chen

      Do you know what a language is?

      • Irene Thompson

        Please elucidate what your question means?

        • Sonya Chen

          What I meant is that, how can you distinguish between a language and a dialect?

          • Irene Thompson

            Sometimes you can’t for all the reasons mentioned.

        • Sonya Chen

          Since Raymond Chui said that Cantonese is not a language but it is a dialect, so I am wondering what a language meant to him.

    • Jeff

      I don’t think the term dialect does it justice. Sure you have common a written language, but the spoken words are completely different between Cantonese and Mandarin. One could argue that Toisanese might be a dialect of Cantonese or visa versa as they share a lot of words and sounds, but there are very few shared words between Cantonese and Mandarin.

    • Sean Chong

      Cantonese is both a dialect and a language. It follows some rules of mandarin yet it has it’s own system in other ways.

      • Irene Thompson

        All dialects are languages. Dialect simply means a variety of a language, e.g., both Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects of of a language we call Chinese.

  2. Bryan

    Guangdong & Guangdonghua. there is ng after the a in Guang & ng after the o in dong in Guangdong (-sheng[should be attached to Guanddong for people to know it is what you are talking about], sheng 省 is a word rarely used on maps in China, and means province) In Chinese, there is a very important difference in pronouncing a word ending in n vs. ng. There are no sound ending in ng in Mandarin* but there are those dialects like Cantonese, Fujianese, etc… where a difference in n vs ng would produce a joke or embarrassment. Please be consistent in your spelling especially those syllables in Chinese like guan 關 vs guang 光/廣.
    *There are words ending in ng in Mandarin words but only seen as attached to the preceding vowel vs being used alone, as in Cantonese, Fujianese, etc… You will soon notice this if you have used bopomofo or ㄅㄆㄇㄈ in Taiwan.

  3. Cantonese Text

    It’s said by some people that Cantonese pronounciation sounds more similar to the ancient Han Chinese (back to Tang & Song Dynasty) than the modern Mandarin does. Poems from famous ancient poets like Li Bai and Du Fu when read in Cantonese sound very melodious. Not too sure about this though.

    • Irene Thompson

      Just a guess on my part. Cantonese has more tones and sounds more “melodious” than Mandarin to some people.

  4. Sam

    Its Guangdong, not Guangdon

  5. Thomas H Eriksen

    «A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.» This is about politics, not linguistics. Why should Danish, Swedish and Norwegian otherwise be considered distinct languages, given that they are mutually intelligible?

    • Aaron

      Cantonese and Mandarin are about as similar as French and English. In my understanding, a dialect is a subset of a language that developed because of geographic isolation, which shares an origin, a grammar, and is generally mutually intelligible with it’s parent language. Cantonese and Mandarin apparently share none of these. Cantonese and Mandarin each have their own dialects!


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