Chinese language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

汉语 Hànyǔ, 中文 Zhōngwén 
Zhōngwén in written Chinese:
"Chinese (written) language" (pinyin: zhōngwén) written in Chinese characters
Spoken in: People's Republic of China ( mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao), Republic of China (Taiwan and other islands), Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Singapore, also parts of Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Philippines & other Chinese communities around the world 
Region: (majorities): Eastern Asia & parts of Southern Asia
(minorities): Chinese communities in Western Asia, the Americas, Africa, Europe and Pacific
Total speakers: more than 1.3 billion 
Ranking: 1, if considered a single language (Mandarin, Wu and Cantonese are most common sub-types)
Language family: Sino-Tibetan
Writing system: Chinese characters 
Official status
Official language of: PRC, ROC, Singapore, United Nations
Regulated by: In the PRC: various agencies(in Chinese)
In the ROC: Mandarin Promotion Council
In Singapore: Promote Mandarin Council/ Speak Mandarin Campaign
Language codes
ISO 639-1: zh
ISO 639-2: chi (B)  zho (T)
ISO/FDIS 639-3: variously:
cdo —  Min Dong
cjy —  Jinyu
cmn —  Mandarin
cpx —  Pu Xian
czh —  Huizhou
czo —  Min Zhong
dng —  Dungan
gan —  Gan
hak —  Hakka
hsn —  Xiang
mnp —  Min Bei
nan —  Min Nan
wuu —  Wu
yue —  Yue 

Chinese (汉语/漢語, Pinyin: Hànyǔ; 华语/華語, Huáyǔ; or 中文, Zhōngwén) is a language (or language family) that forms part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. About one-fifth of the people in the world speak some form of Chinese as their native language.

In general, all varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic. However, Chinese is also distinguished for a high level of internal diversity. Regional variation between different variants/dialects is comparable to the Romance language family; many variants of spoken Chinese are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible. It could be argued that there are more native "Romance" (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) speakers than "Chinese" speakers. There are between six and twelve main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most populous by far is Mandarin (c. 800 million), followed by Wu (c. 90 million), and Cantonese (c. 80 million). The identification of the varieties of Chinese as "languages" or "dialects" is a controversial issue. If Chinese is classified as a single language rather than a group of languages, it is the most widely spoken language in the world.

The standardized form of spoken Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, a member of the Mandarin group; it is described in the article " Standard Mandarin." Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China or Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore (together with English, Malay, and Tamil). Chinese—de facto, Standard Mandarin—is one of the six official languages of the United Nations (alongside English, Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish). Spoken in the form of Standard Cantonese, Chinese is one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and of Macau (together with Portuguese).

Spoken Chinese

The map below depicts the subdivisions ("languages" or "dialect groups") within Chinese. The traditionally recognized seven main groups, in order of population size are:

  • Mandarin 普通话,国语,北方话/北方話 or 官話/官话, (c. 800 million),

汉语 Hanyu Chinese is divided into two groups: 文言 Wenyan Classical Chinese languages and 白话 Baihua Modern Chinese languages.

Mandarin Chinese Guanhua 官话 was the main language used at the Imperial Court and Mandarin Chinese Putonghua 普通话 is the main language in China. Both Guanhua and Putonghua are called Mandarin Chinese in the West but they are indeed different languages.

China has had only two official languages in its entire history. 满语 Manyu, the Manchu language, was the first official language of China, from 1644 till 1912. 普通话 Putonghua has been the official language of China since 1958. Before 1958, no form of Chinese was ever the official language of China.

The linguist names 上古汉语 Shanggu Hanyu Old Chinese and 中古汉语 Zhonggu Hanyu Middle Chinese are used by linguists who are researching the field linguist Bernhard Karlgren had started.

In China the Chinese did not make such a division, but divided Hanyu into Wenyan and Baihua.

Wenyan is sometimes called 古代汉语 Gudai Hanyu Classical Chinese and Baihua is sometimes called 现代汉语 Xiandai Hanyu Modern Chinese.

