Countries identified Chinese as a primary, administrative,
or native language
Countries with more than 5,000,000 Chinese speakers
Countries with more than 1,000,000 Chinese speakers
Countries with more than 500,000 Chinese speakers
Countries with more than 100,000 Chinese speakers
Major Chinese-speaking settlements
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Chinese languages (Spoken)
Chinese language (Written)
Chinese (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語;
pinyin: Hànyǔ; literally: "Han language"; or Chinese: 中文;
pinyin: Zhōngwén; literally: "Chinese writing") is a group of
related, but in many cases mutually unintelligible, language
varieties, forming a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.
Chinese is spoken by the Han majority and many minority ethnic groups
in China. About 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's
population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.
The 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.[a] The internal diversity of
Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but may be
even more varied. 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, e.g. Southwestern Mandarin),
followed by Wu (80 million, e.g. Shanghainese), Min (70 million, e.g.
Southern Min), Yue (60 million, e.g. Cantonese), etc. Most of these
groups are mutually unintelligible, and even dialect groups within Min
Chinese may not be mutually intelligible. Some, however, like Xiang
Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and a
certain degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal
Standard Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà/Guóyǔ/Huáyǔ) is a standardized form
of spoken Chinese based on the
Beijing dialect of Mandarin. It is the
official language of
China and Taiwan, as well as one of the four
official languages of Singapore. It is one of the six official
languages of the United Nations. The written form of the standard
language (中文; Zhōngwén), based on the logograms known as Chinese
characters (汉字/漢字; Hànzì), is shared by literate speakers of
otherwise unintelligible dialects.
The earliest Chinese written records are Shang dynasty-era oracle
inscriptions, which can be traced back to 1250 BCE. The phonetic
Archaic Chinese can be reconstructed from the rhymes of
ancient poetry. During the
Northern and Southern dynasties
Northern and Southern dynasties period,
Middle Chinese went through several sound changes and split into
several varieties following prolonged geographic and political
separation. Qieyun, a rime dictionary, recorded a compromise between
the pronunciations of different regions. The royal courts of the Ming
and early Qing dynasties operated using a koiné language (Guanhua)
Nanjing dialect of Lower Yangtze Mandarin. Standard Chinese
was adopted in the 1930s, and is now the official language of both the
People's Republic of
China and Taiwan.
2.1 Old and Middle Chinese
2.2 Classical and literary forms
2.3 Rise of northern dialects
3.2 Standard Chinese
6.2 Modern borrowings
7 Writing system
7.1 Chinese characters
7.3 Other phonetic transcriptions
9 See also
12 Further reading
13 External links
Most linguists classify all varieties of Chinese as part of the
Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many
other languages spoken in the
Himalayas and the Southeast Asian
Massif. Although the relationship was first proposed in the early
19th century and is now broadly accepted, reconstruction of
Sino-Tibetan is much less developed than that of families such as
Indo-European or Austroasiatic. Difficulties have included the great
diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them,
and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller
languages are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to reach,
and are often also sensitive border zones. Without a secure
reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan, the higher-level structure of
the family remains unclear. A top-level branching into Chinese and
Tibeto-Burman languages is often assumed, but has not been
Main article: History of the Chinese language
The first written records appeared over 3,000 years ago during the
Shang dynasty. As the language evolved over this period, the various
local varieties became mutually unintelligible. In reaction, central
governments have repeatedly sought to promulgate a unified
Old and Middle Chinese
The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle
bones from around 1250 BCE in the late Shang dynasty. Old Chinese
was the language of the
Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE), recorded
in inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the
Classic of Poetry
Classic of Poetry and
portions of the
Book of Documents
Book of Documents and I Ching. Scholars have
attempted to reconstruct the phonology of
Old Chinese by comparing
later varieties of Chinese with the rhyming practice of the Classic of
Poetry and the phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese
characters. Although many of the finer details remain unclear,
most scholars agree that
Old Chinese differs from
Middle Chinese in
lacking retroflex and palatal obstruents but having initial consonant
clusters of some sort, and in having voiceless nasals and liquids.
