Mandarin (/ˈmændərɪn, -drɪn/ ( listen); simplified
Chinese: 官话; traditional Chinese: 官話; pinyin: Guānhuà;
literally: "speech of officials") is a group of related varieties of
Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The
group includes the
Beijing dialect, the basis of Standard Mandarin or
Standard Chinese. Because most Mandarin dialects are found in the
north, the group is sometimes referred to as the Northern dialects
(北方话; běifānghuà). Many local Mandarin varieties are not
mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, Mandarin is often placed first in
lists of languages by number of native speakers (with nearly a
Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect
groups, spoken by 70 percent of all Chinese speakers over a large
geographical area, stretching from
Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang
in the northwest and
Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is generally
attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the
China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined
with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas.
Most Mandarin varieties have four tones. The final stops of Middle
Chinese have disappeared in most of these varieties, but some have
merged them as a final glottal stop. Many Mandarin varieties,
Beijing dialect, retain retroflex initial consonants,
which have been lost in southern dialect groups.
The capital has been within the Mandarin area for most of the last
millennium, making these dialects very influential. Some form of
Mandarin has served as a national lingua franca since the 14th
century. In the early 20th century, a standard form based on the
Beijing dialect, with elements from other Mandarin dialects, was
adopted as the national language.
Standard Chinese is the official
language of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan and one of
the four official languages of Singapore. It is used as one of the
working languages of the United Nations. It is also one of the most
frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora
2.1 Old Mandarin
2.2 Vernacular literature
2.3 Koiné of the Late Empire
2.4 Standard Chinese
3 Geographic distribution and dialects
7 See also
10 Further reading
10.1 Historical Western language texts
11 External links
The English word "mandarin" (from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay
Sanskrit mantrin, meaning "minister or counsellor")
originally meant an official of the Ming and Qing empires.[a]
Since their native varieties were often mutually unintelligible, these
officials communicated using a
Koiné language based on various
northern varieties. When
Jesuit missionaries learned this standard
language in the 16th century, they called it "Mandarin", from its
Chinese name Guānhuà (官话/官話), or "language of the
In everyday English, "Mandarin" refers to Standard Chinese, which is
often called simply "Chinese".
Standard Chinese is based on the
particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing, with some lexical and
syntactic influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official
spoken language of the People's Republic of
China (PRC), the de facto
official language of the Republic of
China (ROC, Taiwan), and one of
the four official languages of the Republic of Singapore. It also
functions as the language of instruction in Mainland
China and in
Taiwan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations,
under the name "Chinese". Chinese speakers refer to the modern
standard language as
Pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話, literally "common speech") in
Guóyǔ (國語, literally "national language") in Taiwan, or
Huáyǔ (华语/華語, literally "Hua language/Chinese Language") in
Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines,
but not as Guānhuà.
Linguists use the term "Mandarin" to refer to the diverse group of
dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China, which Chinese
linguists call Guānhuà. The alternative term Běifānghuà
(北方话/北方話), or "Northern dialects", is used less and less
among Chinese linguists. By extension, the term "Old Mandarin" or
"Early Mandarin" is used by linguists to refer to the northern
dialects recorded in materials from the Yuan dynasty.
Native speakers who are not academic linguists may not recognize that
the variants they speak are classified in linguistics as members of
"Mandarin" (or so-called "Northern dialects") in a broader sense.
Within Chinese social or cultural discourse, there is not a common
"Mandarin" identity based on language; rather, there are strong
regional identities centred on individual dialects because of the wide
geographical distribution and cultural diversity of their speakers.
Speakers of forms of Mandarin other than the standard typically refer
to the variety they speak by a geographic name—for example Sichuan
Hebei dialect or Northeastern dialect, all being regarded as
distinct from the standard language.
The hundreds of modern local varieties of Chinese developed from
regional variants of
Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Traditionally,
seven major groups of dialects have been recognized. Aside from
Mandarin, the other six are Wu, Gan and Xiang in central China, and
Min, Hakka and Yue on the southeast coast. The Language Atlas of
China (1987) distinguishes three further groups: Jin (split from
Mandarin), Huizhou in the
Huizhou region of
Anhui and Zhejiang, and
Guangxi and Yunnan.
