Unless otherwise specified, Chinese texts in this article are written in (Simplified Chinese/Traditional Chinese; Pinyin) format. In cases where Simplified and Traditional Chinese scripts are identical, the Chinese term is written once.
Varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family. The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken, by far, is Mandarin (about 960 million), followed by Wu (80 million), Yue (60 million) and Min (50 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, although some, like Xiang and the Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.
Most linguists classify all the varieties of Chinese language as part of the Sino-Tibetanlanguage family and believe that there was an original Proto-Sino-Tibetan language from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relation between Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages is an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct the proto-language. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is enough documentation to allow one to reconstruct the ancient Chinese sounds, there is no written documentation that records the division between Proto-Sino-Tibetan and ancient Chinese. In addition, many of the older languages that would allow us to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly understood and many of the techniques developed for analysis of the descent of the (fusional) Indo-European languages from Proto-Indo-European do not apply to Chinese, an analytic language, because of the paucity of inflectional morphemes in modern varieties.
Categorization of the development of Chinese is a subject of scholarly debate.
Old Chinese was the language common during the early and middle Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the Classic of Poetry and portions of the Book of Documents and I Ching. The rhymes of the Classic of Poetry and the phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynastyphilologists. The first complete reconstruction was devised by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren in the early 1900s; most present systems rely heavily on Karlgren's insights and methods. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration and voicing differentiated the consonants, but probably was still without tones.
Some early Indo-European loan-words in Chinese have been proposed, notably 蜜mì "honey", 獅shī "lion," and perhaps also 馬mǎ "horse", 豬zhū "pig", 犬quǎn "dog", and 鵝é "goose". Reconstructions of Old Chinese are not definitive, so this hypothesis is tentative. The source also notes that southern dialects of Chinese have more monosyllabic words than the Mandarin Chinese dialects.
Middle Chinese was the language used during Southern and Northern Dynasties and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (6th through 10th centuries CE). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the Qieyunrime book (601 CE), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by rhyme tables such as the Yunjing constructed by ancient Chinese philologists to summarize the Qieyun system. Linguists are more confident of having reconstructed how Middle Chinese sounded. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries and tables, foreign transliterations, and Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words. The pronunciation of the borrowed Chinese words in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean also provide valuable insights.
The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. Most Chinese people, in Sichuan and in a broad arc from the north-east (Manchuria) to the south-west (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 middle and southern China promoted linguistic diversity.
Until the mid-20th century, most southern Chinese only spoke their native local variety of Chinese. As Nanjing was the capital during the early Ming dynasty, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least until the later years of the Qing dynasty. Since the 17th century, the Qing dynasty had set up orthoepy academies (正音书院／正音書院; Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) to make pronunciation conform to the standard of the capital Beijing. For the general population, however, this had limited effect. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their various languages for every aspect of life. The Beijing Mandarin court standard was used solely by officials and civil servants and was thus fairly limited.
This situation did not change until the mid-20th century with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC, but not in Hong Kong) of a compulsory educational system committed to teaching Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken by virtually all young and middle-aged citizens of mainland China and on Taiwan. Cantonese, not Mandarin, was used in Hong Kong during the time of its British colonial period (owing to its large Cantonese native and migrant populace) and remains today its official language of education, formal speech, and daily life, but Mandarin has become increasingly influential since the 1997 handover.
The term sinophone, coined in 2005 in analogy to anglophone and francophone, refers to those who speak at least one Chinese language natively, or prefer it as a medium of communication. The term is derived from Sinae, the Latin word for ancient China.
The Chinese language has spread to neighbouring countries through a variety of means. Northern Vietnam was incorporated into the Han empire in 111 BCE, beginning a period of Chinese control that ran almost continuously for a millennium. The Four Commanderies were established in northern Korea in the first century BCE, but disintegrated in the following centuries.Chinese Buddhism spread over East Asia between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE, and with it the study of scriptures and literature in Literary Chinese. Later Korea, Japan and Vietnam developed strong central governments modelled on Chinese institutions, with Literary Chinese as the language of administration and scholarship, a position it would retain until the late 19th century in Korea and (to a lesser extent) Japan, and the early 20th century in Vietnam. Scholars from different lands could communicate, albeit only in writing, using Literary Chinese.
