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Harpoon

Is this true?

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Harpoon

"Its not the communist government that has abolished dialect writing, since the days of Qin dynasty when China was unified, they made the writing system based on mandarin, so that local officials can communicate with central officials by writing. The spoken mandarin has been the official tone for only recent years, however, the writing system has been based on mandarin for thousands of years."

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skylee

It is true that written Chinese has been standardised since Qin Dynasty. But that standardisation was mainly to standardise the way to write a character (its shape, the number of strokes, etc). If you have seen the film "hero", you may remember that the characters in the film said that there were 13 (or so) ways to write the character for "sword". This standardisation is known as "書同文" (literally "write same script").

IMHO, to say that the writing system has been based on Mandarin for thousands of years may not be correct, considering what the term "Mandarin" may mean. Plus, people did not write in the way they spoke until very recently (early 20th century).

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Altair

I agree with what Skylee posted, but wanted to add a little bit more. I am relatively certain about 95% of my facts, and invite others to correct the 5% I will get wrong.

The Qin standardization covered the form of the script, but the grammar and vocabulary used in writing was spontaneously determined by educated people trying to imitate the writing style seen in the "classic" works of the late Zhou Dynasty. These works included things like the Confucian Canon, the Daodejing, the Art of War, etc.

How people spoke was almost completely determined by practical considerations and was never a general concern of the culture or government policy beyond this. If you needed to interact with the court, you learned the court language; otherwise, you used your local dialect.

Traditional Chinese culture was concerned with speaking only to the extent it affected how classical works were recited. For most of the last 2000 years and up until the late 19th century, all Chinese education involved learning to recite as children a certain number of specific texts. Since these texts were all written in Classical Chinese, part of the necessary instruction was in exactly how to pronounce characters no longer current in the spoken language. Nobody used this language for any form of spoken communication, no matter how formal.

Speaking and writing Mandarin as a source of strengthening China came into play in the early 20th Century (with the May 4 movement?). At this point, the educated class began to reach consensus that the difficulties of learning Classical Chinese was an intolerable drag on China's ability to survive the threat posed by the imperial powers and to maintain an acceptable level of material progress more in line with modern expectations of what was possible.

As a new language standard, people turned to the large body of vernacular literature with roots in the Song Dynasty (900's) that was in many respects a precursor to modern spoken Mandarin. This literature was widely known and appreciated throughout China, regardless of dialect, but was also relatively similar to the grammar and vocabulary of modern Mandarin, the dialect with the most number of speakers and the greatest geographic distribution.

Up until the May 4 movement, students writing home to their parents would do so in good Classical Chinese, just as English speakers do not typically color their private writing with things like "R U doin' OK?" After the change, progressive people began writing in imitation of the vernacular style, to the shock of the older, more conservative elements of the society. People who spoke Mandarin natively could also use some of their spoken expressions as a reference, but there was some uncertainty about how far to go with this sort of thing.

There was some back and forth between the 20's and 40's, expecially in technical and academic spheres, but Classical Chinese was eventually abandoned by everyone for normal purposes. Except for historical purposes, Classical Chinese is now relevant only because minor aspects of it live on in elevated language, expecially in formal written language. The more compact structure of Classical Chinese also exerts a constant pull on writing standards. Why write more to conform to spoken usage if you can write less with equal comprehension and greater prestige?

During the middle of the 20th Century, there were government efforts at refining the standards of the new written language, but also at specifying how it should be spoken. This was an entirely new concern in Chinese culture. Although indirectly affecting the status of dialects, private use of dialect was not directly addressed. In other words, the attention was on promoting and refining the new standard language so that everyone would be able to use it. Outside of this, there was never much attention give to surpressing dialects directly.

As far as I understand it, the Mandarin-based vernacular literature was unique in the history of Chinese dialect writing. This literature was quite popular, but had zero prestige for general usage. Other dialect writing had only limited uses with respect to local folk arts and was seen as a niche exercise. In fact, it would be a very painful and artificial exercise to write a newspaper article in dialect, because there is really no standard for what characters to use for many of the functional words and many items of vocubulary not found in the standard language or Classical Chinese. The only apparent exception to this is Cantonese, which has recently established limited spheres of life where written Cantonese has established a fair amount of stable vigor and a fair degree of spontaneous, but standard usage.

