Chinese language

From Academic Kids

Chinese (汉语/漢語;中文)
Spoken in: China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Chinese communities around the world
Total speakers: 1.2 billion
Ranking: 1 (if considered a single language)
Genetic classification: Sino-Tibetan


Official status
Official language of: PRC, ROC, Singapore
Regulated by: In the PRC: various agencies ( Chinese)
in the ROC: Mandarin Promotion Council
Language codes
ISO 639-1zh
ISO 639-2chi (B) / zho (T)
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Chinese language (汉语/漢語, 华语/華語, or 中文; Pinyin: Hnyǔ, Huyǔ, or Zhōngwn) is a tonal language and a member of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Although Chinese is often regarded for cultural reasons as a single language, its range of regional variation is comparable to that of the Romance languages. However, all of the users of spoken varieties of Chinese have always used a common formal written language, which has since the beginning of the twentieth century been Vernacular Chinese (based on Mandarin), written using a nearly identical set of Chinese characters.

About one-fifth of the world speaks some form of Chinese as their native language, making it the language with the most native speakers. The Chinese language, spoken in the form of Standard Mandarin, is the official language of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore, and one of six official languages of the United Nations. Spoken in the form of Standard Cantonese, Chinese is one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and of Macau (together with Portuguese).

Among Chinese diaspora, a wide variety of forms have been spoken, particularly Mandarin, Cantonese, Min Nan and Hakka. Mandarin gained prominence in the second half of the 20th century and is often used as a lingua franca to communicate between different populations of overseas Chinese.

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

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


Spoken Chinese

Main article: Chinese spoken language

The varieties of spoken Chinese in
The varieties of spoken Chinese in China

The map on the right depicts the subdivisions ("languages" or "dialect groups") within Chinese. The seven main groups are:

  • Mandarin (shown in the map as divided into East and West groups, but also includes the Jianghuai and Huguang areas depicted in the map)
  • Wu
  • Xiang
  • Gan
  • Hakka 客家
  • Cantonese (or Yue 粵)
  • Min (which linguists further divide into of 5 to 7 subdivisions on its own, all of which are mutually unintelligible).

Linguists who distinguish ten instead of seven major groups separate the following groups:

There are also many smaller groups that are not yet classified, such as: Danzhou dialect, spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island; Xianghua (乡话), not to be confused with Xiang (湘), spoken in western Hunan; and Shaozhou Tuhua, spoken in northern Guangdong. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.

There is also Standard Mandarin, the official standard language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Singapore. Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, which is the dialect of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing, and the governments intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it as a common language of communication. It is therefore used in government, in the media, and in instruction in schools.

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

It is common for speakers of Chinese to be able to speak several varieties of the language. Typically, in southern China, a person will be able to speak Standard Mandarin, the local dialect, and occasionally a more general regional dialect, such as Cantonese. Such polyglots will frequently code switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect, depending on the situation. A person living in Taiwan, for example, will commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered socially appropriate under many circumstances.

Is Chinese a language or a family of languages?

Spoken Chinese comprises many regional and often mutually unintelligible variants. In the West, many people are familiar with the fact that the Romance languages all derive from Latin and so have many underlying features in common while being mutually unintelligible. The linguistic evolution of Chinese is similar, while the socio-political context is quite different.

In Europe, political fragmentation gave rise to independent states which are roughly the size of Chinese provinces. This in turn generated a political desire to create separate cultural and literary standards to differentiate nation-states and to standardize the language within a nation-state. In China, a single cultural and literary standard (Classical Chinese and later, Vernacular Chinese) continued to exist while at the same time the spoken language continued to diverge between different cities and counties, much in the same manner as European languages diverged from each other, as a result of the sheer scale of the country, and the obstruction of communication by geography.

As a case in point, mountainous South China displays more linguistic diversity than the flat North China. There is even a saying in Chinese, nn chun běi mǎ (南船北馬), meaning "boats in the south, horses in the north": the flat plains of northern China allow one to cross with relative ease using a horse, but the dense vegetation and numerous mountains and rivers of the south prevented this. In southern China, the most efficient means of transportation was by boat. For instance, Wuzhou is a city that lies about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in the south. By contrast, Taishan is only 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou, but several rivers must be crossed in order to reach it. Because of this, the dialect spoken in Taishan, relative to the dialect spoken in Wuzhou, has diverged more from the Standard Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou (Ramsey, 1987).

