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What is Cantonese?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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Cantonese is a language spoken throughout south-eastern China and in some neighboring countries. It is often also referred to as Yue Yu or Guangdong Hua. Between 50 and 80 million people speak this language throughout the world, notably in south-east Asia, Australia, and Canada. Due to the historical interaction of its areas of use with English speakers, these two languages have many loanwords from each other.

Areas of Use

This language is mostly spoken in south-east China, notably in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong Province. Though Mandarin is the official language in China, Cantonese is one of the two official languages of Hong Kong, and one of the four in Macau. Outside of China, it has major population bases in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Many people in Canada and Australia also speak it, as these are popular areas for Hong Kong and Macau students and emigrants.


Cantonese is a tonal language, with between 6 and 9 tones, depending on how they're categorized. Word order is important for meaning, and is generally changed according to context. Words are commonly modified with time words, words that indicate amounts, and sounds or words for negation. Much like English, Cantonese can be written both formally and informally. The formal version is somewhat closer to Mandarin, but colloquial speech is very different. It is used for personal writing, poetry, magazines, diaries, literature, singing, and movies.

Compared to Mandarin

Most Mandarin speakers can't understand spoken Cantonese. Though Cantonese speakers can usually read the simplified characters used to write Mandarin since they're based on the traditional characters used to write Cantonese, the reverse does not always apply. Though both are tonal languages, Mandarin only has four tones. The vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of the two languages are quite different as well, particularly in terms of colloquial speech.


This language is thought to be one of the hardest for non-Asians to learn, because of its tonal nature, character-based writing system, and very different grammar from many non-Asian languages. It takes an average of around 2,200 hours for native English speakers to become competent in it, though of course the amount of time varies according to personal ability and the intensity of a course. Those who already speak Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean can often learn it in a shorter amount of time.


This language also has a lot of loanwords from English and other languages, due to south-east China's long history of trading. Common loanwords include:

  • ba si — bus
  • si do bei lei — strawberry
  • ling mon — lemon
  • bi bi — baby
  • so fu le — souffle
  • ka la oh ke — karaoke
  • sat kiu — security
  • mau si — computer mouse

Several Cantonese words have also been co-opted for use in other languages, including:

  • dim sum
  • won ton
  • ketchup
  • cheongsam
  • wok
  • typhoon


Since the Qin dynasty, the area in which Cantonese is now spoken has been settled by Han Chinese. The Chinese language as a result of their influence began to assimilate and supplant local languages. During the Sui dynasty, the influx of Han Chinese increased immensely, and the language gained even more hold. At the same time, it began to exhibit differences from the Chinese spoken in central China. During the Tang dynasty, it returned to being more similar to central Chinese, but immediately afterwards, in the Song dynasty, it split even further. It continued to develop throughout the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, until the modern version emerged.

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