  • Wu 吳/吴 , which includes Shanghainese, (c. 90 million),
  • Cantonese 粵/粤, (c. 80 million),
  • Min 閩/闽, which includes Taiwanese, (c. 50 million),
  • Xiang 湘, (c. 35 million),
  • Hakka 客家 or 客, (c. 35 million),
  • Gan 贛/赣, (c. 20 million)

Chinese linguists have recently distinguished 3 more groups from the traditional seven:

  • Jin 晉/晋 from Mandarin
  • Hui 徽 from Wu
  • Ping 平話/平话 partly from Cantonese

There are also many smaller groups that are not yet classified, such as: Danzhou dialect, spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island; Xianghua (乡话), not to be confused with Xiang (湘), spoken in western Hunan; and Shaozhou Tuhua, spoken in northern Guangdong. The Dungan language, spoken in Central Asia, is very closely related to Mandarin. However, it is not generally considered "Chinese," because it is written in Cyrillic and spoken by people outside China who are not considered Chinese in any sense. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.

The varieties of spoken Chinese in China (CLICK double rectangle image to the right for a larger map.)
The varieties of spoken Chinese in China (CLICK double rectangle image to the right for a larger map.)

In general, the above languages / dialect groups do not have sharp boundaries. 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 being followed. In any case, some dialects belonging to the same group may nevertheless be mutually unintelligible, while other dialects split up among several groups may in fact share many similarities due to geographical proximity.

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 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).

Standard Mandarin and diglossia

Standard Mandarin is the official standard language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Singapore. 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. It is therefore used in government, in the media, and in instruction in schools.

The situation in China is a complex and interesting case of diglossia: it is common for speakers of Chinese to be able to speak several varieties of the language, typically Standard Mandarin, the local dialect, and occasionally a regional lingua franca, such as Cantonese. Such polyglots frequently code switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect(s), depending on the situation. A person living in Taiwan, for example, may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered socially appropriate under many circumstances. Similarly, in Hong Kong, it is not unusual for people to speak Cantonese and English, and sometimes Mandarin.

Language or language family?

The diversity of Chinese variants is comparable to the Romance languages, and greater than the North Germanic languages. However, owing to China's sociopolitical and cultural situation, whether these variants should be known as "languages" or "dialects" is a subject of ongoing debate. Some people call Chinese a language and its subdivisions dialects, while others call Chinese a language family and its subdivisions languages. Just as the Roman empire was composed of different ethnic groups, there were once different Chinese and non-Chinese nations before they were united by conquest into the Chinese empire. The Chinese dialects today contain remnants of languages spoken in those former nations.

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 scientifically. However, the language/dialect distinction has far-reaching implications in socio-political issues, such as the national identity of China, regional identities within China, and the very nature of the (Han) Chinese "nation" or "race." As a result, it has become a subject of contention.

On one hand, there is the tendency to regard dialects as equal variations of a single Chinese language. This is partly because all speakers of different varieties of Chinese use one formal standard written language, although this written language in modern times is itself based on one variety of spoken Chinese. On the other hand, some regions with strong senses of regional cohesiveness have become more aware of regional groupings of dialects.

The idea of a single language has major overtones in politics and self-identity, and explains the amount of emotion over this issue. The idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that China consists of several different nations, challenge the notion of a single Han Chinese "race," and legitimize secessionist movements. Furthermore, for some, suggesting that Chinese is more correctly described as multiple languages implies that the notion of a single Chinese language and a single Chinese state or nationality is artificial.

However, the links between ethnicity, politics, and language can be complex. Many Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese speakers consider their own varieties as separate spoken languages, but the Han Chinese race as one entity. They do not regard these two positions as contradictory, but consider the Han Chinese an entity of great internal diversity. Moreover, the government of the People's Republic of China officially states that China is a multinational state, and that the term "Chinese" refers to a broader concept Zhonghua Minzu that incorporates groups that do not natively speak Chinese, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongols. (Groups that do speak Chinese are properly called Han Chinese, and are regarded as one component of a multiethnic whole.) Similarly, on Taiwan, some supporters of Chinese reunification promote the local language, while some supporters of Taiwan independence have little interest in the topic. Additionally, the Taiwanese identity incorporates Taiwanese aborigines, who are not considered Han Chinese because they speak Austronesian languages, predate Han Chinese settlement, and are culturally and genetically linked to other Austronesian-speaking peoples such as Polynesians.

