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Chinese dialect

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Chinese dialect

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mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore and other areas with historic immigration from China.
Linguistic classification: Sino-Tibetan
ISO 639-2 / 5: zhx

Primary branches of Chinese

Chinese (hànyǔ / or zhōngguóhuà /) comprises many regional language varieties sometimes grouped together as the Chinese dialects, the primary ones being Mandarin, Wu, Yue, and Min. These are not mutually intelligible, and even many of the regional varieties (especially Min) are themselves composed of a number of non-mutually-intelligible subvarieties. As a result, the majority of linguists typically refer to these so-called "varieties" as separate languages. For ideological and political reasons, however, most Chinese speakers and Chinese linguists perceive them to be variations of a single Chinese language, and refer to them as dialects, translating the Chinese terms huà , , and fāngyán . The neologism topolect has been coined as a more literal translation of fangyan in order to avoid the connotations of the term "dialect" (which in its normal English usage suggests mutually intelligible varieties of a single language), and to make a clearer distinction between "major varieties" (separate languages, in Western terminology) and "minor varieties" (dialects of a single language). In this article, however, the generic term "variety" will be used.

Chinese people make a strong distinction between written language (文, Pinyin: wén) and spoken language (语/語 ). English does not necessarily have this distinction. As a result the terms Zhongwen (中文) and Hanyu (汉语/漢語) in Chinese are both translated in English as "Chinese". Within China, it is common perception that these varieties are distinct in their spoken forms only, and that the written language is common across the country, although this isn't true.


Chinese consists of several dialect continuums, with a diversity that has been likened to that within the Romance languages.Template:Sfnp Differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, with few radical breaks. However, the degree of change in intelligibility varies immensely depending on region. For example, the varieties of Mandarin spoken in all three northeastern Chinese provinces are mutually intelligible, but in the province of Fujian, where the use of Min is dominant, the same variety has to be divided into at least 5 different subdivisions since all of them are mutually unintelligible to one another.

The Chinese term fāngyán (方言, literally "place speech") is used for all Chinese varieties, though linguists writing in Chinese often use more specific terms to distinguish mutually unintelligible varieties from local variations. All these terms are customarily translated into English as "dialect".Template:Sfnp However linguists have pointed out that under the usual criterion of mutual intelligibility the major varieties would be considered as separate languages.Template:Sfnp Some authors have proposed the alternate translations "regionalect" or "topolect" for fāngyán, but these are not widely used.Template:Sfnp

Standard Chinese (a form of Mandarin) is the dominant variety, much more widely studied than the rest. Outside of China, the only two varieties commonly presented in formal courses are Standard Chinese and Cantonese.Template:Sfnp Inside China, second-language acquisition is generally achieved through immersion in the local language.

Dialect groups

The scientific classification of Chinese into different regional dialects is very recent. The first such efforts were made by Fang-kuei Li in 1937, which, with only minor modifications, form the basis for the current, conventionally accepted set of seven dialect groups:Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

Phylogenetic classification[verification needed]