Most recent reconstructions also describe an atonal language with
consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, developing into tone
distinctions in Middle Chinese. Several derivational affixes have
also been identified, but the language lacks inflection, and indicated
grammatical relationships using word order and grammatical
Middle Chinese was the language used during Northern and Southern
dynasties and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (6th through 10th
centuries CE). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by
Qieyun rime book (601 CE), and a late period in the 10th century,
reflected by rhyme tables such as the
Yunjing constructed by ancient
Chinese philologists as a guide to the
Qieyun system. These works
define phonological categories, but with little hint of what sounds
they represent. Linguists have identified these sounds by
comparing the categories with pronunciations in modern varieties of
Chinese, borrowed Chinese words in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean,
and transcription evidence. The resulting system is very complex,
with a large number of consonants and vowels, but they are probably
not all distinguished in any single dialect. Most linguists now
believe it represents a diasystem encompassing 6th-century northern
and southern standards for reading the classics.
Classical and literary forms
Main article: Classical Chinese
The relationship between spoken and written Chinese is rather complex.
Its spoken varieties have evolved at different rates, while written
Chinese itself has changed much less.
Classical Chinese literature
began in the Spring and Autumn period.
Rise of northern dialects
After the fall of the
Northern Song dynasty, and during the reign of
the Jin (Jurchen) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern China, a
common speech (now called Old Mandarin) developed based on the
dialects of the North
China Plain around the capital. The
Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324) was a dictionary that codified the rhyming
conventions of new sanqu verse form in this language. Together
with the slightly later Menggu Ziyun, this dictionary describes a
language with many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin
Up to the early 20th century, most of the people in
China spoke only
their local variety. 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
(官话/官話, literally "language of officials"). For most of
this period, this language was a koiné based on dialects spoken in
Nanjing area, though not identical to any single dialect. By
the middle of the 19th century, the
Beijing dialect had become
dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial
In the 1930s a standard national language Guóyǔ (国语/國語
"national language") was adopted. After much dispute between
proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt
at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification
Commission finally settled on the
Beijing dialect in 1932. The
People's Republic founded in 1949 retained this standard, calling it
pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話 "common speech"). The national
language is now used in education, the media, and formal situations in
China and Taiwan. In
Hong Kong and Macau, because of
their colonial and linguistic history, the language used in education,
the media, formal speech, and everyday life remains the local
Cantonese, although the standard language has become very influential
and is being taught in schools.
Adoption of Chinese literary culture
Adoption of Chinese literary culture and Sino-Xenic
The Tripitaka Koreana, a Korean collection of the Chinese Buddhist
Chinese language has spread to neighbouring countries through a
variety of means. Northern Vietnam was incorporated into the Han
empire in 111 BCE, marking the beginning of 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 modeled 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
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 extensively imported into the Korean, Japanese and
Vietnamese languages, and today comprise over half of 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
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, in Japan, 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
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. Korean is written exclusively with
Hangul in North Korea,
Chinese characters (Hanja) are increasingly rarely
used in South Korea. Vietnamese is written with a Latin-based
Examples of loan words in English include "tea", from
Nan) tê (茶), "dim sum", from
Cantonese dim2 sam1 and "kumquat",
Cantonese gam1gwat1 (金橘).
Main article: Varieties of Chinese
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 exhibits 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 neighbors. For instance,
Wuzhou is about 120 miles (190 km)
upstream from Guangzhou, but the Yue variety spoken there is more like
Guangzhou than is that of Taishan, 60 miles (95 km)
Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers. In
Fujian the speech of neighboring counties or even villages
may be mutually unintelligible.
Until the late 20th century, Chinese emigrants to Southeast Asia and
North America came from southeast coastal areas, where Min, Hakka, and
Yue dialects are spoken. The vast majority of Chinese immigrants
to North America spoke the
Taishan dialect, from a small coastal area
southwest of Guangzhou.
Local varieties of Chinese are conventionally classified into seven
dialect groups, largely on the basis of the different evolution of
Middle Chinese voiced initials:
Mandarin, including Standard Chinese, Pekinese, Sichuanese, and also
Dungan language spoken in Central Asia
Wu, including Shanghainese, Suzhounese, and Wenzhounese
Min, including Fuzhounese, Hainanese, Hokkien, Taiwanese and Teochew
Cantonese and Taishanese
The classification of Li Rong, which is used in the Language Atlas of
China (1987), distinguishes three further groups:
Jin, previously included in Mandarin.