Main article: Old Mandarin
A page of the Menggu Ziyun, covering the syllables tsim to lim
After the fall of the Northern Song (959–1126) and during the reign
of the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern
China, a common speech developed based on the dialects of the North
China Plain around the capital, a language referred to as Old
Mandarin. New genres of vernacular literature were based on this
language, including verse, drama and story forms, such as the qu and
The rhyming conventions of the new verse were codified in a rime
dictionary called the
Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324). A radical departure
from the rime table tradition that had evolved over the previous
centuries, this dictionary contains a wealth of information on the
phonology of Old Mandarin. Further sources are the 'Phags-pa script
based on the Tibetan alphabet, which was used to write several of the
languages of the Mongol empire, including Chinese, and the Menggu
Ziyun, a rime dictionary based on 'Phags-pa. The rime books differ in
some details, but overall show many of the features characteristic of
modern Mandarin dialects, such as the reduction and disappearance of
final plosives and the reorganization of the
Middle Chinese tones.
In Middle Chinese, initial stops and affricates showed a three-way
contrast between tenuis, voiceless aspirated and voiced consonants.
There were four tones, with the fourth, or "entering tone", a checked
tone comprising syllables ending in plosives (-p, -t or -k). Syllables
with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch, and
by the late Tang dynasty, each of the tones had split into two
registers conditioned by the initials. When voicing was lost in all
languages except the Wu subfamily, this distinction became phonemic
and the system of initials and tones was rearranged differently in
each of the major groups.
Zhongyuan Yinyun shows the typical Mandarin four-tone system
resulting from a split of the "even" tone and loss of the entering
tone, with its syllables distributed across the other tones (though
their different origin is marked in the dictionary). Similarly, voiced
plosives and affricates have become voiceless aspirates in the "even"
tone and voiceless non-aspirates in others, another distinctive
Mandarin development. However, the language still retained a final -m,
which has merged with -n in modern dialects, and initial voiced
fricatives. It also retained the distinction between velars and
alveolar sibilants in palatal environments, which later merged in most
Mandarin dialects to yield a palatal series (rendered j-, q- and x- in
The flourishing vernacular literature of the period also shows
distinctively Mandarin vocabulary and syntax, though some, such as the
third-person pronoun tā (他), can be traced back to the Tang
Until the early 20th century, formal writing and even much poetry and
fiction was done in Literary Chinese, which was modeled on the
classics of the
Warring States period
Warring States period and the Han dynasty. Over time,
the various spoken varieties diverged greatly from Literary Chinese,
which was learned and composed as a special language. Preserved from
the sound changes that affected the various spoken varieties, its
economy of expression was greatly valued. For example, 翼 (yì,
"wing") is unambiguous in written Chinese, but has over 75 homophones
in Standard Chinese.
The literary language was less appropriate for recording materials
that were meant to be reproduced in oral presentations, materials such
as plays and grist for the professional story-teller's mill. From at
least the Yuan dynasty, plays that recounted the subversive tales of
China's Robin Hoods to the Ming dynasty novels such as Water Margin,
on down to the Qing dynasty novel
Dream of the Red Chamber
Dream of the Red Chamber and beyond,
there developed a literature in written vernacular Chinese
(白话/白話 báihuà). In many cases, this written language
reflected Mandarin varieties, and since pronunciation differences were
not conveyed in this written form, this tradition had a unifying force
across all the Mandarin-speaking regions and beyond.
Hu Shih, a pivotal figure of the first half of the twentieth century,
wrote an influential and perceptive study of this literary tradition,
entitled Báihuà Wénxuéshǐ ("A History of Vernacular Literature").
Koiné of the Late Empire
Main article: Mandarin (late imperial lingua franca)
Zhongguo Guanhua (中國官話), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela
("Middle Kingdom's Common Speech"), used on the frontispiece of an
Chinese grammar published by
Étienne Fourmont (with Arcadio
Huang) in 1742
The Chinese have different languages in different provinces, to such
an extent that they cannot understand each other.... [They] also have
another language which is like a universal and common language; this
is the official language of the mandarins and of the court; it is
among them like Latin among ourselves.... Two of our fathers [Michele
Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci] have been learning this mandarin
language... — Alessandro Valignano, Historia del principio y
progresso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales
Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in many parts
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. Knowledge of this language was thus
essential for an official career, but it was never formally
Officials varied widely in their pronunciation; in 1728, the Yongzheng
Emperor, unable to understand the accents of officials from Guangdong
and Fujian, issued a decree requiring the governors of those provinces
to provide for the teaching of proper pronunciation. Although the
resulting Academies for Correct
Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) were short-lived, the decree did spawn a number
of textbooks that give some insight into the ideal pronunciation.
