Is Cantonese a language?

This article is an adaptation of a paper written by Jessica Sun (Sun Hui) for the pre-master Asian studies, Leiden University in December 2018.

As a native Chinese living in The Netherlands, I am often asked if my mother tongue is Cantonese. In fact, I speak Mandarin. I do not speak Cantonese and cannot understand Cantonese. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that I, as a Chinese person, speak Cantonese, since Cantonese is one of the most commonly spoken Chinese languages outside China. 

Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible but there are different academic opinions whether Cantonese is an independent language. Wiedenhof (2015: 2) states that Cantonese is a language with two main forms of dialects, while Yao (2006: 3) claims in her book that Cantonese is one of the seven main dialects in China, therefore, not an independent language, but a regional variation of the Chinese language. Li (1990) shows that Cantonese is an independent language based on comparing the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary with Mandarin. However, Yang (1992) responds to Li’s article and argues that Cantonese is a dialect rather than a language.

What is Chinese language and what do native Chinese people speak?

Generally, Mandarin and Cantonese are considered the main Chinese language groups. Still, there are several other Chinese language groups in China. Despite various debates, seven main groups are conventionally agreed upon: Wu 吴, Gan 赣, Xiang 湘, Yue 粤 (‘Cantonese’), Hakka 客家, Min 闽 and Guanhua 官话 (‘Mandarin’) (Moser 2016: 15).

Depending on the area where a native Chinese is born, he or she speaks one form of Chinese within these seven Chinese language groups. Every year around 100 million Chinese primary students go to school to learn the official language of China (Moser 2016: 5). This officially language is called Putonghua ‘Mandarin’ which literally means common language’. Putonghua ‘Mandarin’ is the official version of Chinese now promulgated in the country.

What is Mandarin?

Mandarin, originated in the North China Plain, has the largest number of speakers, which is even greater than that of all the other main language groups combined. That gives Mandarin an advantage and reasonable basis as the national language (Moser 2016: 16). Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan and Singapore (Wiedenhof 2015: 1). Worldwide, Mandarin is spoken as a first or second language by more than 1.3 billion people (Sybesma: 2015).

The name ‘Mandarin’ originates from the Portuguese mandarim which means ‘minister’ or ‘official’. In the 16th century, when Jesuits first came to China they encountered guanhua, ‘the language of officers’, and they called it ‘Mandarin’. Later, ‘Mandarin’ expanded its meaning and finally became a common term for modern standard Chinese. Despite Mandarin also being a linguistic term referring to various Mandarin dialects spoken in a vast area of China, it is in most contexts interchangeable with the term ‘Putonghua’ (Moser 2016: 13-14), which is the name of the national standard language in the PRC since the 1950s (Wiedenhof 2015: 5).

The Communist Party of China (CPC) estimated that it would take about 100 years for the speakers in various regions to adopt Mandarin. On the website of China’s Ministry of Education it was reported that on September 8th 2017, 73% of Chinese population could communicate in Mandarin. While in the year 2000 only 53% of the population could communicate in Mandarin.

What is Cantonese?

‘Yue’ is the short name for Guangdong province, which is located in the southeast of China. Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong province. Traditionally the dialect of Guangzhou is the standard of Cantonese. The city is also called ‘Canton’ in English. Hence the term ‘Cantonese’, referring to ‘Yue speech’. Cantonese is the most widely known and influential Chinese language group after Mandarin. Cantonese is native to Chinese provinces Guangdong, Guangxi and in the neighbouring territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Worldwide, native speakers of Cantonese amount to some 55 million.