 Min Bei 

Min Bei


Min Dong

Min Zhong

 Min Nan 







 Middle Chinese 



Standard Chinese

Beijing Mandarin

Northeastern Mandarin

Southwestern Mandarin

Jiaoliao Mandarin

Zhongyuan Mandarin

Jilu Mandarin

Jianghuai Mandarin

Lanyin Mandarin












New Xiang

Old Xiang













? Tuhua

  • Mandarin (also Northern): This is the group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China, and makes up the largest spoken language in China. Standard Chinese, called Putonghua or Guoyu in Chinese, which is often also translated as "Mandarin" or simply "Chinese", belongs to this group. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China, and one of the official languages of Singapore. Mandarin Chinese is also the official language of the Republic of China governing Taiwan, although there are minor differences in this standard from the form standardized in the PRC.[1] In addition, the Dungan language is a Mandarin dialect spoken in Kyrgyzstan, though written in the Cyrillic script as a result of Soviet rule.
  • Wu: spoken in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and the municipality of Shanghai. Wu includes Shanghai dialect, sometimes taken as the representative of all Wu dialects. Wu's subgroups are extremely diverse, especially in the mountainous regions of Zhejiang and eastern Anhui. The group possibly comprises hundreds of distinct spoken forms which are not mutually intelligible. Wu is notable among Chinese dialects in having kept "voiced" (actually slack voiced) initials, such as /b̥/, /d̥/, /ɡ̊/, /z̥/, /v̥/, /d̥ʑ̊/, /ʑ̊/ etc.
  • Yue: spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, parts of Southeast Asia and by Overseas Chinese with an ancestry tracing back to the Guangdong region. The term "Cantonese" is sometimes used for all the Yue dialects, including Taishanese, or specifically the Canton dialect of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Not all varieties of Yue are mutually intelligible. Yue retains the full complement of Middle Chinese word-final consonants (p, t, k, m, n, ng), and has a well-developed inventory of tones.
  • The Min languages: spoken in Fujian, Taiwan, parts of Southeast Asia particularly Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore, and among Overseas Chinese who trace their roots to Fujian and Taiwan, particularly prevalently in New York City in the United States. The largest Min language is Hokkien, which is spoken in Southern Fujian, Taiwan, and by many Chinese in Southeast Asia and includes the Taiwanese, and Amoy dialects amongst others. Min is the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. It is also the most diverse, divided into seven subgroups defined on the basis of relative mutual intelligibility: Min Nan (which includes Hokkien and Teochew), Min Dong (which includes the Fuzhou dialect), Min Bei, Min Zhong, Pu Xian, Qiong Wen, and Shao Jiang.
  • Xiang (Hunanese): spoken in Hunan. Xiang is usually divided into the "old" and "new" dialects, with the new dialects being significantly influenced by Mandarin.Template:Sfnp
  • Hakka: spoken by the Hakka people, a sub-group of the Han Chinese, in several provinces across southern China, in Taiwan, and in parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore. The term "Hakka" itself translates as "guest families", and many Hakka people consider themselves to be descended from Song-era and later refugees from North China, although their genetic origin is still disputed. Hakka 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. Some dialects of Hakka have seven tones, due to splitting in the qu tone. One of the distinguishing features of Hakka phonology is that Middle Chinese voiced initials are transformed into Hakka voiceless aspirated initials.
  • Gan: spoken in Jiangxi. In the past, it was viewed as closely related to Hakka dialects, because of the way Middle Chinese voiced initials have become voiceless aspirated initials, as in Hakka, and were hence called by the umbrella term "Hakka-Gan dialects".Template:Sfnp

The Language Atlas of China (1987) follows a classification of Li Rong, distinguishing three further groups:Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

Some varieties remain unclassified. These include:Template:Sfnp

Bradley (2007) adds an Old Southwestern branch of Chinese consisting of Pinghua, Waxianghua, and Caijia.

Ba-Shu, of Sichuan, was one of the most divergent varieties of Chinese. However, it was supplanted by Southwestern Mandarin during the Ming dynasty.

Relationships between groups

Jerry Norman classified the traditional seven dialect groups into three larger groups: Northern (Mandarin), Central (Wu, Gan and Xiang) and Southern (Hakka, Yue and Min). He argued that the Southern Group derived from a standard used in the Yangtze valley during the Han dynasty, which he called Old Southern Chinese, while the Central group was transitional between the Northern and Southern groups.Template:Sfnp Some dialect boundaries, such as between Wu and Min, are particularly abrupt, while others, such as between Mandarin and Xiang, or between Min and Hakka, are much less clearly defined.Template:Sfnp

Scholars account for the transitional nature of the central dialects in terms of wave models. Iwata argues that innovations have been transmitted from the north across the Huai River to the Lower Yangtze Mandarin area, and from there southeast to the Wu area, and westwards along the Yangtze River valley and thence to southwestern areas, leaving the hills of the southeast largely untouched.Template:Sfnp

