Cantonese is an adjective used to describe anything around the area of Canton (Guangzhou), a city in southern China. The term also often refers to a language of that area, using the same Chinese characters as Mandarin in the north, but quite different pronuncations. Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, as well.

The Cantonese dialect is one of the major Mandarin dialects of China, it is spoken by a relatively large fraction of China's population. Cantonese itself has various regional dialects within the Guangdong province as well, although it is collectively known as Cantonese, many are quite different from each other. Most of these dialects have 9 tones, compared to Mandarin's 4. This makes Cantonese much more difficult to learn than Mandarin. Few foreigners use Cantonese as a "stepping point" into learning Chinese, most choose Mandarin because of both its relative simplicity and the use of pinyin. Once Mandarin is mastered, many Chinese dialects become easy to pick up.

Being raised in Hong Kong, I was taught the Southern Cantonese dialect, spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, and the lower parts of the Guangzhou delta such as Shenzhen and Dongguan. To non-native speakers there is no difference between the Guangzhou dialect and the Hong Kong dialect, but to natives there is a huge difference, the characters in the Hong Kong dialect being much more distinct and pronounced, the Guangzhou one a tad more sing-song.

As one proceeds North the dialects change rapidly, mingling with the next regional dialect, Fujianese / Taiwanese, a totally different language. I have no knowledge of this dialect, it might as well be Japanese to me. A significant local dialect is the Taishan dialect, used very often in America, because many of the original West Coast immigrants came from the Taishan area. Cantonese is possibly the most widely used Chinese dialect in America, as the Cantonese still dominate the Chinese immigrant community both numerically and politically.

Cantonese refers to the Guangzhou Dialect, one of the Yue Dialects (it is not a dialect of mandarin, and in some cases uses different characters) , the main features of which are as follows:
  • Nine tones

  • Like middle chinese, it has words ending in the consonants n, p, t, k, and m, whereas mandarin and many other dialects only retain some of these endings- Cantonese has them all.

  • The adverb follows the verb in the sentence, where in mandarin the adverb comes first.

  • verb--indirect object- direct object word order: the direct object follows the indirect object, whereas in mandarin the direct object comes first

  • there are no medial vowels, a feature that Cantonese shares with the Zhuang minority language.

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