Language of the Month April 2023: Cantonese

By Sahara Al-Madi

There are over 85.5 million reported Cantonese/Yue speakers worldwide!
(Eberhard, Simons & Fennig, 2022). 

Cantonese is an important language to highlight as it represents a large population living within our global community who think, dream, and create just as we all do. They share a deep rooted history, culture and their impact continues to expand and influence us.

Cantonese history and origin

According to Ethnologue, Yue is a language of wider communication that originated in China, China–Hong Kong, and China–Macao. It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family and is a member of the Chinese macrolanguage. The city of Guangzhou has been documented as being the center of Cantonese culture where it was primarily inhabited by the Tai people. Sometime during the 9th and 10th century AD, there was a surge of Han Chinese migration to Guangzhou due to the fall of the Tang Dynasty. The relationships that developed between the Tai and Han led to the adoption by both groups of  what is now Cantonese. 

Yue is a language most spoken in the southern region of China and is second to Mandarin as the most spoken Chinese language. It is also heard in diasporas in areas such as Southeast Asia, as well as in the West. It is most commonly referred to as Cantonese. Its spoken form is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin Chinese. There are two methods by which you can write Cantonese. There is a Standard method which is legible to Mandarin readers and a Colloquial method which is not legible for a Mandarin reader. If a Cantonese and Mandarin speaker wish to communicate, they can choose to write to each other using the standard method and successfully understand one another.

It is important to note that Mandarin originated in Northern China and emerged as the language of the ruling class during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The capital of China switched from Nanjing to Beijing in the latter part of the Ming Dynasty and remained in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). Since Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, it naturally became the official language of the court. It was not until the 17th century that Cantonese developed a written language. It was influenced by the writing system of classical Chinese and Mandarin.
Cantonese in popular culture

Cantonese is continuing to increase its speakers as many young people are interested in connecting to their ancestral roots. There are also many people becoming interested in Cantonese as there has been an increased interest in Cantonese culture and media. Here you can see an example of two young youtubers who are using language and technology as a tool to support Cantonese learning.
First, Brittany visits a fast food restaurant. Her Cantonese narration is transcribed in three ways: in simplified Mandarin characters, in romanization showing the tones of Cantonese, and in English.  

Next, Grace, a British national, explores life in Hong Kong and uses Cantonese fluently.

Cantonese music in popular culture reached a boom in the 1970’s when many Chinese singers who once sang in English and Mandarin decided to sing in Cantonese as well. An example of internationally famous musicians who began singing in Cantonese are Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, and Faye Wong. You may hear the song, “No Regrets” by Faye Wong, in this video. 

Cantonese in Education

Dr. Chaakming Lau is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics and Modern Language Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, with a research focus on digital humanities and linguistics. In 2014 Dr. Lau started his project as a way to enhance teaching of the Cantonese language. He aims to make written Cantonese accessible to Cantonese speakers so that they may have resources to further document and improve their own language. He is the first researcher to create a Cantonese-Cantonese dictionary. Today, more than 120 volunteers are involved in the project with 30,000 basic words already recorded.. Some of his projects include the first online Cantonese dictionary,, as well as HamBaangLaang which encourages Total Physical Response (TPR) while learning Cantonese. He also created Zidou, a Cantonese version of Wordle, which you can play here.

Why is Cantonese important?

Cantonese carries the history, culture, and perspective of a long generation of Tai and Han people who have lived in various regions of China and, most notably, Guangzhou. We are informed that most Chinese provinces have shifted to Mandarin as their primary language. However, we must remember that many people born since the 1990s can only speak Cantonese and are accustomed to this being their primary language. There is importance in valuing all languages and making sure that resources are available for the speakers and writers of those languages.

If given the ability to further my research I am interested in continuing research on Cantonese braille, the linguistic history of documented Chinese languages, and discovering mythologies and ancient storytelling. 

Works Cited

Bauer, R. S., & Benedict, P. K. (1997). Trends in Linguistics: Modern Cantonese Phonology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Chu, P. C. K., & Taft, M. (2011, August). Are there six or nine tones in Cantonese?. In of Psycholinguistic Representation of Tone (PLRT) Conference (pp. 58-61).
Zee, E. (1991). Chinese (Hong Kong Cantonese), Journal of International Phonetic Association, 21:1.
Zee, E. (1999). Chinese (Hong Kong Cantonese). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association (pp. 58–60). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Additional Important Information and Resources

Cantonese linguistic structure
There are 19 Cantonese consonants, including 16 oral consonants and 3 nasal consonants

Cantonese consonant phonemes (Zee, 1991)

There are 11 vowels , where seven of them are long vowels /i, y, ɛ, œ, a, ɔ, u/, and four are short vowels /ɐ, ɪ, ɵ, ʊ/. 

The 11 diphthongs are /ai, ei, ɐi, ui, ɔi, au, ɐu, iu, ou, ɵy, ɛu/ (To, Cheung, & McLeod, 2013).

Does Cantonese have six or nine tones?
The Cantonese tone system comprises a set of nine phonemic tones as shown in the table below. There is continued scholarly debate between traditional and contemporary linguists discussing Cantonese having six or nine phonemic tones. Traditional Chinese linguists have classified Cantonese as a nine-tone system. However, most contemporary linguists mention that tones 7, 8 and 9 actually have the same pitch height and contour as the corresponding level tone categories 1, 3 and 6 respectively [e.g., Bauer & Benedict, 2; Matthews & Yip, 3]. The only difference between these two sets of tones is that the former must be realized on syllables with unreleased coda /p/, /t/ or /k/ and have shorter syllable durations than the latter. Therefore, the former have been treated as allotones of the latter, thus classifying Cantonese as having only six contrastive tones. 

There are six contrastive lexical tones (T1 to T6) and three allotones (T7 to T9) which are shorter versions of T1, T3 and T6 respectively with an unreleased final stop consonant /p, t, k/. There is no neutral tone for unstressed syllables in Cantonese (Bauer & Benedict, 1997).


You may hear tonal examples by scrolling through OpenCantonese’s examples here.

You may view more charts and examples of the Yue linguistic structure here.

Stanford Cantonese Program Resources

Cantonese Idiom YouTube Channel 

Cantonese Online Dictionary
Cantonese Curriculum Materials
Cantonese Children Stories
Play the Cantonese version of the game Wordle here.

Learn to play Mahjong, a game that is said to have originated in Southern China 

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Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"

A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"

Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"

This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."


Habibi means "my love."


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba

a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."