Quantitative similarity

A 2007 study compared 15 major urban dialects on two objective and two subjective criteria:Template:Sfnp

  • Lexical similarity
  • Phonological regularity (regularity of sound correspondences, not direct phonological similarity)
  • Subjective intelligibility
  • Subjective similarity

Most of these criteria show a top-level split with Northern, New Xiang, and Gan in one group and Min (samples at Fuzhou, Xiamen, Chaozhou), Hakka, and Yue in the other group. The exception was phonological regularity, where the one Gan dialect (Nanchang) was in the Southern group and very close to Hakka, and the deepest phonological difference was between Wenzhounese (the southernmost Wu dialect) and all other dialects.

The study did not find clear splits within Northern and Central area:

  • Changsha (New Xiang) was always within the Mandarin group. No Old Xiang dialect was in the sample.
  • Taiyuan (Jin or Shanxi) and Hankou (Wuhan, Hubei) were subjectively perceived as relatively different from other Northern dialects, but were very close in subjective intelligibility. Objectively, Taiyuan had substantial phonological divergence but little lexical divergence.
  • Chengdu (Sichuan) was somewhat divergent lexically, but very little on the other measures.

The two Wu dialects occupied an intermediate position, closer to the Northern/New Xiang/Gan group in lexical similarity and strongly closer in subjective intelligibility, but closer to Min/Hakka/Yue in phonological regularity and subjective similarity, except that Wenzhou was farthest from all other dialects in phonological regularity. The two Wu dialects were close to each other in lexical similarity and subjective similarity, but not in subjective intelligibility, where Suzhou was actually closer to Northern/Xiang/Gan than to Wenzhou.

In the Southern subgroup, Hakka and Yue grouped closely together on the three lexical and subjective measures, but not in phonological regularity. The Min dialects showed high divergence, with Min Fuzhou (Eastern Min) grouped only weakly with the Southern Min dialects of Xiamen and Chaozhou on the two objective criteria, and was actually slightly closer to Hakka and Yue on the subjective criteria.

Local classifications

Generally, when referring to a local dialect in everyday speech, the speaker will refer to the dominant city in the region as a marker of the dialect as a whole. For example, a Wu speaker would not ask a fellow Wu speaker if they speak "Wu", but would rather ask whether or not they speak the dialect from Suzhou or Hangzhou, known as Suzhouhua and Hangzhouhua, respectively, in Chinese. Generally dialects are branded according to cities, geographical regions, or provinces. This method of informal classification is commonly used in spoken language. Provinces whose dialects are more homogeneous within its boundaries, such as Shaanxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, etc. tend to refer to their own dialects by the name of the province (although sub-dialects exist and can be referred to locally by the name of a city). In more diverse provinces such as Fujian, dialects are informally classified by mutual intelligibility into Min Nan, Min Dong, and Min Bei; in Zhejiang, where there is vast variance in spoken language, dialects are generally classified by cities or counties – as such, no singular "Zhejiang dialect" exists. An area with widespread homogeneity in spoken language is the three provinces of Northeastern China, whose spoken language is collectively known as Northeastern Mandarin.


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 non-vowel is 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.


Main article: Four tones (Chinese)

All varieties of Chinese, like neighbouring languages in the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, have phonemic tones. Each syllable may be pronounced with between three and six distinct pitch contours, denoting different morphemes. The number of tonal contrasts varies between dialects, with northern dialects tending to have fewer distinctions than southern ones.Template:Sfnp Many dialects have tone sandhi, in which the pitch contour of a syllable is affected by the tones of adjacent syllables in a compound word of phrase.Template:Sfnp This process is so extensive in Shanghainese that the tone system is reduced to a pitch accent system much like modern Japanese.