Although they used Chinese solely for written communication, each country had its own tradition of reading texts aloud, the so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations. Chinese words with these pronunciations were also borrowed extensively into the Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese languages, and today comprise over half their vocabularies. This massive influx led to changes in the phonological structure of the languages, contributing to the development of moraic structure in Japanese and the disruption of vowel harmony in Korean.
Borrowed Chinese morphemes have been used extensively in all these languages to coin compound words for new concepts, in a similar way to the use of Latin and Ancient Greek roots in European languages. Many new compounds, or new meanings for old phrases, were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to name Western concepts and artifacts. These coinages, written in shared Chinese characters, have then been borrowed freely between languages. They have even been accepted into Chinese, a language usually resistant to loanwords, because their foreign origin was hidden by their written form. Often different compounds for the same concept were in circulation for some time before a winner emerged, and sometimes the final choice differed between countries. The proportion of vocabulary of Chinese origin thus tends to be greater in technical, abstract or formal language. For example, Sino-Japanese words account for about 35% of the words in entertainment magazines, over half the words in newspapers, and 60% of the words in science magazines.
Vietnam, Korea and Japan each developed writing systems for their own languages, initially based on Chinese characters, but later replaced with the Hangul alphabet for Korean and supplemented with kana syllabaries for Japanese, while Vietnamese continued to be written with the complex Chữ nôm script. However these were limited to popular literature until the late 19th century. Today Japanese is written with a composite script using both Chinese characters (Kanji) and kana, but Korean is written exclusively with Hangul in North Korea, and supplementary Chinese characters (Hanja) are increasingly rarely used in the South. Vietnamese is written with a Latin-based alphabet.
Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese. These varieties form a dialect continuum, in which differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, though the rate of change varies immensely. Generally, mountainous South China displays more linguistic diversity than the North China Plain. In parts of South China, a major city's dialect may only be marginally intelligible to close neighbours. For instance, Wuzhou is about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like that of Guangzhou than is that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers. In parts of Fujian the speech of neighbouring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible.
Local varieties of Chinese are conventionally classified into seven dialect groups, largely on the basis of the different evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials:
In mainland China and Taiwan, diglossia has been a common feature: it is common for a Chinese to be able to speak two or even three varieties of the Sinitic languages (or "dialects") together with Standard Chinese. For example, in addition to putonghua, a resident of Shanghai might speak Shanghainese; and, if he or she grew up elsewhere, then he or she may also be likely to be fluent in the particular dialect of that local area. A native of Guangzhou may speak both Cantonese and putonghua, a resident of Taiwan, both Taiwanese and putonghua/guoyu. A person living in Taiwan may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered normal in daily or informal speech.
In common English usage, Chinese is considered a language and its varieties "dialects", a classification that agrees with Chinese speakers' self-perception. Most linguists prefer instead to call Chinese a family of languages, because of the lack of mutual intelligibility between its divisions. Measuring this mutual intelligibility is not precise, but Chinese is often compared to the Romance languages in this regard. Some linguists find the use of "Chinese languages" also problematic, because it can imply a set of disruptive "religious, economic, political, and other differences" between speakers that exist between for example between French Catholics and English Protestants in Canada, but not between speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin in China, owing to China's near-uninterrupted history of centralized government.