Huizhou, previously included in Wu.
Pinghua, previously included in Yue.
Range of Chinese dialect groups according to the Language Atlas of
Numbers of first-language speakers in
Taiwan in 2004:
Mandarin: 798.6 million (66.2%)
Jin: 63 million (5.2%)
Wu: 73.8 million (6.1%)
Huizhou: 3.3 million (0.3%)
Gan: 48 million (4.0%)
Xiang: 36.4 million (3.0%)
Min: 75 million (6.2%)
Hakka: 42.2 million (3.5%)
Yue: 58.8 million (4.9%)
Pinghua: 7.8 million (0.6%)
Some varieties remain unclassified, including
Danzhou dialect (spoken
in Danzhou, on
Waxianghua (spoken in western Hunan)
Shaozhou Tuhua (spoken in northern Guangdong).
Standard Chinese and List of countries where Chinese is
an official language
Standard Chinese, often called Mandarin, is the official standard
China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages
Singapore (where it is called "Huayu" 华语 or simply Chinese).
Standard Chinese is based on the
Beijing dialect, the dialect of
Mandarin as spoken in Beijing. The governments of both
Taiwan intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it
as a common language of communication. Therefore, it is used in
government agencies, in the media, and as a language of instruction in
China and Taiwan, diglossia has been a common feature. For
example, in addition to Standard Chinese, a resident of
speak Shanghainese; and, if he or she grew up elsewhere, then he or
she is also likely to be fluent in the particular dialect of that
local area. A native of
Guangzhou may speak both
Standard Chinese. In addition to Mandarin, most Taiwanese also speak
Minnan, Hakka, or an Austronesian language. A Taiwanese may
commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Mandarin and
other Taiwanese languages, and this mixture is considered normal in
daily or informal speech.
The official Chinese designation for the major branches of Chinese is
fāngyán (方言, literally "regional speech"), whereas the more
closely related varieties within these are called dìdiǎn fāngyán
(地点方言/地點方言 "local speech"). Conventional
English-language usage in Chinese linguistics is to use dialect for
the speech of a particular place (regardless of status) and dialect
group for a regional grouping such as Mandarin or Wu. Because
varieties from different groups are not mutually intelligible, some
scholars prefer to describe Wu and others as separate
languages.[better source needed] Jerry Norman called
this practice misleading, pointing out that Wu, which itself contains
many mutually unintelligible varieties, could not be properly called a
single language under the same criterion, and that the same is true
for each of the other groups.
Mutual intelligibility is considered by some linguists to be the main
criterion for determining whether varieties are separate languages or
dialects of a single language, although others do not regard it as
decisive, particularly when cultural factors
interfere as they do with Chinese. As Campbell (2008) explains,
linguists often ignore mutual intelligibility when varieties share
intelligibility with a central variety (i.e. prestige variety, such as
Standard Mandarin), as the issue requires some careful handling when
mutual intelligibility is inconsistent with language identity.
John DeFrancis argues that it is inappropriate to refer to Mandarin,
Wu and so on as "dialects" because the mutual unintelligibility
between them is too great. On the other hand, he also objects to
considering them as separate languages, as it incorrectly implies a
set of disruptive "religious, economic, political, and other
differences" between speakers that exist, for example, between French
Catholics and English Protestants in Canada, but not between speakers
Cantonese and Mandarin in China, owing to China's
near-uninterrupted history of centralized government.
Because of the difficulties involved in determining the difference
between language and dialect, other terms have been proposed: ISO
Ethnologue in assigning individual language codes to the
13 main subdivisions, while Chinese as a whole is classified as a
'macrolanguage'. Other options include vernacular, lect 
regionalect, topolect, and variety.
Most Chinese people consider the spoken varieties as one single
language because speakers share a common culture and history, as well
as a shared national identity and a common written form. 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
Standard Chinese phonology, Historical Chinese phonology,
Varieties of Chinese
Varieties of Chinese § Phonology
Spoken Mandarin Chinese
The phonological structure of each syllable consists of a nucleus that
has 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 nasal sonorant
consonants /m/ and /ŋ/ can stand alone as their own syllable.
