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Varieties of Chinese

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Title: Varieties of Chinese  
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Varieties of Chinese

mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore and other areas with historic immigration from China.
Linguistic classification: Sino-Tibetan
ISO 639-2 / 5: zhx
Glottolog: sini1245
Primary branches of Chinese

Chinese (hànyǔ 汉语/漢語 (literally "Han language(s)") or zhōngwén 中文/中文) 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, many linguists typically refer to these varieties as separate languages. Because they share a common written form,[1] 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 话, 語, and fāngyán 方言. 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.

In Chinese, there is 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".


  • Classification 1
    • Dialect groups 1.1
    • Relationships between groups 1.2
    • Quantitative similarity 1.3
  • Phonology 2
    • Initials 2.1
    • Finals 2.2
    • Tones 2.3
  • Vocabulary 3
  • Examples of variations 4
  • Sociolinguistics 5
    • Comparison with Europe 5.1
    • Standard Chinese 5.2
    • Bilingualism with the standard variety 5.3
    • Political issues 5.4
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Chinese has a diversity that has been likened to that within the Romance languages, but may be even more varied.[2] Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese.[3] These varieties form a dialect continuum, in which differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, although there are also some sharp boundaries.[4] However, the rate of change in mutual 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 Min varieties predominate, the speech of neighbouring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible.[5]

Chinese varieties are customarily named after the area in which they are spoken. Varieties that are relatively homogeneous within a province, such as Shaanxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, etc. tend to be referred to by the name of the province (although subvarieties exist and can be referred to locally by the name of a city). In more diverse provinces, such as Fujian or Zhejiang, where there is vast variance in spoken language, varieties are generally named by city, such as Hangzhou dialect or Quzhou dialect, or even by county.

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".[6] However, linguists have pointed out that under the usual criterion of mutual intelligibility the major varieties would be considered separate languages.[7] Some authors have proposed the alternate translations "regionalect" or "topolect" for fāngyán, but these are not widely used.[8]

Dialect groups

Proportions of first-language speakers (all countries)[9]

  Mandarin (70.9%)
  Jin (3.8%)
  Wu (6.5%)
  Huizhou (0.4%)
  Gan (1.7%)
  Xiang (3.0%)
  Min (6.0%)
  Hakka (2.5%)
  Yue (5.0%)
  Pinghua (0.2%)

Classifications of Chinese varieties in the late 19th century and early 20th century were based on impressionistic criteria. They often followed river systems, which were historically the main routes of migration and communication in southern China.[10] The first scientific classifications, based primarily on the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials, were produced by Wang Li in 1936 and Li Fang-Kuei in 1937, with minor modifications by other linguists since.[11] The conventionally accepted set of seven dialect groups first appeared in the second edition of Yuan Jiahua's dialectology handbook (1961):[12][13]

  • Mandarin (also Northern): This is the group 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 variety spoken in Kyrgyzstan and 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 Shanghainese, sometimes taken as the representative of all Wu varieties. 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 varieties are distinguished by their retention of "voiced" (actually slack voiced) initials such as /b̥/, /d̥/, /ɡ̊/, /z̥/, /v̥/, /d̥ʑ̊/, /ʑ̊/ etc.
  • Gan: spoken in Jiangxi. In the past, it was viewed as closely related to Hakka because of the way Middle Chinese voiced initials became voiceless aspirated initials as in Hakka, and were hence called by the umbrella term "Hakka–Gan dialects".[14]
  • Xiang (Hunanese): spoken in Hunan. Xiang is usually divided into "old" and "new" subgroups, with the "new" varieties being significantly influenced by Mandarin.[15]
  • The Min languages: spoken in Fujian, Taiwan, parts of Southeast Asia (particularly Indonesia,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. Min is the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. It is also the most diverse, with many varieties used in neighbouring counties, and in the mountains of western Fujian even in adjacent villages, being mutually unintelligible.[5] In the Language Atlas of China, Min is divided into seven subgroups: Min Nan (including Hokkien and Teochew), Min Dong (including the Fuzhou dialect), Min Bei, Min Zhong, Pu-Xian, Haishanese, and Shao-Jiang.[16] The most widely spoken Min language is Hokkien, which includes the Amoy dialect of southern Fujian, Taiwanese in Taiwan, and is also spoken by many Chinese in Southeast Asia.
  • Hakka: spoken by the Hakka people, a subgroup 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.
  • Yue: spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, parts of Southeast Asia, and by overseas Chinese people with an ancestry tracing back to the Guangdong region. The term "Cantonese" is sometimes used for all Yue varieties, including Taishanese, or specifically the Canton dialect of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Not all Yue varieties 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 Language Atlas of China (1987) follows a classification of Li Rong, distinguishing three further groups:[17][18]

