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This article covers all Yue dialects. For the dialect of Guangzhou, see Cantonese.
This article contains Chinese text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Chinese characters.
Yue / Cantonese
Traditional Chinese 粵語
Simplified Chinese 粤语
Cantonese Jyutping Jyut6 jyu5
Commonly known as
Traditional Chinese 廣東話
Simplified Chinese 广东话
Spoken in People's Republic of China; and countries with overseas Chinese originating from Cantonese-speaking parts of China
Region the Pearl River Delta (central Guangdong; Hong Kong, Macau); the eastern and southern Guangxi; parts of Hainan; Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Kota Kinabalu); Vietnam; Indonesia (Medan); United Kingdom; Canada (Vancouver, Toronto); United States (San Francisco, New York City, Honolulu, Sacramento, Chicago)
Total speakers 52 million in China (1984)[1]
Ranking 23[1]
Language family Sino-Tibetan
Writing system Traditional Chinese
Official status
Official language in Hong Kong and Macau (de facto; even though officially referred to as "Chinese"; Cantonese and occasionally Mandarin are used in government). Recognised regional language in Suriname.
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1 zh
ISO 639-2 chi (B)  zho (T)
ISO 639-3 yue
Cantonese in China.png

Yue (Chinese: 粵語, Cantonese: Jyut6 jyu5 / Yuht Yúh, Mandarin: Yuè Yǔ[2]) is a primary branch of the Chinese language comprising a number of dialects spoken in southern China mainly in the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau, and in various overseas communities. The English name "Cantonese" is sometimes taken to refer to the dialect of Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau, which has emerged as the prestige variety of Yue.

The issue of whether Yue should be regarded as a language in its own right or as a dialect of a Chinese language depends on conceptions of what a language is. Like the other primary branches of Chinese, Yue is considered to be a dialect of a single Chinese language for ethnic and cultural reasons, but is also considered a language in its own right because it is mutually unintelligible with other varieties of Chinese.

The areas with the highest concentration of speakers are Guangdong and parts of Guangxi in southern mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau; with Cantonese- and Taishanese-speaking minorities in Southeast Asia, Canada, Australia and the United States.[3]



The prototypical use of the name "Cantonese" is for the Canton (Guangzhou) dialect of Yue,[4] but it is commonly used for Yue as a whole. To avoid confusion, academic texts may call the primary branch of Chinese Yue,[5][6] following the Mandarin pinyin spelling, and either restrict "Cantonese" to its common usage as the dialect of Canton (Guangzhou), or avoid the term "Cantonese" altogether and distinguish Yue from Canton or Guangzhou dialect. People of Hong Kong, Macau and Cantonese immigrants abroad usually call the language Gwongdung Waa, "speech of Guangdong,"[7] though this is ambiguous as it implies that other languages or dialects in Guangdong such as Hakka and Teochew (which are not Cantonese) are included, and that the Cantonese spoken in Guangxi is not included. People of Guangdong and Guangxi do not use the term Gwongdung Waa, but call it Baak Waa (白話) "plain speech" or 粵語 "Yue language".



Relation to Classical Chinese

Since the pronunciation of all modern varieties of Chinese are different from Old Chinese or Middle Chinese, characters that once rhymed in poetry may no longer do so today. Some linguists agree to some extent that Cantonese is closer to classical Chinese in its pronunciation and some grammar.[8] Many poems that don't rhyme in Mandarin, do so in Cantonese.[8] Cantonese retains a flavour of archaic and ancient Chinese. If protected, it can be used as a fossil to help study ancient Chinese culture.[8]

Qin and Han

In the Qin Dynasty Chinese troops moved south and conquered the Baiyue territories, and many Han people began settling in the Lingnan area. This migration led to the Chinese language being spoken in the Lingnan area. After Zhào Tuō was made the Duke of Nanyue by the Qin Dynasty and given authority over the Nanyue region, many Han people entered the area and lived together with the Nanyue population, consequently affecting the livelihood of the Nanyue people as well as stimulating the spread of the Chinese language.


In the Sui Dynasty, Zhongyuan was in a period of war and discontent, and many people moved southwards to avoid war, forming the first mass migration of Han people into the South. As the population in the Lingnan area dramatically rose, the Chinese language in the south developed significantly. Thus, the Cantonese language began to develop more significant differences with central Chinese.


The Cantonese system pronunciations, vocabulary and usage is very similar to the official language used during the Tang dynasty.[9] There are traits from the Tang left in Cantonese. Linguists who specialise in dialects believe that migrants and exiled officials from the heart of the Tang brought the dialect to Guangdong.[9] Remoteness and inefficient transport to Guangdong created an environment in which the language remained largely intact after it arrived there.[9]

Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing

In the Song Dynasty, the differences between central Chinese and Cantonese became more significant, and the languages became more independent of one another. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Cantonese evolved still further, developing its own characteristics.

