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What is Cantonese?

Cantonese is a language within the Chinese (Sinitic) branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages originating from the city of Guangzhou (historically known as Canton) and its surrounding Pearl River Delta.

Also known as Yue Yu or Guangdong Hua, Cantonese is one of the major Chinese dialects spoken by an estimated 100 million people all over the world, notably in Southern China, including Hong Kong, Macau, and the Guangdong Province. Outside of China, Cantonese has its major population bases in overseas Chinese communities in Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand.  Cantonese is also one of the dominant forms of Chinese spoken by the Chinese emigrants in United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

History of Cantonese

It was believed that due to the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220AD, many Han Chinese fled to Guangzhou, taking their ancient language with them. Since the migration of Han Chinese eventually outnumbered the Tanka originally living in the area, the Tanka gradually adopted proto-forms of Cantonese while preserving some elements of their original Tai language. Consequently, the prestige dialect commonly referred to as Cantonese nowadays emerged. 

Fun facts about Cantonese

  1. Cantonese is regarded as a tonal language with 6 or 9 tones (depending on the categorisation method). This means that tones are used to differentiate words in the Cantonese dialect!

For example,

“maai5” in Cantonese means “buy” and “maai6” in Cantonese means “sell”

“haai2” in Cantonese means “crab” and “haai4” in Cantonese means “shoes”

Then think about it, how would you say “buy shoes” and “sell crab” in Cantonese respectively?

  1. Due to the historical interaction of its areas of use with English speakers, Cantonese actually has many loanwords from English!

Make a guess for the following fruit names, they are all loanwords from English!

  1. Si6 do1 be1 le2
  2. Ce1 lei4 zi2
  3. Kei4 ji6 gwo2

(Answers at the end of this article)

  1. Oral Cantonese and written Cantonese are quite different, in which written Cantonese is more similar to Standard Chinese and Mandarin.

For example,

We will say “食飯sik6 faan6” to mean “have a meal”, but we need to write “吃飯hek3 faan6” for the same meaning.

Cantonese in Durham

Cantonese is an optional foreign language in GCSE and A-Level.

At Durham, we currently teach Cantonese to Durham University students, staff and members of the public. The Beginners and Elementary courses are designed for English or Mandarin speakers learning Cantonese for the first time. Lots of useful vocabularies, phrases and daily expressions will be taught to cater to learner’s needs. Cultural elements are also introduced to enhance learner’s understanding to the life in Hong Kong. The knowledge of Cantonese helps to communicate with the Cantonese speaking populations, to understand the Hong Kong and Southern China culture, history and tradition. Cantonese may also be of interest to heritage learners.

The courses we offered incorporated different aspects of the language, including speaking, listening, reading and writing. Conversation practice is particularly emphasized in the courses, as the Cantonese dialect carries unique pronunciations and tones that are different from many European languages.

Answer to the challenge:

  1. Strawberry
  2. Cherry
  3. Kiwi fruit

An areal view of Hong Kong at sunset