Cantonese vs Mandarin: A Complete Guide

Are you a marketer or SEO looking for new ways to tap into the potential of language-specific searches? When it comes to Chinese customers, knowing the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin – the two major spoken forms of Chinese – can make all the difference when crafting meaningful content that resonates with this key demographic. 

In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the two most common Chinese languages so you can better understand your customer base and bridge any language gaps. By understanding where each one originates from, its history and its development over time – as well as why there are different versions used in various locations – you’ll be able to deliver more efficient marketing campaigns that reflect cultural understanding.

From targeting highly relevant search queries in local markets to creating brand loyalty among specific demographics, increasing your knowledge on Cantonese vs. Mandarin could help drive up click-through rates and engagement across multiple digital channels worldwide.

Overview of the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin

Cantonese and Mandarin are two of the most widely spoken Chinese languages, with Cantonese primarily spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and the Guangdong province, while Mandarin being the official language of mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The origins of Cantonese and Mandarin can be traced back to the Sinitic language family, which encompasses all the Chinese dialects. Sinitic languages are believed to have originated from the Yellow River valley, in northern China, around 5,000 years ago.

What is Cantonese?


Cantonese, also known as Yue, is a branch of Chinese language. It has preserved more features of Ancient Chinese compared to other major Chinese languages such as Mandarin. According to an BBC article, Cantonese was originated after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD. 

Cantonese is primarily spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and Guangxi. Additionally, there are Cantonese-speaking communities in various parts of the world, such as Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, due to migration and diaspora.²

Cantonese is characterized by its complex tonal system, which consists of nine tones, including six distinct tones and three entering tones. This tonal system makes Cantonese a difficult language for non-native speakers to learn, but it also gives the language a distinctive and melodic sound.

In addition, there is a increasing adoption of written Cantonese that aligns with a growing trend among Hong Kong residents to prioritize their identity as Hong Kongers.

What is Mandarin?

Mandarin / Putonghua

Mandarin, on the other hand, evolved from the Old Chinese spoken in the northern regions of China. Mandarin was the language of the imperial court during the Yuan dynasty, and became the official language of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. 

Mandarin is the official language of China and Taiwan, and it is one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is also widely Outside of China, Mandarin is spoken by Chinese communities in many other countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. It is also spoken by many Chinese communities in other parts of the world, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

Mandarin can be subdivided into four different groups: Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern, and Southern. Modern Standard Chinese, also known as Putonghua, is based on the Beijing variety.

On top of that, you should know that Mandarin spoken in mainland China and Taiwan has some subtle differences. For example, Taiwanese Mandarin has weakened retroflexes (‘zh’, ‘ch’, ‘sh’ and ‘r’) and use slightly different vocabularies compared to Chinese Mandarin. 

How is Cantonese different from Mandarin?

Cantonese and Mandarin are two distinct dialects of the Chinese language with several differences. Some of the main differences between Cantonese and Mandarin are:


Both Cantonese and Mandarin are tonal languages that rely on precise pronunciation to convey meaning. However, they also have significant differences in pronunciation due to their distinct sound systems – many Chinese characters are pronounced differently in Cantonese than in Mandarin. 

Cantonese uses more nasal sounds and has a distinct rhythm. Cantonese syllables can be more complex with more consonant clusters allowed in initial and final positions, it can make Cantonese sound more lively and expressive than Mandarin.

Here are some of the key differences of their phonology:

Tones6 basic tones + 3 allotones4 tones
Consonants– 16 oral consonants and 3 nasal consonants
– aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops (p, k, t)
– 21 initial consonants, some retroflex sounds (such as ch, sh, zh, and r)
-No final consonants, usually ends in vowel or nasal sound
Vowels– 11 vowels
– 11 diphthongs
– 6 vowels
– 30 diphthongs and compound
SyllablesMore than 2200Around 1,300

Writing Systems

The writing system used for Cantonese and Mandarin is generally the same, which is based on Chinese characters. Sometimes people make assumptions that Cantonese speakers use Traditional Chinese characters – but that’s not true. Depending on the region, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers can use either Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese.

A quick table summarising the written and spoken Chinese in different regions:

Hong Kong 🇭🇰Traditional ChineseCantonese
Macau 🇲🇴Traditional ChineseCantonese
Taiwan 🇹🇼Traditional ChineseMandarin
Mainland China 🇨🇳Simplified ChineseMandarin
Mainland China (Guangdong) 🇨🇳Simplified ChineseCantonese
Singapore 🇸🇬Simplified ChineseMandarin / Cantonese
Malaysia 🇲🇾Simplified ChineseMandarin / Cantonese

Standard Written Chinese and Written Cantonese

When I was growing up in Hong Kong, written Cantonese (口語) wasn’t taught in school. Instead, our textbooks were using Written Standard Chinese (書面語), which was based on spoken Mandarin. However, in informal settings such as magazines, social media or texting, we tend to use Written Cantonese.

Although both written Cantonese and Written Standard Chinese use Chinese characters, there are some words that don’t have a corresponding character nor does a cognate exist in Standard Written Chinese. Also, as there isn’t any formal teaching of written Cantonese, people might write the same Cantonese word differently.