Mid to late Qing

In the late Qing, the dynasty had gone through a period of maritime ban under the Hai jin. Guangzhou remained one of the few cities that allowed trading with foreign countries, since the trade chamber of commerce was established there.[10] Therefore, some foreigners learned Cantonese and some Imperial government officials spoke Cantonese, making the language very popular in Cantonese-speaking Guangzhou. Also, the European control of Macau and Hong Kong had increased the exposure of Cantonese to the world.

20th century

In 1912, shortly after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the founding fathers of the republic met to decide which language should be spoken in the new China. Mandarin Putonghua was then a northern dialect spoken by the Manchurian officials.[8] Many perceived it as an 'impure form' of Chinese.[8] Many revolutionary leaders met including Sun Yat-sen and had a great debate that eventually led to a formal vote.[8] Cantonese lost out by a small margin of the vote to Putonghua.[8] Though some historians still argue about the authenticity of the story or event.[8] The popularity of Cantonese-language media and entertainment from Hong Kong have since led to a wide and frequent exposure of Cantonese to large portions of China and the rest of Asia. Cantopop and the Hong Kong film industry are prominent examples of modern Cantonese language media.[9]

In the People's Republic of China, the national policy is to promote Putonghua.[9] While the government does not stop the people from promoting Cantonese local culture, it also does not support it either.[9] Occasionally there are news of kids getting punished for speaking Cantonese in schools.[9]


A map of the main Yue dialects in China and Vietnam[citation needed]. Yuehai (Y) is considered a single dialect, commonly called Cantonese. The Guinan varieties (G) are not particularly close.

Cantonese proper (Standard Cantonese, Guangzhou, Hong Kong Cantonese)

Danjia dialect

 Sanyi (Nanpanshun) 

Nanhai dialect

Jiujiang dialect

Xiqiao dialect

Panyu dialect

Shunde dialect


Shiqi dialect


Dongguan dialect

Bao'an (Weitou) dialect

 Siyi (Seiyap) 


Siqian dialect

 Luoguang dialect 


Gaozhou dialect

Yangjiang dialect

 Wuchuan dialect (Wuzhou) 

 Yongxun (Jungcam) 

Nanning dialect

Yongning dialect

 Goulou (Ngaulau) 

Yulin dialect

 Qinlian (Jamlim) 

Qinzhou dialect

Lianzhou dialect (Beihai)

? Hainan (Hai) 


Mai dialect

Pinghua (Ping) 

Guibei dialect

Guinan dialect

The Yue language includes several dialects, some of which are only partially mutually intelligible. In the classification of J.M. Campbell,[11] they are:

  • Cantonese proper, Guangfu (廣府粵語) or Yuehai (粵海粵語), which includes the language of Guangzhou and the surrounding areas of Zhongshan, Wuzhou, and Foshan, as well as Hong Kong and Macau;
  • Sìyì (四邑粵語 Seiyap), exemplified by the Taishan dialect (台山粵語), also known as Taishanese, which was ubiquitous in American Chinatowns before ca 1970;
  • Gaoyang (高陽粵語), spoken in Yangjiang;
  • Wuhua (吳化粵語 Ngfaa), spoken mainly in western Guangdong;
  • Goulou (勾漏粵語 Ngaulau), spoken in western Guangdong and eastern Guangxi, which includes the dialect of Yulin, Guangxi;
  • Yongxun (邕潯粵語 Jungcam), spoken mainly in Guangxi and its capital Nanning;
  • Qinlian (欽廉粵語 Jamlim), spoken in southern Guangxi, which includes the Beihai dialect;
  • Danzhou (儋州話), which includes the dialect of Changjiang
  • Haihua (海話), the dialect of Lianjiang

The Yue dialects spoken in Guangxi Province are mutually intelligible with Canton dialect. For instance, Wuzhou is about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like Standard Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou, than is that of Taishan which is 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated by several rivers from it.[6] Formerly Pinghua (廣西平話), spoken in central Guangxi, was considered Yue, but it was designated a separate primary branch of Chinese by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the 1980s,[12] a classification generally followed in the west.

The Canton/Guangzhou dialect of Yuehai is the prestige dialect and social standard of Yue, and historically the word "Cantonese" has referred specifically to this dialect.