Chinese itself has a term for its unified writing system, Zhōngwén (中文), while the closest equivalent used to describe its spoken variants would be Hànyǔ (汉语/漢語, "spoken language[s] of the Han Chinese")—this term could be translated to either "language" or "languages" since Chinese lacks grammatical number. For centuries in China, owing to the widespread use of a written standard in Classical Chinese, there was no uniform speech-and-writing continuum, as indicated by the employment of two separate morphemes yǔ语/語 and wén文. The characters used in written Chinese are logographs that denote morphemes as a whole rather than their phonemes, although most logographs are compounds of similar-sounding characters and semantic disambiguation (the "radical"). Modern-day Chinese speakers of all kinds communicate using the modern standard written language, the written form of Standard Chinese.
In Chinese, the major spoken varieties of Chinese are called fāngyán (方言, literally "regional speech"), and mutually intelligible variants within these are called dìdiǎn fāngyán (地点方言/地點方言 "local speech"). Both terms are customarily translated into English as "dialect". Ethnic Chinese often consider these spoken variations as one single language for reasons of nationality and as they inherit one common cultural and linguistic heritage in Classical Chinese. Han native speakers of Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese, for instance, may consider their own linguistic varieties as separate spoken languages, but the Han Chinese as one—albeit internally very diverse—ethnicity. To Chinese nationalists, the idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that the Chinese identity is much more fragmented and disunified than it actually is and as such is often looked upon as culturally and politically provocative. Additionally, in Taiwan it is closely associated with Taiwanese independence, some of whose supporters promote the local Taiwanese Minnan-based spoken language.
The Chinese orthography centers on Chinese characters, hanzi, which are written within imaginary rectangular blocks, traditionally arranged in vertical columns, read from top to bottom down a column, and right to left across columns. Chinese characters are morphemes independent of phonetic change. Thus the character 一 ("one") is uttered yī/yāo in Standard Chinese, jat1 in Cantonese and chi̍t/it in Hokkien (form of Min). Vocabularies from different major Chinese variants have diverged, and colloquial non-standard written Chinese often makes use of unique "dialectal characters", such as 冇 and 係 for Cantonese and Hakka, which are considered archaic or unused in standard written Chinese.
Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging amongst Hong-Kongers and Cantonese-speakers elsewhere. Use of it is considered highly informal, and does not extend to many formal occasions.
Each Chinese character represents a monosyllabic Chinese word or morpheme. In 100 CE, the famed Han dynasty scholar Xu Shenclassified characters into six categories, namely pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Of these, only 4% were categorized as pictographs, including many of the simplest characters, such as rén 人 (human), rì 日 (sun), shān 山 (mountain; hill), shuǐ 水 (water). Between 80% and 90% were classified as phonetic compounds such as chōng 沖 (pour), combining a phonetic component zhōng 中 (middle) with a semantic radical 氵 (water). Almost all characters created since have been of this type. The 18th-century Kangxi Dictionary recognized 214 radicals.
Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first—and at present the only—foreign nation to officially adopt simplified characters, although it has also become the de facto standard for younger ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. The Internet provides the platform to practice reading the alternative system, be it traditional or simplified.
A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000–6,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.
Standard Chinese has fewer than 1,700 distinct syllables but 4,000 common written characters, so there are many homophones. For example, the following characters (not necessarily words) are all pronounced jī: 鸡／雞 chicken, 机／機 machine, 基 basic, 击／擊 to hit, 饥／饑 hunger, and 积／積 accumulate. In speech, the meaning of a syllable is determined by context (for example, in English, "some" as the opposite of "none" as opposed to "sum" in arithmetic) or by the word it is found in ("some" or "sum" vs. "summer"). Speakers may clarify which written character they mean by giving a word or phrase it is found in: 名字叫嘉英，嘉陵江的嘉，英國的英 Míngzi jiào Jiāyīng, Jiālíng Jiāng de jiā, Yīngguó de yīng – "My name is Jiāyīng, 'Jia' as in 'Jialing River' and 'ying' as in 'England'."
