What writing system(s) does this language use?
All Sinitic languages and dialects, including Cantonese are written with Hànzì (Mandarin)/Honji (Cantonese), a picture-like writing system. However, many English-speaking students learn to pronounce Cantonese using a Romanization system, usually either the Yale Romanization or Jyutping. See below for some examples.
So how do characters work? Does Chinese have an alphabet? No, Chinese does not have an alphabet. They do use radicals, which will be explained below. Characters however, are written with strokes, or different lines. There are three main types of characters: pictographic, ideographic, and picto-phonetic. Pictographic characters are just what they sound like, they try to represent a thing or action as a picture. For example, the character for sun (yat) was originally a circle with a dot in the center, an attempt to draw a sun. The modern character is a vertical rectangle divided in half by a horizontal line. It is a 4 stroke character.
Ideographic characters are used for things that are a bit more difficult to describe than with just a drawing. Love, hate, anger, happiness, goodness — all of these are very hard to capture in a simple picture. Ideographic characters try to address this problem by combining different pictures to convey meaning. Going back to the goodness example, the Chinese character for goodness, “hǎo”, is depicted using two separate characters, a woman and a child, combined into one character.
Picto-phonetic characters combine a meaning radical which hints at the meaning of a character with a sound radical which hints at the pronunciation of the character. "Grass" for example is written as the character for "early" (which similar to the word for "grass" in Mandarin and Cantonese) with a radical meaning "grass" above it. A reader can look at the grass radical and guess or recall the meaning while looking at the sound radical and guess or recall how it is pronounced.
Radicals are the closest thing that Chinese has to what English speakers would call an alphabet. Radicals, like an alphabet, allow speakers to reuse portions of the language. And since Chinese has some 10,000 plus characters in usage, radicals become very useful to allow for fast memorization of a character. Characters will get some of their meaning and/or sound from a radical (like picto-phonetic characters). You can imagine radicals as a foundation, or base, of the Chinese written language.
Radicals are kind of like the different symbols used in public signs. A "no smoking sign" is a cigarette that has been crossed out, a "no dogs allowed" sign has a dog that has been crossed out. We can reuse the meaning of the crossed out symbol to create new signs and guess at the meaning of new signs we have never seen before. In the same way Chinese characters that have to do with children may have the radical for "child" in them, and characters that have to do with actions or things done with the hand may have the radical for "hand" while the rest of the character hints at the pronunciation.
Are there different ways of writing Chinese? Yes, there are two main ways of writing Chinese, simplified and traditional. Simplified was invented by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to increase literacy, or reading levels in China. Traditional is as you can guess, the “traditional” way of writing Chinese. It is used in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. It is also used in traditional texts, paintings, genealogical charts, food packaging, and more! If you want to live in China, it is handy to know both simplified and traditional, as you are likely to run across both forms. Because most written vernacular Cantonese occurs in Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese learners will most likely come across this type of character more frequently.
How many people speak this language?
Cantonese is spoken by between 70 million to 80 million people around the world. This number includes all dialects of Cantonese (Yue Chinese dialects). There are also many other closely related Chinese languages, sometimes called dialects (though each of these has their own different dialects), such as Minnan (including Taiwanese), Wu (including Shanghainese), Hakka, and Mandarin.
Where is this language spoken?
Cantonese is mostly spoken is the People's Republic of China, particularly Guangdong province, Guangxi province, Hong Kong, and Macau. It is also spoken around the world in Chinese communities where people from Cantonese-speaking regions have settled, including Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Cantonese is used as an official language and in government, media, and education in Hong Kong and Macau.
What is the history of this language?
China has a history of five thousand years of continuous civilization, so it is probable that the oldest form of the Chinese language is at least as old as this. Archeologists have found Chinese pictographic writing on pottery, bones and turtle shells from as long ago as the Shang dynasty, over 3000 years ago. By the time of the Qin dynasty, 2000 years ago, Chinese writing had been standardized and it has changed very little since then.
Because Chinese is not an alphabetic language, it is hard to know exactly what the language sounded like in the distant past, but linguistic scholars have been able to reconstruct models of the language of this time, which indicate that modern Chinese languages sound very different from Old Chinese.
In the year 226, the Guang province was formed in the modern Guangdong and Guangxi territories. Over time, more and more Han Chinese migrated southwards towards this province, bringing the Middle Chinese language with them. During the Tang Dynasty, Guangdong and Guangxi formed the Lingnan Circuit, which was eventually split into a "west" (Xi) and "east" (Dong), giving the modern Guangxi and Guangdong. Middle Chinese became the foundation for the Cantonese language, which also absorbed some influences from the Zhuang language (a language related to modern Thai).
Ancient Chinese dictionaries such as the Guangyun preserve the sounds of Late Middle Chinese, which linguists confirm to be very close to modern-day Cantonese and Hakka (another Chinese language closely related to Cantonese).
The first appearance of written vernacular Cantonese occurred during the Ming Dynasty. Written Cantonese has continued to be used sporadically right up until the present. Nowadays, it is popular in Hong Kong and used mostly in informal contexts, such as advertisements, tabloids and other media, and online messaging. There is also literature written in Cantonese, mostly having to do with daily situations of Hong Kong people.
As all Chinese languages share a common literary tradition and past, due to the ability of the Chinese script to be read by speakers of any Sinitic language or dialect, the below poets and authors belong to all of the Chinese languages. Indeed, it is well known that poetry of the Tang dynasty often rhymes better when read in southern Chinese languages, such as Cantonese, Minnan, or Hakka.
Poets and Ci authors (in order of fame):
Authors (in chronological order of birth):
孔子Confucius (most influential philosopher in Korean, Chinese and Japanese societies)
陸機Lu, Ji (author of "On Literature," a piece of literature criticism)
劉勰Liu, Xie (author of "Carving of a Dragon by a Literary Mind," a piece on literature aesthetics)
陈独秀Chen, Duxiu (one of the main promoters of modern written Chinese language)
鲁迅Lu, Xun (one of the most influential writers of the 20th century)
胡适Hu, Shi (one of the main promoters of modern written Chinese language)
What are some basic words in this language that I can learn?
- 你好！- Nei Hou! - "Hello!"
- 再見！- Joi Gin! - "Good bye"
- 你叫乜嘢名？ - Nei Giu Mat Ye Meng? - What is your name?
- 多謝 - Do Je - thank you
- 唔該 - Ng Goi - please
- 對唔住 - Doey Ng Jue - sorry
- 係 - Hai - yes, is
- 唔係 - Ng Hai - no, is not
- 廣東話 - Gwong Dung Wah - "Cantonese language"
- 粵語 - Yut Yu - "Cantonese language (formal)"
- 中國 - Jung Gwok - China
- 廣州 - Gwong Jau - Guangzhou
- 香港 - Heung Gong - Hong Kong
- 點心 - Dim Sam - "dim sum"
- 飲茶 - Yam Cha - "drink tea; yum cha"
Introduction • Glossary • Authors and Contributing • Print Version