The tonal categories of modern varieties can be related by considering their derivation from the tones of Middle Chinese, though cognate tonal categories in different dialects are often realized as quite different pitch contours.Template:Sfnp Middle Chinese had a three-way tonal contrast on all syllables except those ending in stops. The traditional names of the tonal categories are "level" (平 píng), "rising" (上 shǎng) and "departing" (去 ). Syllables ending in a stop consonant /p/, /t/ or /k/ (checked syllables) had no tonal contrasts, but were traditionally treated as a fourth, "entering" (入 ), tone category, corresponding to syllables ending in nasals /m/, /n/ or /ŋ/.Template:Sfnp

The tones of Middle Chinese, as well as similar systems in neighbouring languages, experienced a tone split conditioned by syllabic onsets. Syllables with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch, and by the late Tang Dynasty, each of the tones had split into two registers conditioned by the initials, known as the "upper" or 阴/陰 yīn and the "lower" or 阳/陽 yáng. When voicing was lost in all dialects except the Wu group, this distinction became phonemic, yielding eight tonal categories, with a 6-way contrast in unchecked syllables and a 2-way contrast in checked syllables. Cantonese maintains these tones, and has developed an additional distinction in checked syllables. However, most varieties have reduced the number of tonal distinctions. For example, in Mandarin, the tones resulting from the split of Middle Chinese rising and departing tones merged, leaving four tones. Furthermore, final stop consonants disappeared in most Mandarin dialects, and such syllables were reassigned to one of the other four tones.Template:Sfnp

Tonal categories and pitch contours in colloquial layers
Middle Chinese tone level rising departing entering
Middle Chinese initial vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd.
JinTemplate:Sfnp Taiyuan 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
MandarinTemplate:Sfnp Xi'an 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 1 2
Beijing 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 5 Template:Chinese tone letter irr. 5 2
Yangzhou 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter
GanTemplate:Sfnp Nanchang 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
WuTemplate:Sfnp Suzhou 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
Shanghai 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 3 2 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
Wenzhou 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 4 Template:Chinese tone letter 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
MinTemplate:Sfnp Xiamen 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 1,6 6 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
HakkaTemplate:Sfnp Meixian 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 1,3 1 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 7 Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter
YueTemplate:Sfnp Guangzhou 1 Template:Chinese tone letter 2 Template:Chinese tone letter 3 Template:Chinese tone letter 4 Template:Chinese tone letter 5 Template:Chinese tone letter 6 Template:Chinese tone letter 7a Template:Chinese tone letter 7b Template:Chinese tone letter 8 Template:Chinese tone letter

In Wu, voiced obstruents were retained, and the tone split never became phonemic: the higher-pitched allophones occur with initial voiceless consonants, and the lower-pitched allophones occur with initial voiced consonants. (Traditional Chinese classification nonetheless counts these as different tones.) Most Wu dialects retain the three tones of Middle Chinese, and some have developed additional distinctions. However, in Shanghainese one of these merged with the other two, and these two merged in syllables with initial voiced consonants. In addition, in polysyllabic words, the tone of all other syllables is determined by the tone of the first: Shanghainese has word rather than syllable tone. The result is that there are only two phonemic tones in Shanghainese, and those only in words beginning with a voiceless stop and whose first syllables do not end in a stop. Other words have no phonemic tonal distinctions.

Comparison of vocabulary

Differences in the socio-political context of Chinese and European languages gave rise to the difference in terms of linguistic perception between the two cultures. In Western Europe, Latin remained the written standard for centuries after the spoken language diverged and began shifting into distinct Romance languages, and similarly Classical Chinese remained the written standard while dialects of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese diverged. Latin, however, was eventually revived as a spoken language as well (Medieval Latin), and political fragmentation gave rise to independent states roughly the size of Chinese provinces, which eventually generated a political desire to create separate cultural and literary standards to differentiate nation-states and standardize the language within a nation-state. But in China, the cultural standard of Classical Chinese (and later, Vernacular Chinese) remained a purely literary language, 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.

