The Chinese language (Hànyǔ 汉语 or Zhōngwén 中文) forms the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. About 1.2 billion people speak some form of Chinese, which comprises approximately 16% of the world’s population. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The Chinese language is not actually a single language, but rather, consists of a large group of languages, many of which are mutually unintelligible, and formed into between 7 and 13 regional groups. The largest groups include Mandarin (the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, and one of the official languages of Singapore), Wu (including Shanghai dialect), Min, and Yue (including the Cantonese dialect).
The history of the written Chinese language can be traced back nearly 3,000 years, to the first oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty. The language has evolved significantly over the intervening years, from the “Old Chinese” of the Classic of Poetry to “Middle Chinese” of the Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasties, and eventually the modern language. For much of its history, the written and spoken forms have varied greatly, and only within the past hundred years has the written form adopted a more vernacular style.
For much of Chinese history, people primarily spoke their local dialects, as no national language existed. Communication was often difficult between people of different regions, with the written form of the language (Classical Chinese, which was not dialect-dependent) bridging the communication gap, at least among the small educated class that was literate. Beginning during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, however, officials in the capital used the common language of the officials (known as “Mandarin”) to conduct government business, originally based on the dialect of Nanjing, which was eventually superseded by the Beijing dialect.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that a standard national language (known as Guóyǔ 国语) was first adopted, after much dispute between advocates of northern versus southern dialects. Eventually, the Beijing dialect was chosen to form the foundation of “Modern Standard Mandarin,” with input from other dialects. Since then, Mandarin has served as the primary means of education, media, and commerce throughout China, Taiwan (Republic of China), and the Chinese diaspora. The main government regulating bodies for Mandarin are the State Language Work Committee (People’s Republic of China) and the National Languages Committee (Taiwan, Republic of China). Despite the successful promotion of Mandarin as the national language, though, diglossia is still common in both China and Taiwan, where many individuals speak both Mandarin and the predominant dialect from their region (or the region from where their family originated).
Standard Chinese (Mandarin), and all other varieties of Chinese are tonal languages, in which tones are used to distinguish between words. Mandarin Chinese includes four tones (plus a “neutral” tone), while Cantonese includes nine tones. Chinese is also an analytic language, in that it relies on syntax rather than morphology (changes in the form of a word) to express the function of a word in a sentence. Chinese possesses no tenses, no voices, and no distinction between singular and plural forms. Moreover, Chinese includes numerous grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood, as well as multiple classifiers and measure words.
The Chinese script is based on characters, of which there are more than 20,000 in existence, although only about 3,000 characters are needed to be able to read a newspaper, and a well-educated Chinese speaker can usually recognize between 4,000 and 6,000 characters. In 1954, in an attempt to improve literacy among the population, the government of Mainland China introduced a “simplified” character system, including fewer strokes for many characters. The “simplified” character system of the Mainland was also eventually adopted by Singapore, while Taiwan (Republic of China) and Hong Kong continued to include the “traditional” or long-form script.
In 1956, the government in Mainland China also introduced the “Hanyu Pinyin” system of romanization, to convert written Chinese into the Latin alphabet. While Taiwan has also promulgated some different romanization systems of its own, Hanyu Pinyin has largely become the international standard used for teaching pronunciation of standard spoken Chinese in schools, both in China and abroad. An alternate phonetic system used in Taiwan that does not use the Roman alphabet is known as “Zhuyin,” although its use outside of Taiwan has been limited.
In the United States, Chinese is the second most commonly spoken non-English language (after Spanish), with nearly 3 million speakers. Among the earlier Chinese immigrant populations and their descendants, the Cantonese and Taishanese dialects comprised the largest percentage of Chinese speakers in the United States, although the use of Mandarin has been increasing as a result of increased immigration from Mandarin-speaking areas (mainly Mainland China). Currently, approximately 40% of Chinese speakers in the United States are located in California.
FUN FACTS: Chinese is the only modern pictographic language, and with its origins dating back thousands of years, it is one of the oldest languages still in use. There are also no words in the Chinese language to express “yes” or “no” directly. To reply in the affirmative, Standard Mandarin typically requires the repetition of the adjective or verb in the question to indicate assent. To reply in the negative, the negative form of the adjective or verb is used.
At Piedmont Global Language Solutions (PGLS), we offer document translation, interpretation, localization, and other language services in Chinese, including Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and dozens of spoken dialects. Whether you need to translate marketing brochures into Traditional Chinese for Taiwan, a Hokkien interpreter for a legal deposition, or want to localize your website into Simplified Chinese to market your products or services in Mainland China, PGLS is here to help with all of your Chinese language needs.