Common features included:
loss of the
Middle Chinese voiced initials except for v-
merger of -m finals with -n
the characteristic Mandarin four-tone system in open syllables, but
retaining a final glottal stop in "entering tone" syllables
retention of the distinction between palatalized velars and dental
affricates, the source of the spellings "Peking" and "Tientsin" for
modern "Beijing" and "Tianjin".
As the last two of these features indicate, this language was a koiné
based on dialects spoken in the
Nanjing area, though not identical to
any single dialect. This form remained prestigious long after the
capital moved to
Beijing in 1421, though the speech of the new capital
emerged as a rival standard. As late as 1815, Robert Morrison based
the first English–
Chinese dictionary on this koiné as the standard
of the time, though he conceded that the
Beijing dialect was gaining
in influence. By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing
dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with
the imperial court.
Main article: Standard Chinese
In the early years of the Republic of China, intellectuals of the New
Culture Movement, such as
Hu Shih and Chen Duxiu, successfully
campaigned for the replacement of
Literary Chinese as the written
standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern
dialects. A parallel priority was the definition of a standard
national language (simplified Chinese: 国语; traditional Chinese:
國語; pinyin: Guóyǔ; Wade–Giles: Kuo²-yü³). 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 (simplified Chinese: 普通话; traditional
Chinese: 普通話; literally: "common speech"). Some 54% of
speakers of Mandarin varieties could understand the standard language
in the early 1950s, rising to 91% in 1984. Nationally, the proportion
understanding the standard rose from 41% to 90% over the same
The national language is now used in education, the media and formal
occasions in both the PRC and the ROC but not in
Hong Kong and Macau.
This standard can now be spoken intelligibly by most younger people in
Taiwan with various regional accents. In Hong Kong
and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the sole
language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life
remains the local Cantonese. Mandarin is now common and taught in many
schools but still hasn't gained ground. In Mandarin-speaking areas
Sichuan and Chongqing, the local dialect is the native tongue
of most of the population.[clarification needed] The era of mass
Standard Chinese has not erased these regional
differences, and people may be either diglossic or speak the standard
language with a notable accent.
From an official point of view, the PRC and ROC governments maintain
their own forms of the standard under different names. Technically,
both Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ base their phonology on the Beijing
accent, though Pǔtōnghuà also takes some elements from other
sources. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will
show that there are few substantial differences. However, both
versions of "school-standard" Chinese are often quite different from
the Mandarin varieties that are spoken in accordance with regional
habits, and neither is wholly identical to the
Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ also have some differences from the Beijing
dialect in vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics.
The written forms of
Standard Chinese are also essentially equivalent,
although simplified characters are used in China,
Malaysia, while people in Hong Kong,
Taiwan generally use
Geographic distribution and dialects
See also: List of varieties of Chinese
Distribution of the eight subgroups of Mandarin plus Jin Chinese,
which many linguists include as part of Mandarin, according to the
Language Atlas of
Most Han Chinese living in northern and southwestern
China are native
speakers of a dialect of Mandarin. The North
China Plain provided few
barriers to migration, leading to relative linguistic homogeneity over
a wide area in northern China. In contrast, the mountains and rivers
China have spawned the other six major groups of Chinese
varieties, with great internal diversity, particularly in
However, the varieties of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly
a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional
variations in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, and many
Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible.[b]
Most of northeastern China, except for Liaoning, did not receive
significant settlements by Han Chinese until the 18th century, and
as a result the
Northeastern Mandarin dialects spoken there differ
little from the
Beijing dialect. The
Manchu people of the area now
speak these dialects exclusively; their native language is only
maintained in northwestern Xinjiang, where Xibe, a modern dialect, is
The frontier areas of Northwest
China were colonized by speakers of
Mandarin dialects at the same time, and the dialects in those areas
similarly closely resemble their relatives in the core Mandarin
area. The Southwest was settled early, but the population fell
dramatically for obscure reasons in the 13th century, and did not
recover until the 17th century. The dialects in this area are now
relatively uniform. However, long-established cities even very
close to Beijing, such as Tianjin, Baoding, Shenyang, and Dalian, have
markedly different dialects.