Standard Mandarin is the medium of instruction in the state education system in Mainland China but in Chinese schools in Hong Kong and Macau, Yue is the oral language of instruction. It is used extensively in Yue-speaking households, Yue-language media (Hong Kong films, television serials, and Cantopop), isolation from the other regions of China, local identity, and the non-Mandarin speaking Yue diaspora in Hong Kong and abroad give the language a unique identity. Most wuxia films from Canton are filmed originally in Yue and then dubbed or subtitled in Mandarin, English, or both.

Cantonese dialect

The Cantonese dialect is the prestige dialect of Guangdong province, and along with English an official language of Hong Kong. It is the most widely spoken dialect of Yue, spoken in Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, and Macau, and is the lingua franca of not only Guangdong province, but of overseas Cantonese emigrants, though in many areas abroad it is numerically second to the Taishanese dialect of Yue. It forms the basis of Standard Cantonese.


See Cantonese phonology for the Guangzhou/Hong Kong dialect, and Taishanese for the phonology of that dialect.

Yue development and usage

The area coloured in red shows the Cantonese-speaking region in areas claimed by the People's Republic of China.


By law, Standard Mandarin (Putonghua 普通話 or guoyu 國語) is the standard language of mainland China and Taiwan and is taught nearly universally as a supplement to local languages such as Cantonese in Guangdong. Yue is the de facto official language of Hong Kong (along with English) and Macau (along with Portuguese), though legally the official language is just "Chinese". Yue is also one of the main languages in many overseas Chinese communities including Australia, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe. Many of these emigrants and/or their ancestors originated from Guangdong. In addition, these immigrant communities formed before the widespread use of Mandarin, or they are from Hong Kong where Mandarin is not commonly used. The prestige dialect of Yue is the Guangzhou dialect. In Hong Kong, colloquial Cantonese often incorporates English words due to historical British influences.


Yue is generally a more conservative language than Mandarin, retaining a richer history. For example, Yue has retained consonant endings from older varieties of Chinese that have been lost in Mandarin. Putonghua has 23 syllable rimes, while Cantonese has 59, leaving Putonghua relying heavily on the context for meaning.[9] The Cantonese Yue transcription of David Beckham's family name uses two characters ( bik1haam4), while Putonghua's uses four ( bèikèhànmǔ).[9] However, Yue has reduced the medial sounds still present in Mandarin, and Wu Chinese has preserved the three series of stop consonant initials from Middle Chinese that both Mandarin and Yue have reduced to two.


The Taishan dialect, which in the U.S. nowadays is heard mostly spoken by Chinese actors in old American TV shows and movies (e.g. Hop Sing on Bonanza), is more conservative than Cantonese. It has preserved the initial /n/ sound of words, whereas many post-World War II-born Hong Kong Cantonese speakers have changed this to an /l/ sound ("ngàuh lām" instead of "ngàuh nām" for "beef brisket" 牛腩) and more recently drop the "ng-" initial (so that it changes further to "àuh lām"); this seems to have arisen from some kind of street affectation as opposed to systematic phonological change. The common word for "who" in Taishan is "sŭe" (), which is the same character used in classical Chinese and Mandarin, whereas Cantonese uses the unrelated word "bīngo" (邊個), meaning which one.


Yue sounds quite different from Mandarin, mainly because it has a different set of syllables. The rules for syllable formation are different; for example, there are syllables ending in non-nasal consonants (e.g. "lak"). It also has different tones and more of them than Mandarin. Canton dialect is generally considered to have 6 romanization tones, as reflected in most romanization schemes such as Jyutping, Yale, Standard Cantonese Pinyin. According to other analyses, the number of tones may also be 7 or 8. The choice mainly depends on whether a traditional distinction between a high-level and a high-falling tone is observed; the two tones in question have largely merged into a single, high-level tone, especially in Hong Kong Cantonese, which has tended to simplify traditional Chinese tones.[citation needed] Many (especially older) descriptions of the Cantonese sound system record a higher number of tones, 9. However, the extra tones differ only in that they end in p, t, or k; otherwise they can be modeled identically.[13]

Yue preserves many syllable-final sounds that Mandarin has lost or merged. For example, the characters , , , , , , , , , , and are all pronounced "yì" in Mandarin, but they are all different in Yue (Cantonese jeoih, ngaht, ngaih/ngaaih, yìk, yihk, yi, yìh, yih, ai, yap, and yaht, respectively). Like Hakka and Min Nan, Yue has preserved the final consonants [-m, -n, -ŋ -p, -t, -k] from Middle Chinese, while the Mandarin final consonants have been reduced to [-n, -ŋ]. The final consonants of Yue match those of Middle Chinese with very few exceptions. For example, lacking the syllable-final sound "m"; the final "m" and final "n" from older varieties of Chinese have merged into "n" in Mandarin, e.g. Cantonese "taahm" (譚) and "tàahn" (壇) versus Mandarin tán; "yìhm" (鹽) and "yìhn" (言) versus Mandarin yán; "tìm" (添) and "tìn" (天) versus Mandarin tiān; "hàhm" (含) and "hòhn" (寒) versus Mandarin hán. The examples are too numerous to list. Nasals can be independent syllables in Yue words, e.g. Cantonese "ńgh" (五) "five", and "m̀h" (唔) "not", even though such type of syllables did not exist in Middle Chinese.

