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When I tell people I speak Cantonese I'm often asked, "What's the difference between that and Mandarin?". This inevitably leads to a very poor explanation that includes references to the differences between Portugese and Spanish (which I feel is a poor analogy) and an explanation that Cantonese is a spoken dialect only, and "written Chinese is the same but Cantonese speakers pronounce the characters differently, but they don't even use the same words when speaking", and really I find it a difficult thing to explain. How would you explain the differences between the two?

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11 Answers 11

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For the most part both dialects use the same words and phrases (primarily with differences in slang terms). While some phrases are used more frequently in one dialect than another to express the same idea, the meanings are preserved across dialects (they don't mean different things, just people who use one dialect may prefer one saying to another).

In terms of vocabulary, the written words are identical (although a lot of written Cantonese-Chinese continues to use the traditional Chinese characters). The primary difference is in pronunciation, where Cantonese is usually referred to as having 6 tones and Mandarin 4. Also, some of the words are just said differently between the dialects, similarly to how American English may differ from British English.

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An excellent summary of the differences in the two. How would you put all that into a "headline"? –  Zannjaminderson Dec 13 '11 at 22:47
I would basically use the British English vs. American English type of analogy where its fundamentally the same language but varies in wording, expressions/idioms, and pronunciation –  arcyqwerty Dec 13 '11 at 22:53
One difference between the analogy of American/British English is that pronunciation in Cantonese and Mandarin are different enough for one who is fluent in Mandarin to not understand something said in Cantonese (and vice versa) - they maybe able to catch snippets here and there. –  pyko Dec 13 '11 at 23:01
@pyko Indeed - hence my concern with using the "Portuguese vs. Spanish" analogy that I've tried before as well. I've almost come to the conclusion that there is no real concise way to describe it. –  Zannjaminderson Dec 13 '11 at 23:04
To my chagrin this whole thread is rife with mischaracterisations about the relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin. On the subject of Cantonese syntax absent from Mandarin, I'll list a few examples: reduced frequency of the 把 (ba) and 被 (bei) constructions, bare classifier+noun with definite reading, dative shift (as found in English), a richer system of modal particles. –  jogloran Sep 2 '12 at 8:04
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The pronunciation of the two are totally different. Hong Kong people humorously call it "the chicken talking to the duck" as they cannot understand each other.

The two are both tonal languages (different tones has different meanings for the same sound) and they also have different vowels and consonants, too.

Cantonese preserves some older grammatical constructions that Mandarin no longer uses. Both languages use the same writing system, much like how the French and Portuguese both use the Latin alphabet.

Cantonese can be more difficult because there are 6 (up to 9) tones (with glottal stops at the end of syllables including "entering tones," or 入聲) in Cantonese, while only 5 (four and a fifth/zeroth, neutral tone) in Mandarin.

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Thanks for the reminder of the "chicken talking to the duck" - I'm familiar with that one but hadn't heard it in a long time. –  Zannjaminderson Dec 13 '11 at 22:50
I don't think the writing system analogy is a good one. I don't understand French even though I am a native Portuguese speaker, but someone who speaks Cantonese can understand Standard written Chinese. –  Orion Dec 15 '11 at 4:34
@NullUserException What I mean by that was that both dialects can recognize the characters themselves, rather than the words they form. You recognize that an "a" is an the letter "a," but you might not know what "le caoutchouc" means. –  Krazer Dec 16 '11 at 15:43
Glottal stops cannot end a Cantonese syllable. –  jogloran Aug 28 '12 at 14:22
@Krazer: Thanks for your reply. It's true that Cantonese stops are unreleased in final position, and it's true that a syllable with a null onset (regardless of whether the previous syllable ends in a stop) begins with a glottal stop. However, it's still not correct that "since they are unreleased, they are considered glottal stops". It's true that some Min (and Wu) languages have phonemic glottal stops in final position, but Cantonese does not. That said, I'm only familiar with Standard Cantonese. –  jogloran Aug 29 '12 at 14:13
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The analogy to Portuguese and Spanish is a good one. Just don't forget that the writing system is a bit like Latin. In the middle ages nobody spoke Latin but many people could read and write it. Written Chinese was the equivalent to written Latin. Now, people write in Modern Standard Mandarin, which is the same as the spoken language taught in the schools. It's like when they started teaching the Spanish children to write in Spanish instead of Latin.

Both dialects have similarities but they pronounce most words totally differently. In some cases, Cantonese uses different words for the same meanings. For example, (I'm told that) "we" is not "我们" but rather something like "我地". Cantonese speakers understand "我们" and if reading it aloud could chose to pronounce it as "我们", but "我地" is how normal speakers would say "we". This type of difference is fairly common.