Unlike their compatriots on the southeast coast, few Mandarin speakers
engaged in overseas emigration until the late 20th century, but there
are now significant communities of them in cities across the
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The classification of Chinese dialects evolved during the 20th
century, and many points remain unsettled. Early classifications
tended to follow provincial boundaries or major geographical
features. In 1936, Wang Li produced the first classification based
on phonetic criteria, principally the evolution of Middle Chinese
voiced initials. His Mandarin group included dialects of northern and
southwestern China, as well as those of
Hunan and northern
Jiangxi. Li Fang-Kuei's classification of 1937 distinguished the
latter two groups as Xiang and Gan, while splitting the remaining
Mandarin dialects between Northern, Lower
Yangtze and Southwestern
Mandarin groups. The widely accepted seven-group classification of
Yuan Jiahua in 1960 kept Xiang and Gan separate, with Mandarin divided
into Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern and Jiang–Huai (Lower
Of Yuan's four Mandarin subgroups, the Northwestern dialects are the
most diverse, particularly in the province of Shanxi. The linguist
Li Rong proposed that the northwestern dialects of
neighbouring areas that retain a final glottal stop in the Middle
Chinese entering tone (plosive-final) category should constitute a
separate top-level group called Jin. He used this classification
in the Language Atlas of
China (1987). Many other linguists
continue to include these dialects in the Mandarin group, pointing out
that the Lower
Yangtze dialects also retain the glottal stop.
The southern boundary of the Mandarin area, with the central Wu, Gan
and Xiang groups, is weakly defined due to centuries of diffusion of
northern features. Many border varieties have a mixture of features
that make them difficult to classify. The boundary between
Southwestern Mandarin and Xiang is particularly weak, and in many
early classifications the two were not separated.
Zhou Zhenhe and
You Rujie include the
New Xiang dialects within Southwestern Mandarin,
treating only the more conservative
Old Xiang dialects as a separate
group. The Huizhou dialects have features of both Mandarin and Wu,
and have been assigned to one or other of these groups or treated as
separate by various authors. Li Rong and the Language Atlas of China
treated it as a separate top-level group, but this remains
The Language Atlas of
China calls the remainder of Mandarin a
"supergroup", divided into eight dialect groups distinguished by their
treatment of the
Middle Chinese entering tone (see Tones below):
Northeastern Mandarin, spoken in
Manchuria except the Liaodong
Peninsula. This dialect is closely related to Standard Chinese,
with little variation in lexicon and very few tonal differences.
Beijing Mandarin in
Beijing and environs such as
Chengde and northern
Hebei, as well as some areas of recent large-scale immigration, such
as northern Xinjiang. The
Beijing dialect forms the basis of
Jilu Mandarin, spoken in
Hebei ("Ji") and
Shandong ("Lu") provinces
Shandong Peninsula, including
Tianjin dialect. Tones
and vocabulary are markedly different. In general, there is
substantial intelligibility with
Jiaoliao Mandarin, spoken in
Shandong (Jiaodong) and Liaodong
Peninsulas. Very noticeable tonal changes, different in "flavour"
from Ji–Lu Mandarin, but with more variance. There is moderate
intelligibility with Beijing.
Central Plains Mandarin, spoken in
Henan province, the central parts
Shaanxi in the
Yellow River valley, eastern
Gansu and southern
Xinjiang. There are significant phonological differences, with
partial intelligibility with Beijing. The
Dungan language spoken in
Kyrgyzstan belongs to this group. Dungan speakers such
as the poet
Iasyr Shivaza have reported being understood by speakers
Beijing dialect, but not vice versa.
Lanyin Mandarin, spoken in central and western
Gansu province (with
capital Lanzhou) and
Ningxia autonomous region (with capital
Yinchuan), as well as northern Xinjiang.
Lower Yangtze Mandarin
Lower Yangtze Mandarin (or Jiang–Huai), spoken in the parts of
Anhui on the north bank of the Yangtze, as well as some
areas on the south bank, such as
Nanjing in Jiangsu,
Jiangxi, etc. There are significant phonological and lexical
changes to varying degrees, and intelligibility with
Lower Yangtze Mandarin
Lower Yangtze Mandarin has been significantly influenced by
Southwestern Mandarin, spoken in the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan,
Guizhou, Yunnan, and the Mandarin-speaking areas of Hunan,
southern Shaanxi. There are sharp phonological, lexical, and tonal
changes, and intelligibility with
Beijing is limited to varying
The Atlas also includes several unclassified Mandarin dialects spoken
in scattered pockets across southeastern China, such as
Fujian and Dongfang on Hainan, Another Mandarin variety of
uncertain classification is apparently Gyami, recorded in the 19th
century in the Tibetan foothills, who the Chinese apparently did not
recognize as Chinese.
Standard Chinese phonology
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Syllables consist maximally of an initial consonant, a glide, a vowel,
a final, and tone. Not every syllable that is possible according to
this rule actually exists in Mandarin, as there are rules prohibiting
certain phonemes from appearing with others, and in practice there are
only a few hundred distinct syllables.
