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I recently attended a Cantonese reading class in Hong Kong and discovered that pronunciation of the spoken form of written Cantonese can be very different from normal speech.

The teacher was not able to provide an reasonable explanation as why this is the case and whether this is unique to Hong Kong.

Can anyone here provide some insight to this?

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Can you give some examples? –  jogloran Jun 9 '12 at 11:10
    
给 pronunced as KAP in cantonese in written form but BEI in spoken form (畀). In Mandarin, written and spoken is just GEI. I guess I am slightly confused about why the spoken form is a different character entirely and why they can't just officially simply things and just say 给 is pronounced as GEI instead of being an entirely different character. I think this point is important in the sense that if you ask a cantonese speaker from Guangdong, they may not know that 给 is pronounced as KAP as they will be taught mandarin only and cantonese they know is in spoken form only. –  mfc Jun 10 '12 at 1:16
    
Written form is 畀, but we mostly use this instead 俾. –  Derek 朕會功夫 Jun 14 '12 at 22:53
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The fact is that Cantonese uses a different set of vocabulary. Many of the everyday words are not Chinese words. The lower stratum of Cantonese is Kam-Tai instead of Chinese. Also it retains a set of Old Chinese vocabulary (as some other southern dialects do), and these words have been abandoned by modern Chinese in everyday use. –  user58955 Jan 5 at 3:38
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5 Answers 5

Your title should rather be "Cantonese Pronunciation of Written (Standard) Chinese". What you are talking about is not really Cantonese, rather it's (mostly) Mandarin, that, if you read out loud, will be pronounced with the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters. It's more or less the same as asking a Korean or Japanese to read out a text written in Chinese -- the characters will sound very different to Mandarin, but the reader would still be speaking out a Mandarin text. Hence the 給 vs 俾 example: 給 is Standard Chinese, 俾 is Cantonese.

Cantonese can be (and is) written, with all the "right" characters (係, 唔, 俾, etc) and grammar. You can see many examples of this in ads, in trains and buses for example, especially from the government and local companies, when they want to "talk" to the public.

As for Guangdong people not knowing that 給 is kap1 that's not the case -- there are plenty of words used in Cantonese that have the word 給 is it, including more recent creations like the net slang expression "給力".

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We don't use 給力 in Cantonese in Hong Kong. –  Derek 朕會功夫 Jun 14 '12 at 23:04
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The spoken form of Cantonese is not unique to Hong Kong. Cantonese is used in many countries and cities, for example, Macau and ShenZhen.

給 is used only when you write. 俾 is used when you speak. If you use 給 as "give" when you speak, you will be weird because no one do that.

In Cantonese-speaking regions, we also have a lot of different words:

  • Write: 玩遊戲 (Play games)
    Say: 打機 (Hit the machine)
  • Write: 不是 (No)
    Say: 唔係 (Not yes)
  • Write: 回家打電話給我。 (Go home call me)
    Say: 返到去打俾我。 (When you get back call me)

Oh one more thing. You cannot actually write out Cantonese. It is just using the words that have the same pronunciation as what we say. When we encounter some words that we can't write out, we use latin letters.

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Please clarify the statement "You cannot actually write out Cantonese." I think what you mean is that there are some Cantonese morphemes for which there is no standard character. That is entirely different from the notion that Cantonese can't be written, which sets off all of the language elitism alarm bells in my head. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 19 '12 at 4:15
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@StumpyJoePete 亻尔真系吾可厶人手丁廣東言舌出嚟。 You can write things in Cantonese, but there is no standard way of writing it. –  Derek 朕會功夫 Jun 19 '12 at 4:22
    
Derek, given that 給 is used only when you write. 俾 is used when you speak, then why not just teach everyone that both characters are pronounced BEI? I don't understand the motivation in insisting spoken written form should be different from normal speech. Learning cantonese is almost like learning two separate languages. –  mfc Jun 19 '12 at 13:42
    
Just want to add that I asked the teacher specifically what language is going through her mind when she reads a book in private, she said it would be Cantonese spoken form. Which really begs the question what use is the Spoken written form? This is not a dig at the Cantonese, I really would like to know :O) –  mfc Jun 19 '12 at 13:52
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@nfc - Actually you can say they are sort of two completely different languages. The written form is based on Mandarin and Cantonese is based on ancient Chinese. –  Derek 朕會功夫 Dec 4 '13 at 8:40
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Just to synthesize the two previous answers here, here's a summary: written Chinese is the written form of Mandarin. Cantonese speakers read and write the same Chinese as Mandarin speakers, but pronounce most of the characters differently. Cantonese itself is (traditionally) only a spoken dialect. Written forms of Cantonese do exist, however, and are used in Hong Kong and elsewhere, but their use is much less frequent than written Chinese and is considered to be very informal.

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I don't agree with Derek saying "you cannot write out cantonese"...There is written form of cantonese and you can see it everyday on HK newspapers, eg they don't write 不是 but they will write 唔係, and maybe native cantonese speakers never really think that written form is a "big thing", but I have noticed that foreigners trying to learn this language all want to know the written characters too, how to write, what they mean and how to pronounce. This is quite important too, if you want to read a magazine or newspaper in HK, you won't go anywhere if you don't know those cantonese characters.

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What? They won't write out 唔係 in newspapers. (actually they will use ) We don't write out 口語. We use 書面語 in writings. –  Derek 朕會功夫 Jun 19 '12 at 4:17
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For spoken Cantonese, it's different from written Cantonese.
e.g. 唔係(m4 hai6)-->不是(bat1 si6)

It's different, right?

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