Besides Guangzhou’s Cantonese, another main form of Cantonese is Hong Kong Cantonese (Matthews & Yip 2011: 2). Hong Kong dialect and Canton dialects have minor differences. They are both referred to as Cantonese. Both in China and abroad Cantonese functions as a de facto standard among Cantonese speakers. (Wiedenhof 2015: 2)

Cantonese is the main language in Hong Kong. According to a census in 2011, which was published on the website of government Hong Kong, 89.1% of the population of Hong Kong speak Cantonese as their usual language. After being a British colony for over 150 years, Hong Kong was handed over to PRC in 1997. Hong Kong has recognised both Cantonese and Mandarin, but also English, as official languages. Since 1997, the official language policy of Hong Kong requires citizens to be ‘biliterate and trilingual’, meaning to be able to speak Cantonese, Mandarin and English and to be literate in both English and standard written Chinese. (Matthews & Yip 2011: 3)

Language and dialect

Language is a way to communicate. Dialect is a variety of a language, especially one spoken in a specific part of a country of other geographical area (Matthews 2014: 104). They are nevertheless problematic terms, both for finding a definition to distinguish one from another and finding criteria for delimiting varieties (Hudson 1996: 31).

Moser (2016: 13-14) elaborates that there is no universally accepted criterion to distinguish languages from dialects. Some dialects have very slight accent differences, while some others can be developed into different languages. Moser compares the differences between dialects to the range of the colour ‘green’; there is no clear boundary. Some hues of green are very different while others are very difficult to distinguish. At the same time, he also points out that the most pragmatic way to differentiate language and dialects is whether the speakers can understand each other. If the speakers have great difficulty or even find it impossible to understand each other, then these two speeches should be considered two different languages. 

The linguistic perspective

Let’s analyse Cantonese in from a linguistic perspective.

Cantonese is very different from Mandarin. It is widely known that Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers do not understand each other. The first unified Chinese dynasty Qin was established by Han Chinese in 221 BC in the central part of modern China in the area of current day Shaanxi province. Together with other provinces in the North, this was where Mandarin was initially spoken. It is approximately 1700 km away from current day Guangdong province where Cantonese is mainly spoken. When Li (1990) compared the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of Cantonese and Mandarin he found great differences. Cantonese has a close relationship with other neighbouring minorities languages including those of the Yao and Zhuang minorities. This could be explained with historical reasons.

In ancient China, the southern part near Guangdong province was called Baiyue, which means ‘barbarian’ (Li 1990). The name itself shows that the people there were very different from the people in the central China. Because of war and other reasons, the Northern Han people came to this area. Under the need to communicate with the ‘barbarians’, a new form of speech was created. Later, it was developed into Cantonese (Li 1990). Therefore, Cantonese is not a regional variation of Mandarin, but a very different language. 

Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written form. Yang (1992) argues that the written form is the standard to differentiate language and dialects instead of ‘mutual intelligibility’. Cantonese and Mandarin are both written in Chinese characters, therefore they are both variations of Chinese language rather than two languages, he argues. I would argue that spoken communication is the primary purpose for a language. Every person speaks a language but not everyone is literate. Using writing language as a primary standard is against the primary purpose of language. Secondly, a common written form does not guarantee the understanding of a language. Japanese characters known as Japanese Kanji ‘Chinese characters’ (Bradley 2006: 320) originated from Chinese characters, while Japanese and Chinese are undoubtedly two different languages. [Editors note: or consider all the different languages that use the common western written form, the alphabet].

Furthermore, because of unique uses and combinations of characters, written Cantonese cannot be automatically understood by Mandarin speakers who read Chinese characters. The written Cantonese is widely used not only in informal personal communications such as e-mail and short messages, but also in local novels, magazines and newspapers. Non-Cantonese speakers find it (partially) incomprehensible. (Matthews & Yip 2011: 8)

Although Mandarin and Cantonese share some similarities, they differ in many linguistic aspects including phonology, syntax and semantics. They have a different number of initial consonants, final consonants, vowels and different syllabic structures. Those differences make it impossible for Cantonese and Mandarin speakers to understand each other. (Packman: 2017)

Despite written Cantonese sharing similarities with Mandarin, Cantonese has very different linguistic features. Due to historic reasons, Cantonese has developed into a new language with the influence of ancient Chinese language. Based on the common standard of ‘mutual intelligibility’, I conclude that from a linguistic perspective Cantonese is an independent language.

