Chinese Language

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Chinese Language
, language of the Chinese, or Han, people, the majority ethnic group of China, including both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan. It is the official language of China and one of the official languages of Singapore. Of China's more than 1 billion people, approximately 95 percent speak Chinese, as opposed to the non-Chinese languages—such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Lolo, Miao, and Tai—spoken by minorities. Chinese is also spoken by large emigrant communities, such as those in Southeast Asia, North and South America, and the Hawaiian Islands. More people speak Chinese than any other language in the world.

As the dominant language of East Asia, Chinese has greatly influenced the writing systems and vocabularies of neighboring languages not related to it by origin, such as the Japanese language, the Korean language, and the Vietnamese language. It has been estimated that until the 18th century more than half of the world's printed books were Chinese.

General Characteristics

Chinese, together with Tibetan and Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese) and the many tribal languages of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the family of Sino-Tibetan languages. Besides a core vocabulary and sounds, Chinese and most related languages share features that distinguish them from most Western languages: They are monosyllabic, have even less inflection than the English language, and are tonal. In order to indicate differences in meaning between words similar in sound, tone languages assign to words a distinctive relative pitch—high or low—or a distinctive pitch contour—level, rising, or falling.

Language Versus Dialects

Spoken Chinese comprises many regional variants, called dialects. Although they employ a common written form, they are mutually unintelligible, and for this reason controversy exists over whether they can legitimately be called dialects or whether they should be classified as separate languages. The differences among them are analogous to the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary among the Romance languages. Generally, however, the variants of Chinese are referred to as dialects. Most Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects, which are largely mutually intelligible. That spoken in Beijing constitutes the standard Mandarin dialect. It forms the basis both of the modern written vernacular, Baihua, which supplanted classical Chinese in the schools after 1917, and of the official spoken language, Putonghua, prescribed in 1956 for nationwide use in schools.

Chinese also has six other dialect groups, all spoken in China's southeastern provinces. The Yue dialects, also called Cantonese, are spoken in Hong Kong, most of Guangdong, southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, parts of Hainan, and in many overseas settlements. Most of the inhabitants of Hunan use the Xiang dialects, also known as Hunanese. The Min dialects are spoken in most of Fujian, large areas of Taiwan and Hainan, parts of eastern Guangdong and the Leizhou Bandao Peninsula, and in areas of Southeast Asia. Most of the people living in Jiangxi and the southeastern corner of Hubei use the Gan dialects. The majority of the inhabitants of Zhejiang, as well as people living in southern areas of Jiangsu and Anhui, speak the Wu dialects. The Wu dialects share marginal mutual intelligibility with the Mandarin and Gan dialects. The Kejia, or Hakka, dialects are spoken in northeastern Guangdong, southern Jiangxi, southwestern Fujian, and in pockets throughout southeastern China and Southeast Asia.

Development of the Language

The modern Chinese dialects (from the 11th century AD) evolved from Old, or Archaic, Chinese (8th century to 3rd century BC), the sounds of which have been tentatively reconstructed. Although monosyllabic, Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. The next stage of Chinese that has been carefully analyzed was Middle, or Ancient, Chinese (to about the 11th century AD). By this time the rich sound system of Old Chinese had progressed far toward the extreme simplification seen in the modern dialects. For instance, Old Chinese possessed series of consonants such as p, ph, b, bh (where h stands for aspiration or rough breathing). In Middle Chinese this had become p, ph, bh; in Mandarin only p and ph (now spelled b and p) are left.

The modern Mandarin syllable consists, at the least, of a so-called final element—namely, a vowel (a, e) or semivowel (i, u) or some combination of these (a diphthong or triphthong)—with a tone (level, rising, dipping, or falling) and sometimes a final consonant—which, however, can only be an n, ng, or r. Old Chinese, however, had in addition a final p, t, k, b, d, g, and m. The final element may be preceded by an initial consonant but never by a consonant cluster; Old Chinese probably had clusters, as at the beginning of klam and glam. As sonic distinctions became fewer—for example, as final n absorbed final m, so that syllables such as lam and lan became simply lan—the number of Mandarin syllables different from one another in sound fell to about 1300. No fewer words existed, but more words were homonyms. Thus, the words for poetry, bestow, moist, lose, corpse, and louse had all been pronounced differently from one another in Middle Chinese; in Mandarin they all become shi in the level tone. In fact, so many homonyms came to exist that ambiguity would have become intolerable if compound words had not simultaneously developed. Thus, poetry, became shi-ge (poetry-song), and teacher became shi-zhang (teacher-elder). Although a modern Chinese dictionary contains many more such compounds than one-syllable expressions, most of the compounds still break down into independently meaningful syllables.


