Chinese language

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Template:Language The Chinese language or Chinese languages (汉语/漢語, Pinyin: Hànyǔ, 华语/華語, Huáyǔ or 中文, Zhōngwén) is a language or language group forming part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Chinese is a tonal language. Chinese is considered by natives of China to be a single language, though regional variation between different variants/dialects is comparable to that of, for instance, the Romance language family; many variants of Chinese are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible. (See Is Chinese a language or family of languages?)

Chinese can refer to Spoken Chinese or Written Chinese. For Spoken Chinese, there are between six and twelve main regional groups (depending on classification scheme), including Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese and Hakka.

However, dialects of Chinese almost always use the same written form (with occasional dialect-specific characters, such as in Cantonese). Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, united Chinese writing in the 3rd century BC by setting standard written forms for which there had previously been many regional variations. Before the 20th century, the common written form was Literary Chinese (Classical Chinese), which no one spoke as a mother tongue. In the early 20th century, the baihuawen movement pushed the birth of the new written form, Vernacular Chinese, based on Mandarin. In the meantime, dialect-specific characters have developed primarily in Cantonese, but also occasionally in other dialects.

About one-fifth of the people in the world speak some forms of Chinese as their native language, making it the language with the most native speakers. The Chinese language, spoken in the form of Standard Mandarin, is the official language of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore (together with English, Malay, and Tamil), and one of six official languages of the United Nations (together with 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).

Among Chinese diaspora, Cantonese is the most common language one can hear in Chinatowns, thanks to early immigrants from Southern China. However, the rise of Northern and Taiwanese immigrants has led to the increase in the use of Mandarin and various Min dialects.

"Chinese (written) language" (pinyin: zhōngwén) written in Chinese characters

The terms and concepts used by Chinese to separate spoken language from written language are different from those used in the West, because the political and social development was different in China compared to Europe. Whereas Europe fragmented into smaller nation-states after the fall of the Roman Empire, whose identities were often defined by language, China was able to preserve cultural and political unity through the same period, and maintained a common written language throughout its entire history, despite the fact that its actual diversity in spoken language has always been comparable to that of Europe. As a result, Chinese makes a sharp distinction between "written language" (wén; 文) and "spoken language" (; 语/語). The concept of a distinct and unified combination of written and spoken forms of language is therefore much stronger in the West than in China.

Spoken Chinese

Main article: Chinese spoken language
File:Sinitic Languages0.gif
The varieties of spoken Chinese in China (CLICK double rectangle image to the righ for a larger map.)

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

  • Mandarin 北方 or 官话 (Beijing dialect, shown in the map as divided into East and West groups, but also includes the Jianghuai and Huguang areas depicted in the map)
  • Wu 吳 (Shanghainese and Old Suzhou dialect)
  • Cantonese 粵 (Guangzhou dialect)
  • Min Family 閩, further divided into 5 to 7 subdivisions, all mutually unintelligible.
  • Xiang 湘 (Changsha dialect)
  • Hakka 客家 (Moi-yen/Meixian dialect)
  • Gan 贛 (Nanchang dialect)

In parentheses above are the culturally dominant or representative dialects of each language or dialect group today.

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

  • Jin 晉 from Mandarin
  • Hui 徽 from Wu
  • Pinghua 平话 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. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.

There is also Standard Mandarin, the official standard language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Singapore. Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, which is the dialect of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing, and 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.

There is much controversy around the terminology used to describe the subdivisions of Chinese: some people call Chinese a language and its subdivisions dialects, while others call Chinese a language family and its subdivisions languages. Although Dungan is very closely related to Mandarin, not many people consider it "Chinese", because it is written in Cyrillic and spoken by people outside China who are not considered Chinese in any sense.

It is common for speakers of Chinese to be able to speak several varieties of the language. Typically, in southern China, a person will be able to speak Standard Mandarin, the local dialect, and occasionally a more general regional dialect, such as Cantonese. Such polyglots frequently code switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect, 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.

In the sense that the written language is based on Standard Mandarin and the dialects are mostly spoken but not written, the situation in China is a complex and interesting case of diglossia.

