“You study Chinese? Cantonese or Mandarin?"
How often have you heard this question? What exactly does it mean?
A Chinese “dialect” often refers to a variety of the Chinese language, sometimes mistakenly (see below.) Many people don’t realize that there are hundreds of varieties of Chinese, not just Cantonese and Mandarin! Minnanese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, … the list goes on! When you consider that China’s landmass is virtually the same as the USA, and it has a history of thousands of years, then China is really more like another Europe linguistically, especially when you take in the non-Sinitic languages (e.g. Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyghur, Zhuang, Ewenk, etc.).
The Chinese languages evolved in eastern central China, but spread over the area of modern China as it grew as an empire. However, like many languages, as different parts of the country lost contact with each other, save through the written language or emissaries, those groups continued to evolve and differentiate over time, leading to different varieties of Chinese, just like Latin spread across Europe during the Roman Empire and eventually evolved into Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian.
What Is "Mandarin Chinese"?
Mandarin refers to a language that covers China from its southwest near Tibet to its northeast, and it has a great deal of dialectical variety (i.e. people in northeastern Harbin do not speak Mandarin like those in Kunming, in the southwest, they are all mutually intelligible, more or less). Within Mandarin there are real differences between its dialects. For example in northern Heilongjiang province there are Mandarin dialects that have just 3, not 4 tones. Also, Sichuan Mandarin is famous for using very different tone contours from northern Mandarin dialects, even though nearly 50% of Sichuanese is identical with Standard Chinese. Probably the most famous feature of Mandarin dialects is the r-suffix that is found in northeastern Mandarin, especially Beijing (also known as the Beijing “er” accent.) But everyone in China (whether speaking Mandarin dialect or not) learns Standard Chinese in school, which is based on, but not identical to, Beijing Mandarin. Standard Chinese also includes grammar patterns not found in many Mandarin dialects but which are found in southern Chinese varieties.
In the southeast of China, however, you can find many forms of Chinese that differ radically from Mandarin. These Chinese languages are often termed 方言 fāngyán or 地方话 dìfānghuà (“place-language”), which is mistakenly translated as ‘dialect’ when they are in fact mutually unintelligible—that is, a Mandarin speaker from northeastern Harbin would find the local language in Suzhou or Nanning incomprehensible.
With the status that Mandarin now has as an official language, other Chinese languages are often disparaged by Mandarin speakers as being rough, uncivilized, etc. In Guangzhou, children are taught 文明人说普通话 (wénmíng rén shuō Pǔtōnghuà) “civilized people speak Putonghua [Mandarin]”, implying that Cantonese speakers are not civilized, which of course is not true.
However, if you compare the southern Chinese languages, they have many features that make them much more similar—greater numbers of tones, more complex syllables, etc., while Mandarin has fewer in every area; in fact, Mandarin is not only simpler, but it’s also different from other Chinese languages!
If one compares the different linguistic features—inventory of sounds along with possible combinations, tone count and intonation, syntax and grammar, words, etc.—you would find that Mandarin is also the simplest of the Chinese languages in every single category. Also, while speakers of Sichuan dialect and Harbin dialect could communicate before the rise of Standard Chinese, albeit with some difficulty, speakers of Mandarin dialects would not understand speakers of Hakka (客家) Chinese, Shanghainese or Cantonese. If the difference between a dialect and a language is mutual intelligibility, then Beijing speech (北京话) and Chengdu speech (成都话) are dialects of the same language, separated by a thousand kilometers, while speakers of Cantonese and Hakka are speakers of two different yet closely-related languages.
So how did Mandarin break off from the southern languages?
There are two very interesting hypotheses for this difference. One is the so-called Altaicization hypothesis; it states that Mandarin dialects evolved differently from the southern varieties of Chinese because of its exposure to the so-called Altaic languages of the later dynasties (Mongolian in the 元 Yuán dynasty and Manchu in the 清 Qīng dynasty). Both the Yuan and the Qing saw China ruled by (originally) non-Chinese peoples. Mandarin evolved in the capitals and major cities of these northern-based empires.
The other hypothesis is called the creolization hypothesis. A creole is a language that is created when at first a simple pidgin is put to together by non-native speakers. For example, when slaves from many different languages of West Africa were introduced into Haiti, they put together simple words and grammar from French and other languages in order to communicate; a pidgin. Then when children were born and grew up in this pidgin, it became a natural language, a creole. This hypothesis states that vast, polyethnic communities (i.e. empires) often see a national language become simpler as many second-language learners become part of the day-today reality of the language. Examples of such creolized languages are a who’s who of past empires, including Farsi (Persian), Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, and English. So according to these two hypotheses, Mandarin grammar and pronunciation became simpler over time as speakers from different, most likely more complex languages, tried to communicate with each other through a second language, the imperial language. This could explain why Mandarin is so different from other Chinese languages.
Cantonese, on the other hand, like other southern Chinese languages, is much more complex in terms of pronunciation, grammar, etc., and retains features found in Middle China that Mandarin has lost.
So Mandarin and Cantonese are, in fact, two Chinese languages. They both come from medieval varieties of Chinese that were considered the language of past imperial capitals, and they both are filled with the vocabulary and culture of China’s unique history, literature, religions, etc. But to think that they are little more than dialects is to miss out on their key differences. We’ll pick up on examples of Cantonese differing form Mandarin in the second article.
崔荣昌 (1996). "第三章：四川的官话". 《四川方言与巴蜀文化》. 四川大学出版社.
 See John McWhorter’s Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars (New York: Oxford UP, 2007).