Written Chinese

The relationship among the Chinese spoken and written languages is complex. It is compounded by the fact that spoken variations evolved for centuries, since at least the late Hàn Dynasty, while written Chinese changed much less.

Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was done in Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese (文言 wényán), which was very different from any spoken variety of Chinese, much as Classical Latin differs from modern Romance languages. Since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the formal standard for written Chinese was changed to Vernacular Chinese (白話/白话 báihuà), which, while not completely identical to the grammar and vocabulary of dialects of Mandarin, was based mostly on them. The term standard written Chinese now refers to Vernacular Chinese.

Chinese characters are morphemes independent of phonetic change. Thus, although the number "one" is yi in Mandarin, yat in Cantonese and tsit in Hokkien (form of Min), they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and still share an identical character ("一"). Nevertheless, the orthographies of Chinese dialect groups are not completely identical, and their vocabularies have diverged. In addition, while literary vocabulary is mostly used by all dialects, colloquial vocabularies are often different. Colloquial non-standard written Chinese usually involves "dialectal characters" which may not be understood in other dialects or characters that are considered archaic in standard written Chinese.

Cantonese is unique among non-Mandarin regional languages in having a written colloquial standard, used in Hong Kong and by non- Standard Mandarin speaking Cantonese speakers overseas, with a large number of unofficial characters for words particular to this variety of Chinese. By contrast, the other regional languages do not have such widely-used alternative written standards. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging, although for formal written communications Cantonese speakers still normally use standard written Chinese.

Also, in Hunan, some women wrote their local language in Nü Shu, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The Dungan language, considered 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

The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin: hànzì), which are logograms: each symbol represents a semanteme or morpheme (a meaningful unit of language), as well as one syllable; the written language can thus be termed a morphemo-syllabic script.

They are not just pictographs (pictures of their meanings), but are highly stylized and carry much abstract meaning. Only some characters are derived from pictographs. In 100 AD, the famed scholar Xǚ Shèn in the Hàn Dynasty classified characters into 6 categories, only 4% as pictographs, and 82% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that arguably once indicated the pronunciation.

All modern characters are or are based on the standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū) (see styles, below). There are currently two standards for Chinese characters. One is the traditional system, still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau. The other is the simplified system adopted during the 1950s Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mainland China. The simplified system requires fewer strokes to write certain components and has fewer synonymous characters. Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first and only foreign country to recognize and officially adopt the simplified characters.

Various styles of Chinese calligraphy.
Various styles of Chinese calligraphy.

Various written styles are used in Chinese calligraphy, including seal script (篆书/篆書 zhuànshū), cursive script (草书/草書 cǎoshū), clerical script (隶书/隸書 lìshū) and standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū, aka regular script). Calligraphers can write in traditional and simplified characters, but they tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.

As with Latin script, a wide variety of fonts exist for printed Chinese characters, a great number of which are often based on the styles of single calligraphers or schools of calligraphy.

There is no concrete record of the origin of Chinese characters. Legend suggests that Cāng Jié, a bureaucrat of the legendary emperor Huángdì of China about 2600 BC, invented Chinese characters. A few symbols exist on pottery shards from the Neolithic period in China, but whether or not they constitute writing or are ancestral to the Chinese writing system is a topic of much controversy among scholars. Archaeological evidence, mainly the oracle bones found in the 19- 20th centuries, at present only dates Chinese characters to the Shāng dynasty, specifically to the 14th to 11th centuries BC, although this fully mature script implies an earlier period of development.

The vast majority of oracle bone inscriptions were found in the ruins of Yīn of the late Shāng Dynasty, although a few Zhōu dynasty-related ones were also found. The forms of the characters in the inscriptions changed slightly over the 200 to 300 years, and scholars date the inscriptions of the Shāng to the ruler by the content, particularly from the name of the diviners who inscribed the shell or bone artifacts.