Southern Chinese varieties like Cantonese and Hakka preserved more of the rimes of Middle Chinese and also have more tones. Several of the examples of Mandarin jī above have distinct pronunciations in Cantonese (romanized using jyutping): gai1, gei1, gei1, gik1, gei1, and zik1 respectively. For this reason, southern varieties tend to need to employ fewer multi-syllabic words.
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), preceded by an onset (a single consonant, or consonant+glide; zero onset is also possible), and followed (optionally) by a coda consonant; a syllable also carries a tone. There are some instances where a vowel is not used as a nucleus. An example of this is in Cantonese, where the nasalsonorant 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 (assuming that a final glide is not analyzed as a coda), but syllables that do have codas are restricted to /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /p/, /ɻ /, /t/, /k/, or /ʔ/. Some varieties allow most of these codas, whereas others, such as Standard Chinese, are limited to only /n/, /ŋ/ and /ɻ /.
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, which is only about an eighth as many as English.
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 four tones of Standard Chinese (along with the neutral tone) applied to the syllable ma. The tones are exemplified by the following five Chinese words:
The four main tones of Standard Mandarin pronounced with the syllable 'ma':
The Chinese had no uniform phonetic transcription system until the mid-20th century, although enunciation patterns were recorded in early rime books and dictionaries. Early Indian translators, working in Sanskrit and Pali, were the first to attempt to describe the sounds and enunciation patterns of Chinese in a foreign language. After the 15th century, the efforts of Jesuits and Western court missionaries resulted in some rudimentary Latin transcription systems, based on the Nanjing Mandarin dialect.
"National language" (國語; Guóyǔ) written in Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, followed by various romanizations.
Romanization is the process of transcribing a language into the Latin script. There are many systems of romanization for the Chinese languages due to the lack of a native phonetic transcription until modern times. Chinese is first known to have been written in Latin characters by Western Christian missionaries in the 16th century.
Today the most common romanization standard for Standard Chinese is Hanyu Pinyin, often known simply as pinyin, introduced in 1956 by the People's Republic of China, and later adopted by Singapore and Taiwan. Pinyin is almost universally employed now for teaching standard spoken Chinese in schools and universities across America, Australia and Europe. Chinese parents also use Pinyin to teach their children the sounds and tones of new words. In school books that teach Chinese, the Pinyin romanization is often shown below a picture of the thing the word represents, with the Chinese character alongside.
The second-most common romanization system, the Wade–Giles, was invented by Thomas Wade in 1859 and modified by Herbert Giles in 1892. As this system approximates the phonology of Mandarin Chinese into English consonants and vowels, i.e. it is an Anglicization, it may be particularly helpful for beginner Chinese speakers of an English-speaking background. Wade–Giles was found in academic use in the United States, particularly before the 1980s, and until recently[when?] was widely used in Taiwan.
When used within European texts, the tone transcriptions in both pinyin and Wade–Giles are often left out for simplicity; Wade–Giles' extensive use of apostrophes is also usually omitted. Thus, most Western readers will be much more familiar with Beijing than they will be with Běijīng (pinyin), and with Taipei than T'ai²-pei³ (Wade–Giles). This simplification presents syllables as homophones which really are none, and therefore exaggerates the number of homophones almost by a factor of four.
Here are a few examples of Hanyu Pinyin and Wade–Giles, for comparison:
Other systems of romanization for Chinese include Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the French EFEO, the Yale (invented during WWII for U.S. troops), as well as separate systems for Cantonese, Minnan, Hakka, and other Chinese languages or dialects.
Other phonetic transcriptions
Chinese languages have been phonetically transcribed into many other writing systems over the centuries. The 'Phags-pa script, for example, has been very helpful in reconstructing the pronunciations of pre-modern forms of Chinese.