Phonological features that are generally shared by the Mandarin
the palatalization of velar consonants and alveolar sibilants when
they occur before palatal glides;
one syllable contains maximum four phonemes (maximum three vowels and
no consonant cluster)
the disappearance of final stop consonants and /-m/ (although in many
Lower Yangtze Mandarin
Lower Yangtze Mandarin and
Jin Chinese dialects, an echo of the final
stops is preserved as a glottal stop);
the reduction of the six tones inherited from Middle
Chinese after the tone split to four tones;
the presence of retroflex consonants (although these are absent in
many Southwestern and
Northeastern Mandarin dialects);
the historical devoicing of stops and sibilants (also common to most
The maximal inventory of initials of a Mandarin dialect is as follows,
with bracketed pinyin spellings given for those present in the
/ɻ ~ ʐ/ ⟨r⟩
Most Mandarin-speaking areas distinguish between the retroflex
initials /ʈ͡ʂ ʈ͡ʂʰ ʂ/ from the apical sibilants /ts tsʰ s/,
though they often have a different distribution than in the standard
language. In most dialects of the southeast and southwest the
retroflex initials have merged with the alveolar sibilants, so that
zhi becomes zi, chi becomes ci, and shi becomes si.
The alveolo-palatal sibilants /tɕ tɕʰ ɕ/ are the result of merger
between the historical palatalized velars /kj kʰj xj/ and palatalized
alveolar sibilants /tsj tsʰj sj/. In about 20% of dialects, the
alveolar sibilants failed to palatalize, remaining separate from the
alveolo-palatal initials. (The unique pronunciation used in Peking
opera falls into this category.) On the other side, in some dialects
of eastern Shandong, the velar initials have failed to palatalize.
Many southwestern Mandarin dialects mix /f/ and /xw/, substituting one
for the other in some or all cases. For example, fei /fei/ "to
fly" and hui /xwei/ "dust" may be merged in these areas.
In some dialects, initial /l/ and /n/ are not distinguished. In
Southwestern Mandarin, these sounds usually merge to /n/; in Lower
Yangtze Mandarin, they usually merge to /l/.
People in many Mandarin-speaking areas may use different initial
Beijing uses initial r- /ɻ/. Common variants include /j,
/l/, /n/ and /w/.
Some dialects have initial /ŋ/ corresponding to the zero initial of
the standard language. This initial is the result of a merger of
Middle Chinese zero initial with /ŋ/ and /ʔ/.
Many dialects of Northwestern and
Central Plains Mandarin
Central Plains Mandarin have /pf
pfʰ f v/ where
Beijing has /tʂw tʂʰw ʂw ɻw/. Examples
include /pfu/ "pig" for standard zhū 豬 /tʂu/, /fei/ "water" for
standard shuǐ 水 /ʂwei/, /vã/ "soft" for standard ruǎn 軟
Most Mandarin dialects have three medial glides, /j/, /w/ and /ɥ/
(spelled i, u and ü in pinyin), though their incidence varies. The
medial /w/, is lost after apical initials in several areas. Thus
Southwestern Mandarin has /tei/ "right" where the standard language
has dui /twei/.
Southwestern Mandarin also has /kai kʰai xai/ in some
words where the standard has jie qie xie /tɕjɛ tɕʰjɛ ɕjɛ/. This
is a stereotypical feature of southwestern Mandarin, since it is so
easily noticeable. E.g. hai "shoe" for standard xie, gai "street" for
Mandarin dialects typically have relatively few vowels. Syllabic
fricatives, as in standard zi and zhi, are common in Mandarin
dialects, though they also occur elsewhere. The Middle Chinese
off-glides /j/ and /w/ are generally preserved in Mandarin dialects,
yielding several diphthongs and triphthongs in contrast to the larger
sets of monophthongs common in other dialect groups (and some widely
scattered Mandarin dialects).
Middle Chinese coda /m/ was still present in Old Mandarin, but has
merged with /n/ in the modern dialects. In some areas (especially
the southwest) final /ŋ/ has also merged with /n/. This is especially
prevalent in the rhyme pairs -en/-eng /ən əŋ/ and -in/-ing /in
iŋ/. As a result, jīn "gold" and jīng "capital" merge in those
Middle Chinese final stops have undergone a variety of
developments in different Mandarin dialects (see Tones below). In
Yangtze dialects and some north-western dialects they have
merged as a final glottal stop. In other dialects they have been lost,
with varying effects on the vowel. As a result,
Northeastern Mandarin underwent more vowel mergers than many other
varieties of Mandarin. For example:
R-coloring, a characteristic feature of Mandarin, works quite
differently in the southwest. Whereas
Beijing dialect generally
removes only a final /j/ or /n/ when adding the rhotic final -r /ɻ/,
in the southwest the -r replaces nearly the entire rhyme.