Some varieties remain unclassified. These include:[19]

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 is 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.[20] 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.[4]

Scholars account for the transitional nature of the central varieties 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.[21]

Quantitative similarity

A 2007 study compared fifteen major urban dialects on the objective criteria of lexical similarity and regularity of sound correspondences, and subjective criteria of intelligibility and 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.[22]

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.


Traditional Chinese syllable structure

The usual unit of analysis is the syllable, traditionally analysed as consisting of an initial consonant, a final and a tone.[23] In general, southern varieties have fewer initial consonants than northern and central varieties, but more often preserve the Middle Chinese final consonants.[24] Some varieties, such as Cantonese and the Shanghai dialect, include syllabic nasals as independent syllables.[25]


In the 42 varieties surveyed in the Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects, the number of initials (including a zero initial) ranges from 15 in some southern dialects to a high of 35 in the dialect of Chongming Island, Shanghai.[26]

Initials of selected varieties[27][28]
Fuzhou (Min) Suzhou (Wu) Beijing (Mandarin)
Stops and
voiceless unaspirated p t ts k p t ts k p t ts k
voiceless aspirated tsʰ tsʰ tɕʰ tsʰ tɕʰ tʂʰ
voiced b d g
Fricatives voiceless s x f s ɕ h f s ɕ ʂ x
voiced v z ʑ ɦ
Nasals m n ŋ m n ȵ ŋ m n
Sonorants l l l ɹ/ʐ

The initial system of the Fuzhou dialect of northern Fujian is a minimal example.[29] With the exception of /ŋ/, which is often merged with the zero initial, the initials of this dialect are present in all Chinese varieties, although several varieties do not distinguish /n/ from /l/. However, most varieties have additional initials, due to a combination of innovations and retention of distinctions from Middle Chinese. Most non-Min varieties have a labio-dental fricative /f/, which developed from Middle Chinese bilabial stops in certain environments.[30] The voiced voiced initials of Middle Chinese are retained in Wu dialects such as Suzhou and Shanghai, as well as Old Xiang dialects, but have merged with voiceless initials elsewhere.[31] The Middle Chinese retroflex initials are retained in many Mandarin dialects, including Beijing but not southwestern and southeastern Mandarin varieties.[32] In many northern and central varieties there is palatalization of dental affricates or velars (or both).[33]


Chinese finals may be analysed as an optional medial glide, a main vowel and an optional coda.[34]

Conservative vowel systems, such as those of Gan and Hakka dialects, have high vowels /i/, /u/ and /y/, which also function as medials, mid vowels /e/ and /o/, and a low /a/-like vowel.[35] In other dialects, including Mandarin dialects, /o/ has merged with /a/, leaving a single mid vowel with a wide range of allophones.[36] Many dialects, particularly in northern and central China, have apical or retroflex vowels, which are syllabic fricatives derived from high vowels following sibilant initials.[37] In many Wu dialects, vowels and final glides have monophthongized, producing a rich inventory of vowels in open syllables.[38] Reduction of medials is also common in Yue dialects.[39]

The Middle Chinese codas, consisting of glides /j/ and /w/, nasals /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/, and stops /p/, /t/ and /k/, are best preserved in southern dialects, particularly Yue dialects.[40] In Jin, Lower Yantze Mandarin and Wu dialects, the stops have merged as a final glottal stop, while in most northern varieties they have disappeared.[41] In Mandarin dialects final /m/ has merged with /n/, while some central dialects have a single nasal coda, in some cases realized as a nasal vowel.[42]


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.[43] For example, in the standard language the four phonemic tones can be demonstrated with (妈 "mother"), (麻 "hemp"), (马 "horse") and (骂 "to scold"). 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.[44] 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.[45] 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 tone category, "entering" (入 ), corresponding to syllables ending in nasals /m/, /n/, or /ŋ/.[46]

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 and Old Xiang groups, this distinction became phonemic, yielding eight tonal categories, with a six-way contrast in unchecked syllables and a two-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.[47]

