The key to understanding the Cantonese language and its various dialects begins with discovering its origins. Cantonese originated from the Chinese city of Guangzhou, located in the Southeastern part of China.
Between the 9th and 10th century AD, many Han Chinese migrated to Guangzhou due to the fall of the Tang Dynasty. At the time, an ethnic Tai people group called Tanka lived in the region. Since the migration of Han Chinese eventually outnumbered the Tanka, the Tai people gradually adopted protoforms of Cantonese while preserving elements of their proto Tai language. As a result, the prestige dialect many commonly referred to as Cantonese today emerged. This dialect from the city of Guangzhou is also known as Guangfu (廣府話) or Yuehai (粵海話).
The Various Cantonese Languages and Dialects (Yue Chinese)
The dialect that emerged from the City of Guangzhou belongs to the broader Yue Chinese dialect group. All Cantonese Languages and Dialects in this group can be divided into five regional categories:
Guangzhou City (Guangfu, Yuehai, or Cantonese)
Taishan City (Si-yi)
Yangjiang City (Gao-Yang, Wu–Hua)
Nanning City (Qin-Lian, Yong–Xun, Guinan)
Guangxi–Guangdong border (Gou–Lou, Yulin (Bobai))
These groupings get a little confusing because many use Cantonese when referring to the Yue dialect group and the specific dialect of Guangzhou City. To untangle this confusion, it helps to understand where the word Cantonese came from and what it means.
The English History of Cantonese
English postal authorities in the late 19th century transliterated the city of Guangzhou to Canton. Since China used Guangzhou to control most trade with the West, the English traders quickly popularized the new name. And so, Cantonese effectively means the language spoken in the city of Canton (Guangzhou).
Cantonese is also used to refer to the broader Yue dialect because of Canton/Guangzhou’s prominence and influence over the surrounding southern Chinese regions. As trade and commerce with the western world increased, the specific dialect grew, and the global community gradually associated Cantonese with Southern China.
Prior to the 1st Millenium AD, a diverse collection of people groups called the Hundred Yue inhabited the same area south of the Nangling mountains. A complex history of succeeding Chinese dynasties resulted in the assimilation between these Yue people groups and the Han Chinese. The demographic shifts created the proto Cantonese that the Han Chinese introduced to the Canton/Guangzhou city.
Cantonese and Yue are used interchangeably because of this geographic and cultural connection to the ancient Yue people and the English trading influence in the Canton/Guangzhou city.
The Historic Spread of The Guangzhou Cantonese Dialect
Since Cantonese emerged from Guangzhou as a well-respected dialect, the Southern Song Dynasty spread it throughout all of Guangdong and to the neighboring province of Guangxi.
This growth from the Song Dynasty combined with its trading influence made it a lingua franca in mainland China, which means the most common language used between different dialects. Thanks to its impact, it maintained that status in southeastern regions up and through most of the 20th century.
In 1956, the People’s Republic of China made Beijing’s dialect (Mandarin) the country’s official language. As with other native languages across China, Cantonese has felt the effects of this change with 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 continues this trend, Guangzhou may lose Cantonese as a language.
What Makes Cantonese Different from Mandarin?
Cantonese and Mandarin, a formal Chinese dialect of mainland China, 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). The different tones can make the language more flexible and sophisticated, yet more complicated and challenging to learn than 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.
There are only a few speakers that know the full extent of the written glossary of Cantonese and Mandarin in the written form. Although the texts may look astonishingly alike, the pronunciation of the words is different, which creates most of the confusion.
Cantonese’s Influence Outside of China
Cantonese has an enormously more historical influence on China than Mandarin. Cantonese is an ancient language with its history dating back 2000 years ago with its roots in the Hundred Yue. Cantonese has also been called the “Traditional Chinese,” which indicates its historical superiority and influence. Cantonese is arguably one of the most popular languages in Chinese history.
Outside China, Cantonese is spoken more widely than any other variety of Chinese languages. Since the People’s Republic of China formally recognized Mandarin as Standard Chinese, it is the most commonly spoken language in the mainland. But it only was established to unite the country under one Chinese dialect, and Mandarin happened to be the variant spoken in Beijing. However, many 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.
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.
How Does Cantonese Influence Culture and Cuisine in its Area of the World?
Most have heard or tried the traditional Chinese dumpling dish, Dim Sum. The Cantonese people use the dish as a way to gather together with families and friends for food and leisure. 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 the 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, on 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. Thailand (the largest Cantonese-speaking population outside mainland China), Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam all see Cantonese as the primary Chinese language. 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, of 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 mainly from the Guangdong areas, so most Chinese immigrants in the US who arrived before 1965 were Cantonese speakers. This migration is why Cantonese “Yue” languages have been the dominant Chinese languages 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 University created Yale Romanization 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. More immigrants are coming to the technologically focused regions of the US from primarily the Northern areas 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.
The Importance of Interpreting and Translating Cantonese
Despite most Chinese provinces shifting to Mandarin, many people of this generation can only speak Cantonese. Aside from fluent speakers, regions like Macau and Hong Kong and Chinese communities overseas in most western and other Asian countries are still accustomed 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 for your business and personal needs.
Though, simply understanding Cantonese isn’t enough. Businesses, governmental agencies, law firms, and medical professionals all need translators and interpreters who understand each profession’s terminology so that they can contextualize and ensure that nothing gets lost in translation. Our sixty-plus years of experience with the Cantonese language, culture, and history enables us to explain the needs of any of these industries in Cantonese.
Allied interpreting is located in Los Angeles, with translators and interpreters available locally and abroad. Our team of specialized translators is well versed in over 100 different languages. And we serve more than just businesses, governmental agencies, law firms, and medical professionals. Check out our industries section to learn more about our specializations, and please contact us at email@example.com or (323) 934-2585 to request a quote or ask any questions.