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
    Commented Jun 9, 2012 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
    Commented Jun 10, 2012 at 1:16
  • Written form is 畀, but we mostly use this instead 俾. Commented Jun 14, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 3:38

7 Answers 7


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. Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 23:04

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.

  • 1
    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. Commented Jun 19, 2012 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. Commented Jun 19, 2012 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
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:42
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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. Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 8:40
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    @mfc because 給 is kap and not bei. It's like a British person reading an American magazine and seeing "cookie" and thinking "biscuit". Should he pronounce "cookie" as "biscuit"? NO. Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 0:55

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.


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. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 4:17

I think by 'written Cantonese', you are probably referring to 'written Chinese'. Cantonese is a form of Chinese used mostly in southern China and its decedents, apart from Mandarin which has become an official spoken language in China in the mid 20 Century.

Cantonese shares a lot of words and vocabularies with Mandarin but has also a lot of words unique from Mandarin partially due to its long history (of over 2000 years). "Give / To give" is 給 as written in modern Chinese, but should be 俾 as written in Cantonese, because 給 is pronounced as kup7 (7th tone, a short-version of 1st tone, in the Cantonese 9-tones system), while 俾 is pronounced as bei2 (2nd tone). No one will use 給 in a normal Cantonese conversation.

By the way, less than a hundred years ago, Chinese was still written mostly written in the classical/old Chinese form (without the boundary of the dialects but definitely add another level of difficulty to learn), unlike today which is written mostly according to the 'official spoken' Chinese. This movement of writing Chinese (more or less) in a form how Chinese is spoken began only in the 1910s. http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%96%B0%E6%96%87%E5%AD%B8%E9%81%8B%E5%8B%95


For spoken Cantonese, it's different from written Cantonese.
e.g. 唔係(m4 hai6)-->不是(bat1 si6)

It's different, right?


There's a really good website that highlights the difference (in characters between dialect and Mandarin): http://phonemica.net/ You can listen to a speech and read the verbatim Cantonese and equivalent meaning (a translation of sorts) in Mandarin subscript.

Some characters are unique to Cantonese that are more oral fillers. Some are Cantonese slang that have a Mandarin equivalent. This website has a great comparison and Canto Pinyin too! http://phonemica.net/entry?mid=543746312bd553930782aac7&story=0 It's also a wonderful linguistic map of China that anyone can edit and upload to.

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