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Alhazred

Thanks for this synopsis Altair, most interesting!

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Harpoon

thanks! want to clear something up though..

Okay so before, all writing was done in Classical Chinese? Could Classical Chinese be read out in a local dialect? And the Qin standardization standardized the classical chinese characters?

so individual dialects had no real writing systems? It was either classical chinese, and then mandarin since the start of the 20th century? I thought I read about stuff being written in Fujianese, etc...

and what about the grammar and usage differances between the dialects and mandarin writing? It would seem like you speak in one language, but write in another..

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Altair
Okay so before, all writing was done in Classical Chinese?

Basically, yes, except for niche uses like trying to take down testimony or writing folk dramas in local dialect.

Could Classical Chinese be read out in a local dialect?

This was the only way to read, since there was no standard dialect. In fact, my understanding is that this practice lives on to the extent the classics are accessed outside of the standard education system. For instance, Cantonese speakers read the classics with Cantonese pronunciations. Each major dialect has preserved separate reading traditions with respect to the classics that is only now beginning to be lost with the change in culture.

Speakers of southern dialects actually have an advantage with respect to Tang and Song Dynasty poetry because their rhyming patterns have stayed truer to the ancient pronunciations. For them, reading the poetry with Mandarin pronunciation is simply an artificial exercise, like an American reading a Latin poem using the French version of Latin pronunciation.

And the Qin standardization standardized the classical chinese characters?

Yes, during the Warring States Period prior to the Qin conquest, the written form of documents varied somewhat by region or state, because the character forms were slightly different. Qin was preoccupied with centralization and systematization for ideological reasons and so sought to wipe out such potential symbols of disunity.

I thought I read about stuff being written in Fujianese, etc...

Perhaps, someone else can comment, because I am unsure of the extent of such niche writing. What I am fairly sure of is that local traditions of this sort were not very strong or relevant for general writing. Compare the use of dialect by African American writers, there is a tradition of this that is even now being carried on by rap singing; nevertheless, African Americans do not use dialect writing for general purposes, even for personal use. Another example might be comic book English with its extensive contractions and abbreviations that reflect true speech, but which no one uses for general writing.

It would seem like you speak in one language, but write in another

That is exactly what everyone does. For some speakers, the difference probably feels only a little bit more extreme than what standard English speakers experience. For others, they really do speak one language and write in another related one. This has actually created a new form of Cantonese which you can hear in situations like news broadcasts. The announcers use Mandarin grammar and vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciations. Though now completely accepted, this version of Cantonese is different from traditional formal speaking styles that were only slightly influenced by Mandarin.

Speaking in one version of a language and writing in another is actually quite common among world languages. Examples where this is the case, with varying specifics, are Arabic, German, Italian, Tibetan, and Japanese. All these languages have extensive dialect use in daily spoken life (sometimes only regionally) that is virtually absent in daily written material. Many spoken forms of these languages are incomprehensible to speakers of other dialects, but they all write the same way.

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Dennis

In my native language Dutch the average person uses between 30,000 and 90,000 words just like an English person.

In a modern Dutch dictionay you can find around about 75,000 to 120,000 words.

In total there are some 5 million words in the Dutch language as well as in the English language; that all the words from the Dark Ages up till the present.

Chinese has in total more than 56000 characters and more than 20 million words; that is all the characters and the words from the Xia dynasty up till the present.

All Chinese, Japannese Vietnamese, Korean and other languages draw from, add to and change them and also delete some characters and words.

Modern Chinese/Mandarin/Putonghua/普通话 has nothing to do with Classical Chinese/Mandarin/Guanhua/官話 just like Old English has nothing to do wih Modern English.

For example: both 普通话 and 官話 just as Japanese, Cantonese etc uses the characters;

lightning 電, hit 打 and language 話 but in 官話 電 only means lightning and 打電話 means hit the lightning language and in 普通话 電 can also mean electricity and 打電話 means to telephone.