Contemporaneous with the late Shāng and the Western Zhōu periods are a number of bronze inscriptions. Over the last century, a great many ancient bronze artifacts have been unearthed in China which contain dedicational texts of the Zhōu aristocrats where the characters show similarities and innovations compared to the oracle bone inscriptions. In the period between the oracle bones and the bamboo books of the Warring States period, inscriptions on bronzes are the most important record of the written script. Note however that since this spans such a broad period of time, it is hardly meaningful to speak of bronzeware script or bronze script as a single entity.


Most linguists classify all of the variations of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, analogous to Proto-Indo-European, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relations between Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages are 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 very good documentation that allows us to reconstruct the ancient sounds of Chinese, there is no written documentation of the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and Chinese. In addition, many of the languages that would allow us to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly documented or understood.

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. The system was much revised, but always heavily relying on Karlgren's insights and methods.

Old Chinese ( T:上古漢語 S:上古汉语 P:Shànggǔ Hànyǔ), sometimes known as "Archaic Chinese," was the language common during the early and middle Zhōu Dynasty ( 1122 BC - 256 BC), 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 also 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.

Middle Chinese ( T:中古漢語 S:中古汉语 P:Zhōnggǔ Hànyǔ) was the language used during the Suí, Táng, and Sòng dynasties (7th through 10th centuries AD). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the 切韻 " Qièyùn" rhyme table ( 601 AD), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by the 廣韻 " Guǎngyùn" rhyme table. Linguists are 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; for example, scholars have shown that trying to reconstruct modern Cantonese from the rhymes of modern Cantopop would give a very inaccurate picture of the language.

The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. Most northern Chinese people, in Sìchuān and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest ( Yúnnán), 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 southern China promoted linguistic diversity. The presence of Mandarin in Sìchuān is largely due to a plague in the 12th century. This plague, which may have been related to the Black Death, depopulated the area, leading to later settlement from north China.

Until the mid-20th century, most southern Chinese only spoke their native local variety of Chinese. However, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various Chinese dialects, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qīng Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up orthoepy academies ( T:正音書院 S:正音书院 P:Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) to make pronunciation conform to the Qīng capital Běijīng's standard, but had little success. During the Qīng's last 50 years in the late 19th century, the Běijīng Mandarin finally replaced Nánjīng Mandarin in the imperial court. For the general population, although variations of Mandarin were already widely spoken in China then, a single standard of Mandarin did not exist. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their various regionalects for every aspect of life. The new Běijīng Mandarin court standard was thus fairly limited.

This situation changed with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC, but not in Hong Kong) of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Standard Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken by virtually all people in mainland China and on Táiwān. At the time of the widespread introduction of Standard Mandarin in mainland China and Táiwān, Hong Kong was a British colony and Standard Mandarin was never used. In Hong Kong, the language of education, formal speech, and daily life remains the local Cantonese, but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.

Influence on other languages

Throughout history Chinese culture and politics has had a great influence on unrelated languages such as Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Korean and Japanese both have writing systems employing Chinese characters (Hanzi), which are called Hanja and Kanji, respectively.

The Vietnamese term for Chinese writing is Hán tự. It was the only available method for writing Vietnamese until the 14th century, used almost exclusively by Chinese-educated Vietnamese elites. From the 14th to the late 19th century, Vietnamese was written with Chữ nôm, a modified Chinese script incorporating sounds and syllables for native Vietnamese speakers. This is now completely replaced by a modified Latin script that incorporates a system of diacritical marks to indicate tones, as well as modified consonants. The Vietnamese language exhibits multiple elements similar to Cantonese in regard to the specific intonations and sharp consonant endings. There is also a slight influence from Mandarin, including the sharper vowels and "kh" sound missing from other Asiatic languages.

In South Korea, the Hangul alphabet is generally used, but Hanja is used as a sort of boldface. (In North Korea, Hanja has been discontinued.) Since the modernization of Japan in the late 19th century, there has been debate about abandoning the use of Chinese characters, but the practical benefits of a radically new script have so far not been considered sufficient.

In Guangxi the Zhuang also had used derived Chinese characters or Zhuang logograms to write songs, even though Zhuang is not a Chinese dialect. Since the 1950s, Zhuang is written in a modified Latin alphabet.