Tonal categories and pitch contours in colloquial layers
Middle Chinese tone and initial
level rising departing entering
vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd.
Jin[48] Taiyuan 1 ˩ 3 ˥˧ 5 ˥ 7 ˨˩ 8 ˥˦
Mandarin[48] Xi'an 1 ˧˩ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˦˨ 5 ˥ 1 2
Beijing 1 ˥ 2 ˧˥ 3 ˨˩˦ 5 ˥˩ irr. 5 2
Chengdu 1 ˦ 2 ˧˩ 3 ˥˧ 5 ˩˧ 2
Yangzhou 1 ˨˩ 2 ˧˥ 3 ˧˩ 5 ˥ 7 ˦
Xiang[49] Changsha 1 ˦ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˥˨ 5 ˦˩˨ 6 ˧˩ 7 ˦ 8 ˨˧
Shuangfeng 1 ˦ 2 ˨˧ 3 ˨˩ 6 5 ˧˥ 6 ˧ 2, 5
Gan[50] Nanchang 1 ˦˨ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˨˩˧ 6 5 ˦˥ 6 ˨˩ 7 ˥ 8 ˨˩
Wu[51] Suzhou 1 ˦ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˦˩ 6 5 ˥˩˧ 6 ˧˩ 7 ˦ 8 ˨˧
Shanghai 1 ˦˨ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˧˥ 2 3 2 7 ˥ 8 ˨˧
Wenzhou 1 ˦ 2 ˧˩ 3 ˦˥ 4 ˨˦ 5 ˦˨ 6 ˩ 7 ˨˧ 8 ˩˨
Min[52] Xiamen 1 ˥ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˥˩ 6 5 ˩ 6 ˧ 7 ˧˨ 8 ˥
Hakka[53] Meixian 1 ˦ 2 ˩˨ 3 ˧˩ 1,3 1 5 ˦˨ 7 ˨˩ 8 ˦
Yue[54] Guangzhou 1 ˥˧ 2 ˨˩ 3 ˧˥ 4 ˨˦[2] 5 ˦ 6 ˧ 7a ˥ 7b ˦ 8 ˧

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 these are 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.


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.