You can even use the Chinese characters with small moderations to write English or Dutch.

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Harpoon
That is exactly what everyone does. For some speakers, the difference probably feels only a little bit more extreme than what standard English speakers experience. For others, they really do speak one language and write in another related one. This has actually created a new form of Cantonese which you can hear in situations like news broadcasts. The announcers use Mandarin grammar and vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciations. Though now completely accepted, this version of Cantonese is different from traditional formal speaking styles that were only slightly influenced by Mandarin.

Hmm.. well, if you think about it, how is it done normally? I mean, if a speaker is dicating written Chinese in Cantonese, how do they manage to do it?

From chinawestexchange.com:

Secondly, spoken Cantonese does not match with written Chinese. Written Chinese and spoken Mandarin follow the same basic word choice and grammar. While there are literary terms and constructions in written Chinese not used in casual Mandarin, this is no different than literary and colloquial voices found in other languages. Cantonese, on the other hand, differs in many significant ways from the written form. In almost every place Cantonese and Mandarin diverge, Cantonese and written Chinese do the same. Things as basic as the equative "to be" verb, the third person pronoun, the locative aspect particle, the pluralizing morpheme, and the completion aspect particle differ between spoken Cantonese and written Chinese.

ie, Mandarin (written chinese) "to be" is 是, Cantonese "to be" is 係. Mandarin "not" is 不, Cantonese "not" is 唔.

How does it work if even such basic stuff is different? Does the reader quickly have to see if its written using Mandarin or if its using Cantonese characters thrown in?

What about word order and grammar, which would sound wrong if a Cantonese was reading the Cantonese pronounciations of the written Chinese that is written using Mandarin grammar and word order? The same thing applies for other dialects, if they are reading Mandarin Chinese in their own dialect, won't it throw them off?

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gato
What about word order and grammar, which would sound wrong if a Cantonese was reading the Cantonese pronounciations of the written Chinese that is written using Mandarin grammar and word order?

If they were using Cantonese pronuncation to read Mandarin, it would count as Cantonese-accented Mandarin, not Cantonese. It would be like a non-native speaker speaking heavily accented English. He would still be speaking English, not his native language. Cantonese and Mandarin are different languages in the Western sense of the word.

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Altair

I think I may have caused confusion.

There are now in effect two types of Cantonese: the traditional one and the hybrid one that conforms to Mandarin grammar and word choice. Both are pronounced exactly the same and nothing like Mandarin. It is more than a matter of accent.

The difference between them is what spheres of life they occupy. The hybrid form is the default form of communication for written communication and public formal communication, like the news. Words and grammar peculiar to Cantonese and absent from Mandarin are not used in the hybrid form. The traditional form is what everyone uses in daily oral activities and certain forms of informal writing that are not taught in schools. It is in this form of Cantonese that words like 係.are used for "is" and 唔 for "not." In the hybrid form, Mandarin 是 and 不 are used, but pronounced similar to English "see" and "but."

It would be correct to say that Cantonese write in Mandarin; however, since they do not pronounce the characters according to Mandarin values, it ends up being its own thing: a special form of Cantonese. A Mandarin speaker hearing someone reading a Hong Kong newspaper would understand nothing. Likewise, Cantonese must learn separately how to speak in Mandarin, since they would otherwise have no knowledge of pronunciation and no spoken facility with the language. They simply have an advantage in already knowing the grammar for writing purposes.

The hybrid form of Cantonese is sufficiently distinct from the traditional one that people can "interpret" newspaper articles for uneducated listeners; however, the difference is not great enough for this to make sense for educated people. When you tell your spouse it's cold outside, you say it one way. On the weather channel, you would hear it said another way that just sounds formal to any educated listener.

The same thing applies for other dialects, if they are reading Mandarin Chinese in their own dialect, won't it throw them off?

As far as I know, dialects other than Cantonese simply do not have widely used written forms. People simply write in Mandarin, read out loud in Mandarin, and use their dialect for oral expression in daily life. Remember that this has been the case for 2000 years and is not a new phenomenon. A combination of cultural inertia, government policy, and economic reality combine to continue the situation.