Four tones of Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, using musical
In general, no two Mandarin-speaking areas have exactly the same set
of tone values, but most Mandarin-speaking areas have very similar
tone distribution. For example, the dialects of Jinan, Chengdu, Xi'an
and so on all have four tones that correspond quite well to the
Beijing dialect tones of [˥] (55), [˧˥] (35), [˨˩˦] (214), and
[˥˩] (51). The exception to this rule lies in the distribution of
syllables formerly ending in a stop consonant, which are treated
differently in different dialects of Mandarin.
Middle Chinese stops and affricates had a three-way distinction
between tenuis, voiceless aspirate and voiced (or breathy voiced)
consonants. In Mandarin dialects the voicing is generally lost,
yielding voiceless aspirates in syllables with a
Middle Chinese level
tone and non-aspirates in other syllables. Of the four tones of
Middle Chinese, the level, rising and departing tones have also
developed into four modern tones in a uniform way across Mandarin
Middle Chinese level tone has split into two registers,
conditioned on voicing of the
Middle Chinese initial, while rising
tone syllables with voiced obstruent initials have shifted to the
departing tone. The following examples from the standard language
illustrate the regular development common to Mandarin dialects (recall
that pinyin d denotes a non-aspirate /t/, while t denotes an aspirate
Middle Chinese initials and tones in modern Mandarin
Middle Chinese tone
Modern Mandarin tone
1 (yīn píng)
2 (yáng píng)
In traditional Chinese phonology, syllables that ended in a stop in
Middle Chinese (i.e. /p/, /t/ or /k/) were considered to belong to a
special category known as the "entering tone". These final stops have
disappeared in most Mandarin dialects, with the syllables distributed
over the other four modern tones in different ways in the various
Beijing dialect that underlies the standard language, syllables
beginning with original voiceless consonants were redistributed across
the four tones in a completely random pattern. For example, the
three characters 积脊迹, all tsjek in
Middle Chinese (William H.
Baxter's transcription), are now pronounced jī, jǐ and jì
respectively. Older dictionaries such as Mathews' Chinese-English
Dictionary mark characters whose pronunciation formerly ended with a
stop with a superscript 5; however, this tone number is more commonly
used for syllables that always have a neutral tone (see below).
Yangtze dialects, a minority of Southwestern dialects (e.g.
Jin Chinese (sometimes considered non-Mandarin), former
final stops were not deleted entirely, but were reduced to a glottal
stop /ʔ/. This development is shared with
Wu Chinese and is
thought to represent the pronunciation of Old Mandarin. In line with
traditional Chinese phonology, dialects such as Lower
Minjiang are thus said to have five tones instead of four. However,
modern linguistics considers these syllables as having no phonemic
tone at all.
Reflexes of the
Middle Chinese entering tone in Mandarin dialects
Middle Chinese initial
marked with final glottal stop (rù)
Although the system of tones is common across Mandarin dialects, their
realization as tone contours varies widely:
Phonetic realization of Mandarin tones in principal dialects
1 (yīn píng)
2 (yáng píng)
glottal stop (rù)
˦˨ (42), ˨˩˧ (213)*
˦ʔ (4), ˥ʔ (5)*
* Dialects in and around the
Nantong area typically have many more
than 4 tones, due to influence from the neighbouring Wu dialects.
Mandarin dialects frequently employ neutral tones in the second
syllables of words, creating syllables whose tone contour is so short
and light that it is difficult or impossible to discriminate. These
atonal syllables also occur in non-Mandarin dialects, but in many
southern dialects the tones of all syllables are made clear.
There are more polysyllabic words in Mandarin than in all other major
varieties of Chinese except Shanghainese. This is
partly because Mandarin has undergone many more sound changes than
have southern varieties of Chinese, and has needed to deal with many
more homophones. New words have been formed by adding affixes such as
lao- (老), -zi (子), -(e)r (儿/兒), and -tou (头/頭), or by
compounding, e.g. by combining two words of similar meaning as in
cōngmáng (匆忙), made from elements meaning "hurried" and "busy".
