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Forgive any ignorance on my part - I am a beginner, studying Mandarin.

If "Apple" in Mandarin is "苹果" (píngguǒ), then I guess in Cantonese it is also "苹果", though no doubt pronounced completely differently. In Mandarin, two characters normally means a two-syllable word. Is this the case in Cantonese? Does every Cantonese word have the same number of syllables as its corresponding Mandarin word?

Thanks for any insight...

Steven@Montreal

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    Mandarin words not necessarily have exact counterpart or counterparts with the exact number of characters in Cantonese. If you study Cantonese you will see that there are great discrepancies in the vocabulary and grammar, so it's not just pronunciation that makes them different. – Drunken Master Jan 13 '15 at 17:33
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First, Cantonese is rarely written. In the few places where Written Cantonese is used, yes, each syllable is always one character (though for some words, like 乜嘢、唔好、即係, people often say multiple characters together so fast that it may sound like one syllable).

Each Chinese character has a defined pronunciation in Cantonese (sometimes a character has multiple pronunciations in different contexts), and there are often certain predictable patterns between the Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations of the same character. And the pronunciation of a word is simply the pronunciation of each character concatenated. That means that if you take a word written in Mandarin, and read it literally in Cantonese, it will be pronounced with the same number of syllables as in Mandarin, and moreover the pronunciation will be based on the Cantonese pronunciation of each character, which is often somewhat related to the Mandarin pronunciation.

However, that may not be the way that that thing is usually said in Cantonese. In such cases, the way that people usually say that thing in Cantonese is considered a different word, and in Written Cantonese is written with different characters (which may or may not be the same number of characters that Mandarin uses). These are basically vocabulary differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.

Many commonly-used verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, will have different vocabulary between Mandarin and Cantonese. But if you consider all words overall, the number of differences is small, and most words will be the same in Mandarin and Cantonese (as in written with the same characters, though the pronunciation of those characters will still be different). The vocabulary for "apple" is not different between Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Mandarin and Cantonese are related languages that share common ancestry (generally believed to be Middle Chinese roughly 1000 years ago). The biggest perceived difference between them since they diverged is their phonology (i.e., how words are pronounced), but there are also differences in their vocabulary and grammar.

Your example of 苹果 is actually one where both the vocabulary choice and pronunciation actually didn't diverge much between Mandarin and Cantonese. Using IPA to more accurately compare the pronunciation, you can see that 苹果 is pronounced very similarly in both:

  • Mandarin: /pʰiŋ kuɔ/ (Pinyin: píngguǒ)
  • Cantonese: /pʰɪŋ kʷɔː/ (Jyutping: ping4 gwo2)

This is similar to how English and German (which are similarly related) have the same "word" for apple:

  • English: /ˈæpl/ Apple
  • German: /ˈapfəl/ Apfel

The Chinese writing system is somewhat unique in that characters generally represent words that are cognate among the different varieties of Chinese. Contrary to the notion that characters represent abstract ideas, instead Chinese characters generally represent the "words" that share a common origin (this isn't strictly true, but that's outside the scope of this discussion).

To give a basis of comparison, if English and German were also written with a morphemic writing system, the word for apple could conceivably be written using the same "character". Words that are cognate in both languages but where pronunciation has diverged further would also be written using the same character (e.g., English "tooth" /tuːθ/ and German "Zahn" /tsaːn/). Coming back to Chinese, 物 is an example where Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations diverged more significantly:

  • Mandarin: /u/ (Pinyin: wù)
  • Cantonese: /mɐt/ (Jyutping: mat6)

Pronunciation isn't the only difference between them though. There's the common assertion that Mandarin and Cantonese are written identically but differ when pronounced. This isn't really true because the have also diverged in their vocabulary and grammar as well. Because modern written Chinese was standardized to be based on Mandarin, Cantonese speakers actually read and write in Mandarin (even though they may pronounce each character in the Cantonese reading). If they actually were to write the way they speak, the result would be different. This is a situation known as diglossia.

For instance, the third-person pronoun in Mandarin is 他 /tʰä/ (Pinyin: tā). This word is also pronounced very similarly in Cantonese: /tʰaː/ (Jyutping: taa1); however, normally Cantonese speakers use a completely different word as their third-person pronoun, which is pronounced /kʰɵy/ (Jyutping: keoi5). Because it's a different word altogether, it's represented using a different character, 佢.

This Wikipedia link describes more about the diglossic situation in Cantonese, along with a more extensive example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_diglossic_regions#Chinese It also mentions the situation when the written standard was based on Classical Chinese rather than Mandarin.

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It's very similar to Canadian English vs New York vs Tennessee vs Scottish vs Irish, South African, Australian, even Indian. Yes they can be written down and formally they will be very similar but informally, and in speech there are many possible variations, slang, grammatical distinctualities etc.

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