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 tʰo kiɛ˨˩˧ kʰi˩, ki˩ kʰɵy˩˧
this tʂɤ˥˩ ɡəʔ ko ko˨˩˧ e˧˩, nʲia˧˩ niː˥, jiː˥ tɕɪt˥
that na˥˩ ɛ lai hɛ˨˦ ke˥˧ kɔː˧˥ he˥
human ɻən˧˥ ȵin zɛ̃ ɳin˦˥ nʲin˩ jɐn˨˩ laŋ˩˦
man nan˧˥ lan˦˥ nam˩ naːm˨˩, laːm˨˩ lam˩˦
woman ny˨˩˦ ȵy ɳy ɳi˨˩˧ ŋ˧˩, nʲi˧˩ nɵy˩˧, lɵy˩˧ li˥˩
father pa˥˩ pa˩ ɦia io ia˦˥ a˦ pa˦ paː˥ lau˧ pe˧
mother ma˥ ma˨ ȵiã m mo ɳiɔŋ˦˥ a˦ me˦ maː˥ lau˧ bo˥˩
child ɕjɑʊ˩ χai˧˥ ɕiɔ ȵiŋ 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˥˩ ȵioʔ zəu ɳiuk˥ nʲiuk˩ jʊk˨ ba˧˨ʔ
bone ku˨˩˦ kuəʔ kui kut˥ kut˩ kʷɐt˥ kut˥
eye jɛn˨˩˦ ŋɛ ŋã ŋan˨˩˧ muk˩, ŋan˧˩ ŋaːn˩˧ ba˦k
ear ɑɻ˨˩˦ ȵi ə ɛ˨˩˧ nʲi˧˩ jiː˩˧ hĩ˧
nose pi˧˥ biɪʔ pi pʰit˨ pʰi˥˧ pei˨ pʰĩ˧
to eat tʂʰɨ˥ tɕʰiɪʔ tɕʰio tɕʰiak˥ sɨt˥ sɪk˨ tɕia˦ʔ
to drink χɤ˥ haʔ tɕʰio tɕʰiak˥ sɨt˥, jim˧˩ jɐm˧˥ lɪm˥
to say ʂwɔ˥ kɑ̃ ua˨˩ ʋa˥˧, ham˥˧, kɔŋ˧˩ kɔːŋ˧˥ kɔŋ˥˩
to hear tʰiŋ˥ tʰin tʰiɛ̃ tʰiaŋ˦˨ tʰaŋ˥˧ tʰɛːŋ˥ tʰiã˥
to see kʰan˥˩ kʰø ɕiɔŋ˦˥, mɔŋ˨˩ kʰon˥˧ tʰɐi˧˥ kʰuã˧˩
to smell wən˧˥ mən uɛ̃ ɕiuŋ˦˥ ʋun˩, pʰi˥˧ mɐn˨˩ pʰĩ˧
to sit tswɔ˥˩ zu tsu tsʰo˨˩ tsʰɔ˦ tsʰɔː˩˧ tse˧
to be lying down tʰɑŋ˨˩˦ kʰuən tʰã kʰun˨˦ min˩, sɔi˥˧, tʰoŋ˧˩ fɐn˧ to˥˩
to stand tʂan˥ liɪʔ tsã tɕʰi˨˩ kʰi˦ kʰei˩˧ kʰia˧
sun tʰaɪ˥˩ jɑŋ˧˥ ȵiɪʔ dɤ ɳi tɛu ɳit˥ tʰɛu nʲit˩ tʰɛu˩ tʰaːi˧ jœːŋ˨˩ lɪt˧˩ tʰau˩˦
moon ɥœ˥˩l jɑŋ˩ ɦyɪʔ liã y liã ɳiot˨ kuɔŋ nʲiet˥ kuɔŋ˦ jyuːt˨ kʷɔːŋ˥ ɡe˧˩ʔ niu˩˦
mountain ʂan˥ san˦˨ san˦ saːn˥ suã˥
water ʂweɪ˨˩˦ ɕyei sui˨˩˧ sui˧˩ sɵy˧˥ tsui˥˩
red χʊŋ˧˥ ɦoŋ xɛ̃ fuŋ˦˥ fuŋ˩ hʊŋ˨˩ aŋ˩˦
green ly˥˩ loʔ ləu liuk˥ liuk˥, tsʰiaŋ˦ lʊk˨ lɪ˦k
yellow χwɑŋ˧˥ ɦuã õ 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 io ka tsi 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)

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

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


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

Some people, particularly in northern China, would say,


Comparison with Europe

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. In China, however, 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.

Standard Chinese

Until the mid-20th century, most of the 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.[55]

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.[56]

Standard Chinese 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.[2]

Bilingualism with the standard variety

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

A school in Guangdong with writing "Please speak Mandarin. Please write standard characters" on the wall.

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 onward. However, usage of local dialect is tolerated and socially preferred in many informal situations. 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 Taiwan, the government there also had a policy of promoting Mandarin over the local languages, such as Taiwanese Hokkien 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


  1. ^ For example, in the Republic of China, mǎlíngshǔ is used to denote "potato" while in the mainland, the People's Republic of China, tǔdòu is used to denote "potato".
  2. ^ Some words of literary origin with voiced initials shifted to category 6[54]


  1. ^ And because the languages apparently originated within the borders of what is today a single country, so that identifying them as a single language reflects the political situation.
  2. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 187.
  3. ^ Norman (2003), p. 72.
  4. ^ a b Norman (1988), pp. 189–190.
  5. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 188.
  6. ^ DeFrancis (1984), p. 57.
  7. ^ Mair (1991), p. 3.
  8. ^ Mair (1991), p. 7.
  9. ^ Lewis, Simons & Fennig (2013).
  10. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 36–41.
  11. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–53.
  12. ^ Norman (1988), p. 181.
  13. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 53–55.
  14. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 46, 49–50.
  15. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 207–209.
  16. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 70–71.
  17. ^ Wurm et al. (1987).
  18. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56.
  19. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 72–73.
  20. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 182–183.
  21. ^ Iwata (2010), pp. 102–108.
  22. ^ Tang & Van Heuven (2007).
  23. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 138–139.
  24. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 212–213.
  25. ^ Ramsey (1987), p. 101.
  26. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 186–188.
  27. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 69, 90, 127.
  28. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 139, 236.
  29. ^ Yan (2006), p. 127.
  30. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 211, 233.
  31. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 199–200, 207.
  32. ^ Norman (1988), p. 193.
  33. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 182, 193, 200, 205.
  34. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 28, 141.
  35. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 160–151.
  36. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 141, 198.
  37. ^ Norman (1988), p. 194.
  38. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 200–201.
  39. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 216–217.
  40. ^ Norman (1988), p. 217.
  41. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 193, 201–202.
  42. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 193, 201.
  43. ^ Norman (1988), p. 9.
  44. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 147, 202, 239.
  45. ^ Norman (1988), p. 54.
  46. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 34–36.
  47. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 52–54.
  48. ^ a b Norman (1988), pp. 195–196, 272.
  49. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 116–117.
  50. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 162–163.
  51. ^ Norman (1988), p. 202.
  52. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 238–239.
  53. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 225–226.
  54. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 218.
  55. ^ Norman (1988), p. 136.
  56. ^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 3–15.