Languages within the influence of Chinese culture also have a very large number of loanwords from Chinese. 50% or more of Korean vocabulary is of Chinese origin and the influence on Japanese and Vietnamese has been considerable. 10% of Philippine language vocabularies are of Chinese origin. Chinese also shares a great many grammatical features with these and neighboring languages, notably the lack of gender and the use of classifiers. The Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese languages seem to retain sounds of Classical Chinese that are otherwise only found in southern China.


The phonological structure of each syllable consists of a nucleus consisting of a vowel (which can be a monophthong, diphthong, or even a triphthong in certain varieties) with an optional onset or coda consonant as well as a tone. There are some instances where a vowel is not used as a nucleus. An example of this is in Cantonese, where the nasal sonorant consonants /m/ and /ŋ/ can stand alone as their own syllable.

Across all the spoken varieties, most syllables tend to be open syllables, meaning they have no coda, but syllables that do have codas are restricted to /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /p/, /t/, /k/, or /ʔ/. Some varieties allow most of these codas, whereas others, such as Mandarin, are limited to only two, namely /n/ and /ŋ/. Consonant clusters do not generally occur in either the onset or coda. The onset may be an affricate or a consonant followed by a semivowel, but these are not generally considered consonant clusters.

The number of sounds in the different spoken dialects varies, but in general there has been a tendency to a reduction in sounds from Middle Chinese. The Mandarin dialects in particular have experienced a dramatic decrease in sounds and so have far more multisyllabic words than most other spoken varieties. The total number of syllables in some varieties is therefore only about a thousand, including tonal variation.

All varieties of spoken Chinese use tones. A few dialects of north China may have as few as three tones, while some dialects in south China have up to 6 or 10 tones, depending on how one counts. One exception from this is Shanghainese which has reduced the set of tones to a two-toned pitch accent system much like modern Japanese.

A very common example used to illustrate the use of tones in Chinese are the four main tones of Standard Mandarin applied to the syllable "ma." The tones correspond to these five characters:

  • 媽/妈() "mother" — high level
  • () "hemp" — high rising
  • 馬/马() "horse" — low falling-rising
  • 罵/骂() "scold" — high falling
  • 嗎/吗(ma) question particle — neutral
  • Listen to the tones —
    • This is a recording of the four main tones. Fifth, or neutral, tone is not included.


Romanization is the process of transcribing a language in the Latin alphabet. There are many systems of romanization for the Chinese languages; this is due to the complex history of interaction between China and the West, and to the Chinese languages' lack of phonetic transcription until modern times. Chinese is first known to have been written in Latin characters by Western Christian missionaries of the 16th century, but may have been written down by Western travelers or missionaries of earlier periods.

At present, the most common romanization system for Standard Mandarin is Hanyu Pinyin 漢語拼音/汉语拼音, also known simply as Pinyin. Pinyin is the official Mandarin romanization system for the People's Republic of China, and the official one used in Singapore (see also Chinese language romanisation in Singapore). Pinyin is also very commonly used when teaching Mandarin in schools and universities of North America and Europe.

Perhaps the second-most common system of romanization for Mandarin is Wade-Giles. This system was probably the most common system of romanization for Mandarin before Hanyu Pinyin was developed. Wade-Giles is often found in academic use in the U.S., and until recently was widely used in Taiwan (Taipei city now officially uses Hanyu Pinyin and the rest of the island officially uses Tōngyòng Pinyin 通用拼音/通用拼音).

Here are a few examples of Hanyu Pinyin and Wade-Giles, for comparison:

Mandarin Romanization Comparison
Characters Wade-Giles Hanyu Pinyin Notes
中国/中國 Chung1-kuo² Zhōngguó "China"
北京 Pei³-ching1 Běijīng Capital of the People's Republic of China
台北 T'ai²-pei³ Táiběi Capital of the Republic of China
毛泽东/毛澤東 Mao² Tse²-tung1 Máo Zédōng Former Communist Chinese leader
蒋介石/蔣介石 Chiang³ Chieh4-shih² Jiǎng Jièshí Former Nationalist Chinese leader
孔子 K'ung³ Tsu³ Kǒng Zǐ "Confucius"

Regardless of system, tone transcription is often left out, either due to difficulties of typesetting or propriety for audience. Wade-Giles' extensive use of easily-forgotten apostrophes adds to the confusion. Thus, most Western readers will be much more familiar with Beijing than they will be with Běijīng, and with Taipei than with T'ai²-pei³.

