Can someone explain why Cantonese is considered as a dialect of Chinese, instead of a language? It is also for any language exist in China, both land and Taiwan (Cantonese, Hunanese, Fujianese, Taiwanese, etc.).

AFAIK, dialect is differ from language. Just like in Indonesia: Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese is considered as a language, not a dialect. But, Javanese is called as a dialect when someone speak Indonesian language with Javanese accent.

But, for Cantonese (or any other languages listed above), although you speak Cantonese, Chinese will considered it as a dialect, not a language. You know that, Cantonese and Mandarin is 'completely' different each other.

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    Just on a somewhat related account, the English Wiktionary considers Mandarin and Cantonese separate languages. I believe the rationale behind this decision is the fact that they belong to separate topolects. Even Wu is considered a separate language. Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 12:19
  • lgsinchina.wikispaces.com/file/view/… Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 12:21
  • I'm so glad that you asked this question, some arguments here are quite instructive! Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 22:07
  • 别担心,只需要能听懂普通话,会说普通话就行了,作为一名中国人,有的方言我都听不懂。
    – user2638
    Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 16:05
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    Is Yiddish a German dialect? (Germans can't understand it although the upper stratum are all German words) If yes, then I'd be inclined to the idea that Cantonese is a dialect of German
    – user58955
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 2:38

9 Answers 9


From Wikipedia:

There is no universally accepted criterion for distinguishing a language from a dialect.

My hunch is that in general Chinese politics favors unity, whereas European politics favors separation, thus speakers of Dutch and German would hate to think that they were speaking dialects of the same language. Conversely in general it is useful for the notion of Chinese unity, that there is only one "Chinese", although in fact there are many spoken languages within the peoples considered Chinese, that are considered separate languages.

Note that (accoring to WP) the distinction is so unclear that some linguists consider "Dialect" and "Language" to be synonyms, and that a dialect can also be a language. Thus "Hokkien is a language that is a dialect of Chinese" would not be an illogical statement.

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    +1 for the wiki ref.
    – NS.X.
    Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 10:42
  • When you say "Chinese". It usually means Mandarin. There are so many dialects of Chinese, you even can't know which is the traditional one. Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 10:43
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    @StumpyJoePete Yes, so "all languages in China are dialects of Chinese" is wrong. Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 3:03
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    It's a generalisation. I'll edit accordingly.
    – jsj
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 4:52
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    @MikeManilone I agree. I think the underlying idea is 1 ethnic group : 1 language. So all the Chinese languages are "dialects", but all the minority languages are languages. Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 20:48

In this case, I think the quote "A language is a dialect with an army and navy" best describes the situation. Since the mainland government considers linguistic unity to be in favor of their ruling, they will consider any spoken variety of Chinese to be a dialect, no matter how different it is from Mandarin (excluding minority languages).


No, they're not completely different, but similar in some ways. You should know, all dialects are different.

  • Mandarin Chinese is not a natural language. It grabs pronunciation from Beijing dialect, vocabulary from all the northern dialects, grammar from the articles written by great writers during the New Culture Movement.
  • Modern dialects have only one root -- Middle Chinese. Middle Chinese (中古漢語) is the lineal descendant of Old Chinese (上古漢語). Cantonese is also from Middle Chinese.
  • Although the written form is different. The original characters are the same. The new characters are only made to show the pronunciation of Cantonese.
  • Northern dialects of Chinese lost the entering tone (入聲). For example, 力 is pronounced as "li4" today in Mandarin, but it's "lik" in Middle Chinese. Many southern dialects still have entering tone.
  • Cantonese is not the same as Middle Chinese, but a descendant. In fact, all today's dialects are its descendants.

You see: Cantonese is from a language which all other dialects (including Mandarin) are from, so Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, not a new language.

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    The same could be said for Portuguese and Spanish, or German and Dutch, or Sweedish and Norwegian: Common root, original characters the same :)
    – jsj
    Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 10:48
  • @trideceth12 Europe is divided into several parts, so they don't want to say "my language is a dialect of XX language". Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 10:50
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    @MikeManilone That sort of undermines your answer that "Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese" for objective, non-political reasons. Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 19:58
  • @MikeManilone: Such a great explanation, thanks! :)
    – mrjimoy_05
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 2:17
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    With this reasoning you can say that almost all European languages are in fact only one language. Both by how to grew, see: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/… and by how they are written (they almost all use the same characters). The characters only define a language for a very small part. Grammar, pronunciation, ... are as important.
    – BertR
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 16:49

I had asked a similar question, comparing the actual similarity of Cantonese and Hakka. You can look it up if interested. user3306356 's answer inspired me to answer this question.

In my opinion, Cantonese is not a dialect but in-fact a language.

It works by using the standard for mutual intelligibility. " If two languages are 80% intelligible (or more) with each other, then they are dialects of one language rather than two separate languages."

I would like to draw your attention to the two tables below:

I will assume 'Chinese' to be speakers in Beijing and 'Cantonese' to be speakers in Guangzhou.

enter image description here

While Guangzhou listeners could understand 63% of isolated words from Beijing speakers, Beijing listeners could only understand a mere 34% of isolated words in the Guangzhou dialect (i.e Cantonese).

It gets more interesting here, while looking at comprehension of entire sentences:

enter image description here

Guangzhou listeners were able to understand 93% of spoken sentences from Beijing speakers. Wow! It exceeds 80% and is tempting to consider Cantonese as a dialect.