Zhuyin (also called bopomofo), a semi-syllabary is still widely used in Taiwan's elementary schools to aid standard pronunciation. Although bopomofo characters are reminiscent of katakana script, there is no source to substantiate the claim that Katakana was the basis for the zhuyin system. A comparison table of zhuyin to pinyin exists in the zhuyin article. Syllables based on pinyin and zhuyin can also be compared by looking at the following articles:
Chinese is often described as a "monosyllabic" language. However, this is only partially correct. It is largely accurate when describing Classical Chinese and Middle Chinese; in Classical Chinese, for example, perhaps 90% of words correspond to a single syllable and a single character. In the modern varieties, it is still usually the case that a morpheme (unit of meaning) is a single syllable; contrast English, with plenty of multi-syllable morphemes, both bound and free, such as "seven", "elephant", "para-" and "-able". Some of the conservative southern varieties of modern Chinese still have largely monosyllabic words, especially among the more basic vocabulary.
In modern Mandarin, however, most nouns, adjectives and verbs are largely disyllabic. A significant cause of this is phonological attrition. Sound change over time has steadily reduced the number of possible syllables. In modern Mandarin, there are now only about 1,200 possible syllables, including tonal distinctions, compared with about 5,000 in Vietnamese (still largely monosyllabic) and over 8,000 in English.
This phonological collapse has led to a corresponding increase in the number of homophones. As an example, the small Langenscheidt Pocket Chinese Dictionary lists six common words pronounced shí (tone 2): 十 "ten"; 实 "real, actual"; 识 "know (a person), recognize"; 石 "stone"; 时 "time"; 食 "food". These were all pronounced differently in Early Middle Chinese; in William H. Baxter's transcription they were dzyip, zyit, syik, dzyek, dzyi and zyik respectively. They are still pronounced differently in today's Cantonese; in Jyutping they are sap9, sat9, sik7, sek9, si4, sik9. In modern spoken Mandarin, however, tremendous ambiguity would result if all of these words could be used as-is; Yuen Ren Chao's modern poem Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den exploits this, consisting of 92 characters all pronounced shi. As such, most of these words have been replaced (in speech, if not in writing) with a longer, less-ambiguous compound. Only the first one, 十 "ten", normally appears as such when spoken; the rest are normally replaced with, respectively, 实际 shíjì (lit. "actual-connection"); 认识 rènshi (lit. "recognize-know"); 石头 shítou (lit. "stone-head"); 时间 shíjiān (lit. "time-interval"); 食物 shíwù (lit. "food-thing"). In each case, the homophone was disambiguated by adding another morpheme, typically either a synonym or a generic word of some sort (for example, "head", "thing"), whose purpose is simply to indicate which of the possible meanings of the other, homophonic syllable should be selected.
However, when one of the above words forms part of a compound, the disambiguating syllable is generally dropped and the resulting word is still disyllabic. For example, 石 shí alone, not 石头 shítou, appears in compounds meaning "stone-", for example, 石膏 shígāo "plaster" (lit. "stone cream"), 石灰 shíhuī "lime" (lit. "stone dust"), 石窟 shíkū "grotto" (lit. "stone cave"), 石英 shíyīng "quartz" (lit. "stone flower"), 石油 shíyóu "petroleum" (lit. "stone oil").
Most modern varieties of Chinese have the tendency to form new words through disyllabic, trisyllabic and tetra-character compounds. In some cases, monosyllabic words have become disyllabic without compounding, as in 窟窿 kūlong from 孔 kǒng; this is especially common in Jin.
Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction which are the morphemes, the smallest blocks of the language. While many of these single-syllable morphemes (字, zì) can stand alone as individual words, they more often than not form multi-syllabic compounds, known as cí (词／詞), which more closely resembles the traditional Western notion of a word. A Chinese cí (“word”) can consist of more than one character-morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.
yún 云/雲 – "cloud"
hànbǎobāo, hànbǎo 汉堡包／漢堡包, 汉堡／漢堡 – "hamburger"
wǒ 我 – "I, me"
rén 人 – "people"
dìqiú 地球 – "earth"
shǎndiàn 闪电/閃電 – "lightning"
mèng 梦/夢 – "dream"
All varieties of modern Chinese are analytic languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology—i.e., changes in form of a word—to indicate the word's function in a sentence. In other words, Chinese has very few grammatical inflections—it possesses no tenses, no voices, no numbers (singular, plural; though there are plural markers, for example for personal pronouns), and only a few articles (i.e., equivalents to "the, a, an" in English). There is, however, a gender difference in the written language (他 as "he" and 她 as "she"), but it should be noted that this is a relatively new introduction to the Chinese language in the twentieth century, and both characters are pronounced in exactly the same way.