Is Chinese a language or a family of languages?

Spoken Chinese comprises many regional and often mutually unintelligible variants. Linguistically, the situation is comparable to that of Romance languages, which are mutually unintelligible but all derive from Latin and so share many common underlying features.

However, the socio-political context of Chinese language is quite different from that of European languages. In Europe, political fragmentation gave rise to independent states roughly the size of Chinese provinces. This generated a political desire to create separate cultural and literary standards to differentiate nation-states and standardize the language within a nation-state. In China, a single cultural and literary standard (Classical Chinese and later, Vernacular Chinese) continued to exist while the spoken language continued to diverge between different cities and counties, much as European languages diverged, due to the scale of the country, and the obstruction of communication by geography.

For example, 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).

The diverse Chinese spoken forms and common written form comprise a very different linguistic situation from that in Europe. In Europe, linguistic differences sharpened as the language of each nation-state was standardized. For example, a farmer on the French side of the border would start to model his speech and writing after Paris while his neighbour on the Spanish side after Madrid. The use of local speech became erroneous. In China, standardization of spoken dialects was weaker, and mostly due to cultural influence. Although, as with Europe, dialects of regional political or cultural capitals were still prestigious and widely used as the region's lingua franca, their linguistic influence depended more on the capital's status and wealth than entirely on the political boundaries of the region.

China's linguistic situation is more similar to India's. Although India was historically not as unified as China, parts of it speaking multiple languages have long been united in various states, and many of its languages were not standardized until the last few decades through political centralization. Like Mandarin, Sanskrit long played a role as common written language. Unlike Mandarin, its descendants are recognized as separate languages, 18 of which are official national languages.

Many Chinese languages do not have sharp boundaries. As with many areas that were linguistically diverse for a long time, it is not always clear whether the speech of a particular area of China should be considered a language in its own right or a dialect of another. The Ethnologue lists a total of 14, but the number varies between seven and seventeen depending on how strict the intelligibility criterion is.

For Chinese people, regional linguistic differences are less important than cultural or nationalistic similarity. They generally consider Chinese a single language, partly because of the common written language. They refer to dialects as the speech of a location, for example Beijing dialect is (北京話/北京话), the speech of Beijing, and Shanghainese is (上海話/上海话), the speech of Shanghai. Often laypeople are not aware that various "dialects" are categorized into "languages" based on mutual intelligibility, though in areas where language varies greatly (such as the southeast) people do group dialects into categories like Wu or Hakka. There is a tendency to regard dialects as equal variations of a single Chinese language, even though many parts of north China are quite homogeneous in language, unlike parts of south China. As with the concept of Chinese language itself, the divisions among dialects are mostly geographical rather than based on linguistic distance. For example, Sichuan dialect is considered distinct from Beijing dialect in the same way that Cantonese is, although linguists consider Sichuan dialect and Beijing dialect Mandarin dialects, unlike Cantonese.

The idea of single language has major political overtones, 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. This is why some Chinese are uncomfortable with it, while supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be strong promoters of Min- and Hakka-language education. 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 backward, oppressive, artificial, and out of touch with reality.

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 and are considered "ethnic Chinese" are called Han Chinese.) This is seen as an ethnic and cultural concept, not a political one. Similarly, on Taiwan, some supporters of Chinese reunification promote the local language, while some supporters of Taiwan independence have little interest in the topic. And 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

Main article: Chinese written language

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 Han Dynasty, while written Chinese changed much less.

Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was done in wényán (文言), translated as Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese, 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 báihuà (白話/白话), or Vernacular Chinese, which, while not completely identical to the grammar and vocabulary of Mandarin, was based mostly on it. 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, they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and still share an identical character ("一"). Nevertheless, the orthographies of Chinese dialects are not completely identical. The vocabularies of different dialects have diverged. In addition, while literary vocabulary is mostly shared among all dialects, colloquial vocabularies are often different. Colloquially 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 widely used written colloquial standard 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

Main article: Chinese character

The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin: hànzì), which are logograms: each each symbol represents a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language).

