Chinese or the Sinitic language(s) (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ; simplified Chinese: 华语; traditional Chinese: 華語; pinyin: Huáyǔ; simplified Chinese: 中国话; traditional Chinese: 中國話; pinyin: Zhōngguóhuà; or Chinese: 中文; pinyin: Zhōngwén) is a language family consisting of languages mutually unintelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the two branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages. About one-fifth of the world’s population, or over one billion people, speak some form of Chinese as their native language. The identification of the varieties of Chinese as "dialects" instead of "languages" is considered inappropriate by some linguists and Sinologists.
Spoken Chinese is distinguished by its high level of internal diversity, although all spoken varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic. There are between seven and thirteen main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken, by far, is Mandarin (about 850 million), followed by Wu (90 million), Cantonese (Yue) (70 million) and Min (70 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, although some, like Xiang and the Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility. Chinese is classified as a macrolanguage with 13 sub-languages in ISO 639-3, though the identification of the varieties of Chinese as multiple "languages" or as "dialects" of a single language is a contentious issue.
The standardized form of spoken Chinese is Standard Mandarin (Putonghua / Guoyu / Huayu), based on the Beijing dialect, which is part of a larger group of North-Eastern and South-Western dialects, often taken as a separate language (see Mandarin Chinese for more), this language can be referred to as 官话 Guānhuà or 北方话 Běifānghuà in Chinese. Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), as well as one of four official languages of Singapore. Chinese—de facto, Standard Mandarin—is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Of the other varieties, Standard Cantonese is common and influential in Guangdong Province and Cantonese-speaking overseas communities, and remains one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and of Macau (together with Portuguese). Hokkien, part of the Min language group, is widely spoken in southern Fujian, in neighbouring Taiwan (where it is known as Taiwanese or Hoklo) and in Southeast Asia (where it dominates in Singapore and Malaysia).
China is a nation boasting diversified nationalities, languages, and characters. It has 56 ethnic groups, over 80 languages, and about 30 kinds of character. Chinese is the most widely used language in China and the world at large. It is designated as one of the six official languages by the United Nations. Chinese is the shared language of Han Nationality. Besides Han ethnic group which accounts 91.59% of China’s integral population, some ethnic minorities also speak Chinese or take Chinese as their second mother tongue.
Modern Chinese can be divided into standard Chinese (mandarin) and dialect. Mandarin takes Peking Dialect as its standard pronunciation, dialect of people in North China as its basis, and classic modern colloquial works as its linguistic regulations. On October 31st, 2000, Law of Universal Language and Character of People’s Republic of China came into force and it stipulates mandarin as a universal national language. Han Dialect comprises of seven branches, namely, North China Dialect, Wu Dialect, Hunan Dialect, Jiangxi Dialect, Hakka Dialect, Guangdong Dialect, and Fujian Dialect. Each branch has its own sub-branches and jargons. For instance, the most popular North China Dialect can be further classified into North Mandarin, Northwest Mandarin, Southwest Mandarin, and Xiajiang Mandarin.
The 55 ethnic minorities account 8.41% of Chinese population. Among them, 53 have their own languages. But Hui and Manchu people have accepted mandarin as their first mother tongue for daily use. Some ethnic minorities take mandarin or the languages of other nationalities as their second mother tongue. Even different branches inside certain ethnic group are still using languages of their own.
Mandarin is not only the standard and shared language of Han Nationality, but the common language of the whole Chinese nation.
There are also some smaller groups that are not yet classified, such as: Danzhou dialect (儋州话), spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island; Xianghua (乡话), not to be confused with Xiang (湘), spoken in western Hunan; and Shaozhou Tuhua (韶州土话), spoken in northern Guangdong. The Dungan language, spoken in Central Asia, is very closely related to Mandarin. However, it is not generally considered "Chinese" since it is written in Cyrillic and spoken by Dungan people outside China who are not considered ethnic Chinese. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.