They make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood. In Mandarin Chinese, this involves the use of particles like le 了 (perfective), hái 还／還 (still), yǐjīng 已经／已經 (already), and so on.
Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess differences.
The entire Chinese character corpus since antiquity comprises well over 20,000 characters, of which only roughly 10,000 are now commonly in use. However Chinese characters should not be confused with Chinese words; since most Chinese words are made up of two or more different characters, there are many times more Chinese words than there are characters.
Estimates of the total number of Chinese words and phrases vary greatly. The Hanyu Da Zidian, a compendium of Chinese characters, includes 54,678 head entries for characters, including bone oracle versions. The Zhonghua Zihai (1994) contains 85,568 head entries for character definitions, and is the largest reference work based purely on character and its literary variants. The CC-CEDICT project (2010) contains 97,404 contemporary entries including idioms, technology terms and names of political figures, businesses and products. The 2009 version of the Webster's Digital Chinese Dictionary (WDCD), based on CC-CEDICT, contains over 84,000 entries.
The most comprehensive pure linguistic Chinese-language dictionary, the 12-volumed Hanyu Da Cidian, records more than 23,000 head Chinese characters and gives over 370,000 definitions. The 1999 revised Cihai, a multi-volume encyclopedic dictionary reference work, gives 122,836 vocabulary entry definitions under 19,485 Chinese characters, including proper names, phrases and common zoological, geographical, sociological, scientific and technical terms.
The latest 2012 6th edition of Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, an authoritative one-volume dictionary on modern standard Chinese language as used in mainland China, has 69,000 entries and defines 13,000 head characters.
Like any other language, Chinese has absorbed a sizable number of loanwords from other cultures. 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.
Ancient words borrowed from along the Silk Road since Old Chinese include 葡萄 "grape", 石榴 "pomegranate" and 狮子／獅子 "lion". Some words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 "Buddha" and 菩萨／菩薩 "bodhisattva." Other words came from nomadic peoples to the north, such as 胡同 "hutong". Words borrowed from the peoples along the Silk Road, such as 葡萄 "grape" (pútáo in Mandarin) generally have Persian etymologies. Buddhist terminology is generally derived from Sanskrit or Pāli, the liturgical languages of North India. Words borrowed from the nomadic tribes of the Gobi, Mongolian or northeast regions generally have Altaic etymologies, such as 琵琶 "pípa", the Chinese lute, or 酪 "cheese" or "yoghurt", but from exactly which source is not always clear.
