How to say group in Mandarin

What are Cantonese, Mandarin, and Chinese?

Cantonese, Mandarin, Chinese ... quite a lot of terms before you start learning Chinese! These terms are mostly known very well, but most of them don't really understand them:

  • Is Cantonese a separate language?
  • What is the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin?
  • Then what is Chinese anyway?

In this article I will explain to you in about 5 minutes of reading what the answers are and how they are related to each other. The short form of the answers is:

  • Chinese is the umbrella term for all dialects in China, such as German.
  • Cantonese and Mandarin are both dialects under the term Chinese, as is Bavarian and Standard German / Hanoverian German.
  • Cantonese is similar to Bavarian, is a pure dialect.
  • Mandarin is standard Chinese, similar to standard German.
  • Korean, Uighur, Tibetan, Mongolian and other languages ​​are not dialects, but their own languages. Just like French in Saarland.
  • The definition of whether it is a dialect or a language is subject to the script. If something is written with Chinese characters, it is Chinese. The pronunciations are different, so they are dialects. Like standard German and Swiss German. As long as the writing is German, the language is considered German.

These are of course extremely simplified rules. In some cases I formed them myself. But as a sinologist and English studies specialist, with a focus on linguistics, I am of the opinion that these rules are the simplest basis for giving German native speakers a quick impression. Even without arguing much about the details and subtleties. This could be interesting from a linguistic point of view, but does not really help the “normal” pupils to understand these terms.

First: So that you can get a simple picture of it, let's take Bavaria as an example. Because Guangdong, or Canton, is a bit similar to Bavaria. They both have a very well-known dialect and the province feels a bit special in China.

I always like to make comparisons like this, because they work so perfectly with German:

If Chinese = German
Then Standard Chinese (Mandarin) = Standard German
ThenCantonese = Bavarian

Then we should emphasize: The script, as long as we stay with the script in the People's Republic of China, is always the same: Chinese (simplified)


1. What is Cantonese?

Cantonese is a dialect in Chinese. The word comes from “Canton”, a province in southern China, which means “Guangdong” in Mandarin Chinese. “Canton” or “Guangdong” is written as: 广东, 广东 is pronounced as “Canton” in Cantonese, as in the province itself, and “Guangdong” in Mandarin. (I write simplified Chinese. At this point it is of no interest how it is written in traditional Chinese. There will be another post on this.)

Similar to Bavarian, there are also other dialects in China. Hardly any other has the same status. In Germany and Bavaria it is due to the short history of the united country. In China it is due to something completely different: Hong Kong and the emigrated Chinese.

In 1840 Britain started the Opium War with China to legally sell opium in China. After China lost the war, Hong Kong, a region within Guangdong / Canton, was given to Great Britain. This little island spoke its own dialect. As a result, due to its close contact with the UK, it became much better known in the western world than Mandarin, which only emerged over 100 years later.

In addition, many Chinese who emigrated since the 19th century were Cantonese - people from Canton. Therefore, Cantonese is much better known than any other dialect in China.


2. What is Mandarin?

As already described, Mandarin is standard Chinese, a term similar to Standard German. A “dialect” that everyone understands, or at least should understand. Mandarin has a short history because it is (actually) an made-up language. This was namely developed based on the northern dialect in China. In the 1930s, the “People's Republic Party” (Guomindang), which later moved to Taiwan, introduced Mandarin to China. At that time the language was called “Guoyu”, i.e. the national language. This is still spoken as an official language in Taiwan.

In the People's Republic of China (Mainland China), the name “Guoyu” was changed in 1955 under the communist government. The aim was to respect other national minorities living in China equally and to avoid that they might feel offended. Therefore, instead of “Guoyu”, the term “Putong hua” has been used since then: processed / general / everyday / normal language. Although there are small differences between “Guoyu” and “Putonghua”, these differences can actually be ignored.

Whether “Guoyu” or “Putonghua”, both are Mandarin.

Therefore, Mandarin is spoken in mainland China as well as Taiwan. And anyone who has learned Mandarin can communicate easily in Taiwan.


3. Difference between Cantonese and Chinese

Hopefully this will be clear after the first two points. The question is similar to: What is the difference between Bavarian and German?
One is a subordinate dialect, the other is the umbrella term for all chinese languages/ Dialects spoken in China.


4. Difference between Cantonese and Mandarin

The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is like day and night. The pronunciations are so different that you can almost think that Thai or Vietnamese would be closer to Cantonese than Mandarin (purely from the pronunciation).


5. Other languages ​​in China

Things are completely different with Uighur, Mongolian, Korean ...
A total of 56 different ethnic groups live in China. I prefer the term “ethnic groups” to “nations”, which is more common as a translation. Because for me nations are too defined to be a separate country. In China it was often the case that people lived in the same place for thousands of years while the borders were drawn differently.

That is the case with many ethnic groups who speak their own language. In the north there are Korean and Mongolian ethnic groups. In the west Uyghurs and Tibetans and in the southwest a Vietnamese and a Thai ethnic group, etc.

These people not only use a different pronunciation, but also a different script. These are independent, different languages.


I hope this article gave you a quick overall impression of how Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese related.

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What are Cantonese, Mandarin, and Chinese? was last modified: January 14th, 2021 by