Regardless of romanization, the words are pronounced the same. Learning a system of romanization requires occasional deviations from the learner's own language, so, for example, Hanyu Pinyin uses "q" for very different values than an English speaker would probably be used to; the sound represented is similar to the English "ch," but pronounced further forward (an aspirated alveolo-palatal fricative, /tɕʰ/). This is a cause of confusion but is unavoidable, as Mandarin (and any language transcribed) will have phonemes different from those of the learner's own. On the other hand, this can be beneficial, since learners can immediately be made aware of the fact that they will have to learn a new pronunciation. With languages that use similar orthography, the temptation to pronounce words just as in one's mother tongue can lead to great misunderstanding.

There are many other systems of romanization for Mandarin, as well as systems for Cantonese, Minnan, Hakka, and other Chinese languages.

Other transcriptions

Chinese languages have been phonetically transcribed into many other writing systems over the centuries. The phagspa script, for example, has been very helpful in reconstructing the pronunciation of pre-modern forms of Chinese.

Zhuyin 注音, (also know as bopomofo) is still widely used in Taiwan's elementary schools. A comparison table of Zhuyin to Pinyin exists in the Zhuyin article. Syllables based on Pinyin and Zhuyin can also be compared by looking at the following articles:

  • Pinyin table
  • Zhuyin table

There are also at least two systems of cyrillization for Chinese. The most widespread is the Palladius system.


Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction which are the morphemes, the smallest building blocks, of the language. Some of these single-syllable morphemes can stand alone as individual words, but contrary to what is often claimed, Chinese is not a monosyllabic language. Most words in the modern Chinese spoken varieties are in fact multisyllabic, consisting of more than one morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.

The confusion arises in how one thinks about the language. In the Chinese writing system, each individual single-syllable morpheme corresponds to a single character, referred to as a (字). Most Chinese speakers think of words as being zì, but this view is not entirely accurate. Many words are multisyllabic, and are composed of more than one zì. This composition is what is known as a (词/詞), and more closely resembles the traditional Western definition of a word. However, the concept of was historically a technical linguistic term that until only the past century, the average Chinese speaker was not aware of. Even today, most Chinese speakers think of words as being zì. This can be illustrated in the following Mandarin Chinese sentence ( romanized using pinyin):

Jīguāng, zhè liǎng ge zì shì shénme yìsi?
激光, 這兩個字是甚麼意思?
激光, 这两个字是什么意思?

The sentence literally translates to, " 激 and guāng 光, these two 字, what do they mean?" However, the more natural English translation would probably be, "Laser, this word, what does it mean?" Even though jīguāng 激光 is a single word, speakers tend to think of its constituents as being separate (Ramsey, 1987).

Old Chinese and Middle Chinese had many more monosyllabic words due to greater variability in possible sounds. The modern Chinese varieties lost many of these sound distinctions, leading to homonyms in words that were once distinct. Multisyllabic words arose in order to compensate for this loss. Most natively derived multisyllabic words still feature these original monosyllabic morpheme roots. Many Chinese morphemes still have associated meaning, even though many of them no longer can stand alone as individual words. This situation is analogous to the use of the English prefix pre-. Even though pre- can never stand alone by itself as an individual word, it is commonly understood by English speakers to mean "before," such as in the words predawn, previous, and premonition.