This diversity in spoken forms and commonality in written form has created a linguistic context that is very different from that of Europe. For example, in Europe, the language of a nation-state was usually standardized to be similar to that of the capital, making it easy, for example, to classify a language as French or Spanish. This had the effect of sharpening linguistic differences. A farmer on one side of the border would start to model his speech after Paris while a farmer on the other side would model his speech after Madrid. Moreover, the written language would be modelled after the dialect of the capital, and the use of local speech or mixtures of local speech would be considered substandard and erroneous. In China, this standardization did not occur.

More relevant to China's situation is that of India. Though India has historically not been as unified as China, parts of it speaking multiple languages have long been united in various states, and many of its languages have not been standardized until the last few decades through political centralization. Sanskrit long played a role as a common written language. In India, however, the status of the different descendant languages of Sanskrit as separate languages is not in question; 18 of them are officially recognized national languages.

Although Cantonese and Mandarin have low mutual intelligibility, these considerations are often not as important as cultural or nationalistic ones. In self-description, Chinese people generally consider Chinese to be one single language, partly because of the common written language. In order to describe dialects, Chinese people typically use the speech of location, for example Beijing dialect (北京話/北京话) for the speech of Beijing or Shanghainese (上海話/上海话) for the speech of Shanghai. Often there is not even any awareness among laypeople that these various "dialects" are then categorized into "languages" based on mutual intelligibility, though in areas of greater linguistic diversity (such as the southeast) people do think of dialects as being grouped into categories like Wu or Hakka. So although it is true that many parts of north China are quite homogeneous in language, while in parts of south China, major cities can have dialects that are only marginally intelligible even to close neighbours, there is a tendency to regard all of these as "Chinese dialects" — equal subvariations of a single Chinese language. As with the concept of Chinese language itself, the divisions among different "dialects" are mostly geographical rather than based on linguistic distance. For example, Sichuan dialect is considered as being distinct from Beijing dialect in the same way that Cantonese is, despite the fact that linguistically Sichuan dialect and Beijing dialect are both considered Mandarin dialects by linguists while Cantonese is not.

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

The distinction between a single language and a language family has major political overtones, and the amount of emotion put into this issue arises from political implications. To some, the description of Chinese as a language family implies that China should actually be considered several different nations, and challenges the notion that there is a single Han Chinese "race". For this reason, some Chinese are uncomfortable with the idea that Chinese is not a single language, as this perception might legitimize secessionist movements. Supporters of Taiwan independence do tend to be strong promoters of Min- and Hakka-language education, for example. Furthermore, for some, the implication that describing Chinese as multiple languages is more correct carries with it the implication that the notion of a single Chinese language and a single Chinese state or nationality is backward, oppressive, artificial, and out of touch with reality.

However, the links between ethnicity, politics, and language can be complex. For example, many Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese speakers who would consider their own varieties to be separate spoken languages, and the Han Chinese race to be a single entity, do not regard these two positions as contradictory; instead they consider the Han Chinese to be an entity that is, and has always been, characterized by great internal diversity. Moreover, the government of the People's Republic of China officially states that China is a multinational state, and that the very term "Chinese" refers to a broader concept called Zhonghua Minzu that incorporates groups that do not natively speak Chinese at all, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongols. (Those that do speak Chinese and are considered "ethnic Chinese" from an outsider point of view are called Han Chinese — this is seen as an ethnic and cultural concept, not a political one.) Similarly on Taiwan, one can find supporters of Chinese reunification who are also interested in promoting the local language, and supporters of Taiwan independence who have little interest in the topic. And, in an analogy to the mainland Chinese idea of Zhonghua minzu, the Taiwanese identity also incorporates Taiwanese aborigines, who are not at all considered Han Chinese because they speak Austronesian languages, predate Han Chinese migration to Taiwan, and are culturally and genetically linked to other Austronesian-speaking peoples such as the Polynesians.

Written Chinese

Main article: Chinese written language

The relationship among the Chinese spoken and written languages is complex. This complexity is compounded by the fact that the numerous variations of spoken Chinese have gone through centuries of evolution since at least the late Han Dynasty, while written Chinese has changed much less.

Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was done in wnyn (文言), translated as Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese, which was very different from any of the spoken varieties of Chinese in much the same way that Classical Latin is different from modern Romance languages. Since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the formal standard for written Chinese was changed to bihu (白話/白话), or Vernacular Chinese, which, while not completely identical to the grammar and vocabulary of Mandarin, was based mostly on it. The term standard written Chinese now refers to Vernacular Chinese.

Chinese characters are understood as morphemes that are independent of phonetic change. Thus, although the number one is "yi" in Mandarin, "yat" in Cantonese and "tsit" in Hokkien, they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and still share an identical character ("一"). Nevertheless, the orthographies of Chinese dialects are not completely identical. The vocabularies used in the different dialects have diverged. In addition, while literary vocabulary is often shared among all dialects, colloquial vocabularies are often different. Colloquially written Chinese usually involves the use of "dialectal characters" which may not be understood in other dialects or characters that are considered archaic in standard written Chinese.

Cantonese is unique among non-Mandarin regional languages in having a widely used written colloquial standard with a large number of unofficial characters for words particular to this variety of Chinese. By contrast, the other regional languages do not have such widely used alternative written standards. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging, although for formal written communications Cantonese speakers still normally use standard written Chinese.

Also, in Hunan, some women wrote their local language in N Shu. The Dungan language, thought to be a dialect of Mandarin, is also written, though the Dungan people live outside of China.

Chinese characters

Main article: Chinese character

The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin hnz), a system based on logograms, where each symbol represents a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language).

There is no concrete record on the origin of characters. Legend suggests that Changjie, a bureaucrat of Huangdi, legendary emperor of China in about 2600BC, invented Chinese characters, but the archaeological evidence, mainly the oracles found in the 19-20th centuries, only dates Chinese characters back to the Shang dynasty in 1700BC.

The vast majority of oracle bone inscriptions were found in Yinxu of the Shang Dynasty, but there have been Zhou dynasty related oracle inscriptions found also, but their numbers are significantly few. The forms of the characters in the inscriptions changed over the two to three hundred years of usage, and scholars can date the inscriptions of the Shang to the ruler by the content, particularly from the name of the diviners who inscribed the shell or bone artifacts.

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

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

One of the misconceptions about Chinese characters is to think that a character is only a pictograph. Initially, characters were pictures of their meanings with and without much abstract meaning, but as time passed the characters evolved to express a more complex language as well as becoming highly stylized. In 100AD, Xushen, a famed scholar in Han Dynasty, classified characters into 6 categories, only 4% of them are pictographs, while 82% are phonetic complexes, which consists of one element (the radical) that gives an indication of meaning, and another element (the phonetic) that gives (or at least once gave) an arguably good indication of the pronunciation.

There are currently two standards for Chinese characters. One is the traditional system, essentially an streamlined styling of its forerunner, kaishu (indeed, kaishu serves as the model from which all modern characters are derived). It is still in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau.

When the 20th century began, however, the fall of Chinese Empire sparked the reform of Chinese culture. In 1950s, after the Communist Party took control of Mainland China, the simplified system was adopted. It reduced the number of strokes needed to write certain radicals as well as reducing the number of synonymous characters. Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first and only foreign country to recognize and officially adopt the simplified characters.

To add to the complexity, various written styles
Various styles of .
Various styles of Chinese calligraphy.
are used in Chinese calligraphy, including zhuanshu (篆書, seal-script), caoshu (草書, grass script), lishu (隸書, official script) and kaishu (楷書, standard script). Calligraphers can write in traditional and simplified characters, but they tend to use traditional characters for the traditional art.

As with Latin script, a wide variety of fonts exists for printed Chinese characters, a great number of which are often based on the styles of single calligraphers or schools of calligraphy.


Most linguists classify all of the variations of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, similar to Proto Indo-European, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relations between Chinese and the other Sino-Tibetan languages are still unclear and an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is very good documentation that allows us to reconstruct the ancient sounds of Chinese, there is no written documentation concerning the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and Chinese. In addition, many of the languages that would allow us to reconstruct proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly documented or understood.

Categorization of the development of Chinese is a subject of scholarly debate. One of the first systems was devised by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren; what follows is a modern revision of his system.

Old Chinese (上古漢語), sometimes known as 'Archaic Chinese', was the language common during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (11th to 7th centuries B.C.), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the Shijing, the history of the Shujing, and portions of the Yijing (I Ching). The phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters also provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynasty philologists.

