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Cantonese Chinese

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Cantonese is one of the major dialects of the Chinese language. It is mainly spoken in the south-eastern part of Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, by the Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia and by many overseas Chinese worldwide. Its name is derived from Canton, an older name for the city of Guangzhou. It is a tonal language.

A Romanized phonetic system called "penkyamp" modeled on Pinyin is designed for Cantonese and will serve as the standard for transliteration from this dialect to any Latin-based writing system.

Cantonese is spoken by about 70 million people worldwide, less than for example Mandarin Chinese, but still a major language.

Linguistically, Cantonese is a more conservative dialect than Mandarin. This can be seen, for example, by comparing the words for "I/me" (我) and "hunger" (餓). They are written using very similar characters, but in Mandarin their pronunciation is quite different ("wo3" vs. "e4"), whereas in Cantonese they are pronounced identically except for the respective tones (ngo5 vs ngo6 respectively). Since the characters hint at a similar pronunciation, it can be concluded that their ancient pronunciation was indeed similar (as preserved in Cantonese), but in Mandarin the two syllables acquired different pronunciations in the course of time.

Cantonese sounds quite different from Mandarin, mainly because it has a different set of syllables. The rules for syllable formation are a lot laxer than in Mandarin, for example there are syllables ending in non-nasal consonants (e.g. "lak"). It also provides a different set of tones. There are six tones[?]:

  1. a high level tone (or high falling tone)
  2. a mid rising tone
  3. a mid level tone
  4. a low falling tone
  5. a low rising tone
  6. a low level tone

In Hong Kong, the high level tone is often used interchangeably with the high falling tone without affecting the meaning of the words being spoken. Most Hong Kong speakers are not consciously aware of when they use and when to use high level and high falling.

It is interesting to note that there are not actually more tone levels in Cantonese than in Mandarin (three - if you don't count the Cantonese low falling tone, which begins on the third level and needs somewhere to fall), only Cantonese has a more complete set of tone courses.

Cantonese tends to preserve more variations of sound while Mandarin merged many of them. For example, the characters, (藝,憶,懿,邑,譯,佚) all pronounced as yi4 in Mandarin, but all different in Cantonese, they are pronounced as ngai6, yik1, yi3, yap1, yik6, yat6 respectively.

There is another very obvious difference between Cantonese and Mandarin. Mandarin lacks the ending sound of "m" such as "taam6" (譚) becomes tan2, "yim4" (鹽) becomes yan2, "tim1" (添) becomes tian1, "ham4" (含) becomes han2 etc. in Mandarin. The examples are too numerous to list.

A main problem for the student of Cantonese is the lack of a widely accepted, standardized transcription system. The second problem are the Chinese characters: Cantonese uses the same system of character as Mandarin, but it often uses different words, which have to be written with different characters. At least this is the case in Hong Kong, but in mainland China, Cantonese is written with the exact same characters as Mandarin, though the characters stand for words not actually used in Cantonese. An example may help to clarify this:

The written word for "to be" is 是 in spoken Mandarin (pronounced shi4) but is 係 in spoken Cantonese (pronounced hai6). In formal written Chinese, only 是 is used. However, in Hong Kong, 係 is sometimes used in colloquial written Cantonese. To understand a colloquial article in a Hong Kong newspaper, a Mandarin speaker would perhaps have to reconsider a bit.

Cantonese is the language of Cantopop music.

External links

  • Learn Cantonese! (http://www.cantonese.ca/): Great site with basic vocabulary and phonetics
  • Cantonese Help Sheets (http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/): Learn written Chinese and spoken Cantonese with this print-friendly site.
  • Cantonese Talking Syllabary (http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/Canton2/): in Chinese; require Big5 font.
  • Ethnologue report on Cantonese (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=YUH)
  • Hong Kong Government Book Store (http://bookstore.esdlife.com/eng/default.asp): The Hong Kong Government Publications Office has a series of 9 books containing the complete language course used to train non-native speaking civil servants in Cantonese



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