Ancient Chinese Bronze

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Ancient Chinese Bronze

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Ancient Chinese Bronze

Chinese language

Spoken Chinese

Main article: Spoken Chinese

A map below depicts the linguistic subdivisions ("languages" or "dialect groups") within China itself. The traditionally-recognized seven main groups, in order of population size are:




Local Romanization






Notes: includes Standard Mandarin



Pinyin: Gunhu

c. 850 million


Pinyin: Bifnghu


Notes: includes Shanghainese



Long-short: Ng nyiu

c. 90 million


Notes: includes Cantonese & Taishanese



Jyutping: Jyut6 jyu5;

Yale: Yuht yh

c. 80 million


Notes: includes Taiwanese & Teochew



POJ: Bn g;

BUC: Mng ng

c. 50 million




Romanization: Shien'

c. 35 million




Hakka Pinyin: Hak-k-fa or Hak-k-va

c. 35 million


Hakka Pinyin: Hak-fa or Hak-va




Romanization: Gon

c. 20 million

Disputed classifications by some Chinese linguists:




Local Romanization






Notes: from Mandarin




45 million


Notes: from Wu




~3.2 million


Notes: from Cantonese


Gungx Pnghu


~5 million

There are also some smaller groups that are not yet classified, such as: Danzhou dialect (), spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island; Xianghua (), not to be confused with Xiang (), spoken in western Hunan; and Shaozhou Tuhua (), spoken in northern Guangdong. The Dungan language, spoken in Central Asia, is very closely related to Mandarin. However, it is not generally considered "Chinese" since it is written in Cyrillic and spoken by Dungan people outside China who are not considered ethnic Chinese. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.

In general, the above language-dialect groups do not have sharp boundaries, though Mandarin is the predominant Sinitic language in the North and the Southwest, and the rest are mostly spoken in Central or Southeastern China. Frequently, as in the case of the Guangdong province, native speakers of major variants overlapped. As with many areas that were linguistically diverse for a long time, it is not always clear how the speeches of various parts of China should be classified. The Ethnologue lists a total of 14, but the number varies between seven and seventeen depending on the classification scheme followed. For instance, the Min variety is often divided into Northern Min (Minbei, Fuchow) and Southern Min (Minnan, Amoy-Swatow); linguists have not determined whether their mutual intelligibility is small enough to sort them as separate languages.

In general, mountainous South China displays more linguistic diversity than the flat North China. In parts of South China, a major city's dialect may only be marginally intelligible to close neighbours. For instance, Wuzhou is about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like Standard Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou, than is that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated by several rivers from it (Ramsey, 1987).

Standard Mandarin and diglossia

Main article: Standard Mandarin

Putonghua / Guoyu, often called "Mandarin", is the official standard language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Singapore (where it is called "Huayu"). It is based on the Beijing dialect, which is the dialect of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing. The government intends 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 schools.

In mainland China and Taiwan, diglossia has been a common feature: it is common for a Chinese to be able to speak two or even three varieties of the Sinitic languages (or ialects) together with Standard Mandarin. For example, in addition to putonghua a resident of Shanghai might speak Shanghainese and, if they did not grow up there, his or her local dialect as well. A native of Guangzhou may speak Standard Cantonese and putonghua, a resident of Taiwan, both Taiwanese and putonghua/guoyu. A person living in Taiwan may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered normal under many circumstances. In Hong Kong, Standard Mandarin is beginning to take its place beside English and Standard Cantonese, the official languages.


Main article: Identification of the varieties of Chinese

Linguists often view Chinese as a language family, though owing to China's socio-political and cultural situation, and the fact that all spoken varieties use one common written system, it is customary to refer to these generally mutually unintelligible variants as "the Chinese language". The diversity of Sinitic variants is comparable to the Romance languages.

From a purely descriptive point of view, "languages" and "dialects" are simply arbitrary groups of similar idiolects, and the distinction is irrelevant to linguists who are only concerned with describing regional speeches technically. However, the idea of a single language has major overtones in politics and cultural self-identity, and explains the amount of emotion over this issue. Most Chinese and Chinese linguists refer to Chinese as a single language and its subdivisions dialects, while others call Chinese a language family.

Chinese itself has a term for its unified writing system, Zhongwen (), while the closest equivalent used to describe its spoken variants would be Hanyu (, poken language of the Han Chinese)his term could be translated to either anguage or anguages since Chinese possesses no grammatical numbers. In the Chinese language, there is much less need for a uniform speech-and-writing continuum, as indicated by two separate character morphemes yu and wen. Ethnic Chinese often consider these spoken variations as one single language for reasons of nationality and as they inherit one common cultural and linguistic heritage in Classical Chinese. Han native speakers of Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese, for instance, may consider their own linguistic varieties as separate spoken languages, but the Han Chinese race as onelbeit internally very diversethnicity. To Chinese nationalists, the idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that the Chinese identity is much more fragmentary 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, where some supporters of Taiwanese independence promote the local Taiwanese Minnan-based spoken language.

Within the People Republic of China and Singapore, it is common for the government to refer to all divisions of the Sinitic language(s) beside Standard Mandarin as fangyan (egional tongues, often translated as ialects). Modern-day Chinese speakers of all kinds communicate using one formal standard written language, although this modern written standard is modeled after Mandarin, generally the modern Beijing dialect.

Language and nationality

The term sinophone, coined in analogy to anglophone and francophone, refers to those who speak the Chinese language natively, or prefer it as a medium of communication. The term is derived from Sinae, the Latin word for ancient China.

