Posted by: JohnHo | July 31, 2009

Is Cantonese a dialect or a language?

I, as a Hong Kong citizen, prefer to say that Cantonese is a language because it is a well formalized language: Cantonese can be spoken and written, although we seldom write Cantonese in formal situations; and there are Cantonese dictionaries. The word ‘dialect’ sounds exotic and about minority, which I think is not the case in Cantonese.

In the old days, before 1997, we always said that Cantonese is a language. No one would think it is a problem to say it as a ‘language’. We said Cantonese is our official language, as from an old document (1996) in United Nations, it says:

“In 1992, 77 percent of Hong Kong residents were literate. English and Cantonese are the official languages, but Mandarin is gaining popularity.”


However, nowadays people prefer to say that Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, for example, from the Hong Kong Tourism Board, it says:

“Cantonese is the Chinese dialect spoken by over 95% of the people in Hong Kong.”


I believe that Cantonese cannot be legitimately spoken as a standard language nowadays is largely because of political considerations. There seems an intangible political force pushing me to think that Cantonese is subordinate to Mandarin.

It is good to learn the word ‘variety’. If a professor asks me to write about “is Cantonese a language or a dialect?” I can say: neither both of them. They are varieties.



  1. This is a great observation about the political nature of the dialect/language distinction, especially since you can postion the shift in this instance to a specific date and event ie, before or after 1997. I wonder if any parallels with the PRC’s categorisation of languages in Taiwan? Which reminds me: the Taiwanese government does not officially recognise certain indigenous languages of Taiwan including Siraya. Even Taiwanese academics I met at a conference recently did not want to public acknowledge these languages in case it damaged their careers and access to funding etc. I reckon in this instance it’s better for a ‘language’ to be called a ‘dialect’ (with all the connotations of subordinacy) than not be acknowledged at all!

  2. This would not be a discussion about varying usage of the terms language & dialect without quoting Max Weinreich: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”

  3. Romaine (2000;2) describes a dialect as generally a variety of language. Even in an isolated society the language changes over time (Azhari and Cole 2007;2). Therefore over time maybe a dialect , would change that it can no longer be considered as a variety of the language. Hence, I have assumed with time, the evolution will cause a dialect to become a language. However, Cantonese is the reverse; something which was considered a language being now a dialect. To discover this strange nature was shocking but not confusing.

    As I learn this course with you all , I am learning that this reverse order is not impossible, no matter how strange I find it to be. The comments to your post demonstrate that the other students are also finding this reverse order a possibility. Furthermore the academic that I used to base my assumption, accounts for this possibility. Despite giving a definition for a dialect, according to Romaine (2000;1) a dialect is defined as a dialect by the society rather then the linguistics.

    Mysteriously, this strange nature was not found in something very new for me; Cantonese. Although I do not speak Cantonese, I thought I knew something about Hong Kong. I can still remember watching TV in 1997 , where Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British. “Cantonese” is definitely in a part of my pre-university days memory. To have a link to the pre university memory from new information in this course was fascinating.

    Thanks for a post which was based on this new information.


    Azhari, Hanadi Abdul Aziz and Dr.Shadyah A. N. Cole 2007 Language Change in Makkan Society: A Study of Change in the Makkan Lexicon

    Romaine, S. (2000) ‘Language in Society/Society in Language’ (Chap 1) in Romaine, Suzanne. Language in Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp 1 – 25.

    • Correction for
      The first line , 3rd paragraph.

      Mysteriously, this strange nature was found in something not very new for me; Cantonese.

      Sorry about that

  4. Mandarin is only the linga franca for China, not the only LANGUAGE for the Chinese.
    The recent pressure exerted by the Chinese central government to discourage the use of Cantonese is a classic example of a totaltarian state trying to demand complete conformity in order to strengthen its rule, and destroy cultural (and political) diversity.
    We should be proud to speak Cantonese as our mother tongue and resist the enforced policy of language enslavement.

  5. Actually the United Nation has classified Cantonese as a language, not a dialect, which presumably means Cantonese and Mandarin should have equal status. Please continue to support Cantonese and don’t let a certain government try to suppress our rights to speak it!

  6. […] differently and want to up-play just how different their language is.  (Almost exactly the case of Cantonese and Mandarin).  In the case of Norwegian and Danish, the differences may be very small but they mean the world […]

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  10. Yes, variety – this is the term I want to use too!

    I’ve read many discussions about the status of the Cantonese and understand that difference between a “language” and a “dialect”. I am from Sichuan so my native tongue should be “Sichuanese”, which I won’t hesitate a second to refer to as a “dialect” – it’s easily mutual-intelligible with Mandarin as long as we don’t purposely use local slangs.

    Cantonese is apparently a different situation. Most mandarin speakers would be deaf to Cantonese speeches, and I would assume the vice versa should there not be so many Mandarin TV programs made available to Cantonese speaking communities these years – they are NOT mutual-intelligible by pronunciation, despite that the writting forms are the same/similar. But I heard a story that Cantonese was actually the original ancient Chinese language, replaced by the Mandarin in a later stage. Not sure if this proves true or not…

    Putting the political points aside, I think “language variety” would just be perfect for both the Mandarin and Cantonese. Will you agree on that?

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