A distinctive feature of southwestern Mandarin is its frequent use of
noun reduplication, which is hardly used in Beijing. In Sichuan, one
hears bāobāo (包包) "handbag" where
Beijing uses bāo'r (包儿).
There are also a small number of words that have been polysyllabic
since Old Chinese, such as húdié (蝴蝶) "butterfly".
The singular pronouns in Mandarin are wǒ (我) "I", nǐ (你 or 妳)
"you", nín (您) "you (formal)", and tā (他, 她 or 它)
"he/she/it", with -men (们們) added for the plural. Further, there
is a distinction between the plural first-person pronoun zánmen
(咱们/咱們), which is inclusive of the listener, and wǒmen
(我们/我們), which may be exclusive of the listener. Dialects of
Mandarin agree with each other quite consistently on these pronouns.
While the first and second person singular pronouns are cognate with
forms in other varieties of Chinese, the rest of the pronominal system
is a Mandarin innovation (e.g.,
Shanghainese has non 侬/儂 "you" and
yi 伊 "he/she").
Because of contact with Mongolian and Manchurian peoples, Mandarin
(especially the Northeastern varieties) has some loanwords from these
languages not present in other varieties of Chinese, such as hútòng
(胡同) "alley". Southern Chinese varieties have borrowed from
Tai, Austroasiatic, and Austronesian languages.
There are also many Chinese words came from foreign languages such as
gāo ěr fū (高尔夫) from golf; bǐ jī ní (比基尼) from
bikini; hàn bǎo bāo (汉堡包) from hamburger.
In general, the greatest variation occurs in slang, in kinship terms,
in names for common crops and domesticated animals, for common verbs
and adjectives, and other such everyday terms. The least variation
occurs in "formal" vocabulary—terms dealing with science, law, or
See also: Chinese grammar
Chinese varieties of all periods have traditionally been considered
prime examples of analytic languages, relying on word order and
particles instead of inflection or affixes to provide grammatical
information such as person, number, tense, mood, or case. Although
modern varieties, including the Mandarin dialects, use a small number
of particles in a similar fashion to suffixes, they are still strongly
The basic word order of subject–verb–object is common across
Chinese dialects, but there are variations in the order of the two
objects of ditransitive sentences. In northern dialects the indirect
object precedes the direct object (as in English), for example in the
Standard Chinese sentence:
In southern dialects, as well as many southwestern and Lower Yangtze
dialects, the objects occur in the reverse order.
Most varieties of Chinese use post-verbal particles to indicate
aspect, but the particles used vary. Most Mandarin dialects use the
particle -le (了) to indicate the perfective aspect and -zhe
(着/著) for the progressive aspect. Other Chinese varieties tend to
use different particles, e.g.
Cantonese zo2 咗 and gan2 紧/緊
respectively. The experiential aspect particle -guo (过/過) is used
more widely, except in Southern Min.
The subordinative particle de (的) is characteristic of Mandarin
dialects. Some southern dialects, and a few Lower Yangtze
dialects, preserve an older pattern of subordination without a marking
particle, while in others a classifier fulfils the role of the
Especially in conversational Chinese, sentence-final particles alter
the inherent meaning of a sentence. Like much vocabulary, particles
can vary a great deal with regards to the locale. For example, the
particle ma (嘛), which is used in most northern dialects to denote
obviousness or contention, is replaced by yo (哟) in southern usage.
Some characters in Mandarin can be combined with others to indicate a
particular meaning just like prefix and suffix in English. For
example, the suffix -er which means the person who is doing the
action, e.g. teacher, person who teaches. In Mandarin the character
師 functions the same thing, it is combined with 教, which means
teach, to form the word teacher.
List of Chinese prefix and suffix
Meaning of Example
plural, same as -s, -es
學生們 [学生们]、朋友們 [朋友們]
same as -able
trusty, laughable, reliable
same as re-(again)
redo, rebuild, renew
same as -th, -st, -nd
old, or show respect to a certain type of person
old man; boss, teacher
same as -ize, -en
officialize, systemize, strengthen
same as -er or expert
writer, scientist, artist
same as -ness,_ -ability
reliability, usability, understandability
usually used in a disparaging way similar to –aholic
smoker, alcoholic, coward
a technician in a certain field
gardener, painter, carpenter
theater fan, sports fan, groupie of a musician
suffix for occupations
teacher, cook/chef, lawyer
Transcription into Chinese characters
List of languages by number of native speakers
^ A folk etymology deriving the name from Mǎn dà rén (满大人
"Manchu big man") is without foundation.