Taking the previous example, jīguāng, and guāng literally mean "stimulated light," resulting in the meaning, "laser." However, is never found as a single word by itself, because there are too many other morphemes that are also pronounced in the same way. For instance, the morphemes that correspond to the meanings "chicken" 雞/鸡, "machine" 機/机, "basic" 基, "hit" 擊/击, "hunger" 饑/饥, and "sum" 積/积 are also pronounced in Mandarin. It is only in the context of other morphemes that an exact meaning of a can be known. In certain ways, the logographic writing system helps to reinforce meaning in that are homophonous, since even though several morphemes may be pronounced the same way, they are written using different characters. Continuing with the example, we have:

Pinyin Traditional Characters Simplified Characters Meaning
guāng laser ("stimulated light")
to arouse ("stimulated rise")
dàn chicken egg
gōng rooster ("male chicken")
fēi aeroplane ("flying machine")
qiāng machine gun

For this reason, it is very common for Mandarin speakers to put characters in context as a natural part of conversation. For example, when telling each other their names (which are often rare, or at least non-colloquial, combinations of zì), Mandarin speakers often state which words their names are found in. As a specific example, a speakers might say 名字叫嘉英,嘉陵江的嘉,英國的英 Míngzi jiào Jiāyīng, Jiālíngjiāng de jiā, Yīngguó de yīng "My name is Jiāyīng, the Jia of Jialing River and the Ying in England."

The problem of homonyms also exists but is less severe in southern Chinese varieties like Cantonese and Taiwanese, which preserved more of the rimes of Middle Chinese. For instance, the previous examples of for "stimulated," "chicken," and "machine" have distinct pronunciations in Cantonese (romanized using jyutping): gik1, gai1, and gei1, respectively. For this reason, southern varieties tend to employ fewer multisyllabic words.

There are a few morphemes in Chinese, many of them loanwords, that consist of more than one syllable. These words cannot be further divided into single-syllable meaningful units, however in writing each syllable is still written as separate . One example is the word for "spider," zhīzhū, which is written as 蜘蛛. Even in this case, Chinese tend to try to make some kind of meaning out of the constituent syllables. For this reason, the two characters 蜘 and 蛛 each have an associated meaning of "spider" when seen alone as individual characters. When spoken though, they can never occur apart.


Most Chinese words are formed out of native Chinese morphemes, including words describing imported objects and ideas. However, direct phonetic borrowing of foreign words has gone on since ancient times. Words borrowed from along the Silk Road in ancient times include 葡萄 "grape," 石榴 "pomegranate" and 狮子/獅子 "lion." Some words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 "Buddha" and 菩萨/菩薩 "bodhisattva." Other words came from nomadic peoples to the north, such as 哥哥 "older brother" and 胡同 " hutong." Words borrowed from the peoples along the Silk Road, such as 葡萄 "grape" (pútáo in Mandarin), generally have Iranian etymologies. Buddhist terminology is generally derived from Sanskrit or Pāli, the liturgical languages of North India. Words borrowed from the nomadic peoples of the northern regions generally have Altaic etymologies, but from exactly which Altaic source is not always entirely clear.

Foreign words continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations; characters in this case are usually taken strictly for their phonetic values. For example, "Israel" becomes 以色列 (pinyin: yǐsèliè). The Chinese characters used here literally mean "using-colour-rank," or "ranking using colour," but the sense is automatically ignored because it is understood that the characters are used for their phonetic values only. Characters which are used nearly exclusively in the transcription of foreign words are present in Chinese; many of these characters date back to Middle Chinese when they were used to translate Sanskrit phonemes. For example, 斯 and 尔/爾 ěr, which are Classical Chinese words for "thus" and "you," are never used in their original senses (except in a limited number of idiomatic expressions) and more often used to transcribe the sounds /s/ and /l/ in foreign words. Nevertheless, this method tends to yield somewhat strange results, and is therefore overwhelmingly used to transcribe foreign names only. A rather small number of direct phonetic borrowings have survived as common words, including 沙發 shāfā "sofa," 马达/馬達 mǎdá "motor," 幽默 yōumò "humour," 逻辑/邏輯 luójí "logic," 时髦/時髦 shímáo "smart, fashionable," 麦克风/麥克風 màikèfēng "microphone," and 歇斯底里 xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics." The bulk of these words were originally coined in the Shanghainese dialect during the early 20th century and were later loaned into Mandarin, hence their pronunciations in Mandarin are quite off from the English. For example, 沙发/沙發 and 马达/馬達 in Shanghainese actually sound like English "sofa" and "motor."