Differences also arise from Mandarin's relatively recent sound changes. One change, for example, palatalized [kʲ] with [tsʲ] to [tɕ], and is reflected in historical Mandarin romanizations, such as Peking (Beijing), Kiangsi (Jiangxi), and Fukien (Fujian). This distinction is still preserved in Yue. For example, 晶, 精, 經 and 京 are all pronounced as "jīng" in Mandarin, but in Yue, the first pair is pronounced "jīng", and the second pair "gīng".

A more drastic example, displaying both the loss of coda plosives and the palatization of onset consonants, is the character (), pronounced *ɣæwk in Middle Chinese. Its modern pronunciations in Yue, Hakka, Hokkien, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese are "hohk", "hók" (pinjim), "ha̍k" (Pe̍h-ōe-jī), học (although a Sino-Vietnamese word, it is used in daily vocabulary), 학 hak (Sino-Korean), and gaku (Sino-Japanese), respectively, while the pronunciation in Mandarin is xué [ɕɥɛ̌].

However, the Mandarin vowel system is somewhat more conservative than that of Yue, or at least the Cantonese dialect of Yue, in that many diphthongs preserved in Mandarin have merged or been lost in Yue. Also, Mandarin makes a three-way distinction among alveolar, alveolo-palatal, and retroflex fricative consonants, distinctions that are not made by modern Cantonese. For example, jiang (將) and zhang (張) are two distinct syllables in Mandarin or old Yue, but in modern Cantonese Yue they have the same sound, "jeung1". The loss of distinction between the alveolar and the alveolopalatal sibilants in Cantonese occurred in the mid-19th centuries and was documented in many Cantonese dictionaries and pronunciation guides published prior to the 1950s. A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect by Williams (1856), writes: “The initials "ch" and "ts" are constantly confounded, and some persons are absolutely unable to detect the difference, more frequently calling the words under "ts" as "ch", than contrariwise.” A Pocket Dictionary of Cantonese by Cowles (1914) adds: “s initial may be heard for sh initial and vice versa.”

There are clear sound correspondences in the tones. For example, a fourth-tone (low falling tone) word in Yue is usually second tone (rising tone) in Mandarin. This can be partly explained by their common descent from Middle Chinese (spoken), still with its different dialects. One way of counting tones gives Cantonese nine tones, Mandarin four, and Late Middle Chinese eight. Within this system, Mandarin merged the so-called "yin" and "yang" tones except for the Ping (平, flat) category, while Yue not only preserved these, but split one of them into two over time. Also, within this system, Yue and Wu are the only Chinese languages known to have split a tone, rather than merge two or more of them, since the time of Late Middle Chinese.

See also

Cantonese (Yue) edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


  1. ^ a b "Ethnologue: Statistical Summaries". Retrieved 13 November 2009. 
  2. ^ Ethnologue
  3. ^ Lau, Kam Y. (1999). Cantonese Phrase Book. Lonely Planet. ISBN 0864426453. 
  4. ^ "Cantonese". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd ed. 1989.
  5. ^ Ethnologue: "Yue Chinese"; "Yue" or older "Yüeh" in the OED; ISO code yue
  6. ^ a b Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-671-06694-9. 
  7. ^ Chinese 廣東話: Gwóngdùng wá (Yale Romanization), Gwong2 dung1 waa2 (Jyutping), Guǎngdōng huà (Mandarin pinyin)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h South China Morning Post. [2009] (2009). 06, October. "Cantonese almost became the official language", by He Huifeng.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i South China Morning Post. [2009] (2009). 11, October. "Linguistic heritage in peril". By Chloe Lai.
  10. ^ Li Qingxin. The Maritime Silk Road. trans. William W Wang. China Intercontinental Press. ISBN 7508509323. 
  11. ^ Yue Dialects Classification at Glossika
  12. ^ 现代汉语 "Modern Chinese" ISBN 7-04-002652-X page 15
  13. ^ [|Tan Lee]; Kochanski, G; Shih, C; Li, Yujia (16-20 September 2002). "Modeling Tones in Continuous Cantonese Speech". Proceedings of ICSLP2002 (Seventh International Conference on Spoken Language Processing). Denver, Colorado. Retrieved 2007-08-20. 

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