The Cantonese language is a somewhat complicated concept. This due largely to the ambiguity that the term “Cantonese” implies. The language, generally referred to as Standard Cantonese to ease confusion, is the language that originated in southern China, specifically in the region of Canton. When highly particular differentiations are being made Cantonese is often classified as the prestige dialect of the Chinese variation Yue.
Within mainland China the Cantonese language is used as a vehicular or working language (the lingua franca) of Guangdong Province as well as some neighboring provinces and individual areas. Beyond the main portion of China Cantonese is the primary day-to-day language of the majority of Hong Kong and Macau. It is also widely used in predominately Chinese communities, as well as the United States, Canada, Peru, Cuba, Brazil, parts of Europe, and other locations. Among the variations of Chinese it is the most commonly used outside of the dominant Mandarin variation.
Confusion arises in regards to the Cantonese language due to the actual name “Cantonese”. In the English language this word is vague. It can mean specifically the language of the area of Canton, but can also be used to refer to the smaller dialects within the main branch. Those that speak the language generally make differentiations depending on where they live in order to point to the specific dialect within the language, as well as the prestige of the language, as applies to them.
The spread of the language is largely attributed to popular culture. Within China is the Mandarin variation that is used for education, communication and media in the official capacity, but a few smaller broadcasts and forms of media use Cantonese. Within the areas of Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is used for political reasons, making it the only variation of the Chinese language outside of Mandarin that is used for official purposes.
Though Mandarin is spoken by more people worldwide, the Cantonese language is more widely spread. This is due not only the media and the cultural influences, such as the music of the language known as cantopop, but the large communities overseas that speak Cantonese. This is the reason why when most Westerners encounter conversational usage of the Chinese language they are experiencing Cantonese.
Adding to the cultural identity of Cantonese, this variation follows only Mandarin and Standard Chinese in Literary canon, utilizing characters and meanings not present in the literature of Standard Written Chinese.