Today, it is much more common to use existing Chinese morphemes to coin new words in order to represent imported concepts, such as technical expressions. Any Latin or Greek etymologies are dropped, making them more comprehensible for Chinese but introducing more difficulties in understanding foreign texts. For example, the word telephone was loaned phonetically as 德律风/德律風 ( Shanghainese: télífon [təlɪfoŋ], Standard Mandarin: délǜfēng) during the 1920s and widely used in Shanghai, but later the Japanese 电话/電話 (diànhuà "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent. Other examples include 电视/電視 (diànshì "electric vision") for television, 电脑/電腦 (diànnǎo "electric brain") for computer; 手机/手機 (shǒujī "hand machine") for cellphone, and 蓝牙/藍牙 (lányá "blue tooth") for Bluetooth. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as 汉堡包/漢堡包 (hànbǎo bāo, "Hamburg bun") for hamburger. Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes, such as 拖拉机/拖拉機 (tuōlājī, "tractor," literally "dragging-pulling machine"). This is often done for commercial purposes, for example 奔腾/奔騰 (bēnténg "running leaping") for Pentium and 赛百味/賽百味 (Sàibǎiwèi "better-than hundred tastes") for Subway restaurants.

Another important source came from a related writing system, kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. The Japanese used kanji to translate many European words in the late 19th century and early 20th century. These words are called wasei-kango in Japanese (和製漢語 literally Japanese-made Chinese), and many of these Japanese words were then loaned into Chinese. Examples include diànhuà (電話, denwa, "telephone"), shèhuì (社会, shakai, "society"), kēxué (科學, kagaku, "science"), zhéxué (哲學, tetsugaku, "philosophy"), chōuxiàng (抽象, chūshō, "abstract"), zhǔyì (主義, shugi, "-ism" or "ideology") and làngmàn (浪漫, roman or rōman, French "roman"). Other terms were coined by the Japanese by giving new senses to existing Chinese terms or by referring to expressions used in classical Chinese literature, these include jīngjì (經濟, keizai) which in the original Chinese meant "the workings of the state" but in Japanese was narrowed to "economy," this narrowed definition was then reimported into Chinese. As a result, these terms are virtually indistinguishable from native Chinese words: indeed, there is dispute over some of these terms as to whether the Japanese or Chinese coined them first. As a result of this to-and-fro process, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese continue to share many terms describing modern terminology, in parallel to a similar corpus of terms built from Greco-Latin terms shared among European languages.


In general, all spoken varieties of Chinese are isolating languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology (changes in the form of the word through inflection). Because they are isolating languages, they make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood.

Chinese features Subject Verb Object word order, and like many other languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic-comment construction to form sentences. Even though Chinese has no grammatical gender, it has an extensive system of measure words, another trait shared with neighbouring (but not related) languages like Japanese and Korean. See Chinese measure words for an extensive coverage of this subject.

Other notable grammatical features common to all the spoken varieties of Chinese include the use of serial verb construction, pronoun dropping (and the related subject dropping), and the use of aspect rather than tense.

Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess various differences. See Chinese grammar for the grammar of Standard Mandarin (the standardized Chinese spoken language), and the articles on other varieties of Chinese for their respective grammars.

Learning Chinese

Learning Mandarin Chinese is increasingly becoming popular in the Western world. While about ten years back in the West, it was hard to find anyone learning the world's most spoken language, now many schools are teaching Chinese.

Number of learners

In 1991 there were 2,000 people taking China's official Chinese Proficiency Test (comparable to English's Cambridge Certificate), while in 2005 117,660 candidates took it. China's Ministry of Education estimates the worldwide learners to be 30 million people counted in universities, community colleges, training courses and taking tuitions. l

Methods of learning

The existence of Hanyu Pinyin and the fact that it has become the standard for foreign learners has made it vastly easier for non-Chinese to begin to learn the language.

  • The first step in many Chinese classes is to teach students how to use Pinyin (how to read and pronounce it).
  • Listening to a native speaker pronouncing Chinese will help a lot. Later, it will not take too much effort, since pronunciation is always regular.
  • Characters are generally the most difficult aspect facing new learners, taking most of their time.
  • In compensation, Chinese grammar is considerably easier than that of many other languages.

Retrieved from ""