The political perspective

Heinz Kloss (1967) points out that ‘a language is as much a political, cultural and historical notion as it is a purely linguistic notion’. Max Weinreich’s (unpublished) dictum ‘a language is a dialect with an army and navy’ shows a purely political feature (Trudgill 2006). The national idea demands a single language for official purpose of communication. If the dialects have any chance to turn into a language, it will threaten the unified nation, since the local loyalties are concluded in the dialect and it will conflict with the national loyalty (Haugen 1966: 928).  

From these sources we can see how the question of a speech being a language or a dialect is not merely a linguistic issue, but also involves politics.

It perfectly applies to the situation in the PRC. In 1949, the PRC was established by the Communist Party of China (CPC). This new regime was under pressure to present the country as a unified nation. From the language point of view, thus, one nation, one language. The new government made language reform one of their priorities. The party promotes Mandarin intensively with the expectation that eventually Mandarin will replace other dialects. Moser also explains in his book that the CPC considered all the dialect-based phonetic writing and literature as ‘cultural traitors’: ‘the profusion of local dialects was now viewed as a long-term threat to national unity’. Finally, the CPC labelled other speeches, including Cantonese, as dialects rather than separate languages. It even denounced Leonard Bloomfield as ‘reactionary American linguist’ because of his claim that ‘Chinese language consists of many mutually unintelligible languages’. This would be an ‘implication that China is not one nation’. Here we can see how the announcement of the CPC that Mandarin is the national language and other forms of speeches are dialects is based more on politics than linguistics. (2016: 59-67)

The CPC’s claim especially applies to Hong Kong. After 1997 the territory of Hong Kong was handed over to the PRC under an agreement of “one country, two systems” to ensure Hong Kong has its own law and enjoys more democracy. However, the CPC gets more and more involved in issues in Hong Kong, including the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. This leads to continuous protests by local Hong Kong citizens. If Cantonese is to be classified as a ‘dialect’, Hong Kong has more similarities to the PRC.

It is clear that Cantonese is defined as a dialect under the political power of the CPC. The ultimate purpose of the CPC is to eliminate all the ‘dialects’ and finally leave only one Chinese language, Mandarin, to represent the PRC as one unified nation.


From the linguistic point of view, despite the ambiguity of a clear cut between language and dialect, there is the common standard  of “mutually intelligibility” to determine if one speech is a dialect or an independent language.  Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. Therefore Cantonese should be considered to be an independent language. However, language is not just a purely linguistic issue. Therefore, from the political perspective, considering the complicated ethnic and political situation in the PRC, the CPC classifies Cantonese as a dialect to show a united nation with one language. In this case, the political situation influences the linguistic conderations. Ultimately though, Cantonese should be considered a language. 


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Haugen Einar (1966): Dialect, language and nation, American Anthropologist, Aug 1, 1966, Vol.68(4), p.922

Heinz Kloss (1967): Abstand languages and Ausbau languages, Anthropological Linguistics 9, 29-41.

Hudson (1996):  Hudson Richard A., Sociolinguistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

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Matthews & Yip (2011):  Matthews, S. J., & Yip, V., Cantonese: A Comprehensive grammar (2nd ed.), London & New York: Routledge, 2011

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Packman, Ann (2017): Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 30 August 2017, p.1-13 [Peer Reviewed Journal], Taylor & Francis

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Wiedenhof (2015): Jeroen Wiedenhof, A Grammar of Mandarin, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company, 2015

Yang, Zhenhai (1992): 粤语真是汉语族群中的独立语言么? ‘Is Cantonese really an independent language in the group of Sinitic Languages?’, Journal of Guangxi Teachers Education University, 1992, Issue 04, pp.96-10an