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. The use of local speech became stigmatized. In China, standardization of spoken languages was weaker, but they continued to be spoken, with written Classical Chinese read with local pronunciation. 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.

The following table was transliterated using the International Phonetic Alphabet. The forms account for lexical (writing) differences in addition to phonological (sound) differences. For example, the Mandarin word for the pronoun "s/he" is 他 [tʰa˥]; but in Cantonese (Yue) a different word, 佢 [kʰɵy˩˧] is used. [Wu, Xiang missing tone]

English Beijing
Hong Kong
I wɔ˨˩˦ ŋu ŋo ŋo˨˩˧ ŋai˩ ŋɔː˩˧ ɡua˥˩
you ni˨˩˦ noŋ n̩˨˩˧ n˩, nʲi˩ nei˩˧, lei˩˧ li˥˩
(s)he tʰa˥ ɦi tʰa kiɛ˨˩˧ kʰi˩, ki˩ kʰɵy˩˧
this tʂɤ˥˩ ɡəʔ ko ko˨˩˧ e˧˩, nʲia˧˩ niː˥, jiː˥ tɕɪt˥
that na˥˩ ɛ la hɛ˨˦ ke˥˧ kɔː˧˥ he˥
human ɻən˧˥ ɳin zən ɳin˦˥ nʲin˩ jɐn˨˩ laŋ˩˦
man nan˧˥ lan lan˦˥ nam˩ naːm˨˩, laːm˨˩ lam˩˦
woman ny˨˩˦ ɳy ɳy ɳi˨˩˧ ŋ˧˩, nʲi˧˩ nɵy˩˧, lɵy˩˧ li˥˩
father pa˥˩ pa˩ ɦia ia ia˦˥ a˦ pa˦ paː˥ lau˧ pe˧
mother ma˥ ma˨ ɳiã m ma ɳiɔŋ˦˥ a˦ me˦ maː˥ lau˧ bo˥˩
child ɕjɑʊ˩ χai˧˥ ɕiɔ ɳiŋ ɕi ŋa tsɨ ɕi˦˥ ŋa tsɨ se˥˧˥ nʲin˩ e˧ sɐi˧ lou˨ ɡɪn˥ a˥˩
fish y˧˥ ɦŋ y ɳiɛ˦˥ ŋ˩ e˧ jyː˨˩ hi˩˦
snake ʂɤ˧˥ zo sa˦˥ sa˩ sɛː˨˩ tsua˩˦
meat ɻoʊ˥˩ ɳioʔ zəu ɳiuk˥ nʲiuk˩ jʊk˨ ba˧˨ʔ
