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  Wikipedia: Chinese spoken language

Wikipedia: Chinese spoken language
Chinese spoken language
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The Chinese spoken languages comprise many regional variants. Although the English word dialect is often used to translate the Chinese term fangyan, the differences between the major spoken variations of Chinese are such that they are mutually unintelligible.


Most Chinese do not think of these variations as separate languages because they share a common written standard and literary and cultural tradition. Linguists, however, generally consider spoken language to be the fundamental form for classification of a language, and the standard of intelligibility is the one that is most commonly used to divide languages. By the standard of mutual intelligibility, the varieties of Chinese would be classed as separate languages.

Linguists divide the variations in spoken Chinese language into seven to ten groups. Within these groups, there are many subgroups, many of which are mutually unintelligible.

Chinese can be divided into a number of categories. However, because two people are speaking dialects within the same category does not mean that they can necessarily completely understand each other. The general situation is one of dialect continuum where one can understand perfectly people speaking the local dialect and that the intelligibility decreases as the the speaker comes from more and more distant regions.

In addition, the categories that speakers use to self-classify the variety they are speaking may not correspond exactly to a classification based strictly on linguistic features. For example, two speakers of Cantonese from different cities (say Taishan and Hong Kong) tend to think of themselves as speaking the same dialect, whereas speaker of Wu from Hangzhou and one from Shanghai would tend to think of themselves as speaking the different dialects.

List of spoken Chinese languages

One distinctive feature of Mandarin is the partial loss of tones in comparison to Middle Chinese and the other dialects. Another is the loss of consonants on the ends of syllables, so that while Middle Chinese had an inventory of "-p, -t, -k, -m, -n, ng", Mandarin only has "-n, -ng". In addition, Mandarin underwent fewer tone splits than the other dialects. As a result, many words which sound different in dialects such as Cantonese are homophones in Mandarin. Mandarin has adjusted by developing compound words in order to make up for the development of homophones. This is less common in other dialects.

  • Wu 吳語/吴语: spoken in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Wu includes Shanghainese. Wu dialect is notable among Chinese dialects in having kept voiced consonants, such as /b/, /d/, /g/, /z/, /v/, etc. (These may in fact be better described as voiceless consonants that create a voiced breathy element across the syllable: i.e. /p\\/, /t\\/, etc.)

  • Hakka/Kejia 客家話/客家话: spoken by the Hakka people in Southern China. Despite being a southern dialect, Hakka was the result of northern immigration. The term "Hakka" itself translates as "guest families". Hakka is has kept many features of northern Middle Chinese that have been lost in the North. It also has a full complement of nasal endings, -m -n ŋ and occlusive endings -p -t -k, maintaining the four categories of tonal types, with splitting in the ping and ru tones, giving six tones.

  • Min 閩語/闽语: spoken in Fujian, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia. Min is the only group of Chinese dialects that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. Due to its great internal disparity, Min can be divided into five groups of dialects: south Min (which includes) Hokkien, Teochew (Chaozhou), and Taiwanese), east Min, Putian-Xianyou, north Min and central Min.

  • Cantonese 粵語/粤语: spoken in Guangdong province, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, all over Southeast Asia and by Overseas Chinese. Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong; the language of Taishan is also classified as Cantonese. Cantonese has the most intricate tone pattern among all Chinese dialects - with varieties having up to nine or ten tones. It is also the only dialect to have kept the full complement of ancient Chinese word-final consonants (p, t, k, m, n, ng)

  • Xiang 湘語/湘语: spoken in Hunan province. Xiang is usually divided into the "old" and "new" types, with the new type being significantly closer to Mandarin.

  • Gan 贛語/赣语: spoken in Jiangxi province.

(The following three dialect groups are not always classified separately.)

  • Hui 徽語/徽语: spoken in the southern parts of Anhui province - usually classified as a sub-branch of Gan.

  • Jin 晉語/晋语: spoken in Shanxi province, as well as parts of Shaanxi, Hebei, Henan, and Inner Mongolia. It is often classified together with Mandarin.

  • Pinghua 平話/平话: spoken in parts of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is sometimes classified together with Cantonese.

Sociolinguistics of spoken variations of Chinese

Well-educated Chinese in southern China are generally fluent in Mandarin, and most people have at least a good passive knowledge of it, in addition to being native speakers of the local dialect. The choice of dialect varies based on the social situation. Mandarin is usually considered more formal and is required when speaking to a person who does not understand the local dialect. The local dialect is generally considered more intimate and is used among close family members and friends and in everyday conversation within the local area. Chinese speakers will frequently code switch between Mandarin and the local dialect. Parents will generally speak to their children in dialect, and the relationship between dialect and Mandarin appears to be mostly stable.

Knowing the local dialect is of considerable social benefit and most Chinese who permanently move to a new area will attempt to pick up the local dialect. Learning a new dialect is usually done informally through a process of immersion and recognizing sound shifts. Typically, a speaker of one dialect of Chinese will need about a year of immersion to understand the local dialect and about three to five years to become fluent in speaking it. Because of the variety of dialects spoken, there are usually few formal methods for learning a local dialect.

Within the People's Republic of China there has been a consistent drive towards promoting the standard language; for instance, the education system is entirely Mandarin-medium from the second year onwards. However, the use of local dialect has generally been tolerated - with certain exceptions; for example, Cantonese dialect writing (see Cantonese (linguistics)) has been supressed at times.

On the other hand, in the Republic of China, the government had a policy until the mid-1980s of promoting Mandarin as high status and the local languages -- Taiwanese and Hakka -- as low status, a situation which caused a great deal of resentment and has produced somewhat of a backlash in the 1990s as part of the Taiwanese localization movement.

Manifestations of language differentiation

Although, the term dialect may imply that the forms of Chinese only vary in small ways as one moves from area to area of the country, in fact the differences are in some cases quite stark. For instance, in Taiwanese, to express the idea that one is feeling a little ill, one might say

Go kā-kī lâng ū tān-po̍h--á bô sóng-khoài.

which, when translated cognate-by-cognate into Mandarin would be something like:

Wǒ zjǐ rn yǒu dānb a b shuǎngkuài.

an awkward sentence, if not simply non-productive. A little more colloquially it would be:

Wǒ zjǐ yǒu yīdiǎn b shūf.

A little better would be:

Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎn b shūf.

which removes the reflexive pronoun (zjǐ), not usually needed in Mandarin. Some people, particularly in the north of China, would really say:

Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎr b shūf.

Related topics


  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686
  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 
Modified by Geona