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skylee
There are now in effect two types of Cantonese: the traditional one and the hybrid one that conforms to Mandarin grammar and word choice. Both are pronounced exactly the same and nothing like Mandarin. It is more than a matter of accent.

The difference between them is what spheres of life they occupy. The hybrid form is the default form of communication for written communication and public formal communication' date=' like the news. Words and grammar peculiar to Cantonese and absent from Mandarin are not used in the hybrid form. The traditional form is what everyone uses in daily oral activities and certain forms of informal writing that are not taught in schools. It is in this form of Cantonese that words like 係.are used for "is" and 唔 for "not." In the hybrid form, Mandarin 是 and 不 are used, but pronounced similar to English "see" and "but." [/quote']

This is quite new to me (I have been speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong all my life) ... hybrid? hybird? ... hmm interesting ... I listen to news broadcast on Radio Television Hong Kong everyday and do not know about the using of the Mandarin 是 and 不 in the hybrid form ...

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Harpoon

I think you are misunderstanding me, Altair. I will try again... i have no knowledge of Chinese so i will use two western languages as an example.

Let's say French is our Mandarin or putonghua. Let's say English is our Cantonese. Let's pretend the words are characters, I have chosen words as similar in both languages as I could think of.

French puts adjectives AFTER the noun, not before.

Le crayon rouge est petite --> English translation is "The red pencil is small"

An English reader reads the same sentance, using the English pronounciations for the "characters."

"The pencil red is small"... which makes no sense in English

I am asking about GRAMMAR and WORD CHOICE differences between Mandarin (which is what the writing system is based on) and other Dialects causing problems when people speaking other Dialects pronounce the Mandarin characters.

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Altair
This is quite new to me (I have been speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong all my life) ... hybrid? hybird? ... hmm interesting ... I listen to news broadcast on Radio Television Hong Kong everyday and do not know about the using of the Mandarin 是 and 不 in the hybrid form

I was hoping someone would come to my rescue on issues such as this. When would you be likely to hear people use words like 是 and 不 in daily life, only when reading written text out loud?

I made my statement about news partly based on this passage from one of my books, Colloquial Cantonese: A Complete Lamgiage Course by Keith S.T. Tong and Gregory James: "The broadcast weather forecast is usually written in fairly formal Chinese and then read aloud. As a result, some rather bookish expressions are used. These expressions are usually two-syllable versions of their more colloguial counterparts. For example, yiht6 (熱?)(hot) becomes yihm5 yiht6 (炎熱?)(warm) and nyuhn4 (暖?)(warm) becomes wan1 nyuhn4 (溫暖?). The formal version of dung (冬?) is hohn5 laahng4 (寒冷?)."

Does all this just feel like just a question of formality, or does it feel like written vocabulary creeping into speech?

As for the question of the use of Mandarin grammar and word choice, would a forecaster be more like to ask in Cantonese: "係唔係今日落雨ga?" or "是不是今天下雨"" (Is it raining today, or not?)? Or even assuming I got my grammar right, would the forecaster say something in between?

Harpoon, you have chosen a good illustration, and I believe drawn the right academic conclusion, but the wrong social and linguistic implications.

The French sentence "Le crayon rouge est petit." would be incomprehensible to the ear of a monolingual English speaker. Only the word "rouge" would be recognizable. When written, however, there are only two words that really have no English equivalents: "le" and "est." (I actually think only "petite" exists in English, and not "petit," but this is a minor issue that would not exist if we really were using characters.)

"Est" is actually etymologically related to the English word "is." To make your illustration more accurate, we would then have to imagine that we would pronounce the "character" representing "est" as "is" and that the meaning of it would be clear to us.

The only remaining problem would be "le" and the changed meaning of "crayon" and "rouge." We would simply adopt "le" as our written equivalent of the word "the," and any even minimally educated person would know what it meant. As for "crayon," we would use this word in our spoken language for coloring, use the spoken word "pencil" for normal writing, and use the proper formal "crayon" in our ordinary writing. "Rouge" would be treated similarly with respect to "red."