bone ku˨˩˦ kuəʔ ku kut˥ kut˩ kʷɐt˥ kut˥
eye jɛn˨˩˦ ŋɛ ŋan ŋan˨˩˧ muk˩, ŋan˧˩ ŋaːn˩˧ ba˦k
ear ɑɻ˨˩˦ ɳi ə ɛ˨˩˧ nʲi˧˩ jiː˩˧ hĩ˧
nose pi˧˥ biɪʔ pi pʰit˨ pʰi˥˧ pei˨ pʰĩ˧
to eat tʂʰɨ˥ tɕʰiɪʔ tɕʰia tɕʰiak˥ sɨt˥ sɪk˨ tɕia˦ʔ
to drink χɤ˥ haʔ tɕʰia tɕʰiak˥ sɨt˥, jim˧˩ jɐm˧˥ lɪm˥
to say ʂwɔ˥ kɑ̃ kan ua˨˩ ʋa˥˧, ham˥˧, kɔŋ˧˩ kɔːŋ˧˥ kɔŋ˥˩
to hear tʰiŋ˥ tin tʰin tʰiaŋ˦˨ tʰaŋ˥˧ tʰɛːŋ˥ tʰiã˥
to see kʰan˥˩ kʰø uan ɕiɔŋ˦˥, mɔŋ˨˩ kʰon˥˧ tʰɐi˧˥ kʰuã˧˩
to smell wən˧˥ mən uən ɕiuŋ˦˥ ʋun˩, pʰi˥˧ mɐn˨˩ pʰĩ˧
to sit tswɔ˥˩ zu tso tsʰo˨˩ tsʰɔ˦ tsʰɔː˩˧ tse˧
to be lying down tʰɑŋ˨˩˦ kʰuən tʰan kʰun˨˦ min˩, sɔi˥˧, tʰoŋ˧˩ fɐn˧ to˥˩
to stand tʂan˥ liɪʔ tsan tɕʰi˨˩ kʰi˦ kʰei˩˧ kʰia˧
sun tʰaɪ˥˩ jɑŋ˧˥ ɳiɪʔ dɤ tʰai ian ɳit˥ tʰɛu nʲit˩ tʰɛu˩ tʰaːi˧ jœːŋ˨˩ lɪt˧˩ tʰau˩˦
moon ɥœ˥˩l jɑŋ˩ ɦyɪʔ liã ye lian ɳiot˨ kuɔŋ nʲiet˥ kuɔŋ˦ jyːt˨ kʷɔːŋ˥ ɡe˧˩ʔ niu˩˦
mountain ʂan˥ san san˦˨ san˦ saːn˥ suã˥
water ʂweɪ˨˩˦ ɕyei sui˨˩˧ sui˧˩ sɵy˧˥ tsui˥˩
red χʊŋ˧˥ ɦoŋ xən fuŋ˦˥ fuŋ˩ hʊŋ˨˩ aŋ˩˦
green ly˥˩ loʔ ləu liuk˥ liuk˥, tsʰiaŋ˦ lʊk˨ lɪ˦k
yellow χwɑŋ˧˥ ɦuã uan uɔŋ˦˥ ʋoŋ˩ wɔːŋ˨˩ ŋ˩˦
white pai˧˥ bɐʔ pʰak˨ pʰak˥ paːk˨ pe˦ʔ
black χei˥ həʔ u˦˨ ʋu˦ haːk˥ ɔ˥
daytime pai˧˥ tʰiɛn˥ ɳiɪʔ li ɕiã pə tʰiẽ ɳit˥ li nʲit˩ sɨn˩ tʰeu˩ jɐt˨ tʰɐu˧˥ dʒɪ˧˩t ɕi˩˦
night jɛ˥˩ wan˨˩˦ ɦia tɔ uan san ia˨˩ li am˥˧ pu˦ tʰeu˩,
am˥˧ pu˦ sɨn˩
jɛː˨ maːn˩˧ am˥˩ ɕi˩˦

