Cantonese is a language widely spoken in China and particularly in the province of Guangdong where it is recognized as the lingua franca. The language gets its name from the Canton which is the traditional name for the city of Guangzhou. Apart from mainland China, the language also has native speakers in Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
As the birthplace of Cantonese, China is an example of a country where the Cantonese language is most widespread. The language is recognized as the lingua franca in China’s province of Guangdong. The language’s popularity persisted in China after Mandarin was established as the country’s official language in the early 20th Century, and after Standard Chinese was promoted as the official language since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in the 1940s. The Chinese government discourages the use of another language except for Standard Chinese but despite the discouragement Cantonese still enjoys widespread use in China and is used in public transport in some regions of the country.
Contrary to popular belief, the origin of the use of Cantonese in Hong Kong is relatively recent, going back to the mid-19th Century. Foreigners originating from the city of Canton were responsible for introducing Cantonese in Hong Kong after they migrated in their thousands between 1842 and 1897 to work as merchants and laborers. Another mass exodus of Cantonese speakers from China to Hong Kong was witnessed in 1949 after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing to Hong Kong.
Cantonese also has extensive usage in Malaysia where thousands of people are native Cantonese speakers. Malaysian Chinese make up the bulk of Cantonese speakers in the country with an estimated 15% of all Malaysian Chinese households being identified as Cantonese speakers. Many of the Cantonese speakers in Malaysia live in the nation’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. Other regions where the language has native speakers include Khang Valley, Sekinchan, and the Kinta Valley.
Cantonese in the West
The language is also popular in the western hemisphere and has millions of speakers in Europe and North America. The United States is one country where Cantonese has widespread use, especially in Chinatowns. Cantonese’s popularity among Chinese Americans stems from the fact that Guangzhou is the source of most Chinese immigrants who live in the United States. Cantonese is also popular in Canada where more than 0.565 million people identify themselves as native Cantonese speakers, according to the 2016 Census. Thousands of people in Europe also speak the language. Over 0.3 million people in Britain identify Cantonese as their primary language.
The origin of Cantonese can be traced back to the Southern Song Era in ancient Canton where it emerged as a variant of Yue Chinese. Canton was, at this time, the most important city in China and one of the largest trading hub in the region. The language would later spread to other regions of ancient China and had native speakers in areas as far as Malaysia and Cambodia by the 19th Century.