Written Cantonese

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Written Cantonese is the written form of Cantonese, the most complete written form of Chinese after that for Mandarin Chinese. Written Chinese was originally developed for Classical Chinese, and was the main literary language of China until the 19th century. Written vernacular Chinese first appeared in the 17th century and a written form of Mandarin became standard throughout China in the early 20th century.[1] While texts written in this system can in principle be read word for word in other Chinese varieties, this sounds unnatural because of differences in idiom, grammar, and usage. Modern Cantonese speakers have therefore developed their own written script, sometimes creating new characters for words that either do not exist or have been lost in standard Chinese.

A good source for well documented written Cantonese words can be found in the scripts for Cantonese opera. Readings in Cantonese colloquial: being selections from books in the Cantonese vernacular with free and literal translations of the Chinese character and romanized spelling (1894) by James Dyer Ball has a bibliography of printed works available in Cantonese characters in the last decade of the nineteenth century. A few libraries have collections of so-called "wooden fish books" written in Cantonese characters. Facsimiles and plot precis of a few of these have been published in Wolfram Eberhard's Cantonese Ballads. See also Cantonese love-songs, translated with introduction and notes by Cecil Clementi (1904) or a newer translation of these by Peter T. Morris in Cantonese love songs : an English translation of Jiu Ji-yung's Cantonese songs of the early 19th century (1992). Cantonese character versions of the Bible, Pilgrims Progress, and Peep of Day, as well as simple catechisms, were published by mission presses. The special Cantonese characters used in all of these were not standardized and show wide variation.

With the advent of the computer and standardization of character sets specifically for Cantonese, many printed materials in predominantly Cantonese speaking areas of the world are written to cater to their population with these written Cantonese characters.

Written Cantonese on the packaging of Hong Kong beverage brand Vitasoy


Before the 20th century, the standard written language of China was Classical Chinese, which has grammar and vocabulary based on the Chinese used in ancient China, Old Chinese. However, while this written standard remained essentially static for over two thousand years, the actual spoken language diverged further and further away. Some writings based on local vernacular speech did exist but these were rare. In the early 20th century, Chinese reformers like Hu Shi saw the need for language reform and championed the development of a vernacular that allowed modern Chinese to write the language the same way they speak. The vernacular language movement took hold, and the written language was standardised as Vernacular Chinese. Because they had the largest number of speakers, Mandarin was chosen as the basis for the new standard.

The standardisation and adoption of written Mandarin pre-empted the development and standardisation of vernaculars based on other varieties of Chinese. No matter which dialect one spoke, one still wrote in standardised Mandarin for everyday writing. However, Cantonese is unique amongst the non-Mandarin varieties in having a widely used written form. Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong was a British colony isolated from mainland China, so most HK citizens do not speak Mandarin. Written Cantonese was developed as a means of informal communication. Still, Cantonese speakers must use standard written Chinese, or even literary Chinese, in most formal written communications, since written Cantonese may be unintelligible to speakers of other varieties of Chinese.

Historically, written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese. However, its popularity and usage has been rising in the last two decades, the late Wong Jim being one of the pioneers of its use as an effective written language. Written Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, instant messaging, and even social networking websites. Although most foreign movies and TV shows are subtitled in Standard Chinese, some, such as The Simpsons, are subtitled using written Cantonese. Newspapers have the news section written in Standard Chinese, but they may have editorials or columns that contain Cantonese discourses, and Cantonese characters are increasing in popularity on advertisements and billboards.

Written Cantonese advertising banner in Mainland China

It has been stated that Written Cantonese remains limited outside Hong Kong, including other Cantonese-speaking areas in Guangdong Province; e.g., (Snow, 2004). However, colloquial Cantonese advertisements are sometimes seen in Guangdong, suggesting that written Cantonese is widely understood and is regarded favourably, at least in some contexts.

Some sources will use only colloquial Cantonese forms, resulting in text similar to natural speech. However, it is more common to use a mixture of colloquial forms and Standard Chinese forms, some of which are alien to natural speech. Thus the resulting "hybrid" text lies on a continuum between two norms: Standard Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese as spoken.

Cantonese characters

Written Cantonese contains many characters not used in standard written Chinese in order to transcribe words not present in the standard lexicon, and for some words from Old Chinese when their original forms have been forgotten. Despite attempts by the government of Hong Kong in the 1990s to standardize this character set, culminating in the release of the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS) for use in electronic communication, there is still significant disagreement about which characters are correct in written Cantonese, as many of the Cantonese words existed as descendants of Old Chinese words, but are being replaced by some new invented Cantonese words due to the Hong Kong Government's lack of knowledge about some of the Cantonese words.


General estimates of vocabulary differences between Cantonese and Mandarin range from 30 to 50 percent.[citation needed] Donald B. Snow, the author of Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular, wrote that "It is difficult to quantify precisely how different" the two vocabularies are.[2] Snow wrote that the different vocabulary systems are the main difference between written Mandarin and written Cantonese.[2] Ouyang Shan made a corpus-based estimate concluding that one third of the lexical items used in regular Cantonese speech do not exist in Mandarin, but that between the formal registers the differences were smaller. He analyzed a radio news broadcast and concluded that of its lexical items, 10.6% were distinctly Cantonese.[2]

For example, the character for "not" () bu in Cantonese is m, the third-person pronoun ( ta "he/she") in Cantonese is keoi, the plural pronoun marker (/ men) in Cantonese is dei and the possessive particle ( de) in Cantonese is ge.[2] For example:

Is it theirs?
Variety Characters Romanization Transliteration
Cantonese 係唔係佢哋嘅? Yale haih m̀h haih keúih deih ge?
Mandarin 是不是他們的? Pinyin Shì bú shì tāmen de?

In the above table the two Chinese sentences are grammatically identical, using an A-not-A question to ask "Is it theirs?" (referring to some prior mentioned thing). But the characters are all different, though they correspond 1-1.


There are certain words that share a common root with standard written Chinese words. However, because they have diverged in pronunciation, tone, and/or meaning, they are often written using a different character. One example is the doublet lòih (standard) and lèih (Cantonese), meaning "to come." Both share the same meaning and usage, but because the colloquial pronunciation differs from the literary pronunciation, they are represented using two different characters. Some people argue that representing the colloquial pronunciation with a different (and often extremely complex) character is superfluous, and would encourage using the same character for both forms since they are cognates (see Derived characters below).

Native words

Some Cantonese words have no equivalents in Mandarin, though equivalents may exist in classical or other varieties of Chinese. Cantonese writers have from time to time reinvented or borrowed a new character if they are not aware of the original one. For example, some suggest that the common word (leng), meaning pretty in Cantonese but also looking into the mirror in Mandarin, is in fact the character .[3]

Today those characters can mainly be found in ancient rime dictionaries such as Guangyun. Some scholars have made some "archaeological" efforts to find out what the "original characters" are. Often, however, these efforts are of little use to the modern Cantonese writer, since the characters so discovered are not available in the standard character sets provided to computer users, and many have fallen out of usage.

In Southeast Asia, the Cantonese people may adopt the local Malay words into their daily speech such as using the term 鐳 /lɵy/ rather than saying 錢 /tsʰiːn˨˥/ which would be what the Hong Kong Cantonese would say, meaning money and written 錢.


New characters have been created to represent new concepts or loanwords.


  • Lift/elevator
𨋢 (single character "𨋢") /líp/ is composed of the radical ("car", symbolising a transportation vehicle) and the phonetic component /lɐ̀p/.


Cantonese particles may be added to the end of a sentence or suffixed to verbs to indicate aspect. There are many such particles; here are a few.

  • - "mē" is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate disbelief, e.g., 乜你花名叫八兩金咩? Is your nickname really Raymond Lam?
  • - "nē" is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a question,[4] e.g., 你叫咩名呢? What is your name?
  • - "meih" is placed at the end of a sentence to ask if an action is done yet, e.g., 你做完未? Are you done yet?
  • "háh" is placed after a verb to indicate a little bit, i.e., "eat a little bit"; "há" is used singly, to show uncertainty or unbelief, e.g., 吓?乜係咁㗎? What? Is it really like that?
  • - "gán" is placed after a verb to indicate a progressive action, e.g., 我食緊蘋果。 I'm eating an apple.
  • - "jó" placed after a verb to indicate a completed action, e.g., 我食咗蘋果。 I ate an apple.
  • - "saai" placed after a verb to indicate an action to all of the targets, e.g., 我食哂啲蘋果。 I ate all the apples.
  • - "maàih" is placed after a verb to indicate an expansion of the target of action, or that the action is an addition to the one(s) previously mentioned, e.g., 我食埋啲嘢就去。 I'll go after I finish eating the rest. ("eating the rest" is an expansion of the target of action from the food eaten to the food not yet eaten); 你可以去先,我食埋嘢先去。 You can go first. I'll eat before going. (The action "eating" is an addition to the action "going" which is previously mentioned or mutually known.)
  • 哇/嘩 - "wa" 嘩! Wow!
  • 㗎啦 - "Ga la" is used when the context seems to be commonplace, e.g., 個個都係咁㗎啦。 Everyone is like that.
  • 啫嘛 - "Jé ma" translates as "just", e.g., 我做剩兩頁功課啫嘛。 I just have two pages of homework left to do.

Cantonese words

In Chinese, distinction is made between single syllable characters, which may represent either a word, morpheme, or particle, and multi-syllabic words. Characters are generally represented by a unique character, while a word may be composed of two or more characters, which may not be necessarily related in meaning. Thus, some Cantonese words may use existing characters to form words which do not exist or possess different meaning in Mandarin.

Also, some existing Chinese words are used differently in Cantonese than in Mandarin. For example, the word for "to eat" in Mandarin is 吃 (e.g., 吃飯 - to eat a meal). However, in Cantonese 吃 is understood but not used. Instead, the word 食 is used in Cantonese to mean "to eat" (e.g., 食飯 - to eat a meal). 食 is also used in Mandarin, but not as a verb; instead, it is a noun mainly meaning "food". So when writing in Cantonese, it is necessary to use the appropriate Cantonese word. Some examples include:

  • Mandarin: (v. walk) - Cantonese: (as in Classical Chinese)
  • Mandarin: (v. eat) - Cantonese: (as in Classical Chinese)
  • Mandarin: (v. drink) - Cantonese: (as in Classical Chinese) (Mandarin has since adapted this from Hong Kong.)
  • Mandarin: (v. look) - Cantonese: (as in its Classical Chinese counterpart, 睼)
  • Mandarin: 怎麼 (adv. how) - Cantonese:
  • Mandarin: (v. resemble, adv. like) - Cantonese:
  • Mandarin: (adv. still) - Cantonese: or (zung6; as in Classical Chinese)
  • Mandarin: (v. want to have) - Cantonese: 想要 (soeng2 jiu3) or 想愛 (soeng2 oi3)
  • Mandarin: (v. say) - Cantonese: (gong2) or (waa6)


Some Cantonese loanwords are written in existing Chinese characters.

English word Written form of Cantonese Written form of Mandarin
bus 巴士 (ba1 si2) 公共汽車
taxi 的士 (dik7 si2) 計程車 / 出租車
bye bye 拜拜 (bai1 bai3) 再見 (zàijiàn) (Also uses 拜拜 in informal speech)
chocolate 朱古力 (jyu1 gu1 lik7) 巧克力 (qiǎokèlì)
sandwich 三文治 (saam1 man4 zi6) 三明治 (sānmíngzhì)

Cantonese character formation

Cantonese characters, as with regular Chinese characters, are formed in one of several ways:


Some characters already exist in standard Chinese, but are simply reborrowed into Cantonese with new meanings. Most of these tend to be archaic or rarely used characters. An example is the character 子, which means "child". The Cantonese word for child is represented by 仔(jai), which has the original meaning of "young animal".

Marked phonetic loans

Many characters used in Cantonese writings are formed by putting a mouth radical (, ) on the left hand side of another better-known character, usually a standard Chinese character. This indicates that the new character sounds like the standard character, but is only used phonetically in the Cantonese context. (An exception is 咩, which does not sound like 羊 (sheep), but sounds like the sound that sheep make.) The characters which are commonly used in Cantonese writing include:

  • gaa (function word)
  • háah/háa (function word)
  • yaa/yaah (function word)
  • ngāak (v. cheat, hoax) Standard Chinese:
  • gám (function word like this) Standard Chinese: 這樣 e.g., 噉就死喇
  • gam (function word like this) Standard Chinese: 這麼 e.g., 咁大件
  • jó (function word past tense) Standard Chinese:
  • mē (function word) , also a contraction of 乜嘢,
  • saai (function word complete e.g., 搬哂 moved all, finished moving) Standard Chinese: ,
  • deih (function word; to show plural form of pronoun) Standard Chinese:
  • nī/nēi (adv. this) Standard Chinese:
  • m̀h (adv. not, no, cannot; originally a function word) Standard Chinese:
  • lāang (function word)
  • ngāam (adv. just, nearly) Standard Chinese: ; (adv. correct, suitable) Standard Chinese:
  • dī/dīt (genitive, similar to 's but pluralizing i.e., 呢個this one->呢啲these, 快點=快啲=hurry) Standard Chinese: , ,
  • yūk (v. move) Standard Chinese:
  • hái (prep.) At, in, during (time), at, in (place) Standard Chinese:
  • gó (adv. that) Standard Chinese:
  • ge (genitive, similar to 's; sometimes function word) Standard Chinese: ,,
  • māk (n. mark, trademark; transliteration of "mark")
  • laak (function word)
  • laa (function word)
  • yéh (n. thing, stuff) Standard Chinese:, 事物
  • sāai (v. waste) Standard Chinese: 浪費
  • lèih/làih (v. come, sometimes function word) Standard Chinese:
  • háaih (function word)
  • gauh (function word, piece of)
  • lō/lo (function word)
  • táu (v. rest)
  • haam (v. cry) Standard Chinese:
  • maih/máih (v. not be, contraction of 唔係 m̀h haih, used following 係 in yes-no questions) Standard Chinese: , ; also other uses
  • aá (final particle expressing consent and denial, liveliness and irritation, etc.) Mandarin:

There is evidence that the mouth radical in such characters can, over time, be replaced by a Signific, which indicates the meaning of the character. The new character is then a semantic compound. For instance, (lām, "bud"), written with the signific ("cover"), is instead written in older dictionaries as , with the mouth radical.

Derived characters

Other common characters are unique to Cantonese or are different from their Mandarin usage, including: 乜, 冇, 仔, 佢, 佬, 俾, 靚 etc. The characters which are commonly used in Cantonese writing include:

  • móuh (v. not have). Originally . Standard written Mandarin: 沒有
  • haih (v. be). Standard written Mandarin:
  • kéuih (pron. he/she/it). Originally . Standard written Mandarin: , 她, 它, 牠, 祂
  • māt (pron. what) often followed by 嘢 to form 乜嘢. Originally 物也. Standard written Mandarin: 什麼
  • jái (n. son, child, small thing). Originally .
  • lóu (n. guy, dude). Originally .[5]
  • 畀/俾 béi (v. give). Standard written Mandarin:
  • leng (adj. pretty, handsome). Originally 令. Standard written Mandarin: 漂亮
  • 晒/曬 saai (adv. completely; v. bask in sun)
  • fan (v. sleep). Originally . Standard written Mandarin: ,
  • 攞/拎 ló/ling (v. take, get). Standard written Mandarin:
  • leih (n. tongue). Standard written Mandarin:
  • guih (adj. tired). Standard written Mandarin:
  • dehng (n. place) often followed by 方 to form 埞方. Standard written Mandarin: 地方

The words represented by these characters are sometimes cognates with pre-existing Chinese words. However, their colloquial Cantonese pronunciations have diverged from formal Cantonese pronunciations. For example, ("without") is normally pronounced mòuh in literature. In spoken Cantonese, (móuh) has the same usage, meaning, and pronunciation as , except for tone. represents the spoken Cantonese form of the word "without", while represents the word used in Classical Chinese and Mandarin. However, is still used in some instances in spoken Cantonese, such as 無論如何 ("no matter what happens"). Another example is the doublet 來/嚟, which means "come". (lòih) is used in literature; (lèih) is the spoken Cantonese form.


As not all Cantonese words can be found in the current encoding system, or their encoding or input method may be obscure, some Cantonese writers use simple romanization (e.g., use D as 啲), symbols (add a Latin letter "o" in front of another Chinese character; e.g., 㗎 is defined in recent versions of Unicode, but will not display in many browsers due to lack of proper fonts or the browser's failure to use the correct fonts, hence the proxy o架 is often used), homophones (e.g., use 果 as 嗰), and Chinese characters with that have different meanings in Mandarin (e.g., 乜, 係, 俾; etc.) For example, "你喺嗰喥好喇, 千祈咪搞佢啲嘢。" is often written in easier form as "你o係果度好la, 千祈咪搞佢D野。" (character-by-character, approximately 'you, being, there (two characters), good, (final particle), thousand, pray, don't, mess with, him, (genitive particle), things', translation 'You'd better stay there, and please don't mess with his/her stuff.')

See also



  1. Mair, Victor. "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Snow, Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular, p. 49.
  3. cantonese.org.cn
  4. ctcfl.ox.ac.uk
  5. Zhifu Yu. 粵講粵過癮[100601][細路]. Foshan TV. Retrieved 3 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

External links