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Chinese

Chinese Language & History

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Chinese, unlike many other languages, denotes a large family of dialects and written forms.  Spoken Chinese is especially complex with more than 5 recognized dialect groups, but even the written language has two recognized alphabets.

 

Written Chinese

The written forms of Chinese include a traditional alphabet and a simplified Chinese (Pinyin), which was originated in 1948 after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, to make the written lanuage more accessible to the general population.

Image of ChinaTraditional Chinese is still widely used throughout Asia and among Chinese populations around the world, while simplified Chinese is virtually universal in the People's Republic of China.

 

Chinese Dialects

There is confusion about whether linguistic groups should be categorized as languages or dialects but it is usually accepted that there are five major dialect groups within the language group of Chinese. These are Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue and Hakka.

Mandarin is the official language for both mainland China (known as Pu-Tong-Hua) and Taiwan (known as Guo-Yu) in spite of the huge political differences between the two countries. It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore (known as Hua-Yu).

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Wu is spoken around the lower Yangzi River and its tributaries. Shanghainese is a well known variety of Wu.

Min is commonly spoken with local variations by people in Taiwan, Fujian and Hainan. In English, these local variations are considered dialects and are sometimes referred to as Fukkianese, Kokkianese, Amoy and Taiwanese.

Yue is primarily spoken in the province of Guangdong. Yue, including the well-known Cantonese (the language of Guangzhou -also known as Canton) is spoken in many part of the Chinese Diaspora, particularly Hong Kong and overseas Chinese settlements in the United States, Europe and South-east Asia..  For this reason, many of the English words borrowed from Chinese have their origins in Cantonese, such as kumquat from Cantonese [kumquat] and chop suey from Cantonese [tsap sui].

Hakka is the least well-known dialect group outside of China compared to the above four. Most of the Hakka dialect group is scattered throughout southeastern China in Guangxi province and throughout the Min and Yue regions. Historically, the Hakka people were northerners who moved south during several waves of migration. Their name Hakka means "guest" indicating their immigrant status in the southern areas to which they moved.

There is some controversy as whether or not there are true dialects, because a criterion often used by linguists is not applicable to these Chinese variations.  According to the criterion of mutual intelligibility: if two speech varieties are mutually intelligible, they are different dialects of the same language, but if they are mutually unintelligible, they are different languages. A recent story in the New York Times may serve as a good example of how unintelligible these Chinese dialects can be. The paper reported a case in which David Wong, the defendant, an illegal immigrant who knew only Fukkianese was given a Mandarin interpreter who didn't know Fukkianese. With the help of such an interpreter, this defendant still had no idea what was being said! The person who was in charge of arranging for the interpreter apparently thought the two different dialect speakers could easily understand each other under the misconception that Chinese dialects are mutually intelligible.

Linguists nowadays tend to refer to linguistic groups of the Chinese languages rather than Chinese dialects. According to the definition provided by Ethnologue, 13th Edition, Barbara F. Grimes, Editor: The number of languages listed for China is 206. Of those, 205 are living languages and 1 is extinct.

What Makes Spoken Chinese Different from Other Languages?

The pitches or "tones" of spoken Chinese present speech difficulties for a person who is learning the language. With its tens of thousands of characters, Mandarin Chinese has only some than 400 syllables. As a result, a single sound can represent more than 100 different written characters. Tones and the use of compound syllables multiply the number of available word sounds. (For example, Putonghua or Mandarin, the national language of the P.R.C., has four separate tones and many compounds.) Some Chinese language groups, such as Cantonese, have more tones and syllabic sounds, and fewer compounds.


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Chinese Quick Facts

Alternate Names & Spellings: Mandarin, Guanhua, Beifang Fangyan, Northern Chinese, Guoyu, Standard Chinese, Putonghua, Hanyu

Language Family: Sino-Tibetan

Official Language of: Macau, China, Hong Kong

Spoken by Approximately 873,014,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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