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A Brief Comparison of

Cantonese and

by Dr. Richard Stibbard
Cantonese vs. Mandarin: A brief comparison
(Cantonese transcription is in Yale Romanisation; Mandarin is in Pinyin)

It is universally agreed that Mandarin has four tones:
Tone 1) high, level, and long: mā mother 妈
Tone 2) rising abruptly to high tone, and short: má hemp 麻
Tone 3) falling then rising, long: mǎ horse 马
Tone 4) falling abruptly, clipped short: mà scold 骂
There is also the neutral tone which has no tonal features: ma 吗, the question particle.

There is inconsistency in the analysis of Cantonese tones. Cantonese is variously analysed as having
6, 7, 9 or 10 tones, but the disagreement is of little substance.
Six tone analysis:
Tone 1) high level or high falling: wài ‘splendid’ 威
Tone 2) high rising: wái ‘broken’ 毁
Tone 3) mid level: wai ‘dirty’ 秽
Tone 4) low falling: wàih ‘surrounding’ 围
Tone 5) low rising: wáih ‘great’ 伟
Tone 6) low level: waih ‘stomach’ 胃
Tones 4, 5, and 6 are low tones, written with an h in Yale indicating laryngealisation. Tones
3 (mid level) and 6 (low level) have no tone mark.
Nine tone analysis:
On clipped syllables ending with unreleased -p, -t, -k, there are 3 possible tones: high, mid
or low. In older textbooks these were numbered separately as Tones 7, 8, and 9 respectively.
In more modern textbooks they are subsumed under Tone 1 (high), Tone 3 (mid) and Tone 6
(low) respectively: Tone 1) dàk 德 ‘morals’; Tone 3) gip 劫 ‘rob’; Tone 6) gihk 极
‘excellent’. Hence the disagreement over six or nine tones.
Seven or ten tone analysis:
There was once a tendency to distinguish between a high level and a high falling tone. This
gave a total of 10 tones if the clipped tones were numbered separately or 7 if they were not.
It is now generally agreed that there is no such distinction and that T1 can be either high
level or high falling.
Therefore nowadays a six tone analysis is usual.

Phonological differences between Cantonese and Mandarin

Cantonese retains the syllable-final unreleased -p, -t, -k of older forms of Chinese as well as final -m,
which is lost in Mandarin:

Mandarin finals: vowel Cantonese finals: vowel

-n / -ŋ -p / -t / -k
-n / -m / -ŋ

Examples of Cantonese with -p, -t, -k: Examples of Cantonese with vowel finals:
Character 十 湿 室 食 事 时 史 市
English ten wet room food matter, affair time history, annals city
Mandarin shí shī shì shí shì shí shǐ shì
Cantonese sahp sàp sàt sihk sih sìh sí síh

Phonetic distinctions have thus been retained in Cantonese which are lost in Mandarin. Homophony
is thus greater in Mandarin than in Cantonese. An example is the three grammatical particles 的, 地,
and 得, which are all pronounced de in Mandarin. In Cantonese these characters are all pronounced

Character Mandarin Cantonese Examples

的 de dìk 1) ’s: Wŏde chē. My car. Nǐde dìzhǐ. Your address.
2) Verb phrase modifier:
Mǎi huā de nàge rén. That person selling flowers.
3) Adjective modifier: Hǎo de rén. Good people.
地 de (dì) deih Adverbial marker after adjective:
Tā mànmàn de bǎ mén kāikāi le.
He opened the door slowly.
得 de dàk Adverbial marker after verb:
Tā xiě de hǎo. She writes well.
Tā shuō Zhōngwén shuō de hěn liúlì.
He speaks Chinese very fluently.

In colloquial Cantonese, 的 (dìk) is not used, ge being used instead, e.g. My car: Ngóh ge chē.