Here is an example of an ad that only makes sense in Cantonese:

去 緊 旅行,仲可以日日update,至勁係你.

Which would probably be written in Mandarin thus:

旅行當中,還可以 每一天update,你最了不起.

Essentially, if you are trying to explain the differences to someone who is not really interested in it but is just asking to be polite, you could sum it up as "two different languages that use the same writing system". Different pronunciations, different vocabulary choices, different grammar, and even some different characters.

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Good point on summing it up as "two different languages that use the same writing system", and yes you're correct that 我们 is said as 我地 in Cantonese. I've actually got a fairly good grasp on where the differences are in what's said in Cantonese and what's used in written Chinese or spoken in Mandarin. –  Zannjaminderson Dec 14 '11 at 17:13
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I think the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is more like the difference between English and Swedish. They are obviously very closely related and share a lot of vocabulary, but intelligibility is pretty much zero. The poster who compared the difference to American and British English is TOTALLY wrong. Many Mandarin speakers will claim that they can understand Cantonese speakers "if they speak slowly." But, this is a falsehood built on a misunderstanding: they assume this from hearing Cantopop songs that are just Mandarin lyrics sung with Cantonese pronunciation. They have never actually tried having a conversation with someone speaking Cantonese but parrot out these misleading statements because they are taught that Chinese dialects are just Mandarin with uncivilized, uneducated pronunciation.

The basic core vocabulary of Cantonese is completely different from Mandarin. Out of the 10,000 most frequently used words in Cantonese and Mandarin, I would take a rough guess that at least 3000 of them have nothing in common -- like 边度 vs. 哪里 for “where”, 嘥 vs. 浪费 for "to waste". On the other hand, the formal newspaper vocabulary is all the same and just pronounced differently. That is a big boon to learners because once you know how the pronunciations correspond, you can watch the news in either language and any new vocab words you learn in one, you can convert to the other in your head.

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This answer is closer to the truth. I opened my copy of 汉语方言词汇 and picked ten words randomly: 切, 台阶, 整齐, 亲戚, 拍马, 电筒, 嘴, 打冷颤, 钱, 蜂蜜. Only two of them are completely different in Cantonese (台阶 and 拍马), one of them is clearly cognate to the Cantonese (打冷颤), and two of them have the characters reversed in Cantonese (整齐, 蜂蜜). –  jogloran Mar 11 '13 at 12:15
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I speak both and find most of the commentary here to be overly generalized or incorrect.

First, analogies in Indo-European languages: There are none. As to how far apart the oral languages are, think of French and Italian, which share more syntax than most Romance language pairs, but with very different phonetic structure.

Second, which is easier. A hypothetical visitor from another planet would find any form of Chinese to be among the easiest of all human languages due to the distict meaning of every sillable and the logical construction of compounds. Even the written language, although lacking an alphabet and requiring more time to learn, has many advantages, supporting the logic of the language and lending itself more readily to speed reading.

Mandarin may be a bit easier for some and Cantonese easier for others. I personally find Cantonese easier because there is a greater variation and contrast among the phonemes, while in Mandarin those differences are often more subtle.

Third, grammar. Here the languages are closely linked, but the number of grammatical difference seems to be understated. There are MANY expressions and structures in Cantonese that simply do not exist in Mandarin, but the converse is not as frequent for the simple reason that Cantonese adopts many Mandarin expressions as part of its formal and written language.

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your knowledge of aliens from foreign planets is astonishing... ;-) –  Stephane Rolland Aug 23 '12 at 13:57
I don't think it's correct to claim that every syllable has a distinct meaning. There are lots of characters that are pronounced the same way as other characters. In writing they appear different (except when they don't: see 干). In speaking, only context, or the formation of words with multiple syllables can disambiguate. And even when you know the character and its supposed stand-alone meaning, you still might not be able to understand the word that's formed. (As David Moser wrote: in English, knowing the words "up" and "tight" doesn't mean you know the word "uptight"). –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 May 8 at 18:20
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A good European analogy is

Cantonese : Mandarin :: Swiss German : German

Consider the following characteristics of Cantonese and Swiss German:

  • Both are minority tongues that could be considered languages in their own right by linguists, but are popularly thought of as dialects for political and orthographic reasons.
  • Speakers of Cantonese and Swiss German are much more likely to be able to understand spoken Mandarin and German than vice versa. Speakers of Mandarin and German find it very difficult to learn to speak Cantonese and Swiss German as fluently as a native speaker, due to complexity of pronunciation, lack of learning resources, and asymmetry of social expectations.
  • They are generally written using the register, vocabulary, and expressions of their "standard" language counterparts. Colloquial expressions of Cantonese and Swiss German are not transcribed verbatim in most contexts.
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I think the best analogy is between Spanish and French - mutually unintelligible, but the characters are largely the same, and a reader of Spanish could quickly acclimate to understanding written French, though would need to study before speaking with any fluency.