Now, what about the strange word order of "crayon rouge" (i.e., "pencil read")? This pattern has actually already been imported into formal English on the margins. Consider "attorney general," "surgeon general," "letters patent," and "court martial." These are all expressions in which the adjective follows the noun. In normal English, the order of these words would be reversed. If this pattern were to take over for all of English written , this would be indeed quite bizarre, but it would not be impossible.

Structurally, Cantonese and Mandarin are quite similar, which is not really the case with English and French. If we ignore word choice, I can only think off hand of three patterns in Mandarin that simply do not exist in Cantonese. In Cantonese, indirect objects follow direct objects, the progress aspect is expressed with a particle (我写gan2 书, rather than 我在写书 "I am writing a book"), and you have to say 你坐先, rather than 你先坐. I am sure there are more, but can't think of any at the moment.

By and large, Mandarin word order is very acceptable in Cantonese, and rarely completely ungrammatical. There are, however, probably more patterns in Cantonese that are not acceptable in Mandarin, such as 我個(个)蘋(苹)果 (my apple) and 本書非常新 (The book is very new), but the differences are still pretty small. The stylistic preferences tend to be much greater, and the differences in word choice tend to be quite significant, especially for functional words (虛詞). Issues of word choice are simply handled by having one set of words for written usage, and another set for spoken use. I write 我們, pronounce it "ngo mun" when I have to read out loud, but use "ngo dei" for normal speech.

The most significant difference is in pronunciation, which is roughly as large as the difference between English and German. Athough there is a huge overlap in the origin of the words in English and German and an even greater overlap in Cantonese and Mandarin, both sets of languages have been divided for about 2000 years, making the pronunciation of the words vastly different. As an example, in both sets of languages, probably only half of the words between one and ten could be reliably guessed if read out from Cantonese or German in random order to speakers of Mandarin and English, respectively. I can't easily communicate the tones of the words, but try to guess these numbers, pronouncing them the way a Londoner or Australian would sound out English words: say, chutt, bark, yutt, sarm, sup, hmmm, gow (rhymes with "cow"), ye, and look. (The answers are 四,七,八,一,三,十,五,九,二,六.)

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gato
Le crayon rouge est petite --> English[/color'] translation is "The red pencil is small"
In your example, you're translating the French words into English, but keeping the French word order. If someone were to read a piece of Mandarin-based text in a non-Mandarin dialect, he would translate the characters for which there are exact equivalents (e.g. person, ren is pronounced as nyun in Shanghainese). But the further the dialect is from Mandarin, the more likely there isn't an equivalent in the spoken vocabulary of the dialect. In that case, he would use a commonly accepted pronunciation for the character. People have more or less settled on how characters should be pronounced in dialects in the 3000-4000 years they've used characters. But if the common dialect pronunciation isn't known for a particular character, then the reader would just make it up by thinking of another Mandarin character he can pronounce that has the same Mandarin pronunciation as the one written. At least that's how I used to do it. I don't think it's taught formally, but rather learned through osmosis.

In mainland classrooms, Mandarin is almost always the sole language of instruction, so there isn't much chance for children to practice reading out loud in dialect, and I don't see much point in doing it, except maybe as a joke. :wink:

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Harpoon

Altair, i did not mean for the french/english similarity to be an issue at all. The point was that the meanings of the words were the same, but the word order was different.

Structurally' date=' Cantonese and Mandarin are quite similar, which is not really the case with English and French. If we ignore word choice, I can only think off hand of three patterns in Mandarin that simply do not exist in Cantonese. In Cantonese, indirect objects follow direct objects, the progress aspect is expressed with a particle (我写gan2 书, rather than 我在写书 "I am writing a book"), and you have to say 你坐先, rather than 你先坐. I am sure there are more, but can't think of any at the moment.

[/quote']

Okay let's narrow it down to this: how do Cantonese speakers reading Mandarin Chinese deal with this.