Modern borrowings and loanwords
Modern neologisms are primarily translated into Chinese in one of three ways: free translation (calque, or by meaning), phonetic translation (by sound), or a combination of the two. Today, it is much more common to use existing Chinese morphemes to coin new words in order to represent imported concepts, such as technical expressions and international scientific vocabulary. Any Latin or Greek etymologies are dropped and converted into the corresponding Chinese characters (for example, anti- typically becomes "反", literally opposite), making them more comprehensible for Chinese but introducing more difficulties in understanding foreign texts. For example, the word telephone was loaned phonetically as 德律风／德律風 (Shanghainese: télífon[təlɪfoŋ], Mandarin: délǜfēng) during the 1920s and widely used in Shanghai, but later 电话／電話 diànhuà (lit. "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent (電話 is in fact from Japanese, where it is pronounced denwa; see below for more). Other examples include 电视／電視 diànshì (lit. "electric vision") for television, 电脑／電腦 diànnǎo (lit. "electric brain") for computer; 手机／手機 shǒujī (lit. "hand machine") for mobile phone, 蓝牙／藍牙 lányá (lit. "blue tooth") for Bluetooth, and 网志/網誌 wǎngzhì (lit. "internet logbook") for blog in Hong Kong and Macau Cantonese. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises (phono-semantic matching) are accepted, such as 汉堡包／漢堡包 hànbǎobāo (lit. "hamburg bun") for "hamburger". Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes, such as 拖拉机／拖拉機 tuōlājī "tractor" (lit. "dragging-pulling machine"), or 马利奥／馬利奧 mǎlìào for the video game character Mario. This is often done for commercial purposes, for example 奔腾／奔騰 bēnténg (lit. "dashing-leaping") for Pentium and 赛百味／賽百味 Sàibǎiwèi (lit. "better-than hundred tastes") for Subway restaurants.
Foreign words, mainly proper nouns, continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations. For example, "Israel" becomes 以色列 yǐsèliè, "Paris" becomes 巴黎 bālí. A rather small number of direct transliterations have survived as common words, including 沙发／沙發 shāfā "sofa", 马达／馬達 mǎdá "motor", 幽默 yōumò "humor", 逻辑／邏輯 luójí "logic", 时髦／時髦 shímáo "smart, fashionable", and 歇斯底里 xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics". The bulk of these words were originally coined in the Shanghai dialect during the early 20th century and were later loaned into Mandarin, hence their pronunciations in Mandarin may be quite off from the English. For example, 沙发／沙發 "sofa" and 马达／馬達 "motor" in Shanghainese sound more like their English counterparts.
Western foreign words representing Western concepts have influenced Chinese since the 20th century through transcription. From French came 芭蕾 bāléi "ballet", 香槟 xiāngbīn, "champagne", and from Italian 咖啡 kāfēi "caffè". English influence is particularly pronounced. From early 20th century Shanghainese, many English words are borrowed, such as 高尔夫／高爾夫 gāoěrfū "golf" and the above-mentioned 沙发／沙發 shāfā "sofa". Later United States soft influences gave rise to 迪斯科 dísīkè "disco", 可乐／可樂 kělè "cola", and 迷你 mínǐ "mini [skirt]". Contemporary colloquial Cantonese has distinct loanwords from English, such as 卡通 "cartoon", 基佬 "gay people", 的士 "taxi", and 巴士 "bus". With the rising popularity of the Internet, there is a current vogue in China for coining English transliterations, for example, 粉丝／粉絲 fěnsī "fans", 黑客 hēikè "hacker" (lit. "black guest"), 部落格 bùluōgé "blog" (lit. "interconnected tribes") in Taiwanese Mandarin.
Another result of the English influence on Chinese is the appearance in Modern Chinese texts of so-called 字母词 zìmǔcí (lit. "lettered words") spelled with letters from foreign alphabets. This has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on web sites, and on TV: 三G手机 "3rd generation cell phones" (三 sān "three" + G "generation" + 手机 shǒujī "mobile phones"), IT界 "IT industry", HSK (hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì, 汉语水平考试), GB (guóbiāo, 国标), CIF价 (Cost, Insurance, Freight + 价 jià "price"), e家庭 "electronic home" (家庭 jiātīng "home"), W时代 "wireless generation" (时代 shídài "generation"), 的士call, TV族, 后РС时代 "post-PC era" (后 hòu "after/post-" + PC "personal computer" + 时代 shídài "epoch"), and so on.
