Exploring Chinese History
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Language Development


Chinese Language Map
General boundaries of language families in China.

Language Families in China

  1. Sino-Tibetan Language Family: e.g. Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, Mao, Yak
  2. Altaic Language Family: e.g. Mongolian, Turkic, Tungusic Manchu, Korean
  3. Austroasiatic: e.g. Mon-khmer, Vietnamese, Tai
  4. Indo-European (Iranian, Slavic)
  5. Others: e.g. Blang (in Yunnan Province)

Chinese Dialect Groups

(Percentage break-down based on 1955-58 survey conducted in China, using a corpus of 387 million speakers of Chinese, out of a total of 540 million):

  1. Mandarin 70.0%;
    • Northern;
    • Northwestern;
    • Southwestern;
    • River Dialects.
  2. Wu (e.g. Shanghai) 8.4%;
  3. Hsiang (spoken in Hunan Province) 5.0%;
  4. Kan (spoken in Chianghsi Province) 2.4%;
  5. Hakka 4.0%;
  6. Cantonese 5.0%;
  7. Min (Fukienese, including Taiwanese) 4.2%.

Mutual intelligibility among Mandarin groups, but not among Mandarin and the other dialects (hence, question of dialects versus languages).

Standard Chinese

It is called Mandarin in English

  1. language spoken by government officials.
  2. the speech form of the capital usually became the Standard Chinese at a particular period of time in the Chinese history.
  3. Beijing has been the capital of dynasties since the 13th century, therefore the speech form based on Pekinese becomes the standard Chinese nowadays.
  4. Kuo-yĆ¼ 'national speech' in Taiwan.
  5. Putonghua 'common language' in Mainland.

Sound system

  1. four tones (55, 35, 214, 51)
  2. monosyllabic words created many homophones
  3. phonetic alphabet
    • pinyin (PRC)
    • national phonetic alphabet (ROC)
    • others (Wade-Giles, Yale)


  1. non-inflectional (no conjugations or declensions to indicate tense, mood, number, gender, and the like);
  2. monosyllabic morpheme;
  3. no form change in part of speech, especially in Classical Chinese;
  4. use of word order and auxiliary words to indicate grammatical relations;
  5. topic-comment rather than subject-predicate;
  6. discourse-oriented.

Written form

  1. non-alphabetic;
  2. average literate person recognizes 3-4,000 characters;
  3. Chinese government tried to get rid of characters but failed;
  4. perfectly suited to the nature of the Chinese language
    • monosyllabic;
    • too many homophones;
    • dialects problem;
  5. basic structure of Chinese characters;
    • pictographic: to draw a picture of what was to be represented;
    • ideographic: to symbolize notions or things;
    • logographic: to combine a semantic element with a phonetic element


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