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Altair

They deal with it quite easily. The simply write one way and speak another.

English is not too different. Spoken and written grammar differ more than people realize. Below are a series of English sentence pairs where I would assert that spoken and written grammar rules differ. The pairs include different word order and different tense structure. I would never use the first form in ordinary speech and would never use the second form in serious writing.

It is I.

It's me.

Have you no shame?

Haven't you got any shame?

Bobby and I need nothing.

Me and Bobby don't need anything.

Perhaps a better equivalent would be including patterns from King James English or the time of Shakespeare:

Wherefore art thou with me.

Why are you with me. (By the way, these two sentences are actually not completely equivalent)

He thinketh thereon oft times.

He thinks about it often.

Today need we do nothing.

Today we don't need to do anything.

How about African American dialect?:

I am tired (all the time).

I be tired. (The habitual sense is built into this special tense that does not exist in standard English. The meaning of this is not the same as "I'm tired.")

I have been gone a long time.

I been done gone. (The tense specificies a long tome without having to use any additional words.)

Cantonese are merely continuing their millenia old tradition of speaking one way and writing another. The only difference now is that they have switched their written standard from Classical Chinese to that of the Beijing region. Other dialect speakers have gone the additional step of abandoning their old pronunciation standard and adopting the phonetics of Beijing for reading and writing purposes. Cantonese apparently perceive that they are using various forms of a single language. Other non-Mandarin speakers perceive that they use Mandarin for reading and writing and reserve their dialect for daily spoken use.

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gato
They deal with it quite easily. The simply write one way and speak another.

English is not too different. Spoken and written grammar differ more than people realize. Below are a series of English sentence pairs where I would assert that spoken and written grammar rules differ. The pairs include different word order and different tense structure.

Bobby and I need nothing.

Me and Bobby don't need anything.

The second form is not yet accepted as grammatically correct. I rarely hear educated adults say "Me and so and so."
Perhaps a better equivalent would be including patterns from King James English or the time of Shakespeare:

Why are you with me. (By the way' date=' these two sentences are actually not completely equivalent)

He thinks about it often.

Today we don't need to do anything.[/quote']Are you sure the English in Shakespeare's time talked this way instead of in the way that Shakespeare wrote?

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beirne
They deal with it quite easily. The simply write one way and speak another.

English is not too different. Spoken and written grammar differ more than people realize. Below are a series of English sentence pairs where I would assert that spoken and written grammar rules differ. The pairs include different word order and different tense structure. I would never use the first form in ordinary speech and would never use the second form in serious writing.

I wonder a little bit if it is that simple. I had a native Cantonese speaker tell me once that when he learned to read and write he had to learn to do so in "Mandarin", meaning that he was really reading and writing Mandarin, just pronouncing it in Cantonese. I wonder is a native Mandarin speaker would feel that they are learning another language?

I think Altair's strongest examples are for Black English. The other modern cases are mainly bad grammar (I know, who defines bad grammar?) and the historical examples just show language change.

One difference between written Cantonese and English is the ability to carry over grammatical rules into everyday speech. In general the grammatical rules for written English work fine for the spoken language. From what I understand of written Chinese, though, the grammatical rules are based on Mandarin and would not be recommended for spoken Cantonese.

In the end I suspect that Altair's original statement that they speak one way and write another is correct, but I'm not sure the comparison with English is very strong.

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gato
I had a native Cantonese speaker tell me once that when he learned to read and write he had to learn to do so in "Mandarin", meaning that he was really reading and writing Mandarin, just pronouncing it in Cantonese. I wonder is a native Mandarin speaker would feel that they are learning another language?

Yes, they're learning another language. See my post above.

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TSkillet

Perhaps it's too difficult to use western concepts of dialect and language to apply to particularily asian languages - specifically chinese.

I often find it's easier to think that people write in Chinese but they speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

As for the si/but usage in Cantonese, my first encounter with it (having never read in Cantonese in my life) was the Jackie Chan movie (Who Am I? - or "Ngoh si say?" - in "proper" spoken cantonese, it'd be "ngoh hai bin goh?"

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