Middle Chinese (中古漢語) was the language used during the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (7th through 10th centuries A.D.). It can be divided into an early period, to which the 切韻 'Qieyun' rhyme table (A.D. 601) relates, and a late period in the 10th, which the 廣韻 'Guangyun' rhyme table reflects. Linguists are confident of having a good reconstruction of how Middle Chinese sounded. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries, and foreign transliterations. In addition, ancient Chinese philologists devoted a great deal of effort to summarizing the Chinese phonetic system through "rhyming tables", and these tables serve as a basis for the work of modern linguists. Finally, Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words also provide plenty of clues about the nature of Middle Chinese phonetics. However, all reconstructions are tentative; scholars have shown, for example, that trying to reconstruct modern Cantonese from the rhymes of modern Cantopop would give a very inaccurate picture of the language.

The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. The language tree shown below indicates how the present main divisions of the Chinese language developed out of an early common language. Comparison with the map above will give some idea of the complexities that have been left out of the tree. For instance, the Min language that is centered in Fujian Province contains five subdivisions, and the Mandarin dialects (Beifanghua) also contains nine, such as Yunnan hua and Sichuan hua.

Chinese language tree

Most Chinese living in northern China, in Sichuan and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home language. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is largely the result of geography, namely the plains of north China. By contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have promoted linguistic diversity. The presence of Mandarin in Sichuan is largely due to a plague in the 12th century. This plague, which may have been related to the Black Death, depopulated the area, leading to later settlement from north China.

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese living in southern China did not speak any Mandarin. However, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various Chinese dialects, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up orthoepy academies (正音書院 zhengyin shuyuan) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard (Beijing being the capital of Qing), but these attempts had little success. During the last 50 years of the Qing Dynasty, in the late 19th century, the Nanjing Mandarin standard was finally replaced in the imperial court by Beijing Mandarin. For the general population, although variations of Mandarin were already widely spoken in China then, a single standard of Mandarin did not exist. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their regionalects for every aspect of life. The new Beijing Mandarin court standard was thus fairly limited.

This situation changed with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC) of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by a majority of people in Mainland China and in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese, but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.

Influence on other languages

See the article on Philippine loanwords from Chinese languages.

Throughout history Chinese culture and politics has had a great influence on unrelated languages such as Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Korean and Japanese both have writing systems employing Chinese characters, which are called Hanja and Kanji, respectively. Vietnamese was, until the 19th century, written with Chu Nom, but this has now been completely replaced by a modified Latin script. In South Korea, the Hangul alphabet is generally used, but Hanja is used as a sort of boldface. (In North Korea, Hanja has been discontinued.) Since the modernization of Japan in the late 19th century, there has been debate about abandoning the use of Chinese characters, but the practical benefits of a radically new script have so far not been considered sufficient.

Languages within the influence of Chinese culture also have a very large number of loanwords from Chinese. In Korean 50% or more of the vocabulary is of Chinese origin and the influence on Japanese and Vietnamese has been considerable. 10% of Philippine language vocabularies are of Chinese origin. Chinese also shares a great many grammatical features with these and neighboring languages, notably the lack of gender and the use of classifiers.


Template:IPA notice

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

The phonological structure of each syllable consists of a nucleus consisting of a vowel (which can be a monophthong, diphthong, or even a triphthong in certain varieties) with an optional onset or coda consonant as well as a tone. There are some instances where a vowel is not used as a nucleus. An example of this is in Cantonese, where the nasal sonorant consonants and 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 [[bilabial nasal|]], [[alveolar nasal|]], [[velar nasal|]], [[voiceless bilabial plosive|]], [[voiceless alveolar plosive|]], [[voiceless velar plosive|]], or [[voiceless glottal plosive|]]. Some varieties allow most of these codas, whereas others, such as Mandarin, are limited to only a couple, namely and . 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 as a result have far more multisyllabic words than most other spoken varieties. The total number of syllables in some varieties is therefore only about a thousand, including tonal variation.

All varieties of spoken Chinese use tones. A few dialects of north China may have as few as three tones, while some dialects in south China have up to 6 or 10 tones, depending on how one counts. One exception from this is Shanghainese which has reduced the set of tones to a two-toned pitch accent system much like modern Japanese.

