Differences between Mandarin and Cantonese; Written and Spoken

No Gravatar
Cantonese Languages

Cantonese Languages

Earlier I had written something as a comment on a blog that belonged another person in regards to a question that asked if someone who knew Mandarin could communicate to someone who knew only Cantonese. The responses were quite misleading and some were semi-flawed so I decided to clear things up, although it went a bit too in depth. I wanted this to be given to people who don’t understand the differences between the languages to know so I decided to reproduce it here for your benefit. There’s more than just those differences they stated. I will use only Traditional script just for simplicity. (Cantonese and Mandarin can be written in both contrary to what others said in the comments)
Mandarin: 我們明天可以去香港
Cantonese: 我聼日可以去香港

Yes that’s true, but there’s also more to that. First thing:
In written Chinese, there’s two kinds: Classical Chinese, and Standard Chinese.

Classical Chinese (古文 or 文言文) is self explanatory.
Standard Chinese (白話文 also known as Vernacular) is based on Mandarin and is essentially just about the same as Mandarin speech. I think this is the part where people begin to get confused.

Now, stay with me on this one. Written Mandarin is essentially the same as Written Standard Chinese. Written Cantonese is almost completely different from written Mandarin (because Cantonese is essentially a different language; there is research that says that the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is way different than that between English and French, but we’ll get into that some other time).

Now, why did the above people say Cantonese speakers would still understand? You have to understand that Semi-Standard Written Cantonese is a very recent thing. In ancient times, Cantonese written down was very informal. In the past, people wrote ONLY in Classical Chinese (古文) because only the elite and educated could know how to write, so there was no need for vernacular to be made or standardized.

In 1911 after the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) that toppled the Chinese Empire, there was no need for Classical because the commoners don’t understand it so they made a standardized written script called Standard Chinese which was based off Mandarin. Because of this, everyone who could read can read Written Mandarin but not necessarily speak or understand it (I know, kind of trippy). Written Cantonese developed mainly be translators and furthered through Hong Kong being a British Colony.

Furthermore, with the advent of the People’s Republic of China, all citizens were made to learn Mandarin so the Cantonese speakers know Mandarin (or at least they should).

Chinese Languages

Chinese Languages

Thus in short, this is how it goes:
Mandarin speakers can read Written Chinese (Mandarin)but not Written Cantonese.
Mandarin speakers can only understand Spoken Mandarin but not Spoken Cantonese.

Cantonese speakers can read Written Chinese (Mandarin) and Written Cantonese
Cantonese speakers can understand Spoken Mandarin and Spoken Cantonese.

Now as for the grammar and structure of the words, the example you gave is poor to demonstrate that so I’ll show some other ones (you’ll see why).

—- In Mandarin, there’s essentially no conjugation of verbs. —-

If you wanna say: “I go to the supermarket” it’s “我去超級市場”

To say “I went to the supermarket” you have to essentially add some adverb in the sense of time to it.

You essentially have to say: “Yesterday, I went to the supermarket” which would become “昨天我去超級市場”

Notice there’s no indication of change in tense to the verb 去.

Now if we switch to Cantonese, there IS conjugation, let’s look at the examples again.

“I go to the supermarket” becomes “我去超級市場”
“I went to the supermarket” becomes “我去咗超級市場”
“I had went to the supermarket” becomes “我去過超級市場”
“Yesterday, I went to the supermarket” becomes “尋日我去咗超級市場”
“I had went to the supermarket before” becomes “我曾經去過超級市場”

Notice the differences? Tense is blatant in Cantonese while in Mandarin you have to allude to it.

Another thing is that Cantonese uses many words that Mandarin does not. Do NOT infer this as slang, because this would be deprecating the Cantonese Language. In addition, a good number of these are words that were from Classical Chinese that have been long lost in Mandarin

Tired -> Mandarin (累) while Cantonese (攰)
To Like -> Mandarin (喜歡) while Cantonese (鍾意)
To Eat -> Mandarin (吃) while Cantonese (食)
To Drink -> Mandarin (喝) while Cantonese (飲)

I hope this helps inform you all about our language a little more closely. If you have any further questions feel free to leave a comment in this post or perhaps ask people around in the forums for further explanations or help.

Now after hearing all of the above, would you still be naive and call Cantonese a “dialect” or would you finally recognize (if you have not yet) that Cantonese is a language its own right. If you refuse to call us a language, then you deny our existence and identity. Wouldn’t that in turn be quite racist and discriminatory to recognize Mandarin speakers are legitimate but Cantonese isn’t?

