Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese & Mandarin vs. Cantonese. What are the Differences?

In the vast landscape of global languages, Chinese, with its rich history and diverse linguistic branches, stands as an intricate labyrinth for both learners and linguists. This complexity is primarily due to the dichotomy that exists between written and spoken Chinese and the way these forms vary across different regions and countries. In this blog post, we will delve into these differences, and along the way, we will take you on a journey across several countries where these distinctions are most evident.


The Basics: Written Vs. Spoken Chinese

Let's start with the fundamentals. Chinese is a language family that includes several dialects. Two major spoken forms of the Chinese language are Mandarin (Putonghua) and Cantonese (Yue). Mandarin, spoken by over 70% of the Chinese population, is the official language of China and Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore. In contrast, Cantonese is prevalent in the Guangdong Province in China, Hong Kong, and numerous overseas Chinese communities.

While Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most globally recognized dialects, there exist other spoken forms like Wu, Jin, Xiang, Min, Hakka, Jin, Pinghua, and Huizhou, each with their sub-dialects and linguistic nuances.

Contrary to the spoken language's fragmentation, written Chinese takes a more unified approach, presenting as Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese, as the name suggests, simplifies the number of strokes and the complexity of characters and is widely used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia. Traditional Chinese, on the other hand, maintains the intricate and historical characters, primarily used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.


Bridging the Gap: Spoken and Written Chinese

The differences between written and spoken Chinese don't stop at the variants. In fact, the manner in which they are used diverges considerably. Generally, written Chinese tends to be more formal and employs a vocabulary that is often distinct from colloquial speech. This formal written style is known as Literary Chinese or Classical Chinese, which originated from the literary language of the Zhou dynasty and remained the written standard until the 20th century. However, today's written Chinese has transitioned to Vernacular Chinese, reflecting more common everyday language, yet still retaining a level of formality.


A Geographic Perspective

As we explore geographically, the fascinating tapestry of written and spoken Chinese becomes more vibrant.

In Mainland China, Mandarin (Putonghua) is the official spoken language, and Simplified Chinese is the written norm, established by the government in the mid-20th century to improve literacy.

Hong Kong and Macau, despite their political reversion to China, continue to use Cantonese as the primary spoken language and Traditional Chinese for written communication.

In Taiwan, Mandarin is the official language, but the Taiwanese dialect (a variant of Min Nan), Hakka, and Formosan languages are also spoken. Like Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan employs Traditional Chinese in writing.

Singapore provides a unique case, where Mandarin is one of the four official languages. However, Singapore's Chinese community is composed mainly of descendants from the southern provinces of China, leading to a significant number of Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese speakers. Singapore employs Simplified Chinese as its written form.

The Chinese diaspora around the world, such as in the USA, Canada, Australia, or Peru, displays a highly diverse linguistic landscape. The use of dialects and written forms largely depends on when and from where the immigrants arrived.

Chinese Allergy Card

Get the correct Allergy Translation Card

The most effective solution is to come prepared with an allergy translation card. This is a card that clearly states in the relevant Chinese written form (Simplified or Traditional) your specific allergies and the severity of your condition. This will enable local chefs, wait staff, or anyone else handling your food to understand your needs and avoid those ingredients.

There are various services available online that provide customized allergy translation cards in Chinese. While ordering one, make sure it uses the right written form based on your travel destination. For instance, if you're visiting Mainland China or Singapore, you would want a card in Simplified Chinese. If your journey leads you to Taiwan or Hong Kong, a card in Traditional Chinese is your best bet.

Planning ahead with an allergy translation card can mean the difference between a stress-free dining experience and a potential medical emergency, making it an indispensable tool for travelers with food allergies exploring the gastronomic delights in Chinese-speaking regions.

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