The Mandarin dialect, also known as Northern Chinese, Pinyin and Guanhua, is an extremely important part of the Chinese language.
Although Mandarin is sometimes referred to as an independent language, it is technically classified as a dialect of the Chinese language, a member of the Sinitic group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. An estimated two-thirds of the Chinese population claims the Mandarin dialect as a native language, making it the country’s most widely spoken dialect.
Classification and Status of the Mandarin Dialect in China
China is home to a variety of languages and dialects, most of which are regional and geographically limited in their use. The majority of Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible, meaning that a speaker of one dialect is not able to understand a speaker of another dialect. In fact, the dialects are so varied that the differences can be compared to those among today’s modern romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish.
Spoken throughout the northern areas above the Yangtze River and widely distributed throughout the rest of the country, Mandarin is the predominant language spoken in China. The Mandarin Chinese dialect is commonly divided into four main categories: Southwest Mandarin, Southern Mandarin, Northwestern Mandarin and Northern Mandarin. Of these four categories, the Northern Mandarin group is arguably the most important. Focused in Beijing and the surrounding areas, Northern Mandarin serves as the basis for modern standard Chinese, known as Guoyo or Putonghua (literally meaning “common language”).
Standard Mandarin is based primarily on the dialect of Mandarin spoken in and around Beijing. This standard Mandarin language serves as the basis for the standard Chinese language, or Putonghua, the official language of the People’s Republic of China. The term “Mandarin” can be used to refer to either this specific Beijing-based dialect that serves as the basis for the official language, or to refer to the Mandarin dialect group as a whole.
Historical Evolution of Chinese Language Dialects
The different dialects of the Chinese language are believed to have evolved over time, with geographical characteristics aiding the development of varied dialects in different regions. For example, the prevalence of the Mandarin dialect throughout the north of China can in part be explained by geography: The north is covered mostly by flat open plains that would have allowed people to move easily and come into contact with other regions, while the more mountainous regions of the south would have deterred such mobility and cultural exchange.
The Mandarin dialect is thought to have evolved from the Middle Chinese, although the exact chronological point of transition is unknown. One major milestone in the Mandarin dialect’s development is the Zhongyuan Yinyun, a book dating from the Yuan Dynasty that features many characteristic traits of modern Mandarin.
The Rise of the Mandarin Dialect
Mandarin’s status as the most important dialect in China has been growing steadily since the early 1900s, when China’s key leaders met to decide on a common linguistic framework to institute throughout the country. It was decided that the Mandarin dialect would serve as the basis for a common Chinese language, which would come to be today’s standard Chinese language (Putonghua). Since then, Mandarin has come to predominate in the country as Putonghua has been promoted as the primary language for official use in media, schools and government.
Characteristics of the Mandarin Dialect
The Mandarin dialect is distinguished by its use of four tones that are used to differentiate between words that have the same organization of consonants and vowels, and would otherwise sound identical. With the use of level, rising, falling and high-rising tones, Mandarin speakers are able to differentiate between such words, avoiding confusion while communicating. It can be extremely difficult for non-native speakers – especially those whose mother tongue is not a tonal language – to pinpoint these tones when learning Mandarin. This is an essential part of the language, however, and must be mastered in order to avoid mistakes.
Other key characteristics of the Mandarin dialect include its lack of words ending in consonants, a characteristic shared by the modern standard Chinese language. In general, Chinese languages are composed primarily of monosyllabic words and elements, and a fixed word order. This fixed word order is a key trait of Chinese languages, which do not have markers to indicate parts of speech and therefore depend on a consistent word order to communicate.
Mandarin is written using traditional Chinese script, a system of written symbols that have been passed down for thousands of years. This ancient script serves as the basis for most Chinese dialects’ writing systems today. Modifications and additions have been made over time, adding new symbols or reinstituting the use of formerly abandoned symbols in order to represent new words. Government efforts have also been made to simplify the modern written language.
Modern Chinese literature often reflects the spoken Mandarin language, although literature based on other dialects such as Cantonese also exists. Although there are a number of regional dialects within the Mandarin dialect itself, this body of literature is based on the standard Mandarin written form and is able to serve as a unifying force for Mandarin.
Mandarin Around the World
Aside from being China’s most significant language, the Mandarin dialect also has gained international significance. The modern standard Chinese language, which is based on the Mandarin dialect, serves as one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Overall, the Chinese language has a greater number of native speakers than any other language in the world.
Mandarin Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Mandarin, Guanhua, Beifang Fangyan, Northern Chinese, Guoyu, Standard Chinese, Putonghua, Hanyu
Language Family: Sino-Tibetan, Chinese
Spoken by Approximately 870,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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