Books and articles

  • Iwata, Ray (2010), "Chinese Geolinguistics: History, Current Trend and Theoretical Issues" (PDF), Dialectologia, Special issue I: 97–121. 
  • Kurpaska, Maria (2010), Chinese Language(s): A Look Through the Prism of "The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects",  
  • Lewis, M. Paul; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2013), Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Seventeenth ed.), Dallas, Texas: SIL International. 
  • Mair, Victor H. (1991), "What Is a Chinese "Dialect/Topolect"? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic terms", Sino-Platonic Papers 29: 1–31. 
  • —— (2003), "The Chinese dialects: phonology", in Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.), The Sino-Tibetan languages, Routledge, pp. 72–83,  
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987), The Languages of China, Princeton University Press,  
  • Tang, Chaoju; Van Heuven, Vincent J. (2007), "Predicting mutual intelligibility in chinese dialects from subjective and objective linguistic similarity", Interlingüística 17: 1019–1028. 
  • Wurm, Stephen Adolphe; Li, Rong; Baumann, Theo; Lee, Mei W. (1987), Language Atlas of China, Longman,  
  • Yan, Margaret Mian (2006), Introduction to Chinese Dialectology, LINCOM Europa,  

Further reading

  • Ao, Benjamin (1991), "Comparative reconstruction of proto-Chinese revisited", Language Sciences 13 (3/4): 335–379,  
  • Branner, David Prager (2000), Problems in Comparative Chinese Dialectology – the Classification of Miin and Hakka, Trends in Linguistics series, no. 123, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter,  
  • Chappell, Hilary (2001), "Synchrony and diachrony of Sinitic languages: A brief history of Chinese dialects", in Chappell, Hilary, Sinitic grammar: synchronic and diachronic perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–28,  
  • Chappell, Hilary; Li, Ming; Peyraube, Alain (2007), "Chinese linguistics and typology: the state of the art", Linguistic Typology 11 (1): 187–211,  
  • Groves, Julie M. (2008), "Language or Dialect – or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese", Sino-Platonic Papers 179: 1–103. 
  • Hannas, Wm. C. (1997), Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press,  
  • Norman, Jerry (2006), "Common Dialectal Chinese", in Branner, David Prager, The Chinese Rime Tables: Linguistic Philosophy and Historical-Comparative Phonology, Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 271, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 233–254,  
  • Simmons, Richard VanNess (1999), Chinese Dialect Classification: A comparative approach to Harngjou, Old Jintarn, and Common Northern Wu, John Benjamins,  
  • Yue, Anne O. (2003), "Chinese dialects: grammar", in Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.), The Sino-Tibetan languages, Routledge, pp. 84–125,  

External links

  • DOC (Dialects of China or Dictionary on Computer), a database of pronunciations of 2614 characters in 18 urban varieties, compiled by William Wang and Chin-Chuan Cheng based on Hànyǔ Fāngyīn Zìhuì 汉語方音字汇 [Dictionary of Chinese dialect prounciations], Beijing University, 1962.
    • DOC (Dialects of China) Files at the Wayback Machine (archived October 18, 2005) (archived from the originals at City University of Hong Kong)
    • The Dialects of China, HTML version compiled by Dylan W.H. Sung
    • Chinese Dialects: search interface to the DOC database
  • Technical Notes on the Chinese Language Dialects, by Dylan W.H. Sung (Phonology and Official Romanization Schemes)
  • 中国語方言リンク集 Link to Web pages on Chinese dialects
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