15 thoughts on “Differences between Mandarin and Cantonese; Written and Spoken

  1. Very interesting! Examples are very good.

    Right, cantonese is carrying its own culture and local colors, it called colloquial cantonese that speaking in Canton area as well as Hong Kong.

    If interesting in Colloquial Cantonese, please visit:


    MakMak Reply:

    Yes! Very much so! I appreciate your site too! Whenever, I read it and heart those things… it’s like 他鄉遇故知. serious :) Keep up your work too! Maybe we can collaborate and form a dictionary for Cantonese that expands beyond just English-Cantonese. Maybe have Japanese, French, Russian, etc. All together as once to facilitate Cantonese’s promotion and protection. I wonder if anyone would want to help with that.


    Cristiano Reply:

    Omg! If you did that I would be so happy! I’m learning Cantonese and I have noticed that there are few legitimate learning resources, at least ones that are helpful, useful, and not to ambiguous. Your site is very helpful!

    Also, does this mean that ‘written’ Cantonese, at least in Hong Kong (Sorry Macau xD) is written in ‘Classical Chinese’? Like I was looking up interrogative pronouns, like who what where when, and I saw classical and standard. Does this mean that if my primary interest is learning Hong Kong style Cantonese, I should focus on Classical first?


  2. Mak Mak,
    Got your comment/message and checked out your site – great to see other fellow Cantonese working to preserve our heritage whether it’s Toisanese, Jongsan, Hakka or whatnot. Would love to “trade links” to get the word out! Pls email me Thanks, Toisan girl (Nancy)


  3. Hi, I’m a Cantonese ABC and know a bit of Mandarin, but it is way worse than my Cantonese, which is way worse than my English. However, I work with a lot of Mainland Chinese, so I ask them Mandarin questions all the time and tell them how much Cantonese is better than Mandarin all the time. Anyway, I wanted to point out some stuff:

    For your examples of verb conjugation, I think that it is slightly inaccurate. For example, for your statement that Mandarin people do not have past tense, I think they do in certain aspects.

    Like “I went to the supermarket” could be “我去了超級市場”. (I verified with a native Mandarin speaker).

    Also, some of your examples are claimed to be Cantonese-only, but I think some are applicable to Mandarin as well. Specifically:
    1. “I had went to the supermarket” becomes “我去過超級市場”
    2. “I had went to the supermarket before” becomes “我曾經去過超級市場”

    Furthermore, I think that both languages have future tense by adding 會 (will, basically) in front.

    Finally, I think you should add another example to your examples since Cantonese definitely have this while Mandarin does not and that’s the present tense. In fact, present tense in Mandarin is so clumsy, it’s debilitating. And whenever I want to say something in the present tense in Mandarin to my colleagues, I always have difficulty. Here’s the example:

    “I am going to the supermarket” becomes “我去緊超級市場”
    Mandarin would require to change the sentence to “我在去超級市場的路上” (I verified with a native Mandarin speaker), which roughly translates to: “I am currently on the road to go to the supermarket”.


    MakMak Reply:

    Haha thanks! I won’t lie, but my Mandarin is actually pretty horrible. Thanks for this clarification!


  4. I think @Kentalot is right about the 了.

    Thanks for this article. Next time my friends ask me about the difference I’ll just send them here. :-D


    MakMak Reply:

    By all means please do! I shall definitely cite and credit you if you do. I want Cantonese to be recognized thoroughly and not through means of “Mandarin is Evil” :)


  5. I just happened upon this website and it’s pretty darn cool. This post is OK, but some things aren’t quite right.

    First, Cantonese verbs do not have tense. Tense is formed by a verb modifying its form in some way–maybe even completely[1]. Thus, for the verb “to eat”:
    - I eat = present tense
    - I ate = simple past tense
    (note that English has no future tense; it relies on, for example, modal auxiliaries to talk about the future–that is, “will” and “going to”)[2].
    We can take another example from Italian, which has more tenses than English. I’ll use the word “mangiare” (to eat):
    - mangio = I eat/I am eating (present tense)
    - mangiavo = I was eating (imperfect tense)
    - mangiai = I ate (long ago) (remote past tense)
    - mangerò = I will eat (future tense).
    Do you see how in these two example, the infinitive changes a bit, or in the case of English, completely?

