(Note: This is the first “cheatsheet” in a continuing series aimed at helping people with a foundation in Mandarin transition into reading Cantonese)
Some people I know got into Cantonese after stumbling across a Hong Kong media source or forum (*cough cough* LIHKG) and discovering that their existing knowledge of “Standard Written Chinese” only got them so far. That’s because written vernacular Cantonese is a far cry from written Mandarin, employing a whole host of characters rarely seen up north. However, Mandarin readers still have a leg up over people with no character experience, as there is still a fair amount of overlap between the written colloquial forms of the two languages.
As someone who arrived at Cantonese after studying Mandarin, a lot of my early study focused on how the two languages differ so I could keep them straight in my head. Below are are five key divergences in terms of functional use. With these, a person literate in Mandarin should be able to start making simple sentences with Cantonese-specific characters.
The primary “to be” verb in Cantonese, corresponding with 是 in Mandarin. Its primary usage is for “A is B” style constructions like below:
Ngóh haih Hēunggóng yàhn.
I am a Hongkonger.
Ngóh haih yīsāng.
I am a doctor.
2. 喺 hái (vs. 在)
This coverb functions fairly similarly to 在 in Mandarin. However, the huge thing to pay attention to is how close the pronunciation is to 係 (to be)—they only differ in tone. 係 is a low flat low tone while 喺 is a rising tone. They also differ by one radical.
Ngóh jyuh hái Hēunggóng.
I live in Hong Kong.
Ngóh hái gūngyún sihk faahn.
I eat in the park.
(Note the verbs for “to eat” differ here between Cantonese and Mandarin; verb differences are a whole other can of worms and will be covered in more detail later)
3. 唔 mh`, 未 meih, and 冇 móuh (vs. 不, 沒, and 沒有)
Cantonese uses distinct negative adverbs from Mandarin. The first, 唔, functions similar to 不 in that you will generally see it before a verb or adjective. (Note that it should be romanized as a low falling tone, but some people also just write m or mh) Some examples:
Ngóh mh` haih Faatgwok yàhn.
I am not French.
Ngóh mh` sīk Faatyúh.
I don’t know French/I can’t speak French.
Just like Cantonese has its own standard negative adverb, it also has a separate one for lacking or having not done something. Thus, we see 未 instead of 沒:
Ngóh meih heui gwo Yahtbún.
I have never been to Japan.
The one major exception comes up with the verb 有. In that case, Cantonese has a word that efficiently blends the sounds of meih and yáuh together while also conveying the sense of “not having” in a single, genius character: 冇 móuh.
Ngóh móuh pàhng yáuh.
I have no friends.
4. 佢 kéuih, 佢哋 kéuihdeih, 你哋 néihdeih, 我哋 ngóhdeih (vs. 他/她/它，他們，你們，我們)
The characters for the pronouns “I/me” (我) and “you” (你) do not differ between Mandarin and Cantonese (though you could argue Cantonese song lyrics still use the feminine 妳 more than contemporary Mandarin does, as in the case of 《喜歡妳》).
However, it’s another story with the third person when speaking about people or animals. In that case, 他/她/它 becomes 佢 (kéuih).
Kéuih yauh leng yauh gōu.
He is both handsome and tall.
Kéuih haih ngóh daaihgō.
He is my big brother/boss/triad leader. (check your context!)
(In the last example, note the lack of possessive particle between the pronoun and 大哥—for many close/familial relationships, a possessive particle is not obligatory.)
Cantonese also has its own particle for pluralizing pronouns, similar to 們 in Mandarin: 哋 (deih).
Ngóhdeih mh` séung fāan ūkkéi/ngūkkéi.
We don’t want to go home.
5. 嘅 ge… and other measure words （vs. 的 and much more)
In Cantonese, 嘅 (ge) functions like 的 when it comes to marking a general sense of possession or attaching adjectives to nouns. Some examples:
Nī go haih kéuih ge.
This (thing) is hers.
Ngóh jūngyi yám hóu laaht ge tōng.
I like eating/drinking very spicy soup.
Kéuih cheung gō ge sìhhauh hóuchíh hóu hōisām.
She seems very happy when she sings.
However, one major difference between Cantonese and Mandarin when it comes to marking possession is that for many nouns in Cantonese, you use the measures word (e.g. 對，張，部，頭，隻, etc.) instead of 嘅 (嘅 being there for more general usage).
Ngóh jek māau hóu dāk yi.
My cat is very cute.
Néih gāan ūk/ngūk hóu daaih.
Your house is very big.
Anyway, this is just a starting point. Going forward, I’ll add more cheatsheets covering a wider variety of parallel structures. But I hope this helps people as they embark on reading more Cantonese texts. For those who read this and have suggestions/comments/elaborations, please share in the comments!