Examples of Cantonese finals -m and -n, both of which have become -n in Mandarin:

Character Character Character

点 典 金
English spot, mark dictionary gold
Mandarin diǎn diǎn jīn
Cantonese dím dín gàm

Regular sound shifts

Cantonese Tone 4 always becomes Mandarin Tone 2 (but not the reverse)


Cantonese k-, g- → Mandarin j- Cantonese h- → M x-

脚 foot C: geuk - M: jiǎo 行 walk C: hàhng – M: xíng
叫 call(ed) C: giuh – M: jiào
鸡 chicken C: gài - M: jī
剧 opera C: kehk – M: jù
There are many other changes, affecting virtually every syllable of the two languages.


Grammar is largely the same: for the most part you can slot Cantonese words in for Mandarin ones
in the same order. Much more similar than, say English and its nearest relative, Flemish, or French
and its sister languages, Italian and Spanish. There are a few relatively minor differences, mainly in
word order.


The bulk of the vocabulary, especially more formal or technical language etc. is the same – i.e.
written with the same characters but pronounced in Cantonese:

‘library’: 图书馆 M: túshūguǎn C: toùh-syù-gún

‘hospital’: 医院 M: yīyuàn C: yī-yún
‘conference’: 会议 M: huìyì C: wuih-yíh
‘city centre’: 市中心 M: shì zhōngxīn C: síh jùng-sàm

Central to Cantonese are a number of words which are different and cannot be written in standard
Chinese characters or read out in Mandarin. These are marked in red. Shared words are in green.

‘I like her’: 我喜欢他 M: Wŏ xǐhuan tā. C: Ngóh (hóu) jùngyi kéuih.

If Mandarin words are simply read out with their Cantonese pronunciation it sounds to a Cantonese
listener like reading out formal written Chinese. e.g. 我喜欢他, above, would be read in Cantonese
as Ngóh héifùn ta. This is not spoken Cantonese and would be used for instance for reading aloud
from a book. Songs also use some Mandarin elements such as the possessive 的 dìk. The reverse is
not possible: characters which exist only to write Cantonese cannot be read out with a Mandarin

Some words exist in both dialects but are used differently:

‘eat/food’: 食 Mandarin: shí; Cantonese: sihk
Used in Mandarin in nouns only: 食物 shíwù ‘food’, shítáng ‘food hall’, shípǐn ‘foodstuffs’.
Used in Cantonese as nouns and as the verb ‘to eat’: sihk faahn – ‘to eat rice’.
In Mandarin, the verb is 吃 chī - ‘eat rice’ is 吃 饭 chīfàn. Read out in Cantonese
pronunciation this would be hek faahn, which sounds like reading a book aloud, not spoken
Cantonese. 食饭 shí fàn is not possible in Mandarin.

“Thank you”
M: 谢谢 the Cantonese equivalent is not used.
C: 多谢 dòjeh (‘many thanks’) can also be used in Mandarin: duōxiè.
Cantonese also has the expression m̀h gòi for saying ‘thank you’ for services. Mandarin has
no equivalent.

The personal pronouns in Mandarin and Cantonese:

Manda Standard characters in Cantonese Special Cantonese characters in
rin green red
I, me wŏ 我 ngóh 我
you nǐ 你 néih 你
he, she, it tā 他,她, 它 kéuih 佢
plural -men 们 -deih 哋

The verb ‘to be’ is haih. The use of a word beginning with h- for ‘to be’ is characteristic of southern
Chinese dialects.

Written Cantonese

Cantonese is primarily a spoken dialect without the status of a national language. It has no status
outside Hong Kong. In Hong Kong its status is uncertain – the national languages are stated as
English and “Chinese”.
It is possible to represent spoken Cantonese in a mixture of 1) standard Chinese characters for the
many shared words, 2) specially invented characters for the specifically Cantonese words, 3)
standard Chinese characters used only for their sound and 4) Roman letters where no character can
be found or invented.