Template:Ruby notice A very common example used to illustrate the use of tones in Chinese are the four main tones of Standard Mandarin applied to the syllable "ma". The tones correspond to these four characters:

Template:Ruby, "mother" - high level Template:Ruby, "hemp" - high rising Template:Ruby, "horse" - low falling-rising Template:Ruby, "scold" - high falling



Romanization is the process of transcribing a language in the Latin alphabet. There are many systems of romanization for the Chinese languages; this is due to the complex history of interaction between China and the West, and to the Chinese languages' lack of phonetic transcription until modern times.

At present, the most common romanization system for Standard Mandarin is Hanyu Pinyin, also known simply as Pinyin. Pinyin is the official Mandarin romanization system for the People's Republic of China, and has also been adopted as the official Mandarin romanization system used in Singapore. Pinyin is also very commonly used when teaching Mandarin in US schools.

Perhaps the second-most common system of romanization for Mandarin is Wade-Giles. This system was probably the most common system of romanization for Mandarin prior to the development of Pinyin. Wade-Giles is often found in academic use in the US, and is widely used in Taiwan.

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

Mandarin Romanization Comparison
Characters Wade-Giles Hanyu Pinyin Notes
中國 Chung1-kuo2 Zhōnggo "China"
北京 Pei3-ching1 Běijīng Capital of the PRC
台北 T'ai2-pei3 Tiběi Capital of Taiwan
毛澤東 Mao2 Tse2-tung1 Mo Zdōng Former leader of the PRC
蔣介石 Chiang1 Chieh4-shih2 Jiāng Jish Former leader of the ROC on Taiwan
孔子 K'ung3 Tsu3 Kǒng Zǐ "Confucius"

Regardless of system, tone transcription is often left out, either due to difficulties of typesetting or propriety for audience. Wade-Giles' extensive use of easily-forgotten apostrophes adds to the confusion. Thus, most Western readers will be much more familiar with Beijing than they will be with Běijīng, and with Taipei than with T'ai2-pei3.

Regardless of romanization, the words are pronounced the same. Learning a system of romanization requires occasional deviations from the learner's own language, so, for example, Hanyu Pinyin uses "q" for very different values than an English speaker would probably be used to. This is unfortunate but unavoidable, as Mandarin (and any language transcribed) has different phonemes from those of the learner's own.

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


Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction which are the morphemes, the smallest building blocks, of the language. Some of these single-syllable morphemes can stand alone as individual words, but contrary to what is often claimed, Chinese is not a monosyllabic language. Most words in the modern Chinese spoken varieties are in fact multisyllabic, consisting of more than one morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.

The confusion arises in how one thinks about the language. In the Chinese writing system, each individual single-syllable morpheme corresponds to a single character, referred to as a z (字). Most Chinese speakers think of words as being z, but this view is not entirely accurate. Many words are multisyllabic, and are composed of more than one z. This composition is what is known as a c (詞), and more closely resembles the traditional Western definition of a word. However, the concept of c was historically a technical linguistic term that until only the past century, the average Chinese speaker was not aware of. Even today, most Chinese speakers think of words as being z. This can be illustrated in the following Mandarin Chinese sentence (romanized using pinyin):

Jīguāng, zh liǎngge z sh shnme ysi?
激光, 這兩個字是甚麼意思?
激光, 这两个字是什么意思?

The sentence literally translates to, " 激 and guāng 光, these two z 字, what do they mean?" However, the more natural English translation would probably be, "Laser, this word, what does it mean?" Even though jīguāng 激光 is a single word, speakers tend to think of its constituents as being separate (Ramsey, 1987).

Old Chinese and Middle Chinese had many more monosyllabic words due to greater variability in possible sounds. The modern Chinese varieties lost many of these sound distinctions, leading to homonyms in words that were once distinct. Multisyllabic words arose in order to compensate for this loss. Most natively derived multisyllabic words still feature these original monosyllabic morpheme roots though. Many Chinese morphemes still have associated meaning, even though many of them no longer can stand alone as individual words. This situation is analogous to the use of the English prefix pre-. Even though pre- can never stand alone by itself as an individual word, it is commonly understood by English speakers to mean "before," such as in the words predawn, previous, and premonition.

