What’s the Difference between Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese?

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When people refer to the Chinese language, they generally mean Mandarin (普通话 putonghua). Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan as well as one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is the most widely spoken language in the world with approximately 1 billion speakers.

Mandarin, although the most popular, is just one of many different languages and dialects spoken in China, many of which are not mutually intelligible. Cantonese, which is mainly spoken in southeast China in the areas of Hong Kong, Guangdong, and Macau, is not intelligible to Mandarin speakers.

So what are the main differences between Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese? What’s the history behind the two languages? Let’s find out and see why it’s important to know the difference.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

Cantonese: A Linguistic History

Chinese” is an umbrella term referring to the reportedly 292 different living languages in China, including Mandarin and Cantonese. What may surprise people is that Cantonese is actually older than Mandarin. Cantonese is approximately 2000 years old and belongs to the Yue family of Chinese languages (粵語) spoken in southeast China. The term Cantonese comes from Guangzhou, aka Canton, the capital of the Guangdong province in China (pictured above).

Over the millennia, due to Guangzhou’s proximity to water, Cantonese gained an international reputation through sea trade and flourished in the 17th to 18th centuries since Guangdong was the only province allowed to trade with foreigners. To facilitate trade, Western merchants learned the language. Even in modern day China, it’s much easier to do business in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, or Macau if one is a Cantonese speaker.

There are just over 60 million Cantonese speakers worldwide and it was the main language spoken by overseas Chinese prior to the 21st century. Cantonese speaking immigrants, bolstered by Southern China’s long history of trade and migration, established most of the Chinatowns around the world.

However, Mandarin is now becoming the main language of the Chinese diaspora. How did that come about?

An Overview of the Mandarin Language

Mandarin, aka Standard Chinese, currently has about 1 billion speakers, which is approximately 77% of the Chinese population.

The ancestral form of the spoken Mandarin used today was developed about 800 years ago in northern China and was influenced by neighboring dialects of Mongolian and Manchurian. Over the centuries, the language evolved and became the main dialect in the capital of Beijing and was called putonghua (普通话), meaning “common speech”.

Mandarin was used in the royal court by bureaucratic officials; the term Mandarin actually comes from the Portuguese word “mandarim” which was used to refer to Chinese court officials (it now just means the Mandarin language in Portuguese). Outside the court, Mandarin gained prominence in the city of Beijing and the surrounding areas, but did not become the official language of the country until many years later in the early 20th century.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the leaders of the republic gathered to discuss administration and the official language of the new China. Some of these leaders, most notably Sun Yat-sen, were from Guangdong and spoke Cantonese. There are accounts that the official language was put to a vote and Mandarin won by a small margin with Cantonese as the runner up.

Since then, Mandarin has been the lingua franca of China, it is taught in all the schools, and is even becoming more and more popular with the youth in Guangzhou, the birthplace of Cantonese. With rising economic power and means, more Mandarin-speaking Chinese are traveling abroad and establishing their own communities.

Mandarin vs Cantonese: Spoken Differences

One of the main differences between Mandarin and Cantonese is the spoken language (as explained here with audio). Let’s take the verb “to give”. In Cantonese it’s 畀 (béi), with a “b” starting sound and in Mandarin, it’s 给 (gěi), with a “g“ starting sound. Here, the ending sounds similar, but other words like “to eat” in Cantonese 食 (sik) versus the Mandarin 吃 (chī) sound very different and Cantonese ends with a consonant, which does not happen in Mandarin.

Another major difference is the tones, Mandarin has 4 tones and a neutral tone. So the sound “ma” can change to:

  • High flat tone: mā  (this can mean “mom”: 妈)
  • Rising tone: má (can mean “hemp” or “numb”: 麻)
  • Falling-rising tone: mǎ (can mean “horse”: 马)
  • Falling tone: mà (can mean to “scold”: 骂)
  • Neutral tone: ma (can be a question particle at the end of a sentence: 吗)

Cantonese on the other hand has 6 tones (historically, there were 9 but three of the tones were combined). Using the sound “si” :

  • High flat tone: sī (can mean ”poem”: 詩)
  • Mid rising tone: sí (can mean “history”: 史)
  • Mid flat tone: si (can mean “try”: 試)
  • Low falling tone: sìh (can mean “time”: 時)
  • Low rising tone: síh (can mean “city”: 市)
  • Low flat tone: sih (can mean “is”: 是)

As you may have noticed, both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages and changing the tone can drastically change the meaning (be careful and don’t call your mom a horse!). In this respect, Cantonese is slightly more difficult than Mandarin for English speakers to learn due to the wider range of tones (high, mid, and low ranges).

Mandarin vs Cantonese: Grammatical & Written Differences

Grammar: Both Mandarin and Cantonese are generally subject verb object sentence structures (SVO), however, this can change with sentences with a direct and an indirect object. Let’s take the phrase: Give me that book.

In Mandarin, the structure would be the same as in English: 给我那本书 gěi wǒ nà běn shū, “Give me that book.” Whereas in Cantonese it would be 畀嗰本書我 (bei2 go2 bun2 syu1 ngo5),  “Give that book (to) me.” When using the verb “to give” in Cantonese, the direct object (the book) precedes the indirect object (me), whereas it’s the other way around in Mandarin.

Cantonese also has it’s own Chinese vernacular writing. Cantonese and Mandarin both use Chinese characters for writing, but Cantonese has adapted the written language to match closer to their spoken language. In the example above, the characters 畀嗰 (bei2 go2, to give that) are not commonly used in written Standard Chinese but are used when writing Cantonese and are closer to Cantonese pronunciation.

Also you may have noticed that the word “book” is written in traditional Chinese (書) for Cantonese, whereas it is written in simplified characters for Standard Chinese (书). As mentioned in a previous blog, Chinese has two writing systems: traditional and simplified, with the simplified system using characters with a reduced number of strokes. For Cantonese, either system can be used, just depending on the area: in Hong Kong (pictured above) and Macau, traditional characters are used. In the Guangzhou area, simplified characters are used

Mandarin or Cantonese? Why It’s Important to Know

It’s important to know the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese because you want to make sure you’re reaching the right audience. If you want to caption and dub an animated show into Chinese, you’ll need to know: What kind of Chinese does your audience speak? Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese Mandarin (the Mandarin used in Taiwan), or Cantonese?

If it’s Cantonese, where does your target audience live? In Hong Kong or Guangzhou? This will determine if you will use traditional or simplified characters for the subtitles. Also, the extra cultural awareness will help you in your interactions with Chinese clients and also maybe make new friends with members of the Chinese diaspora.

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