Highly inflected languages such as the Latin language and the Russian language make scores of additions to, or changes in, the sound of a word to indicate grammatical differences. Modern Chinese, on the other hand, never changes, and seldom adds, sounds for such purposes. Because no inflection of nouns exists to show whether they are, for example, subject or object, and no indication is given that verbs, nouns, and adjectives agree with one another in number and case, word order is even more important than it is in English as an indicator of the relation of words to one another in the sentence. In broad outline, Chinese word order is quite like that of English: subject-verb-object, modifier-modified. On closer inspection, however, the grammar reveals greater differences between the languages. In English the subject is always the performer of an action, but in Chinese the subject is more often simply a topic set forth to be followed by a comment. An example is "Nei-ke shu yezi hen da," literally "(As for) that tree, leaves very big"—that is, "That tree has very big leaves."

Further grammatical characteristics of Chinese are that, in general, verb tense is not expressed. For lack of an equivalent of the English relative clause, quite complicated modifier phrases may precede the term modified. Jianle shu jiu mai de neige ren (Having-seen-book-immediately-buy-is-that-man,) is translated as "That man who instantly buys every book he sees."

Written Chinese

The Chinese written language is of an old and conservative type that assigns a single distinctive symbol, or character, to each word of the vocabulary. Knowledge of 2000 to 3000 characters is needed to read newspapers, and a large dictionary contains more than 40,000 characters (arranged according to sound or form). The oldest texts to have been discovered are oracular sayings incised on tortoise shells and cattle scapulae by court diviners of the Shang dynasty beginning in the early 14th century BC; these are the so-called oracle-bone inscriptions. Although the writing system has since been standardized and stylistically altered, its principles and many of its symbols remain fundamentally the same. Like other scripts of ancient origin, Chinese is derived from picture writing. It grew into a word-by-word representation of language when it was discovered that words too abstract to be readily pictured could be indicated by their sound rather than their sense. Unlike other scripts, however, Chinese still works pictographically as well as phonetically. Moreover, its sound indications have not been adapted to changes of pronunciation but have remained keyed to the pronunciation of 3000 years ago. The building blocks of the system are several hundred pictographs for such basic words as man, horse, and axe. In addition, expanded, or compound, pictographs exist. For example, a symbol of this type representing man carrying grain means "harvest," and thus "year" (nian).

Phonetic loans are pictographs of concrete words borrowed to indicate abstract words of the same or similar sound. The principle here is that of the rebus, or visual pun. Thus, the pictograph for dustpan (ji) was borrowed for this, his, her, its (qi or ji). Through the Zhou period (11th century to 3rd century BC) many characters had such a dual use. If at that time the scribes had agreed that only the "dustpan" pictograph would stand for any syllable pronounced ji, they would have discovered the principle of the phonetic syllabary, precursor of the alphabet. Because of the great number of homonyms in Chinese, however, scribes instead retreated to picture writing. The picture of the dustpan came to be used exclusively for his, her, its. In the rarer instances when scribes actually meant to refer to a dustpan, however, they avoided ambiguity by employing a compound symbol in which "dustpan" had added to it the pictograph for "bamboo," representing the material from which dustpans were made. This process for reducing the ambiguity of phonetic loans became in time a process by which any pictograph, borrowed for its sound, could be joined to any other chosen to indicate the meaning, forming a phonetic compound. Thus, "dustpan," with the addition of "earth" instead of "bamboo," indicated ji, "base, foundation." Today simple and compound pictographs continue to be used for some of the most basic vocabulary—home, mother, child, rice, fire. Perhaps 95 percent of the words in the dictionary are written with phonetic compounds, however.

To express modern concepts, Chinese generally invents equivalents from its native stock of meaningful syllables or renders such terms in phonetic spelling. Thus, chemistry is expressed in Chinese as "study of transformations."

Shihuangdi (Shih-huang-ti), first emperor of a unified China, suppressed many regional scripts and enforced a simplified, standardized writing called the Small Seal. In the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) this developed into the Clerical, Running, Draft, and Standard scripts. Printed Chinese is modeled on the Standard Script. Cursive or rapid writing (the Running and Draft scripts) introduced many abbreviated characters used in artistic calligraphy and in commercial and private correspondence, but it was long banned from official documents. The printing of abbreviated characters is still forbidden in Taiwan but has become the normal practice in the People's Republic of China.

Methods of Transliteration

In the English-speaking world, since 1892, Chinese words (except personal and place-names) have usually been transliterated according to a phonetic spelling system called Wade-Giles romanization, propounded by British Orientalists Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. Personal names were romanized according to individual wishes, however, and place-names followed the nonsystematic spellings of the Chinese Post Office. Since 1958 another phonetic romanization known as Pinyin (spelling) has had official standing in the People's Republic of China, where it is used for telegrams and in primary education. Replacement of the traditional characters by Pinyin has been advocated but is unlikely to be carried through completely because of the threat it poses to literature and historical documentation in the classical language. Simplification of the sound system through time, with the resultant homonyms, has made the terse classical style unintelligible when transcribed in an alphabetic script. Since January 1, 1979, Xinhua (New China News Agency) has used Pinyin in all dispatches to foreign countries. The United States government, many scholarly publications, and newspapers such as the New York Times have also adopted the Pinyin system, as has this encyclopedia.

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