In Mandarin much more than in other 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 nasals /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, the retroflex
approximant /ɻ /, and voiceless stops /p/, /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
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.[b]
All varieties of spoken Chinese use tones to distinguish words. A
few dialects of north
China may have as few as three tones, while some
dialects in south
China have up to 6 or 12 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
A very common example used to illustrate the use of tones in Chinese
is the application of the four tones of
Standard Chinese (along with
the neutral tone) 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
Standard Mandarin tones
Standard Cantonese, in contrast, has six tones in open syllables and
three tones in syllables ending with stops:
Standard Cantonese tones
high level, high falling
high level (stopped)
mid level (stopped)
low level (stopped)
Main article: Chinese grammar
See also: Chinese classifiers
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 usually the case that
a morpheme (unit of meaning) is a single syllable; In contrast,
English has 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
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
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 words that are commonly pronounced as
shí (tone 2): 十 "ten"; 实/實 "real, actual"; 识/識 "know (a
person), recognize"; 石 "stone"; 时/時 "time"; 食 "food, eat".
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
Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
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, shíjì 实际/實際 (lit. "actual-connection");
rènshi 认识/認識 (lit. "recognize-know"); shítou 石头/石頭
(lit. "stone-head"); shíjiān 时间/時間 (lit. "time-interval");
shíwù 食物 (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"), the
purpose of which 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, shí 石 alone, not shítou
石头/石頭, appears in compounds meaning "stone-", for example,
shígāo 石膏 "plaster" (lit. "stone cream"), shíhuī 石灰 "lime"
(lit. "stone dust"), shíkū 石窟 "grotto" (lit. "stone cave"),
shíyīng 石英 "quartz" (lit. "stone flower"), shíyóu 石油
"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 kūlong 窟窿 from kǒng 孔; this is especially common in Jin.
Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with
a fairly rigid construction. Although many of these single-syllable
morphemes (zì, 字) 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 –
wǒ 我 – "I, me"
rén 人 – "people, human, mankind"
dìqiú 地球 – "The 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).[c]
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.
Chinese has a subject–verb–object word order, and like many other
languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic–comment
construction to form sentences. Chinese also has an extensive system
of classifiers and measure words, another trait shared with
neighboring languages like Japanese and Korean. 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.
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. Because most Chinese words are made up of two or more
characters, there are many more Chinese words than characters. A
better term for a Chinese character would be morpheme, as characters
represent the smallest grammatical units, individual meanings, and/or
syllables in the Chinese language.
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
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
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 7th (2016) edition of Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, an authoritative
one-volume dictionary on modern standard
Chinese language as used in
mainland China, has 13,000 head characters and defines 70,000 words.
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.
Some early Indo-European loanwords in Chinese have been proposed,
notably 蜜 mì "honey", 狮/獅 shī "lion," and perhaps also 马/馬
mǎ "horse", 猪/豬 zhū "pig", 犬 quǎn "dog", and 鹅/鵝 é
"goose".[d] Ancient words borrowed from along the
Silk Road since Old
Chinese include 葡萄 pútáo "grape", 石榴 shíliu/shíliú
"pomegranate" and 狮子/獅子 shīzi "lion". Some words were
borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 Fó "Buddha" and
菩萨/菩薩 Púsà "bodhisattva." Other words came from nomadic
peoples to the north, such as 胡同 hútòng "hutong". Words borrowed
from the peoples along the Silk Road, such as 葡萄 "grape,"
generally have Persian etymologies. Buddhist terminology is generally
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
pípá, the Chinese lute, or 酪 lào/luò "cheese" or "yoghurt", but
from exactly which source is not always clear.
