Chinese language

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Chinese languages (Spoken)
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Simplified Chinese Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Language/data/iana scripts' not found.
Literal meaning Han language
Chinese language (Written)
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Literal meaning Chinese text

The Chinese language is the group of languages used by Chinese people in China and elsewhere. It forms part of a language family called the Sino-Tibetan family of languages.

Chinese includes many regional language varieties, the main ones being Mandarin, Wu, Yue, and Min. These are not mutually intelligible,[1] and many of the regional varieties are themselves a number of non-mutually-intelligible subvarieties.[2] As a result, many linguists refer to these varieties as separate languages.[3]

'Chinese' can refer to the written or the spoken languages. Although there are many spoken Chinese languages, they use the same writing system.[4] Differences in speaking are reflected in differences in writing. Official China adopts a similar policy to the one in the Soviet Union, using one standard language. In English we call the standard Chinese language Mandarin. In mainland China they call it "Pǔtōnghuà" or "common to everybody speech." In Taiwan they call it "Guóyǔ" or "language of the whole country". All official documents are written in Mandarin, and Mandarin is taught all over China. It is also a standard for language teaching in some other countries. A standard language lets people in the same country understand each other.

Chinese is used by the Han people in China and other ethnic groups in China who are declared Chinese by the Chinese government. Chinese is almost always written in Chinese characters. They are symbols that have meaning, called logograms. They also give some indication of pronunciation, but the same character can get very different pronunciations among the different kinds of Chinese. Since Chinese characters have been around for at least 3500 years, people in places far from each other say them differently, just as "1, 2, 3" can be read differently in different languages.

Chinese people needed to write down pronunciations in dictionaries. Chinese does not have an alphabet, so how to write down sounds was a big problem in the beginning. Nowadays the Mandarin language uses Hanyu pinyin to represent the sounds in Roman letters.

All the Chinese languages (or dialects) use tones. This means that they use high and low pitches to help make differences in meaning clear.

Different languages or dialects of Chinese

The Chinese language is like a big tree. The base of the tree started thousands of years ago. It now has several main limbs. Some people call "just a branch" what other people call a main limb, so you can say there are six or seven main limbs. Each of these main limbs splits off into branches about the way there are branches of English spoken in Great Britain, the United States, Australia, India, and so forth. Just as the Romance languages all come from the area around Rome and are based on Latin, the Chinese languages all have some common source, so they keep many common things among them.

File:Origin of Chinese Languages rev.svg
Branches in modern times are only shown for "Guan" (Language of the officials. Mandarin).

Here are the main seven main groups of languages/dialects of Chinese by size:

  • Guan ("Northern" or Mandarin) 北方話/北方话 or 官話/官话, (about 850 million speakers),
  • Wu 吳/吴, which includes Shanghainese, (about 90 million speakers),
  • Yue (Cantonese) 粵/粤, (about 80 million speakers),
  • Min (Hokkien, which includes Taiwanese) 閩/闽, (about 50 million speakers),
  • Xiang 湘, (about 35 million speakers),
  • Hakka 客家 or 客, or "guest family" speech (about 35 million speakers),
  • Gan 贛/赣, (about 20 million speakers)

Traditional and simplified characters

In 1956, the government of the People's Republic of China made public a set of simplified Chinese characters to make learning, reading and writing the Chinese language easier. In Mainland China and Singapore, people use these simpler characters. In Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places where they speak Chinese, people still use the more traditional characters. The Korean language also uses Chinese characters to represent certain words. The Japanese language uses them even more often. These characters are known in Korean as Hanja and in Japanese as Kanji.

A Chinese person with a good education today knows 6,000-7,000 characters. About 3,000 Chinese characters are needed to read a Mainland newspaper. However, people who have learned only the 400 most frequently used characters can read a newspaper—but they will have to guess some less-used words.


Here are some samples of some words and sentences in Mandarin Chinese. Simplified Characters are on the left, and Traditional characters are on the right. The pronunciation is given in the pinyin system, which may not always be as simple as it looks for those who have not studied it.

The Traditional Characters are now used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chinese from Mainland China uses the Simplified Characters, but may recognize Traditional Characters.

Before 1956, Chinese was written using only Traditional Characters. At that time most Chinese people could not read or write at all. The government of the People's Republic of China thought that the Traditional characters were very hard to understand. They also thought that if they made the characters simpler more people could learn how to read and write. Today, many people in China can read and write with the new Simplified Characters.

Word Pinyin Simplified Traditional
How are you? Nǐ hǎo ma? 你好吗? 你好嗎?
What is your name? Nǐ jiào shénme míngzi? 你叫什么名字? 你叫什麽名字?
America Měiguó 美国 美國
France Fǎguó 法国 法國
Britain Yīngguó 英国 英國
Germany Déguó 德国 德國
Russia Éguó 俄国 俄國
Thailand Tàiguó 泰国 泰國
Poland Bōlán 波兰 波蘭
Japan Rìbĕn 日本 日本
Pakistan Bājīsītǎn 巴基斯坦 巴基斯坦

Related pages


  1. This means a speaker from one region cannot understand a speaker from another region, unless they have also learnt that language.
  2. Norman J. 2003. The Chinese dialects: phonology. In Thurgood, Graham & LaPolla, Randy J. (eds) The Sino-Tibetan languages. Routledge, pp. 72–83. Template:Catalog lookup linkScript error: No such module "check isxn".
  3. DeFrancis, John 1984. The Chinese language: fact and fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Template:Catalog lookup linkScript error: No such module "check isxn".
  4. European languages similarly all use an alphabetic script.

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