    However, in Cantonese, the verb never changes depending on the time at which the action took place. Instead, it relies on aspect markers, which are the so-called “tenses” you wrote about. Here is a list from the book Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar[3] with all the Cantonese aspect markers:
    去咗 – perfective
    去過 – experiential
    去緊 – progressive
    去住 – continuous
    去吓 – delimitative
    去開 – habitual

    Notice how the verb “去” never changes shape or pronunciation. Instead, these markers combine with the verb to describe features of the action that tense does in other languages. However, these aspect markers don’t even have to be present, as adverbs can relate the same information when the context is right:


    Another feature that makes these markers different from tense is that some have a range of meanings not covered by one specific tense. For example, the perfective aspect marker “咗” can semantically correspond to the English perfect and the English simple past:

    My car has broken down. (perfect)

    The company made a good deal of money last year. (simple past).

    How long have you been married? (perfect)[4]

    With the above in mind, I really see no difference between the way you’ve characterized Mandarin and with what I know of Cantonese. You wrote that in Mandarin, one cannot say explicitly “I went to the supermarket,” but rather that it must be inferred from the context supplied by an adverb: “Yesterday, I go to the supermarket.” However, the Cantonese sentence “尋日我去超級市場” looks and sounds perfectly fine me.

    You used “過” in the sentence “我去過超級市場” in an odd way. “過” is used to state that an action has been experienced, without reference to when or how many times. The sentence “我去過超級市場” wouldn’t be translated as “I had gone to the supermarket,” but instead as “I have gone to the supermarket at least once, but I’m not telling you when it was or how many times I went.”

    Regarding toisangirl’s post, it’s not that Mandarin possesses no present tense, but rather there is (from the looks of it) no progressive marker. It’s true that “I am going to the supermarket” becomes “我去緊超級市場,” but the English is the present progressive, indicating an action in progress (which is exactly how the aspect marker “緊” works in Cantonese).

    Finally, although it is not really scholarly of me, I agree with what is written in the introduction to “Dirty Chinese,” in which the authors write about how there is no such thing as the “Chinese language,” rather there is an artificial written system that is more or less adhered to by all of the other dialects. Depending on how you look at it, Mandarin is just as much a dialect of Chinese as Cantonese. Or, to take a more Western linguistics viewpoint, Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible languages. While I agree that Cantonese should be promoted more–and I personally have no interest in Mandarin or basically anything that has to do with Mainland China–, I don’t really see how your last paragraph has anything do with the rest of your post. But maybe I just stepped into the middle of a long conversation…

    The sources I used for this post are:

    [1] The Blackwell Handbook of Linguistics. Chapter 9: Morphology. Edited by: Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller. eISBN: 9781405102520. Print publication date: 2002
    [2] Language Log. “The Lord Which Was and Is.” http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005471.html
    [3] & [4] Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip. 1994. (I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Cantonese grammar. It’s the most thorough treatment of Cantonese grammar to date, and it comes with loads of examples).


    MakMak Reply:

    Thanks! Yeah I realized this article is flawed, I guess making things “simplified” for people doesn’t work. I need to get around to fixing this and making a better version to pass around. You seem well versed in this subject, are you a native speaker?


    Alex Reply:

    I *wish* I were a native speaker. I’ve been learning for the past two years. I’m in Hong Kong now, attending CUHK for my masters degree.


    MakMak - Cantonese Language Reply:

    I sincerely applaud your efforts in this :) It’s good to see non-Cantonese learning Cantonese.

    I wish I could find a way to make a standard curriculum or study material… How are they teaching you Cantonese is CUHK?

  6. Very interesting article! I would love to hear about how Cantonese and Mandarin are similar or different in regards to English and French. (I am a Canadian who is of French and Scottish ancestry.) I am currently learning French so I would really like to hear your opinion on this subject! Will you be expanding on this branch of the topic soon? I am looking forward to the next post! Thanks!


  7. No. Just wrong.
    1. No Chinese language have tenses. The distinctive trait about Chinese as a analytic language is that “tenses” are expressed using independent words, not inflections. “do->does->did->done” are inflections; “了”,”咗”,”紧” are not inflections.

    2.” there is research that says that the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is way different than that between English and French”
    name the research please? English is a Germanic tongue. French is a Latin tongue. Proto Germanic and Proto Italic splitted more than 5000 years ago. Cantonese and Mandarin, on the other hand, are both descendants of Middle Chinese.

    As a Chinese speaker I find this misinformation most insulting.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>