I’ve been asked a lot that how do Cantonese-speakers write. Before you get to know the answer, you need to understand that there are two systems of language Hong Kong people use in their daily life – spoken language (Cantonese) and written language (Traditional Chinese). So:
- Hong Kong people speak in Cantonese (this is a local dialect already)
- Hong Kong people write in Traditional Chinese
For Mainland Chinese:
- Mainland Chinese speak in Mandarin (or their own local dialect)
- Mainland Chinese write in Simplified Chinese
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding Hong Kong people’s use of “Cantonese” in writing. Hong Kong people speak in Cantonese, but they write in Traditional Chinese of which the language, tones and grammar are similar to Mandarin (of course there are some idioms and slangs that are different, but the language system is basically the same). Hence, the oral languages (Cantonese and Mandarin) are very different, but the written languages (Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese) are fundamentally the same, it’s just the physical look of the characters that are different.
Same wordings used for same vocabulary but different characters of writings
For example, the following word means “egg”, the literal wordings in Cantonese and Mandarin are the same, but Hong Kong people (Traditional Chinese) and Mainland Chinese (Simplified Chinese) write in different ways:
In the written languages, the first characters are very different in Traditional Chinese (complicated to write) and Simplified Chinese (easier to writer) but the second character is the same in both.
Different wordings used for same vocabulary but different characters of writings
This is the most tricky part, the vocabulary below means “film” (that you use for taking photos in old cameras), Cantonese and Mandarin speakers not only say it in different ways (think of British English and American English) in different wordings, they also write them in different characters, but for the written part, the wordings used are the same, just the physical looks are different. (note that the second character is the same)
Here, you see that the spoken forms of “film” in Cantonese and Mandarin are completely different. (The one in Cantonese sounds like English, which is a feature of westernization of Cantonese).
I’m still confused…so what’s the conclusion?
The conclusion is that, both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers write in the same language – Chinese, only the physical characters are different with Traditional Chinese being more complicated and Simplified Chinese being more easy to write. In the old days, every one used Traditional Chinese, but starting from 1930s, the Chinese government issued the new Simplified Chinese characters to make the language easier to learn in the hope of increasing Chinese people’s educational level*.
However, Cantonese is a local dialect (with many slangs) while most Mandarin words are proper for formal writing, therefore Mandarin speakers need little conversion to transform the spoken language to the written one. When you pronounce Traditional Chinese words in Cantonese, they will sound really weird, like you’re being too serious.
Due to the fact that Cantonese is a local dialect (casual, spoken) while Cantonese-speakers need to write in Traditional Chinese (formal, written), they always mix up words and have created lots of language mistakes. As a result, Hong Kong people have long been criticized for their constant misuse of words and that their writings are too causal and informal. I hope that when more Cantonese-speakers are getting to learn Mandarin, they will improve their written language.
You can take a look at my previous article about Why Hong Kong People Hate Speaking Mandarin to Non-Chinese Speakers?.