^ For example:
In the early 1950s, only 54% of people in the Mandarin-speaking area
could understand Standard Chinese, which was based on the Beijing
"Hence we see that even Mandarin includes within it an unspecified
number of languages, very few of which have ever been reduced to
writing, that are mutually unintelligible."
"the common term assigned by linguists to this group of languages
implies a certain homogeneity which is more likely to be related to
the sociopolitical context than to linguistic reality, since most of
those varieties are not mutually intelligible."
"A speaker of only standard Mandarin might take a week or two to
comprehend even simple Kunminghua with ease—and then only if willing
to learn it."
^ The development is purely due to the preservation of an early glide
which later became /j/ and triggered patalization, and does not
indicate the absence of a vowel merger.
^ "Världens 100 största språk 2010" (The World's 100 Largest
Languages in 2010), in Nationalencyklopedin
^ 台灣手語簡介 (Taiwan) (2009)
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
(2017). "Mandarin Chinese".
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History.
^ "Law of the People's Republic of
China on the Standard Spoken and
Written Chinese Language (Order of the President No.37)". Chinese
Government. 31 October 2000. Retrieved 28 March 2017. For purposes of
this Law, the standard spoken and written
Chinese language means
Putonghua (a common speech with pronunciation based on the Beijing
dialect) and the standardized Chinese characters.
^ "ROC Vital Information". Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of
China (Taiwan). 31 December 2014. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
^ "《人民日报》评论员文章：说普通话 用规范字".
www.gov.cn. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Mathew Ricci.
^ "mandarin", Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1 (6th ed.). Oxford
University Press. 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-920687-2.
^ Razfar & Rumenapp (2013), p. 293.
^ Coblin (2000), p. 537.
^ a b Norman (1988), p. 136.
^ Norman (1988), p. 181.
^ a b Wurm et al. (1987).
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 48–49.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 49–51.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 34–36, 52–54.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 49–50.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 111–132.
^ Ramsey (1987), p. 10.
^ Fourmont, Etienne (1742). Linguae Sinarum Mandarinicae
hieroglyphicae grammatica duplex, latinè, & cum characteribus
^ Coblin (2000), p. 539.
^ Kaske (2008), pp. 48–52.
^ Coblin (2003), p. 353.
^ Morrison, Robert (1815). A dictionary of the Chinese language: in
three parts, Volume 1. P.P. Thoms. p. x.
^ Coblin (2000), pp. 540–541.
^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 3–15.
^ Chen (1999), pp. 27–28.
^ Zhang & Yang (2004).
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Map A2.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 183–190.
^ Ramsey (1987), p. 22.
^ Chen (1999), p. 27.
^ Mair (1991), p. 18.
^ a b Escure (1997), p. 144.
^ a b Blum (2001), p. 27.
^ Richards (2003), pp. 138–139.
^ a b c Ramsey (1987), p. 21.
^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 215–216.
^ a b c d Norman (1988), p. 191.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 36–41.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–42.
^ Kurpaska (2010), p. 49.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 53–54.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 181, 191.
^ Yan (2006), p. 61.
^ Ting (1991), p. 190.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56, 74–75.
^ Norman (1988), p. 190.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–46.
^ Kurpaska (2010), p. 55.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 75–76.
^ Yan (2006), pp. 222–223.
^ Kurpaska (2010), p. 75.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Map B1.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B2, B5.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Map B2.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B1, B3.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B3, B4, B5.
^ Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer & 1977–78, p. 351.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B4, B5.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Map B3.
^ Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B4, B6.
^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 67–68.
^ Mair (1990), pp. 5–6.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 139–141, 192.
^ a b c d e f g h Norman (1988), p. 193.
^ a b Norman (1988), p. 192.
^ a b Norman (1988), p. 194.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 194–196.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 194–195.
^ a b c Norman (1988), p. 195.
^ Li Rong's 1985 article on Mandarin classification, quoted in Yan
(2006), p. 61 and Kurpaska (2010), p. 89.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 195–196.
^ Norman (1988), pp. 182, 195–196.
^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 36–38.
^ Norman, Jerry; Mei, Tsu-lin (1976). "The Austroasiatics in ancient
South China: some lexical evidence". Monumenta Serica. 32:
^ Norman (1988), p. 10.
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^ Yue (2003), pp. 105–106.
^ Yue (2003), pp. 90–93.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mandarin Chinese.
Tones in Mandarin Dialects : Comprehensive tone comparison charts
for 523 Mandarin dialects. (Compiled by James Campbell) – Internet
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