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 Xushen in the Han Dynasty classified characters into 6 categories, only 4% as pictographs, and 82% as phonetic complexes consisting of a radical element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that arguably once indicated the pronunciation.

All modern characters derive from Kaishu. There are currently two standards for Chinese characters. One is the traditional system, essentially a streamlined styling of Kaishu, 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 radicals 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 written styles are used in Chinese calligraphy, including zhuanshu (篆書, "seal-script"), caoshu (草書, "grass script"), lishu (隸書, "official script") and kaishu (楷書, "standard 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 Cangjie, a bureaucrat of the legendary emperor Huangdi of China about 2600 BC, invented Chinese characters. But archaeological evidence, mainly the oracles found in the 19-20th centuries, only dates Chinese characters to the Shang dynasty in 1700 BC.

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

Contemporaneous with the end of Shang and Western Zhou periods are the bronze inscriptions. Over the last century, a great many ancient bronze artifacts have been unearthed in China which contain dedicational texts of the Zhou aristocrats where the characters show similarities and innovations compared to the oracle inscriptions.

It is said that during the reign of Zhou King Xuan (宣王 827-782 BCE), the form of written characters was revised, and these became refered to as the "greater seal script" or dazhuan.


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, similar 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 (Template:Zh-tsps), sometimes known as 'Archaic Chinese', was the language common during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the Shijing, the history of the Shujing, and portions of the Yijing (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 had no tones yet. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynasty philologists.

Middle Chinese (Template:Zh-tsps) was the language used during the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (7th through 10th centuries AD). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the 切韻 'Qieyun' rhyme table (601 AD), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by the 廣韻 'Guangyun' rhyme table. Linguists are confident of having a 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. The language tree shown below indicates how the present main divisions of the Chinese language developed out of an early common language. Comparison with the map above gives some idea of the complexities left out of the tree. For instance, the Min language that is centered in Fujian Province contains five subdivisions, and the Mandarin dialects (Beifanghua) also contains nine, such as Yunnan hua and Sichuan hua.

Chinese language tree

Most northern Chinese people, in Sichuan and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), 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 Sichuan 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 did not speak any Mandarin. However, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various Chinese dialects, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up orthoepy academies (Template:Zh-tsps) to make pronunciation conform to the Qing capital Beijing's standard, but had little success. During the Qing's last 50 years in the late 19th century, the Beijing Mandarin finally replaced Nanjing 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 regionalects for every aspect of life. The new Beijing Mandarin court standard was thus fairly limited.

This situation changed with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC) of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by a majority of people in mainland China and on Taiwan. In Hong Kong, the language of education and formal speech remains 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 Han Tu. It was the only available form to write the Vietnamese until the 14th century, used almost exclusively by Chinese-educated Vietnamese elites. From the 14th till late 19th century, Vietnamese was written with Chu Nom, a modified Chinese script incorporating sounds and syllables appropriate for native Vietnamese speakers. This is now completely replaced by a modified Latin script that incorporates a system of diacritical marks to indicate the tones, as well as modified consonants. Vietnamese language has mixed with multiple elements similar to Cantonese in regards to the specific intonations and rather sharp consonant endings. However, there is a slight influence from Mandarin due to the sharper vowels and, along with Mandarin, have the "kh" sound that 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.

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.


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For more specific information on phonology of Chinese see the respective main articles of each spoken variety.

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 five tones of Standard Mandarin applied to the syllable "ma". The tones correspond to these five characters: Template:Ruby notice



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 be written down by Western travelers of missionaries of earlier periods.

At present, the most common romanization system for Standard Mandarin is Hanyu Pinyin, 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 developmed. Wade-Giles is often found in academic use in the U.S., and is widely used in Taiwan.

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

Mandarin Romanization Comparison
Characters Wade-Giles Hanyu Pinyin Notes
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 (Taiwan)
毛澤東 Mao2 Tse2-tung1 Máo Zédōng Communist Chinese leader
蔣介石 Chiang3 Chieh4-shih2 Jiǎng Jièshí 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 is further back. 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 the learner knows immediately that he will have to learn a new pronunciation. Often with languages like Spanish, the pronunciation is similar enough to English that a learner will often revert to his habitual pronunciation when he sees the letters in Spanish words.

