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Incompatibility Issues

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Cantonese-Mandarin Chart

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Incompatibility Issues

The first thing a person should know is that Cantonese does not translate directly into Mandarin.  True, Cantonese and Mandarin grammar are very similar.  Aside from a few important exceptions, word order between the two languages is compatible.  However, there are a large number of words that are used in Cantonese which are not used in Mandarin.  So, despite the similar grammars, Cantonese sentences cannot usually be converted word for word and become comprehendible Mandarin sentences.

What this section of the website looks at are patterns and systematic differences.  Below are a number of language features that point out the limitations of this approach to learning one dialect from another. 

Very essential parts of the languages are different.  For example, the equative verb " haih " in Cantonese and " shi " in Mandarin come from different roots and are based on a different character.  The possessive particle (" ge " in Cantonese and " de " in Mandarin) are likewise different.  Even a simple sentence like "John is my friend" would be have important differences.  Below are the Cantonese and Mandarin versions of that sentence where the points of conflict are in red.

Cantonese: John haih ngohge pahngyauh .
Mandarin: John shi wode pengyou .

There are several other such differences.  The words for "this" and "that" are different.  The location prefix " hai " in Cantonese and " zai " in Mandarin are from different roots.  Perhaps most noticeable is that Cantonese and Mandarin do not use the same negation particle.

The character for "shi:
 the "to be" verb in Mandarin.

The character for "haih":
the "to be" verb in Cantonese

Additionally, while Cantonese and Mandarin grammar are mostly compatible, there are some points where they are not.  One such divergence which will be encountered regularly is the construction for "to not have."  Cantonese uses a single character ( mouh ); Mandarin uses the character for "to have" and a special negator prefix.  This small grammatical divergence has great ramifications.  Because most words in Chinese are composed of two morphemes, Cantonese can make great use of the " mouh " character, combining it with other morphemes to create complete ideas.  While the Mandarin construction can sometimes duplicate the Cantonese form, there are cases where the two are not compatible.

What this means for Cantonese speaking learners of Mandarin is that even completely mastering the information contained in the conversion charts does not allow one to speak proper Mandarin directly from oral Cantonese.  Spoken Mandarin follows the grammar of written Chinese, which makes these conversion tools great for changing written Chinese read in the Cantonese dialect and converting it to colloquial Mandarin.  These charts will also serve as a powerful vocabulary building tool.

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