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About Cantonese

‘Cantonese’ is a term that refers to both the language and the people. The language is considered a Chinese dialect. This is not to be confused as a dialect of Chinese, because there is no such language called “Chinese.” Whenever people think of “Chinese” they are probably thinking of the official language of China, which is called Mandarin. Cantonese is the official language of Hong Kong and used widely, if not exclusively, in Macau and Guangdong. For you North Americans, there’s a sizable population of Cantonese speakers concentrated in certain cities throughout the continent. Even if you travel outside, there just might be someone out in your destination that speaks Cantonese. You’d be surprised to find out there are Cantonese living in Guam, Panama, and even Mauritius!

The language has been around for a very long time, some estimate it to be around some 2000 years. That’s a very long time! Especially when you compare it the relatively short span of Mandarin, a mere 700-800 years. Cantonese is a very old language and it retains a lot of the old sounds and characteristics from Middle Chinese. This is evidenced by the poems of the Tang dynasty; when you recite it in Cantonese, it has more rhymes than many other dialects.

Cantonese is a tonal language, meaning that each syllable will have a tone to it. A tone is a specific pitch. Think of it like singing. Westerners that make first contact with Cantonese, or any other Chinese dialect for that matter, will often think the people are singing rather than talking. Cantonese has 6 tones (9 if you want to be very technical about it). It’s not too bad once you get the hang of it. People tend to have trouble distinguishing between the tones at first. Often times students have trouble grasping the idea that it’s not about the tones. Native Cantonese speakers will be confused if you introduce to them the “conjugation” of a syllable and cycle through the tones. It just doesn’t work that way to them. They never learned a word as being “okay this is the syllable ‘ma’ and if you assign tone number 4 it means so-and-so, but if you assign tone number 6, it means something different.” Nope. To them, they’re all different words, through and through. Keep this in mind whenever you’re asking a native for help. I’ve driven my poor mom crazy with these kinds of questions.

“Hey mom, how come it’s pronounced toi4 in this example, but when you say table by itself, it’s toi2?”

Cantonese also has another notable feature besides tones – there are these things called “clipped consonants.” They’re at the end of a syllable. They’re special because normally in English, you would say the word “flop” with a small puff of air at the end of the ‘-p‘. Or try the word “puck” or “art.” They all have a small puff of air at the end. The clipped consonants take only the first half of that last sound and do not bother with the last puff of air.
For example:  sap6 ten
In this example, sap6 has the ‘-p’ sound cut off. It sounds abrupt to your ears.  In fact, you might even think it sounds like the word, “sup” as in “what’s up?” Usually, the ‘-p’ in “sup” does not have a puff of air. The same principle is true for the clipped consonants.

Aside from those two things, Cantonese isn’t exactly a hard language to speak. There are a couple of vowels that are a little strange at first but with some practice, you should get them down. The only other things to note are the small nuances that occurs within Cantonese, such as the length of certain words, rhythm and breaks in conversations, and even a meshing of tones here and there. But we’ll get to them eventually. As long as you have the fundamentals down, whatever comes next is just a variation of what you already know.

Cantonese is, at the most basic level, very similar to English in terms of grammar, only much simpler. There is no such thing as conjugation for verbs and there’s no need to memorize the plural forms or the corresponding verbs. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Cantonese has many grammatical patterns that are very different from the patterns used in English and may be confusing at first. Furthermore, Cantonese has a variety of these things called particles, which usually consist of 1 word, are located at the end of a sentence, and set the mood or tone of what you’re saying. Particles are essential to speaking correct, natural-sounding Cantonese.

Once you get started with Cantonese, some of you may think that Cantonese is a pretty compact and efficient language, able to express a whole lot of meaning with relatively fewer words than in English (or perhaps even your own mother tongue). But of course, this is only superficial. Spoken Cantonese in daily life can get wordy, depending on who’s talking and what they’re talking about.

Now that you know what Cantonese is like, somewhat, let’s get started with the hardest aspect of the language: writing.

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