Examples of specially invented characters (2):

唔 m̀h ‘not’, the Cantonese equivalent of bù 不:
‘not good/let’s not/don’t…’ 唔好 m̀h hóu…
冇 móuh, ‘not have’, the Cantonese equivalent of 没有 méiyŏu:
‘I have no money’ C: Ngóh móuh chìhn. 我冇钱。
M: Wŏ méiyou qián. 我没有钱。
‘No time, let’s not go’ C: Móuh sìhgaan m̀h heui. 冇时间唔去。
M: Méiyou shíjian bú qù. 没有时间不去。
Special Cantonese characters cannot be read by a Mandarin speaker who does not know the
Cantonese words they represent.

Examples of use of Roman letters where no character has been invented (4):
去 wet (hoei wet) ‘go partying’
佢想 dup 我 (Kéuih séung dahp ngóh) ‘He tried to clout me’.

Written Cantonese appears in HK in sociolinguistically lower level writing and where it is

important to represent the local vernacular e.g. cartoons, adverts, gossipy columns, text messaging
For serious writing, Cantonese is not used. It is translated into Mandarin, replacing Cantonese
words such as móuh, m̀h and jùngyi with their Mandarin equivalents: méiyou, bù and xǐhuan
respectively, and changing the vocabulary and style in the process. A Cantonese speaker reading
aloud a book written in standard Chinese may reverse the process and re-word it extensively to
render it in colloquial Cantonese.

Traditional vs. simplified characters

Traditional characters are often falsely equated with Cantonese. The choice of script is not related to
the dialect except by the association between Hong Kong and traditional characters. Mandarin-
speaking Taiwan also uses traditional characters, as did the PRC and Singapore before 1956.
Simplified characters date from 1956 when they were introduced into the PRC and Singapore with
the aim of promoting literacy. The number of characters and the number of strokes were reduced.
Traditional characters are used in HK and Taiwan because the governments of these places never
followed suit.
The two character sets are equivalent and merely indicate where the text was produced, nothing
linguistically significant.

‘library’: Traditional: 圖書館 (Tw/HK) Simplified:图书馆 (PRC/Sing.)
M: túshūguǎn (PRC/Tw/Sing.) C: toùh-syù-gún (HK)

Simplified characters are based on running script, fast handwriting style (xíngshū). Traditional
characters are the form standardised c. 420 AD (kāishū) with little or no change.

Examples of simplified characters vs. traditional:

shū ‘book’ Traditional: 書 Simplified: 书

bǐ ‘pen, brush’ Traditional: 筆 Simplified: 笔
huà ‘draw’ Traditional: 畫 Simplified: 画

The bulk of simplifications involve regular changes to the radical affecting all the characters with
that radical. For example the traditional ‘food/eat’ radical 飠 becomes running script 饣:

fàn ‘rice’ Traditional: 飯 Simplified: 饭

yǐn ‘drink’ Traditional: 飲 Simplified: 饮

The traditional ‘gold’ radical 釒 becomes running script 钅:

qián ‘money’ Traditional: 錢 Simplified: 钱

tóng ‘bronze’ Traditional: 銅 Simplified: 铜

A further simplification method is to choose a phonetic element with fewer strokes:

zhōng ‘clock’ Traditional: 鐘 Simplified: 钟

Some simplifications are unique to particular characters:

ge (count word) Traditional: 個 Simplified: 个

lóng ‘dragon’ Traditional: 龍 Simplified: 龙
wàn ‘10,000’ Traditional: 萬 Simplified: 万
guǎng ‘broad’ Traditional: 廣 Simplified: 广
chǎng ‘factory’ Traditional: 廠 Simplified: 厂

Another method of simplification is to use another, less common, character which has fewer strokes.
The common word hòu ‘behind’ is written in traditional characters with its own character 後; in
simplified script it is written 后, using the character which in traditional script is half the name of
the Goddess of the Sea, Tin Hau 天后. In some cases, a number of traditional characters have been
subsumed under one simplified character, reducing the overall number of characters greatly.