Beijing speakers were able to understand 3% of spoken sentences from Guangzhou speakers.Yes, just 3%.

The results are summarised below, for sentences: enter image description here

According to the 80% test, because the two languages are less than 80% intelligible with each other, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are two separate languages.

So while Guangzhou speakers (Cantonese) can understand Beijing speakers (Mandarin) very well, the converse is not true. With scores exceeding 90%, Beijing speakers and Guangzhou speakers can understand each other very well- showing that there is not much diversity of Mandarin and Cantonese in itself.


The thing that unifies Mandarin and Cantonese is the common Chinese script. For instance, in both Mandarin and Cantonese, 不 means "not."

The character is pronounced "bu" in Mandarin, and "but" in Cantonese, and while they are pronounced differently, they are recognizable versions of each other, even in sound, and have the same meaning linked to the character.

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    English and Finnish are also unified by a common script. Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 22:52
  • @StumpyJoePete: I meant, where a given character means the same thing in both Mandarin and Cantonese. That's not true in English and Finnish, where words are "spelled" differently, even if they use the same alphabet.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 1:34
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    The similarity can be pretty superficial though. Common words are very different, and many morphemes don't even have equivalent characters. Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 2:43
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    To give an example in 上海话:侬今朝下半天有辰光伐?. 侬 doesn't mean anything in MSM (and the morpheme is unrelated to 你). 今朝 and 辰光 aren't words in MSM, even though they're made of existing characters. 下半天 is in the dictionary, but I've never heard anyone say it. 有 is the same. And 伐 is just a phonetic representation of the shanghainese morpheme (also written w/the uncommon character 𠲎--that' 口+伐 if it doesn't show up). So... not sure how useful the common script is in terms of mutual intelligibility. Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 3:32
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    Besides, the choice of 不 as an example is a bad one, as no/not is different in Madarin and Canto 不 vs 唔...
    – dda
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 17:10

In reality, these two languages are not mutually intellegible. Cantonese is not considered another language per se, because Chinese characters unify these two languages in writing. In the absence of Chinese characters, they will be considered different languages today.

I cannot think of other group of languages that experience such phenomenon. For example, a person fluent in Mandarin can comfortably read content from Hong Kong and adjacent areas. We can say the same about people from Hong Kong reading material from the mainland and Taiwan.

Now, take Spanish and French, which share the same alphabet. Without experience, however, it is much more difficult for a monolingual, native speaker of one of these languages to grasp the full meaning of the text in the other language.

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    The formal writing in HK and Taiwan is heavily influenced by Mandarin though. If they just wrote down what they would say in their dialect, it would not necessarily be easily understood (e.g.,侬今朝下半天有辰光伐?) Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 3:04
  • You're right about that. But in standard writing the message would be easily understood across the two languages.
    – jll90
    Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 3:33
  • Just saying that it's more like diglossia than multiple dialects sharing the same writing. Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 6:47
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    @user58955 What you are describing is diglossia. People speak in one language (their native 方言), and they write in another (previously in 文言文, now basically in formal Mandarin). If Spanish and French speakers had continued writing in Latin since Roman times, the situation would be the same--they would be "written the same", even though the languages were wildly divergent. Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 22:01
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    Indeed. I always think that it's a problem with the phonetic writing system -- if Chinese adopted phonetic writing system, today's China would look like Europe... China really is a country unified by the writing system, not other things...
    – user58955
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 15:38

I think that the basic concept is all they use same character system (Cantonese or other dialect uses few new introduced words), from about B.C. 230 year, Qin dynasty uniform character script and units. Most of these dialect uses same characters. So Cantonese is dialect, but Man滿/Yi彝/Zhuang壮/Zang藏 are new languages.


Because it truly is a dialect. Cantonese sounds very different from Mandarin, cuz they differed for a long long time. So called "Chinese" (by "Chinese", I mean people) thousands years ago didn't include people in today's Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou.

  • Cantonese sounds very different from MSM? What is MSM?
    – mrjimoy_05
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 6:04
  • @mrjimoy_05 should be Mandarin. My bad. Edited.
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 6:14
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    This sounds like a great argument why Cantonese should be considered "a totally different language", not that it "truly is a dialect"... Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 6:55
  • @StumpyJoePete Maybe it is a great argument whether it's a different language or dialect. But since Guangdong & HongKong (where people speak Cantonese) are parts of China, I think most people in China would regard it as dialect. I think I understand what u mean by "a different language" - Cantonese is anti-foreign: lots of Chinese don't understand Cantonese. But I think it's ok, for China has tons of dialects which cannot fully understand by people from other provinces. Shanghai dialect, which I speak myself, cannot be understood by people beyond Zhejiang & Jiangsu (they're close to Shanghai).
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 9:54
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    The whole topic of this thread is "Why is Cantonese considered only a dialect instead of a separate language?". Westerners think that two things that are so different must be different languages. Your argument for why they are not different languages was "because they're so different". In the comments, you've presented a perfectly reasonable explanation: all Han languages in China are considered dialects of Chinese for political reasons. Your actual answer doesn't make sense though. Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 17:23

It is dialect indeed. Most usage of the cantonese is similar to mandarin. If a mandarin speaker watch a Cantonese channel for sometimes, he can grasp most of the detail.Like me I watch football match on UUSEE and I can understand most contents of the commentator mean. And I have not turned to any Cantonese classes before.

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