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Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong and Taiwan

by Kate Chernavina

It is a known fact that a language may vary, especially how it is spoken, depending on the region where the language is used. But have you ever heard of two languages that are written in a same way but have nothing in-common in terms pronunciation? Today we will look into some differences between the Mandarin of Taiwan and the Cantonese of Hong Kong, and see how it can influence communication and interpersonal relationships if one is looking to negotiate or do business in these two Chinese-speaking regions.

Effective communication is the key to success in today’s business world. Due to the increasing demand for native resources to help you successfully target the Chinese market, it is now crucial to be aware of the differences in writing and speech between these regions where traditional chinese characters are used.

In Taiwan, people write in Standard Chinese using traditional characters (繁體字 [fántǐzì]), and most people speak Mandarin, which is the official language of Taiwan, and the main language used in education. The Mandarin of Taiwan (國語 [guóyǔ]) differs somewhat from the Mandarin of China in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, and the way it is written - in China they write with simplified characters (简体字 [jiǎntǐzì]). However, the two forms of Mandarin are mutually intelligible.

About 80% of the people of Taiwan also speak Taiwanese, a form of Southern Min (閩南話 [bân-lâm-gí]) that originated in Fujian province in China, and which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. There is no standard way of writing Taiwanese, and it is rarely written. Some people also speak Hakka (客家話 hak7ga1wa3), another variety of Chinese, or Formosan languages, which are part of the Austronesian language family.

In Hong Kong, most people speak Cantonese, and write in Standard Chinese, which is based on Mandarin. When they read text aloud however, they use Cantonese pronounciation. Colloquial Cantonese is sometimes written, and it differs significantly from written Standard Chinese to the extent that Mandarin speakers cannot understand all of it.

Negotiations between business people from Hong Kong and Taiwan are sometimes conducted in English, as relatively few Hong Kong citizens can speak Mandarin, and very few Taiwanese people speak Cantonese. However, the number of people in Hong Kong who can speak Mandarin is increasing.

Vocabulary

As you can see from the small talk, the “little lamb” actually means “a scooter” and is a popular word used among younger generations. The equivalent in Taiwan is 摩托車 (mótuōchē). It may sound natural to bilingual speakers in Taiwan because most young people have access to videos, YouTube or films made in Hong Kong. However, the larger populations from different social classes may feel awkward about hearing such a novel idea coming out of nowhere. Here are a few examples of the differences between the two languages in terms of word usage in formal business writing or marketing campaigns.

Term Taiwan Hong Kong
go to work 上班 (shàngbān) 返工 (faan2gung1)
finish work 下班 (xiàbān) 放工 (fong3gung1)
boss 計程車 (jìchéngchē) 的士 (dik1si6)

Grammar

Grammar can affect the way people write business letters when two parties from different cultural backgrounds try to talk business and settle things clearly. During the early years of British colonization, the Hongkongese became much familiar with the English structure and therefore changed the original sentence structure of Mandarin, which is a paratactic language focusing on its meaning and deep structure in formal writing. For example, a “weak verb” is sometimes applied to a Chinese sentence or phrase and changes the way people write in formal letters. Here’s an example.

  • English: "The expert carries out an experiment to study the formula."
  • Mandarin: 專家做實驗來研究配方. (zhuānjiā zuò shíyàn lái yánjiū pèifāng)
  • Cantonese: 專家藉由實驗對配方進行研究. (zyun1gaa1 zik6 jau4 sat6jim6 deoi3 pui3fong1 zeon3hang4 jin4gau3 )

Note that the two languages preserve and use the Traditional Chinese characters quite differently due to the historical background of a split Chinese language tree. The language system of Traditional Chinese in Taiwan adopts the mother system of Standard Chinese. This standard can now be spoken and written intelligibly by business people in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, because of its colonial and linguistic history, the sole language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life remains the local Cantonese, with the use of the same Traditional Chinese characters.

However, the majority of Traditional Chinese users (Hong Kongese, older generation of Mainland China, Taiwanese) can read Taiwanese Mandarin. Therefore, if anyone wishes to create a website targeting the Traditional Chinese-speaking market, you can use Taiwanese Mandarin for the best search results to improve user experience.

Internet Language

Another great idea to consider is to look into the network language commonly used by online users today. Since the internet now seems to prevail over older media, there’s no reason one should not be aware of the new burst of fashionable language spread across most networks for marketing use. Here are some examples of what you may find in advertising campaigns.

Term Taiwan Hong Kong
OMG (oh my god) Orz; 囧 (jiǒng); 天啊 (tiān a) 唔系挂 (m4 hai6 gwaa3)
God-like 達人 (dárén); 聖手 (shèngshǒu) 倔機 (gwat6 gei1)
Service plan 方案 (fāngàn) 計劃 (gai3waak6)
Read But No Reply 潛水 (qiánshuǐ); 已讀不回 (yǐ dú bù huí) 潛水 (cim4seoi2)

When entering Chinese speaking markets, it is important to remember that Hong Kong and Taiwan are quite different when it comes to life habits as well as speaking habits. They share a common written language, but not a common spoken language, unless one side makes an effort and learns the language of the other (Mandarin is an optional second language in public schools in Hong Kong). And of course, other factors such as population, size of your target market and wage levels must be considered before translating your web site or marketing materials.

Do not hesitate to share this article with your friends or colleagues and stay tuned for the latest updates!

Note

Cantonese transliterations are given in Jyutping, using Cantonese Tools. The numbers indicate tones.

About the writer

Kate Chernavina has a great background in linguistics, majoring in Chinese language, she lives in China for the past 12 years and works at Hi-Com Asia, an international translation and copywriting company.

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