Contrary to most people’s belief, Cantonese is a language rather than a dialect. Despite the primacy of Mandarin as the official language of the People’s Republic of China, Cantonese remains the dominant lingua franca in its native-speaking regions. Where is Cantonese spoken inside and outside of China? Continue reading for the most comprehensive status quo of the Cantonese language in the world.
Who Speaks Cantonese?
Cantonese is a constituent part of the colossal Chinese language family. It originated from the city of Canton (广州/廣州), and it’s now the lingua franca of the Province of Guangdong, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Hong Kong, and Macau. Due to the massive influx of Cantonese-descendant immigrants into different countries, Cantonese is now spoken not only by people in southeastern China but also by Chinese communities overseas across five continents worldwide.
Cantonese Speaking Region
Where there is Dim Sum, there is the Cantonese language.
As the earliest emigrants within China settled in the other parts of the world, Cantonese people brought their sought-after cuisine alongside their language to nearly every corner of the world. However, which regions have the most Cantonese speakers? Here are a few that boast large Cantonese communities within borders.
Cantonese is the native language of most Guangdong and Guangxi populations. In ancient times, the natives of Guangdong were the Tanka people who spoke the Proto-Tai language. Later, the Han Chinese migrants from up north settled down in Guangdong and married the Tanka people, resulting in the merging of the Proto-Tai language and Middle Chinese.
At some point, the proto-Cantonese language emerged. The port city of Canton/Guangzhou gradually became the area’s cultural, financial, and political center during the Song Dynasty. So the Cantonese dialect quickly gained predominance among the Cantonese people, and the prestige dialect later developed into the modern standard Cantonese that we hear today.
Although Mandarin became the official language in the late Qing Dynasty in the 1900s and the promotion of Standard Mandarin Chinese even furthered after the establishment of the PRC in 1949, Cantonese remains its strong influence in Guangdong and Guangxi till today. However, due to the popularization of simplified Chinese, Cantonese speakers in mainland China are accustomed to simplified characters.
The native Hong Kongers were Tanka people who later assimilated into Cantonese and adopted Cantonese as their first language. The modern Hong Kongers are descendants of the migrants from Canton and its surrounding areas in the Pearl River Delta. They brought their Cantonese language with them, and gradually, Cantonese was established as the predominant language in Hong Kong. Even during the British Hong Kong era, when English served as the sole official language of Hong Kong, Cantonese survived, and traditional Chinese characters were kept.
Macau became a Portuguese colony and a trading outpost when it separated from China’s Ming Dynasty in 1557. With over 400 years under Portuguese rule, Macau was deeply rooted in Cantonese culture with influences from Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Just like in Hong Kong, the majority of the population in Macau (95%) speaks Cantonese as their first language and also adopts traditional Chinese characters in writing. Cantonese is one of the two official spoken languages in Macau, with the other being Portuguese.
Chinese people are known for being diligent and pragmatic. They are willing to travel far for a better life and work opportunities. In the last century, when China was not yet a global power, thousands of Cantonese workers and business people made the adjacent countries in Southeast Asia their first stops. Some of them failed and returned to China, but many put down their roots and built a life in the new country with their mother tongue, food, and culture.
Southeast Asian countries that have seen the presence of Cantonese include Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Apart from the influence of the locally based Cantonese Chinese communities, the popularity of Hong Kong popular culture, especially drama series and Cantonese popular music, also helped shape the linguistic landscape in these countries.
A survey revealed that from 2005 to 2009, over 458,840 Americans spoke Cantonese as their mother. The first wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. began in the 19th century in the California Gold Rush in the 1850s and the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. Most of these Chinese emigrants originated from Guangdong, specifically a coastal county called Toisan/Taishan, making Toisanese the major Cantonese variety spoken in the U.S. Similarly, as of 2016, there were up to 565,270 Chinese Canadians who claimed to speak Cantonese as their first language. Among these Cantonese speakers, 44% had Hong Kong origin, 27% traced their roots in Guangdong, and only 18% were born and bred in Canada. A fraction of the Cantonese-speaking community escaped from the conflict zones in Southeast Asia and eventually settled in North America.
Europe is also home to a large number of Cantonese speakers. The top three European countries with the most Cantonese speakers are the United Kingdom, France, and Portugal. In the UK, around 300,000 British people speak Cantonese as their first language, many of which came from British Hong Kong and other former British colonies in Singapore and Malaysia. In France, Cantonese speakers are primarily immigrants who escaped from the former French Indochina of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos after the conflicts in the 1970s. In Portugal, most Cantonese-speaking communities originate from Macau, yet Mandarin- and Wu-speaking Chinese from mainland China have outnumbered Cantonese speakers with Macanese origin in recent years.
The first batch of ethnic Chinese settlers that came to Australia in the 1850s was also originally from the province of Guangdong and Guangxi and spoke Cantonese as their native language. Cantonese remained the dominant Chinese language in Australia until the number of Mandarin-speaking emigrants surpassed Cantonese speakers in the mid-2000s. By 2016, there were over 280,943 Cantonese speakers in Australia.
How Many People Speak Cantonese?
According to the Ethnologue statistics, the number of Cantonese speakers in the world numbered 85.5 million, with over 60 million living in mainland China. But the actual number is higher since it’s harder to get an accurate number. The population of Cantonese speakers outnumbers France’s or Italy’s population, making it a significant language in the global landscape.
Where Do People Speak Cantonese?
In regions where Cantonese serves as the lingua franca, like Guangdong, Cantonese is spoken in everyday life. For example, in metropolitan cities like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, they use trilingual voice announcements in their public transportation system, which, in sequence, are Mandarin – Cantonese – English in Guangdong and Cantonese – Mandarin – English in Hong Kong. In these Cantonese-speaking regions, Cantonese people even have their own media broadcasting in their local Cantonese dialects.
In overseas Cantonese communities, they have fewer opportunities to speak Cantonese and hear their mother tongue other than at home or in Chinese restaurants.
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Does Hong Kong Speak Cantonese?
Big yes! Over 95% of Hong Kong’s population are native Cantonese speakers. Despite the influx of Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Mainland China since the 1970s, Cantonese remains the most influential language in the Hong Kong territory, and these non-Cantonese speaking immigrants and their descendants have been assimilated into the Cantonese culture and also speak Cantonese in order to blend in the Hong Kong society.
Where is Cantonese spoken? Given the reach of Cantonese in the whole world, Cantonese is spoken in practically any continent and country. However, the majority of the Cantonese population locates in mainland China, Hong Kong & Macau, Southeast Asia, North America, Western Europe, and Australia.