In discovering the Cantonese language, we will uncover the facts around where it came from, how it is unique, and how the language plays into our world today. Cantonese originated from the Chinese city of Guangzhou, located in the Southeastern part of China. From the southern region, the language spread over to all of China and eventually to all parts of the world. Cantonese is an old prestige part of a larger dialect group called the Yue Chinese dialect group, which has around 68 million native speakers. Since the language emerged as a well-respected dialect, it was also spoken in the Southern Song Dynasty, which then spread it to the new provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong.
As with other native languages across China, Cantonese has been impacted by fewer children and teenagers speaking the language. The locals of Guangzhou and defenders of the heritage are concerned that the middle to older aged Cantonese speakers are not using their native tongue at home and are communicating with their children or grandchildren in Mandarin. If the older generation reduces the use and younger do not adopt, it can be lost in a few generations, if continued in this direction.
What Makes Cantonese Different from Mandarin?
Cantonese and Mandarin, which is a formal Chinese dialect of mainland China, both are considered a tonal language. A tonal language is one with different tones that give different meanings to the same sound. For example, tones can be dark flat, dark rising, dark departing, light flat, light rising, light departing, etc. The number of tones, for example, in Mandarin and Cantonese, are different. Mandarin has only four tones per sound, while Cantonese has at least six (and can have up to nine). Due to the extra tones, it can make the language more flexible and sophisticated, yet more complicated and difficult to learn, compared to Mandarin. In addition to the tones, Mandarin and Cantonese even have different vowels and consonants.
Even though Cantonese and Mandarin share some common grounds, there are many differences in the lexicon, grammar, and pronunciation that make the two languages commonly unintelligible. There are also variations in sentence construction, especially in the verb placements.
In the written form, there are only a few speakers that know the full extent of the written glossary of Cantonese and Mandarin. Although the texts may look astonishingly alike, the pronunciation of the words is different, which creates most of the confusion.
Interesting Facts About the Language
Cantonese has an enormously more historical influence on China than Mandarin. Cantonese is an ancient language with its history dating back 2000 years ago. Cantonese has also been called the “Traditional Chinese,” which indicates its historical superiority and influence over the country. While Mandarin has now been deemed the new standard classification, Cantonese remains one of the most popular languages in Chinese history.
Outside China, Cantonese is spoken more widely than any other variety of Chinese languages. Mandarin is formally recognized as the Standard Chinese, and it is the most commonly spoken language of mainland China. But it only was established to unite the country under one Chinese dialect, and Mandarin happened to be the variant spoken in the area around Beijing. However, many of the Chinese living overseas come from the south part of China, where Cantonese is the universal language. As a result, people are much more likely to hear Cantonese in the Chinatowns of Europe and America, as opposed to Mandarin.
There are more Cantonese speakers than there are Korean or Persian. Drawing contrasts between the languages spoken in China is notably tricky. Even the collection of dialects usually gathered under the umbrella term “Cantonese” varies from each other much. Because of that, it’s also challenging to verify the number of native Cantonese speakers.
Often, Cantonese is used as a lingua franca in mainland China. Thanks to its influence in parts of China, the language is commonly used as a lingua franca within speakers of other classes of Chinese. This happens mostly in the southeastern regions, where Cantonese has the most fame.
As shared earlier, sometimes Cantonese is referred to as Yue. Due to the classification of the language categories that are vocalized in China, Cantonese can refer to a few different language groups. Taken quite narrowly, Yue is a term that mainly refers to the standardized form of Cantonese, which is considered the prestige variety. In this case, the “language” actually includes variants that are uniquely commonly indistinct.
How Does CantoneseInfluence Culture and Cuisine of its Area of the World?
To start off this journey of cultural influence, most have heard or tried Dim Sum, which is a traditional Chinese dumpling dish. It is seen as a means for Cantonese people to gather together with families and friends for spending leisure time when eating. Tea and dumplings are served in round bamboo steamers to share. Typical dishes usually include char siu bao (steamed buns filled with barbecued pork), siumai (steamed shrimp or pork dumplings), Cheong fun (rolls stuffed with rice noodles), spring rolls, and more.
When you start to dive into the culture, it is astonishing how much the Cantonese people integrated soups into their culture. Soups are cooked for hours to ensure that the ingredients such as meat, vegetables, and herbs infuse with the water to create such flavor of the soup. Cantonese people prefer to have their soups before having their dishes and appetizers, unlike the northern Chinese, who serve soup alongside with other dishes.
You will also notice that many of Cantonese customs revolve around drinks. This is because the south coastal region of China is usually warm, notably in the summer season, so refreshments are essential to the Cantonese. One unique cold herbaceous tea, Leung Cha, holds more than a refreshing sip. Leung Cha is infused with herbal leaves that are regarded as calming in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the principles of Taoist, the summer seasons are identified by yang energy, and this tea rectifies the balance with yin components that can release the excess body heat, hence why the drink is called Leung cha, referred to as the “cold tea.” Having leung cha is very common during cold and illness seasons as well.
In addition to specialty foods and drinks, the banks of the Pearl River, outside Canton, there has been a bustling trade community for porcelain “fine china,” silk and tea, allowing Guangzhou to become a prosperous city. From arts to opera and everything in between, the Cantonese respect their history and heritage while moving forward in a busy and vibrant culture of business and economics.
Cantonese in the Eastern World
In the eastern hemisphere, Cantonese still dominates as the primary Chinese dialect. Countries, where Cantonese is seen as the primary Chinese language, are Thailand (the largest Cantonese speaking population outside mainland China), Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and so on. The only notable country outside mainland China, where Cantonese is not the language spoken by the majority of Chinese, is Singapore. Aside from Singapore, most if not all, the Chinese speaking population outside China is Cantonese.
Cantonese in the Western World
For 150 years, most of the immigrants who have come to western nations are mostly from the Guangdong areas, which is why the majority portion of the Chinese immigrants in the US who came before 1965 were Cantonese speakers. This is why Cantonese “Yue” languages have been the dominant Chinese languages that are spoken in the US.
The Zhongshan version of Cantonese, which originated from the Western Pearl River Delta, is commonly spoken by the immigrants in Hawaii, San Francisco, and the Sacramento River Delta. It’s a Yuehai variation, much like traditional Cantonese, but has a flatter tone to it. Chinese comes in third for the most “non-English” spoken language after Spanish and French in the US. Many educational institutes have Cantonese based Chinese programs, despite Mandarin becoming more popular.
There are programs for learning Cantonese in the US, one being the Yale Romanization. Yale Romanizationis was created by Yale University for Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. The language shift in US cities from Cantonese to Mandarin is starting to show in areas like Silicon Valley. There are more immigrants coming to the technologically focused areas of the US from primarily the Northern regions of China, where Mandarin is the primary language.
Aside from the US, Cantonese is the primary Chinese language in most western countries, such as Canada, the UK, France, Portugal, Australia, etc.
Why is Learning Cantonese Still Important?
Despite most Chinese provinces shifting to Mandarin, there are still many people of this generation who can only speak in Cantonese. Aside from fluent speakers, regions like Macau and Hong Kong, and Chinese communities overseas in most western and other Asian countries are still customed to having Cantonese as their primary and official language. As a result, if you are doing business or plan to work with those in the culture or communities, it is essential to learn the language or hire a Cantonese interpreter, translator, and transcriber, from local to abroad for your business and personal needs.