Difference Between Mandarin and Cantonese (With Table)

The Chinese civilization, as we all know, happens to be one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. For years China has been the subject matter of fascination for many- be it their culture, or the Great Wall of China, or their scientific advancements, China has enthralled us all! Despite the ways China has touched our lives one time or the other, we often confuse ourselves with the two main languages spoken there- Mandarin and Cantonese.

Mandarin vs Cantonese

The difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is that while both are languages that are spoken abundantly in China, they have unique tones, differences in the manner the words are written and spoken, a varied romanization system, and differences in the strength of the population who speak the language. Despite the differences, the languages do share a list of similarities, too.

Mandarin is one of the few languages that are majorly spoken in China. It is relatively a newer language if compared to Cantonese and is much simpler than it as well. The script was originally quite tough to comprehend but it was simplified under the rule of Mao Zedong. Furthermore, the number of tones in the language is also lower in comparison to Cantonese.

On the other hand, Cantonese is one of the few languages that are majorly spoken in China. The speakers of this language are vast but significantly low in comparison to Mandarin. This language has more tones and is much more complex. The script is traditional and was not simplified over time.

Comparison Table Between Mandarin and Cantonese

Parameters of ComparisonMandarinCantonese
ToneLess in number and a few of them are repetitivePlenty in number
Origin of LanguageThe language is relatively new and has been simplified over timeOver 2000 years have passed since this language was first spoken
Written systemThe written system is the same as Cantonese, however, the spoken language differsThe written language is the same as Mandarin
Duration of Learning It is relatively easy to pick up this language as it has lesser tones and the difference between the written script and spoken language is limitedThe time required to pick up this language may be more than the time taken in the case of Mandarin.
Population Approximately 65% of the country’s total populationApproximately 5% of the country’s total population

What is Mandarin?

Mandarin is one of the few languages that are majorly spoken in China. Notably, approximately 65% of the country’s total population speaks this language. The reason behind its wide adaptability is its limited number of tones and similarity in the written and spoken versions of the language.

However, one should refrain from thinking that this language was always this easy. This is the consequence of the language reforms phase that was spearheaded by the Father of Communism in China himself, Mao Zedong. It was under his initiative that the written script of the language was simplified from the overly complex traditional scripture.

It only has five main tones and additional three tones that only complement the first, third, and sixth main tones. What makes the language all the more interesting is that since the characters are logograms, they are written in Latin alphabets so that the script encapsulates the exact sounds when spoken.

One of the most useful romanization systems in this language is “Pinyin.” Furthermore, there is another romanization system that is employed while conversing in this language, and that is “Bopomofo.” While the non-mandarin speakers find it relatively easier to master the language in the former romanization system, the latter is quite common in Taiwan.

What is Cantonese?

Cantonese is one of the few languages that are majorly spoken in China. It is notable that approximately only 5% of the country’s total population converse in this language. This language is far more complex and traditional in comparison to Mandarin.

It is opined that Cantonese, too, is quite ancient itself. Over 2000 years have passed since this language was first spoken. It is believed that this language was spoken even during the days of Christ himself.

As the Chinese population outpoured from China across all the continents, this language traveled too. Consequently, there are Cantonese speakers across the globe in plentitude.

It is particularly tough to master this language as it has nine tonal variations. To add on, the written script of this language has not metamorphosed into a simpler text like Mandarin, thereby continuing to be complex and traditional. To pile on to the list of complexity, the characters used in this language sound different from its spoken version!

It may be of no surprise that the romanization systems in this language are also different.

Therefore, a crucial piece of advice based on the general inference from the given information is that it is always smarter to avoid mastering this language if you think you will be spending quite some time in mainland China. This is because the vast majority of the population has not mastered this language yet. 

Main Differences Between Mandarin and Cantonese

  1. The number of tonal variations in Mandarin is limited. On the other hand, the number of tonal variations in Cantonese exceeds five.
  2. Mandarin is relatively new. Furthermore, it is significant to note that it was under the initiative of the Father of Communism in China himself, Mao Zedong, that the written script of the language was simplified from the overly complex traditional scripture. In contrast, the written script of Cantonese has not metamorphosed into a simpler text yet.
  3. The difference between the written script and spoken words in Mandarin ranges from limited to nil. Whereas, in the case of Cantonese, the written script vastly differs from the sounds of the spoken words.
  4. The romanization systems employed in Mandarin are relatively easy. However, the romanization systems employed by Cantonese are more in number and complex.
  5. Where approximately over 65% of the country’s total strength converse in Mandarin, the strength of Cantonese speakers in the country does not exceed 5%.

Conclusion

It must be exceedingly exciting for polyglots to learn a new language. Not just polyglots, but learning a new language is fun and educative for all of us. But the first step of learning a language is to know how it differs from other major languages spoken in the same country to avoid confusion.

Furthermore, if you wish to learn a language to converse with the natives during your vacation or for business, it is best to know the dialect of the language that is spoken the most in the country that you will be visiting. In this context, two languages that are spoken in the same country in abundance are Mandarin and Cantonese. The difference between the two is that they have unique tones, differences in the manner the words are written and spoken, a varied romanization system, and differences in the strength of the population who speak the language.

References

  1. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01758181
  2. https://aclanthology.org/C98-2233.pdf
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