Here are some examples of how written Cantonese and Standard Written Chinese differ:

Written CantoneseStandard Written Chinese
To be
To eat
To drink
To sleep


The grammatical structure of Cantonese and Mandarin is similar in most major aspects, but there are also some subtle differences that are often overlooked.¹

Here are some differences:

  • Pronoun: In Cantonese, we use the same pronoun (佢) for he, she or it while Mandarin makes a gender, animal or objective distinction (他, 她, 牠 or 它).
  • Classifiers: Also known as measure words (量詞). Cantonese has more measure words compared to Mandarin. In contrast to Mandarin, Cantonese can use classifier and noun without any demonstrative adjective or numeral. Also, Cantonese use reduplicative quantifiers (e.g. 隻隻, 個個) to express universal quantification (all, every, and each) and it is also possible to omit the object if the context has made its identity clear – this structure is less common in Mandarin. 
  • Verbal aspect: Both Cantonese and Mandarin use aspect markers to express the action of event and process instead of changing the verb itself. However, Cantonese and Mandarin use different aspect markers, and Cantonese markers of aspect all follow the verb and it has unique habitual market (開) that is non-existent in Mandarin.
  • Sentence-final particles: Both Cantonese and Mandarin have sentence-final particles (SFP), but Cantonese has more sentence-final particles and more use cases. For example, Cantonese can use SFP to express discovery (喎), assumption (呀嘛) or uncertainity (啩).


Language evolves over time just like culture does. Even though Cantonese and Mandarin are both using Chinese characters, the lexical similarity is less than 50%. Some of the differences are stemmed from the historical development.

For example, as Hong Kong was under British colonial rule for over 100 years, you will notice that many vocabulary in Cantonese are transliterated from English.


The Romanisation systems for Cantonese and Mandarin are different, and this reflects the differences in pronunciation and tone between the two dialects. While both systems use the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of the language, the tone markers and pronunciation rules are different, which can make it challenging for learners to master both systems.

For Cantonese, the most commonly used Romanisation system is the Jyutping system, which was developed in the 1990s by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK). Jyutping uses the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of Cantonese, and each syllable is written as a combination of an initial sound, a vowel sound, and a tone marker. The tone markers in Jyutping are represented by the numbers 1-9, with 1 representing the high flat tone and 9 representing the low falling tone.

In contrast, the most commonly used Romanisation system for Mandarin is the Pinyin system, which was developed in the 1950s. Pinyin also uses the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of Mandarin, but it uses different tone markers than Jyutping. The tone markers in Pinyin are represented by diacritic marks above the vowels, with the flat tone indicated by no marker, the rising tone indicated by a diagonal line upwards, the falling-rising tone indicated by a diagonal line downwards and then up, and the falling tone indicated by a horizontal line.

Another example of how the same word is pronounced and romanized differently:

Cantonese / JyutpingMandarin / Pinyin
人 (Human)jan4rén
朋友 (Friend)pang4 jau5péngyǒu
簽名 (Signature)cim1 meng2qiānmíng
非常 (very)fei1 soeng4fēicháng

⭐️ Pro Tip:

In Taiwan, Zhuyin (注音) is a more commonly used phonetic system for transcription and learning. For example, the zhuyin for “人” (human) is ㄖㄣˊ.

Avoid mistakes when localise your Chinese content 

Mandarin and Cantonese may seem very similar but they have key differences when it comes to the culture they represent. For companies who are looking to scale into the Chinese-speaking market, selecting which language to use – in terms of Mandarin and Cantonese – is essential for success.

Companies should take note of various cultural considerations and be respectful of regional dialects as each language offers unique insights into the local culture. This doesn’t just apply to China but other countries as well. 

Reaching out to locals is a great way for businesses to exist within a particular culture that is relevant to their target audience. Get in touch with me or other locals if you’re unsure about which language you should go for or how best to localise your product or service for your chosen destination. Best of luck!

FAQs about Cantonese and Mandarin

Are Cantonese and Mandarin the same?

No, despite sharing some similarities, Cantonese and Mandarin are unintelligible from each other with different vocabularies, grammar, and pronunciation.

Can someone who speaks Mandarin understand Cantonese?

No, Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible. There are significant differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar between Cantonese and Mandarin that can make it challenging to fully understand and communicate in the other language.

Is it better to learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

The choice to learn Cantonese or Mandarin depends on your personal goals and needs. If you plan to live or work in mainland China or Taiwan, Mandarin is the more practical choice. However, if you plan to live or work in Hong Kong, or if you are interested in Canton pop culture such as music or movies, Cantonese may be a better choice.

Is Cantonese Traditional Chinese?

No, Cantonese refers to the spoken language while Traditional Chinese refers to the writing form. It is not possible generalize and say Cantonese is Traditional Chinese – the combination of written and spoken form of Chinese depends on the region. For example, people speak Mandarin and write in Traditional Chinese in Taiwan while residents in Guangdon speak Catnonese and write in Simplified Chinese.


1. Matthews, Smith & Yip, Virginia. Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar, Routledge, 1994.

2. Written Cantonese and Implications for Hong Kong

3. The Education University of Hong Kong: Cantonese Phonology

4. The Education University of Hong Kong:. Mandarin Phonology

5. Britannica: Chinese languages6. Bauer, Robert S. Written Cantonese of Hong Kong, Cahiers de Linguistique – Asie Orientale, 1998.

Aubrey Yung

Aubrey Yung

Aubrey is an SEO Consultant with 5+ years of B2B and B2C marketing experience.