Since the 20th century, another source of words has been Japanese using existing kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese). Japanese re-molded European concepts and inventions into wasei-kango (和製漢語, lit. "Japanese-made Chinese"), and many of these words have been re-loaned into modern Chinese. Other terms were coined by the Japanese by giving new senses to existing Chinese terms or by referring to expressions used in classical Chinese literature. For example, jīngjì (经济／經濟, keizai), which in the original Chinese meant "the workings of the state", was narrowed to "economy" in Japanese; this narrowed definition was then re-imported into Chinese. As a result, these terms are virtually indistinguishable from native Chinese words: indeed, there is some dispute over some of these terms as to whether the Japanese or Chinese coined them first. As a result of this loaning, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese share a corpus of linguistic terms describing modern terminology, paralleling the similar corpus of terms built from Greco-Latin and shared among European languages.
With the growing importance and influence of China's economy globally, Mandarin instruction is gaining popularity in schools in the USA, and has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst the young in the Western world, as in the UK.
In 1991 there were 2,000 foreign learners taking China's official Chinese Proficiency Test (comparable to the English Cambridge Certificate), while in 2005, the number of candidates had risen sharply to 117,660. By 2010, 750,000 people had taken the Chinese Proficiency Test.
David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 312. "The mutual unintelligibility of the varieties is the main ground for referring to them as separate languages."
Charles N. Li, Sandra A. Thompson. Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar (1989), p. 2. "The Chinese language family is genetically classified as an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family."
Norman (1988), p. 1. "[...] the modern Chinese dialects are really more like a family of languages [...]"
DeFrancis (1984), p. 56. "To call Chinese a single language composed of dialects with varying degrees of difference is to mislead by minimizing disparities that according to Chao are as great as those between English and Dutch. To call Chinese a family of languages is to suggest extralinguistic differences that in fact do not exist and to overlook the unique linguistic situation that exists in China."
Linguists in China often use a formulation introduced by Fu Maoji in the Encyclopedia of China: 汉语在语言系属分类中相当于一个语族的地位。 ("In language classification, Chinese has a status equivalent to a language family.")
Encyclopædia Britannica s.v. "Chinese languages": "Old Chinese vocabulary already contained many words not generally occurring in the other Sino-Tibetan languages. The words for 'honey' and 'lion', and probably also 'horse', 'dog', and 'goose', are connected with Indo-European and were acquired through trade and early contacts. (The nearest known Indo-European languages were Tocharian and Sogdian, a middle Iranian language.) A number of words have Austroasiatic cognates and point to early contacts with the ancestral language of Muong–Vietnamese and Mon–Khmer"; Jan Ulenbrook, Einige Übereinstimmungen zwischen dem Chinesischen und dem Indogermanischen (1967) proposes 57 items; see also Tsung-tung Chang, 1988 Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese.
McDonald, E. (25 March 2011). The '中国通' or the 'Sinophone'? Towards a political economy of Chinese language teaching. China Heritage Quarterly, Australian National University: "The term 'sinophone' seems to have been coined separately and simultaneously on both sides of the Pacific: by Geremie Barmé in his 2005 essay 'On New Sinology'; and by Shu-Mei Shih in her 'Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific', and developed at greater length in a book by the same author."
^ DeFrancis (1984) p.42 counts Chinese as having 1,277 tonal syllables, and about 398 to 418 if tones are disregarded; he cites Jespersen, Otto (1928) Monosyllabism in English; London, p.15 for a count of over 8000 syllables for English.
Chinese language reference at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
"Speak Mandarin Campaign". Retrieved 2011-08-09.
Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Chinese". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Kane, Daniel (2006), The Chinese Language: Its History and Current Usage, Tuttle Publishing, ISBN 978-0-8048-3853-5.
Kornicki, P.F. (2011), "A transnational approach to East Asian book history", in Chakravorty, Swapan; Gupta, Abhijit, New Word Order: Transnational Themes in Book History, Worldview Publications, pp. 65–79, ISBN 978-81-920651-1-3.
Kurpaska, Maria (2010), Chinese Language(s): A Look Through the Prism of "The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects", Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 978-3-11-021914-2.
Lewis, M. Paul; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2013), Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Seventeenth ed.), Dallas, Texas: SIL International.