Cantonese is often referred to as a dialect of Chinese, though, in my opinion, that's mostly for political reasons.

As a good friend often says: The only difference between a dialect and a language is an army and a navy.

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Hm, this is all very interesting. I have no knowledge of Cantonese, but the general impression I gleaned from Wikipedia is that Cantonese speaking regions operate under a form of diglossia wherein they use Cantonese and related dialects in speech but standard Chinese in writing. Traditional characters vs. simplified make no difference - that's a matter of orthography, not language. Written Cantonese does apparently have a variety of special characters associated with it (a lot of them, as far as I can see, have the 口 radical), but they are rarely employed outside of informal writing, such as on the web, for commercial purposes, light publications, etc. Significant differences in pronunciation, word choice, and grammar constructions no longer present in Mandarin render it, for all intents and purposes, a completely different language, albeit a structurally related one.

If pressed to make a comparison with Indo-European languages (or better, Romance), would it be at all accurate to imagine a scenario where French is not a written language and is used almost exclusively in speech, and where Spanish is used instead for most formal writing? They would have been exposed to Spanish in a textual form since they were young, and if asked to read aloud can readily produce the French equivalent for each individual word, although the resulting speech would sound unnatural and stilted insofar as it does not reflect the rhythms/sentence constructions/ word choice of spoken French. Let me know if I'm anywhere near the mark, because I've always been curious about this subject.

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Oh, sweet, I found something that more eloquently illustrates what I meant to say: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_diglossic_regions#Modern_Chinese –  Benjameno Oct 26 '12 at 6:15
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My parents were Cantonese but I've studied Mandarin.

I consider Mandarin softer, and smoother, Cantonese a bit rougher and harsher.

For instance, the word for "not" in Mandarin is "bu," but it is "but" in Cantonese. Mandarin syllables often end in vowels; their Cantonese equivalents often have consonants.

Oddly enough, one language that appears to be more like Cantonese than Mandarin is Korean.

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Really? Korean words are constructed from syllables and have no tones. I don't think it looks sounds anything like Cantonese. –  Orion Dec 15 '11 at 4:35
@NullUserException: You're right, Korean words have no tones. But their SYLLABLES are more similar to Cantonese than to Mandarin. I didn't say that Korean was "similar" to Cantonese. But I did say, Korean was MORE SIMILAR to Cantonese (than to Mandarin). –  Tom Au Dec 16 '11 at 0:02
I spent a few weeks in Korea, and also felt this equivalence. Especially for place names and Sino-Korean numbers, the Korean pronunciation is very like cantonese. 南山 "nam san" is one I noticed a lot. –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Dec 18 '11 at 19:31
This answer is imprecise in a number of ways. The usual reflex of 不 in Cantonese is 唔 (Jyutping m4), and 不 bat1 when rendering Mandarin text or in set phrases. Secondly, Mandarin syllables can end in the null coda, or /n/, or /ŋ/, while Cantonese syllables can also end in /p/, /t/, /k/ or /m/. Third, the resemblance between Cantonese and Korean is superficial, only explained by the fact that Korean borrowed readings from Chinese when it still preserved those codas. –  jogloran Sep 2 '12 at 7:30
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Written character/written chinese is the only identical thing between these two languages. Nothing is the same other than that. You name it, grammar,speaking,wording patterns,pronounciation.. None of these facts is the same between the two languages. Most of time,even the meaning of written character are different. Do not try to answer the countless differences in any aspect of the two languages. You can't explain all differences through-out your long whole-life time because the differences are too numerous. So, I would rather inverse the question with explaining that the only identicality is the written character in text. Done.

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Sadly also wrong. Cantonese and Mandarin may not be as close as American and British English, as another erroneous answer says, but to say they have only the written word in common is wrong, very wrong. –  jogloran Mar 11 '13 at 12:12
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Sounds to me more like how Sicilian differs from Roman--different versions of the Italian language; or how people speak English in (for instance) McIntyre, Georgia vs the East End of London.

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