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


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 , but this view is not entirely accurate. Many words are multisyllabic, and are composed of more than one . This composition is what is known as a (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 . This can be illustrated in the following Mandarin Chinese sentence (romanized using pinyin):

Jīguāng, zhè liǎngge zì shì shéme 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 can an exact meaning of a 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 airplane ("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 Jiāyíng, Jiālíngjiāng de jiā, Yíngguó de yíng "My name is Jiāyíng, 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 獅子 "lion". Other words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 "Buddha" and 菩薩 "bodhisattva".

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 爾 ěr, which are Classical Chinese words for "this" 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 幽默 yōumò "humour", 邏輯 luójí "logic", 時髦 shímáo "smart, fashionable", 麥克風 màikèfēng "microphone", and 歇斯底里 xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics".

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 德律風 (Standard Mandarin: délǜfēng) during the 1920s, but later 電話 (diànhuà "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent. Other examples include 電視 (diànshì "electric vision") for television, 電腦 (diànnǎo "electric brain") for computer; 手機 (shǒujī "hand machine") for cellphone, and 藍牙 (lányá "blue tooth") for Bluetooth. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as 漢堡包 (hànbǎo bāo, "Hamburg bun") for hamburger. Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes. This is often done for commercial purposes, for example 奔騰 (bēnténg "running leaping") for Pentium and 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 words were then loaned into Chinese. Examples include lìchǎng (立場, たちば, stance), zhéxué (哲學, てつがく, philosophy), chōuxiàng (抽象, ちゅうしょう, abstract), guóyǔ (國語, こくご, national language), zhǔyì (主義, しゅぎ, -ism) and làngmàn (浪漫、ロマンス、romance). Some of these terms were coined by the Japanese by giving new senses to existing Chinese terms or by referring to expressions used in classical Chinese literature. 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.

Chinese and English

Chinese and English are structurally very different languages. A major similarity, however, is that both are relative analytic languages, that is, having relatively few inflexions, such as noun declensions or verb conjugations. English, being Indo-European, exhibits a variety of inflexions, but on the linguistic spectrum falls much closer to analytic languages.

This difference begins at a high level, in that there is only one (common) Chinese written language, but several distinct Chinese spoken languages; however, it is ordinarily accepted that there is a single English language, spoken and written, despite the existence of several dialects.

In addition, spoken Chinese is a tonal language; differences in pitch (the term "tone" is often used in descriptions of spoken Chinese) indicate different words. English, like all Indo-European languages is not tonal in this manner. In English, pitch generally only implies emphasis, or the emotional state of the speaker, although a rising pitch can indicate a question.

Finally, written Chinese is primarily a logographic system, with individual symbols representing words or morphemes. Written English, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the scale, in that the individual symbols represent alphabetic letters, i.e. the various sounds which make up a word.

Chinese and English are both primarily SVO.

Useful phrases


The following phrases are given in Pinyin Romanization with the number representing the tone.
Ni3 hao3 — Hello.
Zai4 jian4 — Goodbye. (lit. "see you again.")
Ce4 suo3 zai4 na3 li3 — Where is the bathroom?
Duo1 shao3 qian2 — How much does it cost?
Huan1 ying2 guang1 lin2 — Welcome.
Huo3 che1 zhan4 zai4 na3 li3 — Where is the train station?
Wo3 yao4 qu4 ji1 chang3 — I want to go to the airport.

Note: When two third-tone words occur back to back in a sentence, the first word changes to second tone (tone sandhi). This habit probably arose because two third tones in a row is very awkward—try saying "wo3 hao3 duo3 shao3" five times fast.

See also


  • DeFrancis, John (1984). The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6.
  • Hannas, William C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1892-X.
  • Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29653-6.
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China, Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01468-X.

External links


Wikibooks has more about this subject:


Resources for students of Chinese

Resources on Chinese in general

Computer tools for Chinese

  • SCIM input method platform Free (GPL) tool for Chinese input via computer. SCIM supports almost all existing Chinese input methods, as well as other languages.

Miscellaneous links

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