Mandarin vs Cantonese Differences

Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of the Chinese language and are both spoken in China. They are two related languages and share the same base alphabet. But as a spoken language they are distinct and have some major differences that depend on variety of aspects. In today’s post, we are going to take a close look at the major differences between the two languages.

Mandarin is also known as Putonghua, is the official language of mainland China with “Beijing phonetic as the standard sound, northern dialect as the basic dialect, and typical modern vernacular writings as the grammatical norms”. Mandarin is the standard language of modern Chinese. It is main speaking language in northern China, but also in the southwestern provinces thanks to migration. It is also an official language in Taiwan and Singapore.

Cantonese is a subset language of Chinese. Cantonese is spoken by people in southern mainland China, Hong Kong, and communities around the world. Chinese communities in Western countries typically have a high representation of Cantonese speakers due to the higher emigration rate of people from Hong Kong during the 20th century.

Comparison of the Tonal, Grammar and Writing Systems

1. Different syllable

(1) Cantonese retains a lot of ancient Chinese components, mostly monosyllable words, while Mandarin Chinese is mostly two-syllable words

For example:

Tale: Mandarin尾巴—Cantonese尾

Ear: Mandarin耳朵—Cantonese耳

Head: Mandarin脑袋—Cantonese头

Tongue: Mandarin舌头—Cantonese脷

Eye: Mandarin眼睛—Cantonese眼

Know: Mandarin认识—Cantonese识

Easy: Mandarin容易—Cantonese易

Difficult: Mandarin困难—Cantonese难

Quilt: Mandarin被子—Cantonese被

Wing: Mandarin翅膀—Cantonese翼

Cloth: Mandarin衣服—Cantonese衫

Window: Mandarin窗户—Cantonese窗

(2) Mandarin Pinyin has the syllable of zh, ch, sh, r, but Cantonese does not.

(3) Cantonese has nasal vowels with a rhyme ending in m, as well as nasal vowels with a rhyme ending in b, d, and g, while Mandarin does not.

2. Different tones

In terms of tones, Mandarin has only four tones, plus a neutral tone; while Cantonese has as many as nine tones, which can be divided into 6 open syllables and 3 checked syllables. Learning the tones are said to be the hardest part of learning Chinese. 



For example:

Please: Mandarin: 请qǐng: Cantonese: zhim goai

Thanks: Mandarin谢谢xiè xiè: Cantonese : do zei

You are welcome: Mandarin: 不客气 bù kèqì:Cantonese:-m sei ha hei

3. Different grammar

In terms of grammar, Cantonese is also different from Mandarin.

(1) Adverbial modifiers are often placed after verbs

For example:

Mandarin: 你先看—Cantonese:你睇先


Mandarin: 我比你多—Cantonese:我多过你

(2) The word order is different

For example:

I go first: Mandarin: 我先上—Cantonese: 我上先

Rooster: Mandarin: 公鸡—Cantonese: 鸡公

Guests: Mandarin: 客人—Cantonese: 人客

Morning: Mandarin: 早晨—Cantonese: 晨早

Like: Mandarin: 喜欢—Cantonese: 欢喜

(3) The function words are different

I am reading: Mandarin: 我正在读书—Cantonese: 我读紧书

4. Vocabulary

(1) Cantonese is deeply influenced by foreign culture, the formation and development of Cantonese dialect were absorbed many foreign words or the pronunciation of the words.

For example:

巴士–bus / 的士–taxi / 波–ball

恤衫–shirt / 摩打-motor / 菲林–film

士多–store / 梳化–sofa / Call机–pager

(2) A large number of ancient words and special dialect words are retained.

For example:

Drinking tea: Mandarin: 喝茶—Cantonese: 饮茶

Haircut : Mandarin: 理发—Cantonese: 飞发

Salary-pay: Mandarin: 发工资—Cantonese: 出粮

Shop: Mandarin: 商店—Cantonese: 铺头

Look : Mandarin: 看—Cantonese: 睇

Walk : Mandarin: 走—Cantonese: 行

Wing : Mandarin: 翅膀—Cantonese: 翼

Pretty : Mandarin: 漂亮—Cantonese: 靓

Not good : Mandarin: 不好—Cantonese: 弊

After we went through the major differences between Mandarin and Chinese, you may wonder which language I should learn. Because of its complexity level, there is no doubt that Cantonese is the more difficult dialect for beginners to learn. Besides, Guangdong province has seen an influx of Mandarin speakers and many people there now speak Mandarin. If you plan on doing business in China or traveling around the country, Mandarin is the language to learn. You might consider learning Cantonese if you intend to settle in Hong Kong for long period of time. If you’re feeling interested and plan to learn both languages, it is recommended that it’s easier to learn Mandarin first and then build up to Cantonese.

Want to boost your Chinese?

With maayot, receive a daily engaging story in Mandarin Chinese based on your level.

How does it work?

You’ll get a Chinese story once a day. It’s tailored to your level. Click on any character you don’t know to see it’s definition or add it to your spaced-repetition app.

Two new words that you may not have studied yet from higher levels.

Practice your listen with a daily native high-quality recording of the day’s story.

Test your understanding of the text with a quick and simple quiz. If you read it with attention, it should be rather simple. 

Practice your writing skills by answering to the day’s open-ended question.

You can register now to receive stories right away.