In general, the above language-dialect groups do not have sharp boundaries, though Mandarin is the predominant Sinitic language in the North and the Southwest, and the rest are mostly spoken in Central or Southeastern China. Frequently, as in the case of the Guangdong province, native speakers of major variants overlapped. As with many areas that were linguistically diverse for a long time, it is not always clear how the speeches of various parts of China should be classified. The Ethnologue lists a total of 14, but the number varies between seven and seventeen depending on the classification scheme followed. For instance, the Min variety is often divided into Northern Min (Minbei, Fuchow) and Southern Min (Minnan, Amoy-Swatow); linguists have not determined whether their mutual intelligibility is small enough to sort them as separate languages.
In general, mountainous South China displays more linguistic diversity than the flat North China. In parts of South China, a major city’s dialect may only be marginally intelligible to close neighbours. For instance, Wuzhou is about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like Standard Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou, than is that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated by several rivers from it (Ramsey, 1987).
Putonghua / Guoyu, often called "Mandarin", is the official standard language used by the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Singapore (where it is called "Huayu"). It is based on the Beijing dialect, which is the dialect of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing. The governments intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it as a common language of communication. Therefore it is used in government agencies, in the media, and as a language of instruction in schools.
In mainland China and Taiwan, diglossia has been a common feature: it is common for a Chinese to be able to speak two or even three varieties of the Sinitic languages (or “dialects”) together with Standard Mandarin. For example, in addition to putonghua a resident of Shanghai might speak Shanghainese and, if they did not grow up there, his or her local dialect as well. A native of Guangzhou may speak Standard Cantonese and putonghua, a resident of Taiwan, both Taiwanese and putonghua/guoyu. A person living in Taiwan may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered normal under many circumstances. In Hong Kong, Standard Mandarin is beginning to take its place beside English and Standard Cantonese, the official languages.
Linguists often view Chinese as a language family, though owing to China’s socio-political and cultural situation, and the fact that all spoken varieties use one common written system, it is customary to refer to these generally mutually unintelligible variants as "the Chinese language". The diversity of Sinitic variants is comparable to the Romance languages.
From a purely descriptive point of view, "languages" and "dialects" are simply arbitrary groups of similar idiolects, and the distinction is irrelevant to linguists who are only concerned with describing regional speeches technically. However, the idea of a single language has major overtones in politics and cultural self-identity, and explains the amount of emotion over this issue. Most Chinese and Chinese linguists refer to Chinese as a single language and its subdivisions dialects, while others[weasel words] call Chinese a language family.
Chinese itself has a term for its unified writing system, Zhongwen (中文), while the closest equivalent used to describe its spoken variants would be Hanyu (汉语,“spoken language[s] of the Han Chinese)—this term could be translated to either “language” or “languages” since Chinese possesses no grammatical numbers. In the Chinese language, there is much less need for a uniform speech-and-writing continuum, as indicated by two separate character morphemes 语 yu and 文 wen. Ethnic Chinese often consider these spoken variations as one single language for reasons of nationality and as they inherit one common cultural and linguistic heritage in Classical Chinese. Han native speakers of Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese, for instance, may consider their own linguistic varieties as separate spoken languages, but the Han Chinese race as one—albeit internally very diverse—ethnicity. To Chinese nationalists, the idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that the Chinese identity is much more fragmentary and disunified than it actually is and as such is often looked upon as culturally and politically provocative. Additionally, in Taiwan, it is closely associated with Taiwanese independence, where some supporters of Taiwanese independence promote the local Taiwanese Minnan-based spoken language.
Within the People’s Republic of China and Singapore, it is common for the government to refer to all divisions of the Sinitic language(s) beside Standard Mandarin as fangyan (“regional tongues”, often translated as “dialects”). Modern-day Chinese speakers of all kinds communicate using one formal standard written language, although this modern written standard is modeled after Mandarin, generally the modern Beijing dialect.
中国或Sinitic language(s)（simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ; simplified Chinese: 华语; traditional Chinese: 華語; pinyin: Huáyǔ; simplified Chinese: 中国话; traditional Chinese: 中國話; pinyin: Zhōngguóhuà; or Chinese: 中文; pinyin: Zhōngwén）是一门语言的家庭组成的语言互不相通的程度不同。最初由在中国汉民族使用的土著语言，它和藏系语言是构成了中国语言的两个分支之一。约占世界人口的五分之一，甚至超过10亿人，讲某种形式的中文作为他们的母语。对中国的“方言的品种鉴定”而不是“语言”是一些人认为是不恰当的语言学家与汉学家。
The relationship among the Chinese spoken and written languages is rather complex. Its spoken variations evolved at different rates, while written Chinese itself has changed much less. Classical Chinese literature began in the Spring and Autumn period, although written records have been discovered as far back as the 14th to 11th centuries BCE Shang dynasty oracle bones using the oracle bone scripts.