Translation of neologisms into Chinese and Transcription
into Chinese characters
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 the Japanese
電話 denwa; see below for more Japanese loans). 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
Macau Cantonese. Occasionally half-transliteration,
half-translation compromises are accepted, such as 汉堡包/漢堡包
hànbǎobāo (漢堡 hànbǎo "Hamburg" + 包 bāo "bun") for
"hamburger". Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound
like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes
(phono-semantic matching), such as 拖拉机/拖拉機 tuōlājī
"tractor" (lit. "dragging-pulling machine"), or 马利奥/馬利奧
Mǎlì'ào 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 luóji/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
Cantonese differs from Mandarin with some
transliterations, such as 梳化 so1 faa3*2 "sofa" and 摩打 mo1 daa2
Western foreign words representing Western concepts have influenced
Chinese since the 20th century through transcription. From French came
芭蕾 bāléi "ballet" and 香槟 xiāngbīn, "champagne"; 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, the United States
soft influences gave rise to 迪斯科 dísikē/dísīkē "disco",
可乐/可樂 kělè "cola", and 迷你 mínǐ "mini [skirt]".
Cantonese has distinct loanwords from English,
such as 卡通 kaa1 tung1 "cartoon", 基佬 gei1 lou2 "gay people",
的士 dik1 si6*2 "taxi", and 巴士 baa1 si6*2 "bus". With the rising
popularity of the Internet, there is a current vogue in
coining English transliterations, for example, 粉丝/粉絲 fěnsī
"fans", 黑客 hēikè "hacker" (lit. "black guest"), and 博客
bókè "blog". In Taiwan, some of these transliterations are
different, such as 駭客 hàikè for "hacker" and 部落格
bùluògé for "blog" (lit. "interconnected tribes").
Another result of the English influence on Chinese is the appearance
in Modern Chinese texts of so-called 字母词/字母詞 zìmǔcí
(lit. "lettered words") spelled with letters from the English
alphabet. This has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on web sites,
and on TV: 三G手机/三G手機 "3rd generation cell phones" (三
sān "three" + G "generation" + 手机/手機 shǒujī "mobile
phones"), IT界 "IT circles" (IT "information technology" + 界 jiè
"industry"), HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì,
汉语水平考试/漢語水平考試), GB (Guóbiāo, 国标/國標),
CIF价/CIF價 (CIF "Cost, Insurance, Freight" + 价/價 jià "price"),
e家庭 "e-home" (e "electronic" + 家庭 jiātíng "home"),
W时代/W時代 "wireless era" (W "wireless" + 时代/時代 shídài
"era"), TV族 "TV watchers" (TV "television" + 族 zú "social group;
clan"), 后РС时代/後PC時代 "post-PC era" (后/後 hòu
"after/post-" + PC "personal computer" + 时代/時代), 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; 経済 keizai in Japanese), 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
Latin and shared among European languages.
Main articles: Written Chinese, Mainland Chinese Braille, and
The Chinese orthography centers on Chinese characters, which are
written within imaginary square blocks, traditionally arranged in
vertical columns, read from top to bottom down a column, and right to
left across columns.
Chinese characters denote morphemes independent
of phonetic change. Thus the character 一 ("one") is uttered yī in
Standard Chinese, yat1 in
Cantonese and it in
Hokkien (form of Min).
Vocabularies from different major Chinese variants have diverged, and
colloquial nonstandard 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.
Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat
rooms and instant messaging amongst Hong-Kongers and
Cantonese-speakers elsewhere. It is considered highly informal, and
does not extend to many formal occasions.
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.
In Hunan, women in certain areas write their local language in Nü
Shu, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The Dungan language,
considered by many a dialect of Mandarin, is nowadays written in
Cyrillic, and was previously written in the Arabic script. The Dungan
people are primarily Muslim and live mainly in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
and Russia; some of the related
Hui people also speak the language and
live mainly in China.
Main article: Chinese characters
"Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion" by Wang Xizhi,
written in semi-cursive style
Each Chinese character represents a monosyllabic Chinese word or
morpheme. In 100 CE, the famed
Han dynasty scholar
Xu Shen classified
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 made using this format. The 18th-century Kangxi Dictionary
recognized 214 radicals.
Modern characters are styled after the regular script. Various other
written styles are also used in Chinese calligraphy, including seal
script, cursive script and clerical script. Calligraphy artists can
write in traditional and simplified characters, but they tend to use
traditional characters for traditional art.
