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<a href="">Neon signage in Hong Kong | © Andrew Moore/Flickr </a>
<a href="">Neon signage in Hong Kong | © Andrew Moore/Flickr </a>

Is Cantonese a Language or a Dialect? Why Does it Matter?

Picture of Sally Gao
Updated: 13 June 2017
Cantonese is the lingua franca of Hong Kong, Macau and parts of southeastern China. Like Mandarin, China’s national language, it’s a variety of Chinese. You might be wondering, is Cantonese a dialect of Chinese? Or is it a language of its own? To answer what seems like a simple question, we delve into the complex linguistic, social and political aspects at play.

Some Historical Background

Before the twentieth century, Chinese people spoke a multitude of regional variants of Chinese. While some of these regional dialects sounded similar enough to be mutually intelligible, others were not. And until the 1920s, Classical Chinese was the norm for reading and writing, allowing scholars who spoke different vernaculars to understand each other.

When the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, the Communist Party chose the northern dialect of Mandarin as the national spoken language. Today, Mandarin is spoken in schools and in the media across mainland China.

Hong Kong, which remained a British colony until 1997, was never forced to adopt Mandarin. Cantonese remains the mother tongue of the majority of Hong Kong’s population. The same is true for Macau, which was a Portuguese colony until 1999.

Mandarin and Cantonese are not Mutually Intelligible

Calling Cantonese a “dialect” of Chinese distorts its relationship to Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese. To draw a comparison, those who speak different dialects of English (for instance, British English and American English) can understand each other perfectly. However, that’s not the case for Mandarin and Cantonese, where there are enough differences in syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation that someone who speaks only Mandarin would not be able to understand someone who speaks only Cantonese, and vice versa.

To add another layer of complexity to this issue, Cantonese speakers write using the syntax and vocabulary of Mandarin in formal contexts, although they pronounce the characters differently.

In informal contexts, Cantonese speakers will often write using a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese, sometimes supplemented by the English alphabet. This is because modern written Chinese cleaves closely to Mandarin. As a result, some Cantonese words have no corresponding Chinese characters, or are not commonly known even by native Cantonese speakers.

A Political Debate

Over the past few years, the use of Mandarin versus that of Cantonese has been a hot political issue in Hong Kong. For many people, speaking Cantonese forms part of a regional identity that separates Hong Kong from mainland China, where linguistic conformity is mandated by the Communist Party.

In 2014, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau got into hot water for posting an online article that called Cantonese a “dialect that is not an official language” of Hong Kong, a statement that struck many Hongkongers, most of whom use Cantonese on a daily basis in their personal and professional lives, as absurd.

Across Hong Kong, schools are increasingly emphasizing Mandarin, alarming locals who see the shift as an erasure of local identity and culture.

Lastly, Hong Kong’s youths are increasingly embracing a political movement called “localism.” Seen as an offshoot of the Umbrella Movement, localism advocates Hong Kong’s right to self determination and the preservation of local culture, including Cantonese.