Taking the previous example, jīguāng, and guāng literally mean "stimulated light," resulting in the meaning, "laser." However, is never found as a single word by itself, because there are too many other morphemes that are also pronounced in the same way. For instance, the morphemes that correspond to the meanings "chicken" 雞/鸡, "machine" 機/机, "basic" 基, "hit" 擊/击, "hunger" 饑/饥, and "sum" 積/积 are also pronounced in Mandarin. It is only in the context of other morphemes can an exact meaning of a z be known. In certain ways, the logographic writing system helps to reinforce meaning in z that are homophonous, since even though several morphemes may be pronounced the same way, they are written using different characters. Continuing with the example, we have:

Pinyin Traditional Characters Simplified Characters Meaning
guāng laser ("stimulated light")
to arouse ("stimulated rise")
dn chicken egg
gōng rooster ("male chicken")
fēi airplane ("flying machine")
qiāng machine gun

For this reason, it is very common for Mandarin speakers to put characters in context as a natural part of conversation. For example, when telling each other their names (which are often rare, or at least non-colloquial, combinations of z), Mandarin speakers will often state which words their names are found in. As a specific example, a speakers might say 名字叫嘉英,嘉陵江的嘉,英國的英 Mngzi jao Jīayng, Jīalngjīang de jīa, Ynggo de yng "My name is Jīayng, the Jia of Jialing River and the Ying in England."

The problem of homonyms also exists but is less severe in southern Chinese varieties like Cantonese and Taiwanese, which preserved more of the rimes of Middle Chinese. For instance, the previous examples of for "stimulated," "chicken," and "machine" have distinct pronunciations in Cantonese (romanized using jyutping): gik1, gai1, and gei1, respectively. For this reason, southern varieties tend to employ fewer multisyllabic words.

There are a small number of morphemes in Chinese, many of them loanwords, that consist of more than one syllable. These words cannot be further divided into single-syllable meaningful units, however in writing each syllable is still written as separate z. One example is the word for "spider," zhīzhū, which is written as 蜘蛛. Even in this case, Chinese tend to try to make some kind of meaning out of the constituent syllables. For this reason, the two characters 蜘 and 蛛 each have an associated meaning of "spider" when seen alone as individual characters. When spoken though, they can never occur apart.


Most Chinese words are formed out of native Chinese morphemes, including words describing imported objects and ideas. However, direct phonetic borrowing of foreign words has gone on since ancient times. Words borrowed from along the Silk Road in ancient times include 葡萄 "grape", 石榴 "pomegranate" and 獅子 "lion". Other words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 "Buddha" and 菩薩 "bodhisattva".

Foreign words continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations; characters in this case are usually taken strictly for their phonetic values. For example, "Israel" becomes 以色列 (pinyin: yǐsli). The Chinese characters used here literally mean "using-color-rank", or "ranking using color", but the sense is automatically ignored because it is understood that the characters are used for their phonetic values only. Characters which are used nearly exclusively in the transcription of foreign words are present in Chinese; many of these characters date back to Middle Chinese wherein they were used to translate Sanskrit phonemes. For example, 斯 and 爾 ěr, which are Classical Chinese words for "this" and "you", are never used in their original senses (except in a limited number of idiomatic expressions) and more often used to transcribe the sounds /s/ and /l/ in foreign words. Nevertheless, this method tends to yield somewhat strange results, and is therefore overwhelmingly used to transcribe foreign names only.

It is more common to use Chinese morphemes to coin new words in order to represent imported concepts, such as technical expressions, except those that incorporate personal or place names. Latin or Greek etymologies they may have are dropped, making them more comprehensible for Chinese but introducing more difficulties in understanding foreign texts. For example, the word telephone was loaned phonetically as 德律風 (Standard Mandarin: dlǜfēng) in the 1920s, but later 电话 (dinhu "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent. On the other hand, 麥克風 (mikfēng), a phonetic transcription of microphone, remains popular, although 话筒 (hutǒng, "speech tube") is gradually replacing it. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as 汉堡包 (hnbǎo bāo, "Hamburg bun") for hamburger. Nevertheless, a rather small number of direct phonetic borrowings have survived as common words, including 幽默 "humour", 浪漫 "romance", 邏輯 luj "logic", and 歇斯底里 xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics".