There are currently two systems for Chinese characters. The
traditional system, still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan,
Macau and Chinese
speaking communities (except
Singapore and Malaysia) outside mainland
China, takes its form from standardized character forms dating back to
the late Han dynasty. The
Simplified Chinese character system,
introduced by the People's Republic of
China in 1954 to promote mass
literacy, simplifies most complex traditional glyphs to fewer strokes,
many to common cursive shorthand variants.
Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, was the second 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 these alternative
systems, be it traditional or simplified.
A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000 to
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. School-children typically learn around 2,000
characters whereas scholars may memorize up to 10,000. 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
"National language" (國語/国语; Guóyǔ) written in Traditional
Simplified Chinese characters, followed by various romanizations.
Chinese language romanization in
Singapore and Romanization
Romanization is the process of transcribing a language into the Latin
script. There are many systems of romanization for the Chinese
varieties, 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,
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
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
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
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
Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China
Beijing, the Capital of the People's Republic of China
Taipei, the Capital of the Republic of
Former Communist Chinese leader
Former Nationalist Chinese leader (better known to English speakers as
Chiang Kai-shek, with
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, Min Nan, Hakka, and other Chinese
Other phonetic transcriptions
Chinese varieties 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
premodern forms of Chinese.
Zhuyin (colloquially bopomofo), a semi-syllabary is still widely used
in Taiwan's elementary schools to aid standard pronunciation. Although
zhuyin 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:
There are also at least two systems of cyrillization for Chinese. The
most widespread is the Palladius system.
Yang Lingfu, former curator of the National Museum of China, giving
Chinese language instruction at the
Civil Affairs Staging Area
Civil Affairs Staging Area in
See also: Chinese as a foreign language
With the growing importance and influence of China's economy globally,
Mandarin instruction is gaining popularity in schools in the United
States, 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 (also known as HSK, 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.
According to the Modern Language Association, there were 550
elementary, junior high and senior high schools providing Chinese
programs in the
United States in 2015, which represented a 100%
increase in two years. At the same time, enrollment in Chinese
language classes at college level had an increase of 51% from 2002 to
2015. On the other hand, the American Council on the Teaching of
Foreign Languages also had figures suggesting that 30,000 - 50,000
students were studying Chinese in 2015.
In 2016, more than half a million Chinese students pursued
post-secondary education overseas, whereas 400,000 international
students came to
China for higher education. Tsinghua University
hosted 35,000 students from 116 countries in the same year.
With the increase in demand for Chinese as a second language, there
are 330 institutions teaching
Chinese language globally according to
the Chinese Ministry of Education. The establishment of Confucius
Institutes, which are the public institutions affiliated with the
Ministry of Education of China, aims at promoting
Chinese language and
culture as well as supporting Chinese teaching overseas. There were
more than 480
Confucius Institutes worldwide as of 2014.
Chinese exclamative particles
Classical Chinese grammar
Languages of China
North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics
^ Various examples include:
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
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."
China often use a formulation introduced by
Fu Maoji in
the Encyclopedia of China:
("In language classification, Chinese has a status equivalent to a
^ a b 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.
^ A distinction is made between 他 as "he" and 她 as "she" in
writing, but this is a 20th-century introduction, and both characters
are pronounced in exactly the same way.
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
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.
^ a b Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2012), p. 3.
^ china-language.gov.cn (in Chinese)
^ Mair (1991), pp. 10, 21.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 12–13.
^ Handel (2008), pp. 422, 434–436.
^ Handel (2008), p. 426.
^ Handel (2008), p. 431.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 183–185.
^ Schuessler (2007), p. 1.
^ Baxter (1992), pp. 2–3.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 42–45.
^ Baxter (1992), p. 177.
^ Baxter (1992), pp. 181–183.
^ Schuessler (2007), p. 12.
^ Baxter (1992), pp. 14–15.
^ Ramsey (1987), p. 125.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 34–42.
^ Norman (1988), p. 24.
^ Norman (1988), p. 48.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 48–49.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 49–51.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 133, 247.
^ Norman (1988), p. 136.
^ Coblin (2000), pp. 549–550.
^ Coblin (2000), pp. 540–541.
^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 3–15.
^ Norman (1988), p. 133.
^ Zhang & Yang (2004).
^ Sohn & Lee (2003), p. 23.
^ Miller (1967), pp. 29–30.