Examples of variations

The Min languages are often regarded as furthest removed linguistically from Standard Chinese, in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. Historically, the Min languages were the first to diverge from the rest of the Chinese languages; see the discussion of historical Chinese phonology for more details. (The Min languages are also the group with the greatest amount of internal diversity, and are often regarded as consisting of at least five separate languages, e.g. Northern Min, Southern Min, Central Min, Eastern Min and Puxian Min.)

To illustrate: In Taiwanese, a variety of Hokkien, a Min language, to express the idea that one is feeling a little ill ("I am not feeling well."), one might say (in Pe̍h-oē-jī):

Goá kā-kī lâng ū tām-po̍h-á bô sóng-khoài.


which, when translated cognate-by-cognate into Mandarin would be spoken as an awkward or semantically unrecognizable sentence:

Wǒ jiājǐ rén yǒu dànbó wú shuǎngkuài.

Could roughly be interpreted as:
My family's own person is weakly not feeling refreshed.

Whereas when spoken colloquially in Mandarin, one would either say:

Wǒ zìjǐ yǒu yīdiǎn bù shūfu.


I myself feel a bit uncomfortable.


Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎn bù shūfu.


I feel a bit uncomfortable.

the latter omitting the reflexive pronoun (zìjǐ), not usually needed in Mandarin.

Some people, particularly in northern China, would say:

Wǒ yǒu diǎnr bù shūfu.


Literally: I am [a] bit[DIM.] uncomfortable.


Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in many parts of southern China spoke only their local language. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà (官話: literally means the officers', the official or the governmental language). Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.Template:Sfnp

In the early years of the Republic of China, Literary Chinese was replaced as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern dialects. In the 1930s a standard national language was adopted, with its pronunciation based on the Beijing dialect.Template:Sfnp

Bilingualism with the standard language

In southern China (not including Hong Kong and Macau), where the difference between Standard Chinese and local dialects are particularly pronounced, well-educated Chinese are generally fluent in Standard Chinese, 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. Standard Chinese is usually considered more formal and is required when speaking to a person who does not understand the local dialect. The local dialect (be it non-Standard Chinese or non-Mandarin altogether) 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 Standard Chinese 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. Local languages give a sense of identity to local cultures.

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. Generally the differences are more pronounced lexically than grammatically. 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.

Due to the variety in Chinese speech, Mandarin speakers from each area of China are very often prone to fuse or "translate" words from their local tongue into their Mandarin conversations. In addition, each area of China has its recognizable accents while speaking Mandarin. Generally, the nationalized standard form of Mandarin pronunciation is only heard on news and radio broadcasts. Even in the streets of Beijing, the flavour of Mandarin varies in pronunciation from the Mandarin heard on the media.

Political issues

Within mainland China, there has been a persistent drive towards promoting the standard language (大力推广普通话 dàlì tuīguǎng Pǔtōnghuà); for instance, the education system is entirely Mandarin-medium from the second year onwards. However, usage of local dialect is tolerated, and in many informal situations socially preferred. In Hong Kong, colloquial Cantonese characters are never used in formal documents, other than quoting witnesses' spoken statements during legal trials, and within the PRC a character set closer to Mandarin tends to be used. At the national level, differences in dialect generally do not correspond to political divisions or categories, and this has for the most part prevented dialect from becoming the basis of identity politics. Historically, many of the people who promoted Chinese nationalism were from southern China and did not natively speak the national standard language, and even leaders from northern China rarely spoke with the standard accent. For example, Mao Zedong often emphasized his Hunan origins in speaking, rendering much of what he said incomprehensible to many Chinese. One consequence of this is that China does not have a well-developed tradition of spoken political rhetoric, and most Chinese political works are intended primarily as written works rather than spoken works.

Another factor that limits the political implications of dialect is that it is very common within an extended family for different people to know and use different dialects. In addition, while speaking similar dialect provides very strong group identity at the level of a city or county, the high degree of linguistic diversity limits the amount of group solidarity at larger levels. Finally, the linguistic diversity of southern China makes it likely that in any large group of Chinese, Mandarin will be the only form of speech that everyone understands.

In Taiwan, the government there also had a policy of promoting Mandarin over the local languages, such as Taiwanese and Hakka. This policy was implemented rigidly when Mandarin was the only language of instruction in schools, while English was offered as the compulsory second language. Since late 1990s, other languages have also been offered as a second language.

See also

China portal



Books and articles

External links

  • Learn Cantonese (with Cantonese–English / English–Cantonese Dictionary)
  • Open Source Chinese–English Dictionary including a user-editable online interface, downloadable software and dictionary package, and online community of translators and students.
  • Classification)
  • Technical Notes on the Chinese Language Dialects, by Dylan W.H. Sung (Phonology & Official Romanization Schemes)
  • CEDICT Chinese English Dictionary
  • ZYMCI English Chinese/Chinese English Proper noun Dictionary
  • China Daily. Raymond Zhou. 19 November 2005
  • 中国語方言リンク集 Link to Web pages on Chinese dialects

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