Another important source came from a related writing system, kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. The Japanese used kanji to translate many European words in the late 19th century and early 20th century. These words are called wasei-kango in Japanese (和製漢語 literally Japanese-made Chinese), and many of these words were then loaned into Chinese. Examples include lchǎng (立場, たちば, stance), zhxu (哲學, てつがく, philosophy), chōuxing (抽象, ちゅうしょう, abstract), guyǔ (國語, こくご, national language), and zhǔy (主義, しゅぎ, -ism).

Once incorporated into Chinese, these terms are virtually indistinguishable from native Chinese words, and indeed there is dispute over some of these terms as to whether the Japanese or Chinese coined them first; some of these terms were in fact coined by Japanese by giving new senses to existing Chinese terms or by referring to expressions used in classical Chinese literature. As a result of this to-and-fro process, Chinese and Japanese, as well as Korean, continue to share many terms describing modern terminology, in parallel to a similar corpus of terms built from Greco-Latin terms shared among European languages.


In general, all spoken varieties of Chinese are isolating languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology (changes in the form of the word through inflection). Because they are isolating languages, they make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood.

Chinese features Subject Verb Object word order, and like many other languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic-comment construction to form sentences. Even though Chinese has no grammatical gender, it has an extensive system of measure words, another trait shared with neighbouring (but not related) languages like Japanese and Korean. See Chinese measure words for an extensive coverage of this subject.

Other notable grammatical features common to all the spoken varieties of Chinese include the use of serial verb construction, pronoun dropping (and the related subject dropping), and the use of aspect rather than tense.

Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess certain differences. See Chinese grammar for the grammar of Standard Mandarin (the standardized Chinese spoken language), and the articles on other varieties of Chinese for their respective grammars.

Related topics


External links

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  • ( Chinese to English dictionary and other resources presented in English; searchable by English meanings; Chinese text displayed as graphics (i.e. does not require any Chinese font).

Resources for students of Chinese

  • Free Chinese Lessons ( Free online series of lessons for beginners
  • History of Chinese Writing System ( An Article about Chinese Writting History
  • The Chinese Outpost: ( learning site centered around an “Introduction to Mandarin Chinese” tutorial that aims to demystify the Chinese Language—in everyday language, not academese—with units focused on Pronunciation, Characters, and Grammar.
  • ( One Chinese idiom a day (simplified and traditional characters) with pinyin transliteration and English translation.
  • Sheik's Cantonese Forum ( Forums for Cantonese Learner
  • Chinese Learning Forum (
  • Marjorie Chan's ChinaLinks ( A large collection of Web resources by a professor of linguistics at Ohio State University
  • On-line Chinese Tools ( Tools for learning and using Chinese.
  • ( Free online chinese tools.
  • ( A web-mediator that adds mouseover pinyin readings and English meanings to Chinese web-pages.
  • Chinese Symbols ( Introduction to Chinese characters
  • ( Chinese-related web pages with a focus on Chinese language learning for English speakers including animations that demonstrate stroke order

Resources on Chinese in general

Computer tools for chinese

  • scim input method ( free (GPL) tool for writting chinese using several input methods, and for other languages.

Chinese: spoken varieties

Mandarin | Jin | Wu | Hui | Xiang | Gan | Hakka | Yue | Pinghua | Min
Danzhouhua | Shaozhou Tuhua | Xianghua

Subcategories of Min: Min Dong | Min Bei | Min Zhong | Pu Xian | Min Nan | Qiong Wen | Shao Jiang
Note: The above is only one classification scheme among many.
Comprehensive list of Chinese dialects
Official spoken varieties: Standard Mandarin | Standard Cantonese
Historical phonology: Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Proto-Min | Proto-Mandarin | Haner
Chinese: written varieties
Official written varieties: Classical Chinese | Vernacular Chinese
Other varieties: Written Cantonese

cs:Čínština da:kinesisk de:Chinesische Sprache es:Idioma chino eo:Cxina Lingvo fr:Langue chinoise id:Bahasa Tionghoa it:Lingua cinese ko:중국어 ka:ჩინური ენა li:Sjinees nl:Chinees no:Kinesisk sprk nn:Kinesisk_sprk ja:中国語 pl:Język chiński pt:Lngua chinesa ru:Китайский язык sv:Kinesiska th:ภาษาจีน vi:Tiếng Trung Quốc zh:中文 simple:Chinese language minnan:Hàn-gí


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