Due to changes in the Chinese population, it is important to take a close interest in their language, its nuances and dialects but also in its writing in order to better understand it.
English remains the global language mainly used in the world of work and in everyday life but Chinese represents a language of increasing interest for those wish to work in China or in the Asian market.
1) Historical presentation of the Chinese language
The history of China goes back several millennia, so the changes and evolution of the population and the culture have played a part in the creation of several derivations of the spoken language, which give way to the nuances and dialects present all over the country.
The Chinese language called 中国语文Zhōnggúoyǔwén is an integral part of the Sino-Tibetan language. Indeed, the language spoken during the HAN dynasty dating back to 206 BC is much closer to the Tibetan language than it is to modern Chinese. However, there is no written documentation on the creation of Chinese that distinguishes it from other Sino-Tibetan languages, making it a controversial relationship.
Finally, as the country evolved and modernized, China decided to standardize its language and opted for the standardization of Chinese.
2) What are the languages used today and the official language?
Since China has decided to standardize its language, it is interesting to find out more about the official language spoken in China.
Mandarin 汉语hànyǔ in Chinese has been the official language in mainland China of more than 1.3 billion Chinese people since 1956. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Mandarin is also spoken in Taiwan 国语guóyǔ and Singapore. Several terms are used to designate official Chinese: Hanyu (Han-yu) (“language of the Han”), zhongwen (“Middle Kingdom script”), Putonghua (“common language”) and in Taiwan Guoyu (“national language”).
Mandarin consists mainly of the dialects existing in northern and northeastern China. This is why Mandarin is presented as the language of Beijing (located in northeast China).
Mandarin therefore remains a language also used in the business world, since only 25% of Chinese have a command of English, so despite the difficulty of Chinese characters, pinyin phonetics and tones, Mandarin continues its international conquest.
3) Dialects in China
There are at least seven major dialect families.
- Mandarin 官话 called Guānhuà or 北方话Běifānghuà is the best known dialect spoken by more than 840 million people.
- Wu吴语 also called wúyǔ or 吴方言Wúfāngyán is a dialect that the Chinese speak mainly within the province of Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. It is the second most spoken dialect in China with more than 90 million people who practice it.
- Cantonese 粤语语 or Chinese yuèyǔ is a dialect spoken in southern China within the following provinces: Guangdong, Guanxi, Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese is not similar to Mandarin as it has a different structure and pronunciation. Nevertheless, it is still used by more than 70 million people.
- Gan赣语 or gànyǔ is part of the Sino-Tibetan family and is spoken in Jiangxi province.
- Hakka 客家话 or kèjiāhuà is spoken in the south as well as in Guangdong province by more than 30 million people.
- Min 闽语 in Chinese mǐnyǔ is practiced in southeastern China in the Fujian province. More than 60% of the Min is the language spoken in Taiwan.
- Xiang 湘语 or Xiāngyǔ is spoken by only a very small part of the population, less than 4%, and is said to originate from the provinces of Hunan and Sichuan.
- Jin 晋语 also called Jìnyǔ is, like Gan, an integral part of the Sino-Tibetan family. Considered as a language, it is spoken by more than 45 million people.
- Hui徽语 or Huīyǔ or 徽州话Huīzhōuhu à is practiced in the south of Anhui province and is spoken only by a small part of the population, 3 million people.
- Le Pinghua平话 or Pínghuà but also 广西平话Guǎngxīpínghuà is as its name indicates practiced within the province of Guanxi and Hunan.
The basic unit of Chinese writing is the character called a sinogram. Each Chinese character corresponds to one syllable. A word is usually composed of one or two syllables.
Simplified and Traditional Chinese
Simplified writing was chosen by China in the 50s and is therefore relatively modern and is still used today. Simplified Chinese has fewer strokes than its predecessor Traditional Chinese.
Simplified Chinese is therefore simpler and faster to write.
Officially, this reform was made to reduce illiteracy but also to promote literacy among native and non-native speakers. It was at this time that two distinct versions of the characters were introduced into general use: the traditional characters and the simplified characters.
Traditional characters have been in use for longer. They are more complex and use more characters and strokes per character. Traditional script is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. It is also used for calligraphy and in the printing of some very old books.
L’unité de base de l’écriture chinoise est le caractère appelé sinogramme. Chaque caractère chinois correspond à une syllabe. Un mot est généralement composé d’une ou deux syllabes.
Can we learn to speak and write Chinese simply with the characters? No, it is not possible. Indeed before practicing writing the language, it is essential to know the pinyin used in order to learn the tones and pronunciation of the characters.
The solution comes from the “pinyin” system (拼pīn音yīn meaning “spelling sounds”) initiated in 1958 and adopted in 1979, first in the People’s Republic of China and then internationally.
This system makes it possible to “phonetically transcribe the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese”.
The Chinese do not write or read in Pinyin; they use it mainly to make Chinese characters appear on a keyboard (computer, smartphone…).
The so-called tonal languages use the differences in musical pitch in a lexically relevant way.
Chinese is a tonal language: each syllable is accentuated. There are 5 tones including a neutral tone. Thus, in Chinese the syllable [ma] can have the meaning of “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, “insult” or be a particle of syntax according to its intonation. If we look at the table below, we can see that standard Chinese has four tones, a fifth being “neutral”.
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