Cantonese is part of the Yue group in the Chinese language family. Although you will often hear people refer to Cantonese as a "Chinese dialect", it is important to realize in what sense the word "dialect" is being used. A dialect of a language means a variety of a language that is still mutually intelligible with other speakers of that language according to definition of western linguistics. For instance, we can say that the English of New York City or London represent two different dialects of English. But in Chinese linguistics, we often call any Chinese language that is not Standard Mandarin a dialect of Chinese. But many of the so-called dialects are not mutually intelligible. For example, Cantonese is not at all intelligible with Mandarin. Chinese people often make the joke that a Cantonese speaker and a Mandarin speaker together is like "a chicken talking to a duck (雞同鴨講)".
Cantonese, a tonal language, is noted for its numerous tones (six categories of distinct pitch variations in Hong Kong Cantonese). Like other Chinese languages it is not a tense language (does not distinguish past, present, and future verb forms), but rather an aspectual language. An aspectual language marks verbs according to whether the action has been completed, progressive, been experienced, etc. The benefit of Chinese languages for English learners is the relief of not having to study complicated verb conjugation charts. There is also no concept of feminine or masculine nouns that languages such as Romance languages have. On the other hand, the Chinese languages have become infamous among students because of the difficulty in mastering the Chinese characters in the Chinese written language. Cantonese is even more unique in this aspect of the written language. While Standard Written Chinese is widely used by its speakers, it is not representative of the spoken language. Thus, over time a Written Cantonese language has developed that is vastly different from Standard Written Chinese. Written Cantonese has yet to become an official written language but it is used by many speakers when chatting online, writing messages in bulletin boards, some Hong Kong newspapers, comic books, etc. This website uses Written Cantonese throughout the lessons.
Cantonese is the primary language of communication in Hong Kong and Macau in southeast China. It is also widely spoken in Guangdong province in mainland China, Singapore, and in many Chinatowns across the world. There are estimates of about 70 million Cantonese speakers worldwide.
Cantonese has held a lot of prestige in the Chinese speaking world in the last few decades. The economic development of Hong Kong brought about a large film and music industry (including Cantopop) that is popular throughout Chinese societies. But even before the economic success of Hong Kong, Cantonese people have maintained a long history of unique cultural traditions different from other regions of China. Cantonese cuisine is famous throughout China for its abundant seafood dishes and balanced flavors. Dim sum (點心 dim2 sam1), a meal of tea and savory treats, has become world-renowned with hundreds of varieties and cooks are still developing new recipes everyday. Cantonese opera and Cantonese literature also have a long and respected history in China.