10 Interesting Facts about Cantonese

As is the case with most languages spoken natively in the region today called “China”, Cantonese is among the Sino-Tibetan languages. It is a major language spoken in southeastern China. Actually, calling the collection of languages spoken in China “Chinese” is almost like saying French, Italian, and Romanian are actually Latin since the differences in dialects (which should actually be called separate languages) are so vast. Indeed, “Chinese” should actually be considered a range of language varieties, not a single language. Next to Mandarin, Cantonese is one of the biggest languages in the country, although even “Cantonese” is actually made up of a collection of dialects, some of which vary greatly from one another.

Here you’ll find ten more interesting facts about the Cantonese language and culture which will make you want to drop everything and start learning the language right now:

1. Depending on how you slice it, Cantonese has more speakers than Persian or Korean

Drawing distinctions between the languages spoken in China is notoriously difficult. Even the collection of dialects normally gathered under the umbrella term “Cantonese” vary from each other greatly. Because of that, it’s also difficult to determine the number of native speakers of the languages. Depending on where you draw the line, Cantonese has somewhere between 55 and 80 million speakers – a pretty big difference.

Persian, which has an estimated 54 million speakers is an official language in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Korean should have around 71 million native speakers, so if you include in your calculations people speaking the Yuehai dialects, Cantonese, a single variant of Chinese, has more speakers.

2. Cantonese isn’t spoken only in China

Cantonese is actually one of the more international Chinese languages. It’s also an official language Hong Kong, together with English, and in Macau, together with Portuguese. In addition to these countries, it’s also widely spoken in other parts of Southeast Asia, most notably in Malaysia and Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, in Cambodia and Singapore.

All of that means that Cantonese has quite a big international significance.

3. In China, Cantonese is often used as a lingua franca

Thanks to its importance in parts of China, Cantonese is often used as a lingua franca between the speakers of other varieties of Chinese. This happens mostly in the southeastern parts, where Cantonese has the most prestige. It is spoken in the Guangdong area, which became the most populous province in China in 2005. Since 1989, it has also boasted the highest GDP of all the provinces in mainland China, enforcing the role of Cantonese as a major business language.

4. Cantonese is also sometimes called Yue

Because the classification of the language varieties spoken in China is so messy, Cantonese can actually refer to a few different language groups. Taken very narrowly, the term essentially refers to the standardised form of Cantonese, which is considered the prestige variety. However, it can also include the varieties very closely related to it, which means that the collection of dialects together are called either Cantonese or Yue. In this case, the “language” actually includes versions that are completely mutually unintelligible.

5. Cantonese looks similar to Mandarin but sounds very different

Since everyone who can read or write in China uses the same writing system, known as Chinese characters, or hànzì, Cantonese looks very similar to Mandarin when written down. This is because not many Cantonese speakers are actually familiar with the enormous variety of written Cantonese vocabulary, so they simplify it, which leads to the text looking a lot like Mandarin. However, the words would still sound very different when read out loud in either language. The complications with writing down Cantonese come from the fact that it’s mostly an oral language.

6. Cantonese is more tonal than Mandarin

While all varieties of Chinese are tonal, some boast more tones than others. Cantonese, for example, has six tones, compared to the four in Mandarin. These are the dark flat (陰平), dark rising (陰上), dark departing (陰去), light flat (陽平), light rising (陽上), and light departing (陽去).

You can see them presented in the video here:

Historically, Cantonese was considered to have a total of nine tones. Phonetically speaking, however, you can distinguish only the six.

7. Abroad, Cantonese is more widely spoken than Mandarin

Mandarin is officially called Standard Chinese and it is the most widely spoken variety in mainland China. But it only got to that position to unify the country under one language and Mandarin happened to be the version spoken in the area around Beijing. However, many of the Chinese living overseas come from the southern part of the country where Cantonese is more widely spoken. As such, you’re more likely to hear Cantonese spoken in the Chinatowns of Europe and America.

8. Should Cantonese actually be called Guangzhouan?

The name for Cantonese comes from Canton – the English name formerly used for the city of Guangzhou. Guangzhou is the capital of the Guangdong province where the language is mostly spoken and which is considered its home. However, since the city has now changed its name, it might do to rename the language as well? Or perhaps, since Hong Kong has by now actually become the cultural centre for Cantonese, should we rename it to Hongkongese?

9. Cantonese has much more historical influence in China

Cantonese is an old language with a rich 2000-year history. As such, it has also been called “Traditional Chinese” – a title that demonstrates its historical influence in the country. While Mandarin has now been deemed the standard variety, Cantonese remains one of the most influential varieties of Chinese.

10. Cantonese retains many aspects of Ancient Chinese

Unlike most other varieties of Chinese, Cantonese still has quite a few of the linguistic quirks that originated from Ancient Chinese. For example, the final consonant sounds that were popular in the old language are still found in most dialects of Cantonese. It also has far fewer consonant sounds at the beginnings of words than other varieties of modern Chinese.

For more language facts, check out our posts for the 10 interesting facts about Norwegian or Bulgarian. Alternatively, see the seven interesting facts about Ukrainian. Or, if you can’t wait any longer, simply sign up for Cantonese lessons below: