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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 langauge movement took hold, and the written language was standardized as Vernacular Chinese. However, the Chinese spoken varietes used across China are not all the same, and because the Mandarin dialects comprised the largest proportion of the Chinese speaking population, Vernacular Chinese was based mostly on the grammar and vocabulary of Mandarin.
The standardization and adoption of Vernacular Chinese as standard written Chinese pre-empted the development and standardization of other vernaculars based on other Chinese varieties. No matter what dialect one spoke, one still wrote in standard written Chinese for everday writing. However, Cantonese is unique among the non-Mandarin spoken varieties in having a widely used colloquial standard. This is due in part to the fact that Hong Kong, a large Cantonese speaking city, was outside of Chinese control for over a hundred years before the British returned it to the People's Republic of China in 1997. Even so, Cantonese speakers will use standard written Chinese in most formal written communications since written Cantonese contains many dialect-specific characters and grammatical structures that may be unfamiliar or even unreadable to other Chinese speakers.
Historically, the written Cantonese has been used for legal proceedings in order to record the exact testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing in standard written Chinese. However, their popularity and usage is rising. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, and instant messaging. Some tabloids like Apple Daily write colloquial Cantonese and papers may contain editorials that contain Cantonese, and Cantonese-specific characters can be increasingly seen on advertisements and billboards.
Written Cantonese contains many characters not used in standard written Chinese in order to transcribe colloquially spoken words. Because written Cantonese is not really a standard written language, there can be many discrepancies in the way certain words are written. In the 1990s, the government of Hong Kong attempted to standardize this set of characters and released the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set for use in electronic communication. Even still, there is often no consensus on what characters are often the "correct" ones to use.
Some characters used to represent words in Cantonese are simply synonyms of words used in standard written Chinese. The most common are the character for the verb "to be" (是) and the character for "not" (不), which are simply replaced by 係; and 唔, respectively. Another example is the third-person pronoun (他/她 "he/she"), which is replaced by 佢. The plural pronoun marker (們) is replaced by 哋. The possessive particle (的) is replaced by 嘅. For instance:
- Is it theirs?
- 係唔係佢哋嘅？ (Cantonese)
- 是不是他們的？ (Standard Chinese)
- literally: "be not be they POSSESSIVE?"
There are certain words that share a common root with words in standard written Chinese. But because they have diverged in pronounciation, tone, and/or meaning, they are often written using a different character. One example is the doublet 來 (standard) and 嚟 (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, 嚟 and 來, respectively. Some people argue that representing the colloquial pronunciation with a different (and often extremely complex) character is superfluous, and encourage using the same character for both forms since they are cognates (see #Derived characters below).
Some characters are native to Cantonese and have no equivalent in Standard Chinese (though equivalents may exist in other varieties of Chinese).
Examples: The word "diu", meaning "fuck" does not exist in standard Chinese. The character is written with a 小 character inside the 門 character, but does not exist within the standard character set.
These are characters created to represent loanwords borrowed into Cantonese.
Cantonese is famous for the use of particles in speech. Some are added to the end of a sentence while others are suffixed to verbs to indicate tense. There are many such particles; here are a few.
- 咩 - "me" placed at end of sentence to indicate disbelief
- 呢 - "ne" similar to 馬 in Mandarin, placed at end of sentence to indicate question
- 未 - "mei" placed at end of sentence to ask if action is done yet
- 吓 - "ha" placed after a verb to indicate a little bit, ie "eat a little bit"
- 緊 - "gan" placed after a verb to indicate an action going on, ie "I am eating"
- 唨 - "jo" placed after verb for past perfect tense, ie "I finished eating"
- 埋 - "maai" placed after verb to indicate an action that will be finishing, ie "I will finish eating"
- 嘩 - "wa" wow!
See Cantonese grammar
Some Cantonese loanwords are not neccessarily written with new characters and simply use the pronounciations of existing Chinese characters.
- bus - 巴士 (ba si)
- taxi - 的士 (dic si)
- bye - 拜拜 (bai bai)
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".
Semantic compound characters
Many characters used in colloquial Cantonese writings are made up by putting a mouth radical (口) on the left hand side of another more well known character to indicate that the character is read like the right hand side, but it is only used phonetically in the Cantonese context. The characters 㗎, 叻, 吓, 吔, 呃, 咁, 咗, 咩, 哂, 哋, 唔, 唥, 唧, 啱, 啲, 喐, 喥, 喺, 嗰, 嘅, 嘜, 嘞, 嘢, 嘥, 嚟, 嚡, 嚿, 囖 etc. are commonly used in Cantonese writing.
See also: semantic compound characters
Other common characters are unique to Cantonese or deviated from their Mandarin usage, they include: 乜, 冇, 仔, 佢, 佬, 係, 俾, 靚 etc.
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, in formal written Chinese, 無 (mou4) is the character used for "without". In spoken Cantonese, 冇 (mou2) has the same usage, meaning, and pronunciation as 無, differing only by tone. 冇 represents the spoken Cantonese form of the word "without", while 無 represents the word used in Mandarin (pinyin: wú) and formal Chinese writing. However, 無 is still used in some instances in spoken Cantonese, like 無論如何 ("no matter what happens"). Another example is the doublet 來/嚟, which means "to come". 來(loi4) is used in formal writing; 嚟 (lei4) is the spoken Cantonese form.
See also: derived characters
As not all Cantonese words can be found in current encoding system, or the users simply don't know how to enter such characters on the computer, in very informal speech, Cantonese tends to use extremely simple romanization (e.g. use D as 啲), symbols (add an English letter "o" in front of another Chinese character; e.g. 㗎 is defined in Unicode, but will not display in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0. hence the proxy o架 is oftern used), homophones (e.g. use 果 as 嗰), and Chinese character of different Mandarin meaning (e.g. 乜, 係, 畀; etc.) to compose a message. For example, "你喺嗰喥好喇, 千祈咪搞佢啲嘢。" is often written in easier form as "你o係果度好喇, 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 stand there, and don't touch his stuff.')
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