The Chinese orthography centers around Chinese characters, hanzi, which are written within imaginary rectangular blocks, traditionally arranged in vertical columns, read from top to bottom down a column, and right to left across columns. Chinese characters are morphemes independent of phonetic change. Thus the number "one", yi in Mandarin, yat in Cantonese and chi̍t and "yit = first" in Hokkien (form of Min), all share an identical character ("一"). Vocabularies from different major Chinese variants have diverged, and colloquial non-standard written Chinese often makes use of unique "dialectal characters", such as 冇 and 係 for Cantonese and Hakka, which are considered archaic or unused in standard written Chinese.
Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging amongst Hong-Kongers and Cantonese-speakers elsewhere. Use of it is considered highly informal, and does not extend to many formal occasions.
Also, in Hunan, some women write their local language in Nü Shu, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The Dungan language, considered by some a dialect of Mandarin, is also nowadays written in Cyrillic, and was formerly written in the Arabic alphabet, although the Dungan people live outside China.
Chinese characters evolved over time from earlier forms of hieroglyphs. The idea that all Chinese characters are either pictographs or ideographs is an erroneous one: most characters contain phonetic parts, and are composites of phonetic components and semantic radicals. Only the simplest characters, such as ren 人 (human), ri 日 (sun), shan 山 (mountain), shui 水 (water), may be wholly pictorial in origin. In 100 CE, the famed scholar Xǚ Shèn in the Hàn Dynasty classified characters into six categories, namely pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Of these, only 4% were categorized as pictographs, and 80–90% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that indicates the pronunciation. Generally, the phonetic element is more accurate and more important than the semantic one. There are about 214 radicals recognized in the Kangxi Dictionary.
Modern characters are styled after the standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū) (see styles, below). Various other written styles are also used in East Asian calligraphy, including seal script (篆书/篆書 zhuànshū), cursive script (草书/草書 cǎoshū) and clerical script (隶书/隸書 lìshū). Calligraphy artists can write in traditional and simplified characters, but tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.
There are currently two systems for Chinese characters. The traditional system, still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Chinese speaking communities (except Singapore and Malaysia) outside mainland China, takes its form from standardized character forms dating back to the late Han dynasty. The Simplified Chinese character system, developed by the People’s Republic of China in 1954 to promote mass literacy, simplifies most complex traditional glyphs to fewer strokes, many to common caoshu shorthand variants.
Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first—and at present the only—foreign nation to officially adopt simplified characters, although it has also become the de facto standard for younger ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. The Internet provides the platform to practice reading the alternative system, be it traditional or simplified.
A well-educated Chinese today recognizes approximately 6,000-7,000 characters; some 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; less than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.
History of the Chinese language
Most linguists classify all varieties of modern spoken Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, termed Proto-Sino-Tibetan, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relation between Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages is an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is enough documentation to allow one to reconstruct the ancient Chinese sounds, there is no written documentation that records the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and ancient Chinese. In addition, many of the older languages that would allow us to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly understood and many of the techniques developed for analysis of the descent of the Indo-European languages from PIE don’t apply to Chinese because of "morphological paucity" especially after Old Chinese.
Categorization of the development of Chinese is a subject of scholarly debate. One of the first systems was devised by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren in the early 1900s; most present systems rely heavily on Karlgren’s insights and methods.
Old Chinese (simplified Chinese: 上古汉语; traditional Chinese: 上古漢語; pinyin: Shànggǔ Hànyǔ), sometimes known as "Archaic Chinese", was the language common during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE–256 BCE), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the Shījīng, the history of the Shūjīng, and portions of the Yìjīng (I Ching). The phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. The pronunciation of the borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean also provide valuable insights. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants, but probably was still without tones. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qīng dynasty philologists. Some early Indo-European loan-words in Chinese have been proposed, notably 蜜 mì "honey", 獅 shī "lion," and perhaps also 馬 mǎ "horse", 犬 quǎn "dog", and 鵝 é "goose". The source says the reconstructions of old Chinese are tentative, and not definitive so no conclusions should be drawn. The reconstruction of Old Chinese can not be perfect so this hypothesis may be called into question. The source also notes that southern dialects of Chinese have more monosyllabic words than the Mandarin Chinese dialects.
