Cantonese is probably the most widely-spoken dialect of Chinese outside of China. Canton is the old name for the city of Guangzhou. In Chinese, Cantonese is actually called Guangdong Wah or Guangdong Hua or “Guangdong Language.” Guangdong being the province for which Guangzhou is the capital.
Standard Cantonese is considered the Guangzhou dialect. A very standard version of Cantonese is spoken in and around Guangzhou in neighbouring counties, such as Shun Duk (Shunde) and Poon Yu (Panyu). Hong Kong is also where Standard Cantonese is spoken, although the Hong Kong version is full of slang and English borrowings that do not exist in Standard Cantonese.
Across the province of Guangdong, variations of Cantonese are spoken depending on the county. Given the mountainous terrain of Guangdong province, many of these dialects were able to develop quite differently from each other. There are some counties in which the dialects are very similar, so they have been grouped together as the Three County and Four County dialects. Cantonese is also found in neighbouring Guangxi province, but, of course, it’s a different dialect.
Given how different Cantonese is from Mandarin, Cantonese could be considered a different language altogether in the Sino-Tibetan family. However, again, the written language has this unifying effect on all the Chinese languages/dialects.
One of the unique things about Cantonese is that there is no truly written form of Cantonese. Many of the daily, common words used in Cantonese have no written form. So there is spoken Cantonese and written Cantonese. Written Cantonese is based on written Chinese and is basically the same for all intents and purposes. However, spoken Cantonese has hundreds of variants that are not found officially in written form. In Hong Kong, some magazines and many bloggers will write in a quasi-written form that is based on spoken Cantonese. They take existing Chinese characters for the sound and apply them to whichever spoken words sound the closest. A non-Cantonese Chinese speaker would be thoroughly confused reading this quasi-written form.
In Vancouver, Cantonese used to reign supreme. One dialect, Toisan (or Taishan in Mandarin) used to be the most common Cantonese dialect in Chinatown. After the 70’s, Standard Guangzhou Cantonese started to take over as more and more people from Hong Kong immigrated to Canada. Nowadays, Mandarin can sometimes be heard more than Cantonese. A recent trip to the T&T Supermarket at Metrotown certainly seemed that way. Everywhere I turn, I hear Mandarin being spoken more and more. However, many of the after-school Chinese schools and the Chinese Cultural Centre still offer classes in Cantonese to young Chinese-Canadians. However, Mandarin is used for the official Chinese classes in university and high school.
Cantonese still plays an important role in Vancouver`s Chinese community; however, that role will change as increasing Chinese immigration is from Mainland China. Cantonese will still flourish in Hong Kong for the forseeable future since it is the lingua franca of the territory. Cantonese families will likely continue to send their kids to learn Cantonese in Chinese schools. However, the rising importance of Mandarin is like a shooting star at this time. What will the future of Cantonese be globally and in different local communities around the world, including Vancouver?
Wikipedia – Cantonese (Linguistics): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese_(linguistics)