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Comparison of Cantonese and Standard Chinese

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Cantonese and Standard Chinese, also known as Mandarin, are both Chinese language varieties (Sinitic languages).

Mandarin is part of the Mandarin Chinese (Northern Chinese) branch, and Cantonese being part of the Yue Chinese branch.


Standard Chinese and Cantonese are estimated to have 19% lexical similarity. Many cognates exist, but there are also false friends.

Cantonese has possible Tai-Kadai substrata.

In fact, Mai states that Cantonese and Mandarin have 62% lexical similarity, instead of 23.1% and 1.8% as described by Li.[1] A 2008 study suggested there is around 24% lexical similarity and 50% phonological similarity.[2]


He states that the two varieties are similar in their phonology for only 21.5% of commonly-used words; and similar in lexical meanings and usage for only 23.1% of vocabulary entry.[3]

Mai says there are actually 63.7% phonological similarity between Cantonese and Mandarin.[4]

Cantonese has 19 initials and 53 finals. Mandarin has 19 initials.

Mandarin retains retroflex consonants from Middle Chinese, whereas Cantonese has lost them, albeit only in the early 20th century. Cantonese has vowel length as a distinctive feature.


Cantonese has 6 phonemic tones and 3 checked tones. Mandarin is described as having 4 phonemic tones and a neutral tone. The following chart describes the correspondence of tones compared to the Four Tones of Middle Chinese.

Distribution of the four tone classes in modern Chinese
Each tone class is numbered to , depending on its reflex of Late Middle Chinese, followed by its actual pronunciation, using a tone letter to illustrate its contour and then a numerical equivalent.
major group subgroup local variety Early Middle Chinese tone class number of
tone classes
(number of
phonemic tones)
Level ꜀①꜁② Rising ꜂③꜃④ Departing ⑤꜄⑥꜅ Entering ⑦꜆⑧꜇
Syllable onset
voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced
son obs son obs tenuis asp son obs (short) (long) son obs
Mandarin Beijing ˥ 55 ②ʰ ˧˥ 35 ˨˩˦ 214 [5]˥˩ 51 (any)§ 4
Yue Yuehai Cantonese ①a ˥ 55 ~ ①b ˥˧ 53 ②ʰ ˨˩ 21~11 ˧˥ 35 ④ʰ* ˩˧ 13 ˧ 33 ˨ 22 ⑦a̚ ˥ 5 ⑦b̚ ˧ 3 ⑧̚ ˨ 2 9~10 (6~7)
Siyi Taishanese ˧ 33 ②ʰ? ˩ 11 ˥ 55 ④ʰ? ˨˩ 21 ˧˨ 32 ⑦a̚ ˥ 5 ⑦b̚ ˧ 3 ⑧̚ ˨˩ 21 8 (5)
Gou-Lou Bobai ˦ 44 ②ʰ? ˨˧ 23 ˧ 33 ④ʰ? ˦˥ 45 ˧˨ 32 ˨˩ 21 ⑦a̚ ˥˦ 54 ⑦b̚ ˩ 1 ⑧a̚ ˦ 4
⑧b̚ ˧˨ 32
10 (6)

Comparison to Middle Chinese[edit]

Cantonese is thought to be one of the closest extant varieties of Chinese to Middle Chinese. On the other hand, Mandarin retains a few features such as the retroflex consonant, which was lost in most southern Chinese varieties.


Both are analytic languages.

Cantonese has different grammatical particles.


  1. Mau, Wing Yan, Annie (2005). Cantonese : Language or Dialect? (Thesis). University of Hong Kong.
  2. Tang, Chaoju; van Heuven, Vincent J. "Mutual intelligibility and similarity of Chinese dialects - Predicting judgments from objective measures". Chongqing Jiaotong University / University of Leiden/LUCL.
  3. Li, J.Z. (1994). Yu yan yan bian lun. Guangzhou. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  4. Mai. (1993). Yueyu shi Hanyu De yizhi fangyan 粵語是漢語的一支方言-與李敬忠 先生商榷 (Cantonese is a branch of Chinese dialect). Yu wen jian she tong xun 語文建設通訊 (Language Construction Newsletter). 41: 65-72. Beijing: Zhongguo xue shu qi kan (guang pan ban) dian zi za zhi she.
  5. Mandarin 4th tone

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