Min or Miin[a] (simplified Chinese: 闽语; traditional Chinese: 閩語; pinyin: Mǐn yǔ; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Bân gú; BUC: Mìng ngṳ̄) is a broad group of Chinese varieties spoken by over 70 million people in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian as well as by migrants from this province in Guangdong (around Chaozhou-Swatou, or Chaoshan area, Leizhou peninsula and Part of Zhongshan), Hainan, three counties in southern Zhejiang, Zhoushan archipelago off Ningbo, some towns in Liyang, Jiangyin City in Jiangsu province, and Taiwan. The name is derived from the Min River in Fujian. Min varieties are not mutually intelligible with each other or with any other varieties of Chinese.
There are many Min speakers among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. The most widely spoken variety of Min outside Fujian is Southern Min (Minnan), also known as Hokkien-Taiwanese (which includes Taiwanese and Amoy).
The Min homeland of Fujian was opened to Chinese settlement by the defeat of the Minyue state by the armies of Emperor Wu of Han in 110 BC. The area features rugged mountainous terrain, with short rivers that flow into the South China Sea. Most subsequent migration from north to south China passed through the valleys of the Xiang and Gan rivers to the west, so that Min varieties have experienced less northern influence than other southern groups. As a result, whereas most varieties of Chinese can be treated as derived from Middle Chinese, the language described by rhyme dictionaries such as the Qieyun (601 AD), Min varieties contain traces of older distinctions. Linguists estimate that the oldest layers of Min dialects diverged from the rest of Chinese around the time of the Han dynasty. However, significant waves of migration from the North China Plain occurred:
Jerry Norman identifies four main layers in the vocabulary of modern Min varieties:
Laurent Sagart (2008) shows that Norman and Mei Tsu-lin analysis of an Austroasiatic substratum in Min is incorrect. The hypothesis proposed by Jerry Norman and Tsu-Lin Mei arguing for an Austroasiatic homeland along the middle Yangtze has been largely abandoned in most circles, and left unsupported by the majority of Austroasiatic specialists.
Min is usually described as one of seven or ten groups of varieties of Chinese but has greater dialectal diversity than any of the other groups. The varieties used in neighbouring counties, and in the mountains of western Fujian even in adjacent villages, are often mutually unintelligible.
Early classifications, such as those of Li Fang-Kuei in 1937 and Yuan Jiahua in 1960, divided Min into Northern and Southern subgroups. However, in a 1963 report on a survey of Fujian, Pan Maoding and colleagues argued that the primary split was between inland and coastal groups. A key discriminator between the two groups is a group of words that have a lateral initial /l/ in coastal varieties, and a voiceless fricative /s/ or /ʃ/ in inland varieties, contrasting with another group having /l/ in both areas. Norman reconstructs these initials in Proto-Min as voiceless and voiced laterals that merged in coastal varieties.
The coastal varieties have the vast majority of speakers, and have spread from their homeland in Fujian and eastern Guangdong to the islands of Taiwan and Hainan, to other coastal areas of southern China and to Southeast Asia. Pan and colleagues divided them into three groups:
Although coastal varieties can be derived from a proto-language with four series of stops or affricates at each point of articulation (e.g. /t/, /tʰ/, /d/, and /dʱ/), inland varieties contain traces of two further series, which Norman termed "softened stops" due to their reflexes in some varieties. Inland varieties use pronouns and negatives cognate with those in Hakka and Yue. Inland varieties have little or no tone sandhi.
Most Min vocabulary corresponds directly to cognates in other Chinese varieties, but there is also a significant number of distinctively Min words that may be traced back to proto-Min. In some cases a semantic shift has occurred in Min or the rest of Chinese:
Norman and Mei Tsu-lin have suggested an Austroasiatic origin for some Min words:
However, Norman and Mei Tsu-lin suggestion is rejected by Laurent Sagart (2008). Moreover, the Austroasiatic predecessor of modern Vietnamese language has been proven to originate in the mountainous region in Central Laos and Vietnam, rather than in the region north of the Red River delta. . In other cases, the origin of the Min word is obscure. Such words include *khauA 骹 "foot", *-tsiɑmB 䭕 "insipid" and *dzyŋC 𧚔 "to wear".
When using Chinese characters to write a non-Mandarin form, standard practice is to use characters that correspond etymologically to the words being represented, and to invent new characters for words with no evident ancient Chinese etymology or in some cases for alternative pronunciations of existing characters, especially when the meaning is significantly different. Written Cantonese has carried this process out to the farthest extent of any non-Mandarin variety, to the extent that pure Cantonese vernacular can be unambiguously written using Chinese characters. Contrary to popular belief, a vernacular written in this fashion is not in general comprehensible to a Mandarin speaker, due to significant changes in grammar and vocabulary and the necessary use of large number of non-Mandarin characters.
A similar process has never taken place for any of the Min varieties and there is no standard system for writing Min, although some specialized characters have been created. Given that Min combines the Chinese of several different periods and contains some non-Chinese vocabulary, one may have trouble finding the appropriate Chinese characters for some Min vocabulary. In the case of Taiwanese, there are also indigenous words borrowed from Formosan languages, as well as a substantial number of loan words from Japanese. The Min spoken in Singapore and Malaysia has borrowed heavily from Malay and, to a lesser extent, from English and other languages. The result is that cases of Min written purely in Chinese characters does not represent actual Min speech, but contains a heavy mixture of Mandarin forms.
Attempts to faithfully represent Min speech necessarily rely on romanization, i.e. representation using Latin characters. Some Min speakers use the Church Romanization (Chinese: 教會羅馬字; pinyin: Jiaohui Luomazi). For Hokkien the romanization is called Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ) and for Fuzhou dialect called Foochow Romanized (Bàng-uâ-cê, BUC). Both systems were created by foreign missionaries in the 19th century (see Min Nan and Min Dong). There are some uncommon publications in mixed writing, using mostly Chinese characters but using the Latin alphabet to represent words that cannot easily be represented by Chinese characters.
In conclusion, there is no convincing evidence, linguistic or other, of an early Austroasiatic presence on the south‑east China coast.