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)
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).
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?