Middle Chinese (simplified Chinese: 中古汉语; traditional Chinese: 中古漢語; pinyin: Zhōnggǔ Hànyǔ) was the language used during Southern and Northern Dynasties and the Suí, Táng, and Sòng dynasties (6th through 10th centuries CE). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the 切韻 "Qièyùn" rime book (601 CE), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by the 廣韻 "Guǎngyùn" rime book. Linguists are more confident of having reconstructed how Middle Chinese sounded. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries, foreign transliterations, "rhyming tables" constructed by ancient Chinese philologists to summarize the phonetic system, and Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words. However, all reconstructions are tentative; some scholars have argued that trying to reconstruct, say, modern Cantonese from modern Cantopop rhymes would give a fairly inaccurate picture of the present-day spoken language.
The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. Most Chinese people, in Sìchuān and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home language. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is largely due to north China’s plains. By contrast, the mountains and rivers of middle and southern China promoted linguistic diversity.
Until the mid-20th century, most southern Chinese only spoke their native local variety of Chinese. As Nanjing was the capital during the early Ming Dynasty, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least until the later years of the Qing Dynasty. Since the 17th century, the Qing Dynasty had set up orthoepy academies (simplified Chinese: 正音书院; traditional Chinese: 正音書院; pinyin: Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) to make pronunciation conform to the standard of the capital Beijing. For the general population, however, this had limited effect. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their various languages for every aspect of life. The Beijing Mandarin court standard was used solely by officials and civil servants and was thus fairly limited.
This situation did not change until the mid-20th century with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC, but not in Hong Kong) of a compulsory educational system committed to teaching Standard Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken by virtually all young and middle-aged citizens of mainland China and on Taiwan. Standard Cantonese, not Mandarin, was used in Hong Kong during the time of its British colonial period (owing to its large Cantonese native and migrant populace) and remains today its official language of education, formal speech, and daily life, but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential after the 1997 handover.
Classical Chinese was once the lingua franca in neighbouring East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam for centuries, before the rise of European influences in 19th century.
古汉语（简体中文：上古汉语，传统的中国：上古汉语，拼音：Shànggǔ Hànyǔ），有时被称为“古汉语知道”，是在早期和中期周朝（公元前1122 -公元前256），共同的语言文字其中包括青铜器铭文的诗经，该婧的历史，以及易经（易经）部分诗歌。在大多数发现汉字拼音元素提供线索，以古汉语发音的。在借用的汉字读音日本，越南和韩国也提供了宝贵的见解。旧中国没有完全未发生屈折变化。它拥有丰富的音响系统中，愿望或粗糙呼吸不同的辅音，但可能仍然没有铃声。在改造旧中国的工作始于清朝的语言学家。一些早期的印欧语贷款字中已提出，特别是蜜秘“蜜”，狮石“狮子”的，也许还马mǎ“马”，犬quǎn“狗”，和鹅é“鹅”。消息人士说，旧中国的重建是临时性的，不能因此没有明确的结论，应当制定。旧中国的重建不能完美的，所以这个假设可能会受到质疑。来源还指出，中国南部方言有比普通话方言更单音字。
中古汉语（简体中文：中古汉语;传统中：中古汉语，拼音：Zhōnggǔ Hànyǔ）期间南北朝和隋，唐所使用的语言，宋（第6次通过CE 10世纪）。它可分为初期，由切韵“切韵”雾淞书（601长官）反映，并在10世纪后期，由广韵“Guǎngyùn”雾淞书反映。语言学家更加有信心重建如何中古汉语响起。为中古汉语发音的证据来自几个来源：现代方言的变化，押韵字典，外国译音，“韵表”的古代语言学家建造总结语音系统，和外来语中语音翻译。但是，所有重建是暂定的，有些学者认为，试图重建，说，从现代现代粤语流行曲粤语谐音会给出了现在的口语天相当不准确的印象。