^ Kornicki (2011), pp. 75–77.
^ Kornicki (2011), p. 67.
^ Miyake (2004), pp. 98–99.
^ Shibatani (1990), pp. 120–121.
^ Sohn (2001), p. 89.
^ Shibatani (1990), p. 146.
^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 43.
^ Shibatani (1990), p. 143.
^ a b c Norman (2003), p. 72.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 189–190.
^ Ramsey (1987), p. 23.
^ Norman (1988), p. 188.
^ Norman (1988), p. 191.
^ Ramsey (1987), p. 98.
^ Norman (1988), p. 181.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 53–55.
^ a b Wurm et al. (1987).
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 72–73.
^ Klöter, Henning (2004). "Language Policy in the KMT and DPP eras".
China Perspectives. 56. ISSN 1996-4617. Retrieved 30 May
^ Kuo, Yun-Hsuan (2005). New dialect formation : the case of
Taiwanese Mandarin (PhD). University of Essex. Retrieved 26 June
^ a b DeFrancis (1984), p. 57.
^ Thomason (1988), pp. 27–28.
^ Mair (1991), p. 17.
^ DeFrancis (1984), p. 54.
^ Romaine (2000), pp. 13, 23.
^ Wardaugh & Fuller (2014), pp. 28–32.
^ Liang (2014), pp. 11–14.
^ Hymes (1971), p. 64.
^ Thomason (1988), p. 27.
^ Campbell (2008), p. 637.
^ DeFrancis (1984), pp. 55–57.
^ Lewis, Simons & Fennig (2015).
^ Haugen (1966), p. 927.
^ Bailey (1973:11), cited in Groves (2008:1)
^ Mair (1991), p. 7.
^ Hudson (1996), p. 22.
^ Baxter (1992), p. 7–8.
^ Norman (1988), p. 52.
^ Matthews & Yip (1994), pp. 20–22.
^ Terrell, Peter, ed. (2005). Langenscheidt Pocket Chinese Dictionary.
Berlin and Munich: Langenscheidt KG. ISBN 1-58573-057-2.
^ Norman (1988), p. 10.
^ Dr. Timothy Uy and Jim Hsia, Editors, Webster's Digital Chinese
Dictionary – Advanced Reference Edition, July 2009
^ Kane (2006), p. 161.
^ Zimmermann, Basile (2010). "Redesigning Culture: Chinese Characters
in Alphabet-Encoded Networks". Design and Culture. 2 (1).
^ "How hard is it to learn Chinese?". BBC News. January 17, 2006.
Retrieved April 28, 2010.
^ (in Chinese)
Xinhua News Agency, January 16, 2006.
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Language Atlas of China, Longman, ISBN 978-962-359-085-3.
Zhang, Bennan; Yang, Robin R. (2004), "Putonghua education and
language policy in postcolonial Hong Kong", in Zhou, Minglang,
Language policy in the People's Republic of China: Theory and practice
since 1949, Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 143–161,
Hannas, William C. (1997), Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of
Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1892-0.
Qiu, Xigui (2000), Chinese Writing, trans. Gilbert Louis Mattos and
Jerry Norman, Society for the Study of Early
China and Institute of
East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley,
R. L. G. "Language borrowing Why so little Chinese in English?" The
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Chinese edition of, the free encyclopedia
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chinese languages.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Chinese language
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Chinese phrasebook.
Classical Chinese texts – Chinese Text Project
Marjorie Chan's ChinaLinks at the Ohio State University with hundreds
of links to Chinese related web pages
Mandarin Chinese children's story in simplified Chinese showing the
stroke order for every character. on YouTube
Southern Peninsular Malaysian Hokkien
Standard Chinese (Mandarin)
Literary and colloquial readings
Mainland Chinese Braille
Two-Cell Chinese Braille
List of varieties of Chinese
Links to related articles
Languages of China
Provinces / SARs
Hong Kong SignHK/MC
GX = Guangxi
HK = Hong Kong
MC = Macau
NM = Inner Mongolia
XJ = Xinjiang
XZ = Tibet
Languages of Singapore
Singaporean Sign Language
Languages of Taiwan
Taiwanese Sign Language
Chinese language loan vocabularies