Cantonese (廣東話 Gwóngdūngwáh) is a widely spoken Chinese language. It is the local language in current use within the province of Guangdong, China, official language in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, as well as in the Special Administrative Region of Macau, and used in many overseas Chinese communities in South-East Asia and elsewhere, with Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) being two places where Cantonese is the dominant language in a Chinese community that is in turn huge and influential. Cantonese is also the dominant language in many Chinatowns all over the world, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Vancouver, Toronto and Kuala Lumpur. The dialect of Chinese spoken by many inhabitants of eastern Guangxi Province in mainland China, is often referred to a form of Cantonese as well.
Chinese languages are mutually unintelligible, with difference ranging from that between Italian and French to that between English and Swedish, which we would call "related languages" rather than "dialects".
Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese languages do NOT use the same script. All Chinese languages have their own, with some (like Min and Hakka) in fact not using Chinese characters but instead the Roman alphabet (with accents in order to indicate tones); however, Mandarin is the only language used officially in formal writing even in Hong Kong and Macau, where the official spoken language is Cantonese (even though advertising and subtitling of children's TV programs and films frequently use Cantonese). Still, locals there learn to read and write Mandarin although generally cannot understand it in spoken form. Mandarin has two scripts, namely simplified and traditional, simplified being used in mainland China and Singapore and traditional being used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
There are different local languages in Guangdong that are sometimes considered Cantonese dialects but in fact are separate languages, such as Taishanese, spoken in Taishan in the far west of Guangdong. However, most people throughout Guangdong know how to speak standard Cantonese (Guangzhou dialect) and Hongkongers and Macanese speak standard Cantonese with slight influences from Western languages, especially from English in Hong Kong Cantonese. The Cantonese spoken in Singapore and Malaysia also differ slightly due to Malay influences.
Some of the phrases in the list are difficult to translate from English to Cantonese.
The pronunciations given in this guidebook use the Yale Romanization system. Sounds can only be approximated at best. This guide gives a general indication of the correct sound to make, but the best way to be completely accurate is to listen closely to native speakers and to mimic the sounds they make.
b in "ball"
p as in "pat"
m as in "mom"
f as in "foot"
d in "dog"
t as in "top"
n as in "not"
l as in "lap". This is more like a rolling "r" sound, as in "ladder" or "butter", but it's a slide between d, t, l, and/or r.
g in "good"
k as in "kite"
ng as in "singer"
h as in "hot"
blend of the z in "Mozart" and the j in "judge"
blend of the ts in "cats" and the ch in "church"
s as in "sleep"
gw as in "hogwash"
qu as in "quark"
y as in "yard"
w as in "want"; otherwise, like English "v" in "victory"
The final consonants p, t, and k are unreleased. This means that they are virtually silent and you hear no "puff of air" at the end of the syllable.
a as in "spa"
igh as in "sigh"
ow as in "how"
am as in "Vietnam"
awn as in "pawn"
combination of aa and ng
op as in "opt"
ought as in "ought"
alk as in "talk"
i as in "kite"
ou as in "scout"
ome as in "some"; otherwise, like "am" in "ham".
un as in "sun". This can be pronounced like "an" in "man"
ung as in "lung". This may sound like "ang" in "rang".
up as in "cup". This can be pronounced like "ap" in "map".
ut as in "cut"; otherwise, like "at" in "cat".
uc as in "suck"; otherwise, like "ack" in "back".
e as in "bet"
ay as in "say"
em as in "temple"
eng as in "penguin"
eck as in "peck"
ee as in "tee"
ew as in "few"
eem as in "seem"
een as in "seen"
ing as in "sing"
eep as in "sleep"
eet as in "meet"
ick as in "sick"
aw as in "paw" (British English)
oy as in "boy"
oe as in "toe"
orn as in "scorn" (British English)
ong as in "song" (British English)
ot as in "hot" (British English)
ock as in "stock" (British English)
oo as in "coo"
ooey as in "gooey"
oon as in "soon"
combination of ou and ng
oot as in "boot"
oke as in "joke"
er as in "her" (Britsh English, with rounded lips)
combination of eu and ng
ork as in "work" (British English)
eui as in "deuil" (French)
ine as in "engine"
ut as in "put"
u as in "tu" (French)
un as in "union"
Ut as in "Utah"
mm as in "hmm"
ng as in "sing"
Cantonese is a tonal language. This means that the same syllable, pronounced in a different tone, has a different meaning. To complicate this, there may be more than one character pronounced as the same syllable with the same tone (though this is uncommon). In this case, context usually helps resolve the ambiguity. This may sound daunting, but is in fact is better than say, English, where there are a great deal of words that are spoken identically (eg. their, there, they're) and have nothing but context to help determine which one it is. Cantonese has context and tone to help distinguish words.
Different variations of the Cantonese dialect have a different number of tones, from as few as six to as many as ten or more. Most speakers, however, and all modern linguistic interpretations get by with being able to distinguish (both in spoken and heard Cantonese) between the following six tones:
The tonal pronunciation of Cantonese is by far the most difficult aspect of the often daunting language. The very minor initial difficulty in learning the tones is sometimes more than made up for by simple grammar, and absence of almost all plurals, genders, tenses and forms that make many other world languages seem difficult by comparison.
To be or not to be?
Cantonese, as in Chinese, does not have words for "yes" and "no" as such; instead, questions are typically answered by repeating the verb. Common ones include:
To be or not to be
係 haih, 唔係 mh'haih
To have or not have / there is or is not
有 yáuh, 冇 móuh
To be right or wrong
啱 āam, 唔啱 mh'āam
你好. Néih hóu.
How are you?
你好嗎? Néih hóu ma?
How are you recently? (more popular in daily usage)
近排點呀 Gahnpàaih dím a? (informal)
幾好. Géi hóu. (No need to say "thank you" after answering "fine" in Cantonese)
What is your name?
你叫乜嘢名呀? Néih giu māt'yéh mèhng a?
What is your name (formal, literally means "How do I address you")?
請問點稱呼? Chíngmahn dím chīngfū?
My name is ______ .
我個名叫______. Ngóh go mèhng giu ______ .
Nice to meet you.
Thank you. (when someone helps you)
Thank you. (when someone gives you a gift)
唔使客氣. M̀h'sái haak-hei.
Excuse me. (getting attention)
唔好意思. M̀h'hóu yisi
Excuse me. (to get past)
對唔住. Deui-m̀h-jyuh. (In Hong Kong, it's more common to use the English word "sorry" instead)
再見 Joigin. (In Hong Kong, "bye bye" is often used instead)
In Cantonese, "train" is translated into 火車 (fóchē) and "bus" is 巴士 (bāsí). The language uses measure words or numeral classifiers before the actual nouns. In context of the following examples, the respective Cantonese measure words for 火車 and 巴士 are 班 (bāan) and 架 (ga).