Yue Chinese, including Cantonese, is one of the most important varieties of the Chinese language, spoken in many areas of southern China including the densely populated island of Hong Kong. Cantonese is the most widely spoken Yue dialect and is often used as a lingua franca even by people who do not speak it natively, so much so that many people refer to all the Yue languages as “Cantonese.” The number of Chinese immigrants abroad who speak Yue or Cantonese is quite significant, especially within the United States.
Yue Chinese is a good example of how a tongue can be considered a separate language by linguists, but only a dialect socially and politically. Yue is not mutually intelligible with most other Chinese languages. It shares much of its vocabulary with Mandarin Chinese, but differences in pronunciation and grammar make all the difference, especially due to the central importance of phonetic tones in both languages.
Roots of the language: Like other varieties of Chinese, the Yue languages grew out of the convergence of historical kingdoms in mainland China. Because Yue developed in the southern regions of China, it saw less influence by Manchurian and Mongolian languages than did the northern dialects. Some linguists believe that the Yue languages retain more pronunciation in common with ancient spoken Chinese than Mandarin does, due to evidence that some classical poems that no longer rhyme in spoken Mandarin do rhyme when spoken in Yue. The regions where Yue is the most common were relatively physically isolated in ancient times, creating better conditions for preserving the language.
In some ways, Yue (especially Cantonese) has more of a global reach than Mandarin, as the southern parts of China have historically engaged in a greater amount of trade and commerce with foreign nations than the central and northern climes. European seafarers helped to spread Cantonese around the Pacific during the colonial era, while today Cantonese-language pop culture is prominent throughout China and exported around the world.
Yue is a tonal language much like Mandarin, but its usage of tones is vastly different. By most counts, Yue has a larger number of tones than Mandarin, but fewer diphthongs (double vowels). The number of tones in a given language can be difficult to measure, as different dialects might have different tones, and what technically constitutes a “tone” can always be disputed. As the forces of globalization increase, and Yue-speaking areas (Hong Kong in particular) become more and more active in worldwide trade and media, the language has taken on an increasing number of foreign loan words. Written form: The Yue languages use the same traditional writing system of Chinese characters used in Mandarin. This means that the written form of Yue is easier for a Mandarin speaker to understand than the spoken form, but there are still significant differences that set written Yue apart from written Mandarin. Although the two languages share much of the same vocabulary, they will frequently use certain words and written characters in different ways (e.g. one might use a word as a noun that the other uses as a verb). Some Yue languages will occasionally use a Standard Chinese character to stand for a phonetic pronunciation rather than to signify its given meaning. This leads to a situation wherein the writings of both languages, although using the same character set, are only partially mutually intelligible.