What You Need To Know About Cantonese: the Vernacular and the Formal

Cantonese is not a straight forward language. What you read in print is not what you speak or how you talk. This is a concept that confuses many people, including many Cantonese speakers. The linguistically dual nature (雙層語言)of Cantonese means that there are two varieties – the vernacular – Spoken/ Oral/ Colloquial Cantonese (口語, and the  Standard Chinese (書面語).



Diglossia is the socio-linguistic term for this phenomenon. This refers to a situation in which two languages or two varieties of the language are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers. (Oxford dictionary). The ‘high’ or prestigious variety, used in writing and formal occasions, public speaking, formal lectures and higher education, and writing. And the ‘low’ or colloquial variety is the native tongue, the language of home and community.

Watch this Cambridge linguist,  Adam,  explain Cantonese and diglossia (in fluent Cantonese).

Different Varieties of Cantonese

There has been many different terminologies used to describe the various variety of Cantonese and Chinese, which is a potential for confusion, as different people might use the terminology to describe something different. I have tried to translate the terms as best as I could, with explanations of the terminology I have used.  I have also concentrated on its more recent history where it relates to understanding the current situation.


Here are the different varieties:

Colloquial Cantonese (口語)

Colloquial Cantonese: Vernacular Cantonese

Colloquial Cantonese is what you hear on the streets, on TV and on radio, people talking to each other – in everyday conversation. This is the native language and mother tongue of most Hongkongers, what is spoken at home, what you hear from the moment you are born. It is the vernacular, the oral or spoken variant.

Standard Chinese (書面語)

Standard Chinese: standard written from promoted in China since the early 20th century

Standard (Written) Chinese is the common writing system for Chinese. The word ‘Chinese’ is a very broad and encompassing term, and includes hundreds of different Chinese languages and dialects. In the early 20th century, China saw a need to have a standard national language and adopted Standard Written Chinese and Putonghua  (common speech of the average person) . Regardless of what dialect you speak, the written form of Chinese is standardized  and serves as a common form of communication among Chinese people –  just one script that would be easily understandable to Mandarin speakers and other Chinese language and dialects.

(Please note that what is today Standard Chinese, used to be the vernacular of Northern Chinese speech, and was eventually adopted as the national standard in China. Standard Chinese is also not to be confused with Classical Chinese, which was used centuries ago. By Standard Chinese, we are referring to Modern Standard Chinese, adopted since the 1920s.)

Formal Cantonese

Formal Cantonese; Standard Chinese,with Cantonese pronunciation. (This is not to be mixed up with using more formal expressions in Cantonese.)

In Hong Kong, children are taught to write and read Standard Written Chinese with Cantonese pronunciation. The Chinese characters are read out with Cantonese pronunciation. Here, for lack of a better term, I refer to this as Formal Cantonese to differentiate it form Colloquial Cantonese. Schools emphasize the distinction between Colloquial Cantonese and Standard Chinese and frown upon the mixing of the two.


Written Cantonese

This is Colloquial Cantonese in written Form. It includes extra characters not found in Standard Chinese. Some characters in written Cantonese also have meanings from Standard Chinese. Written Cantonese follows the grammar rules of Spoken /Colloquial Cantonese, which differs slightly from Standard Chinese.

Contrary to popular belief, written Cantonese has actually been around for centuries. There are books of Cantonese verses published as early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1648). Many print news media are actually a hybrid of Standard Chinese and written Cantonese e.g. headlines of entertainment magazines, comic speech bubbles, advertisements and billboards often include Written Cantonese to some degree.

Despite it not being taught in schools, it is easy for Cantonese speakers to understand and write/type written Cantonese. Hence with the advent of messaging applications, internet chat rooms, and social media, most of the conversations that take place in the digital channels are in written Cantonese.   Over time, the Cantonese community has also become increasingly accepting of more Cantonese in the written form, as seen by the rise of Colloquial Cantonese literature.


Overview of Colloquial Cantonese vs Formal Cantonese

Colloquial Cantonese 口語

Formal Cantonese/ Standard Chinese 書面語

Audio Print Audio


Alternate names
  • Colloquial Cantonese
  • Oral Cantonese
  • Spoken Cantonese
  • Vernacular Cantonese
  • Conversational Cantonese
  • Written Cantonese
  • Written Oral Characters
  • Written Vernacular Cantonese
  • Written Colloquial Cantonese
  • Formal Cantonese
  • Standard Cantonese


  • Standard Written Chinese
  • Modern standard Chinese


  • Informal
  • Mother tongue status
  • Formal
How it is often learnt/ taught
  • Native speakers: Learnt at home/ community by immersion
  • Non-natives: formally taught, often as an adult
  • Native speakers: Often self taught
  • Non-natives: formally taught, often as an adult
  • Taught in schools
  • Taught in schools
Usage occasions
  • Conversations
  • TV
  • Radio
Informal Communication:

  • Online chat rooms
  • Instant messaging
  • Social networking websites

Print in Colloquial Context would have a degree of written Cantonese:

  • Literature
  • Advertisements
  • Billboards comics
  • Entertainment
  • Magazines
  • Newspaper
  • Headlines
  • Editorials
  • When reading aloud
  • Newscast
  • Formal announcements
  • Formal literature
  • Professional and government documents,
  • Television movie subtitles
  • News media.


Learning More

If you are interested in reading more about Written Cantonese, check out these recommended readings (external links):


This post is part of the About Cantonese series


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