Written Chinese

Main article: Written Chinese

Chinese characters evolved over time from earlier forms of hieroglyphs. The idea that all Chinese characters are either pictographs or ideographs is an erroneous one: most characters contain phonetic parts, and are composites of phonetic components and semantic radicals. Only the simplest characters, such as ren (human), ri (sun), shan (mountain), shui (water), may be wholly pictorial in origin. In 100 CE, the famed scholar X Shn in the Hn Dynasty 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, and 8090% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that indicates the pronunciation. Generally, the phonetic element is more accurate and more important than the semantic one. There are about 214 radicals recognized in the Kangxi Dictionary.

Modern characters are styled after the standard script ( kish) (see styles, below). Various other written styles are also used in East Asian calligraphy, including seal script ( zhunsh), cursive script ( cosh) and clerical script ( lsh). Calligraphy artists can write in traditional and simplified characters, but tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.

Various styles of Chinese calligraphy.

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, developed by the People's Republic of China in 1954 to promote mass literacy, simplifies most complex traditional glyphs to fewer strokes, many to common caoshu shorthand variants.

Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the firstnd at present the onlyoreign nation to officially adopt simplified characters, although it has also become the de facto standard for younger ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. The Internet provides the platform to practice reading the alternative system, be it traditional or simplified.

A well-educated Chinese today recognizes approximately 6,000-7,000 characters; some 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; less than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.


History of China


3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors

Xia Dynasty 21001600 BCE

Shang Dynasty 16001046 BCE

Zhou Dynasty 1045256 BCE

 Western Zhou

 Eastern Zhou

   Spring and Autumn Period

   Warring States Period


Qin Dynasty 221 BCE206 BCE

Han Dynasty 206 BCE220 CE

  Western Han

  Xin Dynasty

  Eastern Han

Three Kingdoms 220280

  Wei, Shu & Wu

Jin Dynasty 265420

  Western Jin

16 Kingdoms


  Eastern Jin

Southern & Northern Dynasties


Sui Dynasty 581618

Tang Dynasty 618907

  ( Second Zhou 690705 )

5 Dynasties &

10 Kingdoms


Liao Dynasty


Song Dynasty


  Northern Song

W. Xia

  Southern Song


Yuan Dynasty 12711368

Ming Dynasty 13681644

Qing Dynasty 16441911


Republic of China 19121949

People's Republic

of China



of China



Related articles 

Chinese historiography

Timeline of Chinese history

Dynasties in Chinese history

Linguistic history

Art history

Economic history

Education history

Science and technology history

Legal history

Media history

Military history

Naval history

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Main article: History of the Chinese language

Most linguists classify all varieties of modern spoken Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, termed Proto-Sino-Tibetan, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relation between Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages is an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is enough documentation to allow one to reconstruct the ancient Chinese sounds, there is no written documentation that records the division between Proto-Sino-Tibetan and ancient Chinese. In addition, many of the older languages that would allow us to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly understood and many of the techniques developed for analysis of the descent of the (fusional) Indo-European languages from PIE do not apply to Chinese, an isolating language because of "morphological paucity" especially after Old Chinese.

Categorization of the development of Chinese is a subject of scholarly debate. One of the first systems was devised by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren in the early 1900s; most present systems rely heavily on Karlgren's insights and methods.

Old Chinese, sometimes known as "Archaic Chinese", was the language common during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE256 BCE), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the Shjng, the history of the Shjng, and portions of the Yjng (I Ching). The phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. The pronunciation of the borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean also provide valuable insights. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants, but probably was still without tones. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qng dynasty philologists. Some early Indo-European loan-words in Chinese have been proposed, notably m "honey", sh "lion," and perhaps also m "horse", qun "dog", and "goose". The source says the reconstructions of old Chinese are tentative, and not definitive so no conclusions should be drawn. The reconstruction of Old Chinese can not be perfect so this hypothesis may be called into question. The source also notes that southern dialects of Chinese have more monosyllabic words than the Mandarin Chinese dialects.

Middle Chinese was the language used during Southern and Northern Dynasties and the Su, Tng, and Sng dynasties (6th through 10th centuries CE). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the "Qiyn" rime book (601 CE), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by the "Gungyn" rime book. Linguists are more confident of having reconstructed how Middle Chinese sounded. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries, foreign transliterations, "rhyming tables" constructed by ancient Chinese philologists to summarize the phonetic system, and Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words. However, all reconstructions are tentative; some scholars have argued that trying to reconstruct, say, modern Cantonese from modern Cantopop rhymes would give a fairly inaccurate picture of the present-day spoken language.

The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. Most Chinese people, in Schun and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home language. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is largely due to north China's plains. By contrast, the mountains and rivers of middle and southern China promoted linguistic diversity.

Until the mid-20th century, most southern Chinese only spoke their native local variety of Chinese. As Nanjing was the capital during the early Ming Dynasty, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least until the later years of the Qing Dynasty. Since the 17th century, the Qing Dynasty had set up orthoepy academies (; Zhngyn Shyun) to make pronunciation conform to the standard of the capital Beijing. For the general population, however, this had limited effect. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their various languages for every aspect of life. The Beijing Mandarin court standard was used solely by officials and civil servants and was thus fairly limited.

This situation did not change until the mid-20th century with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC, but not in Hong Kong) of a compulsory educational system committed to teaching Standard Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken by virtually all young and middle-aged citizens of mainland China and on Taiwan. Standard Cantonese, not Mandarin, was used in Hong Kong during the time of its British colonial period (owing to its large Cantonese native and migrant populace) and remains today its official language of education, formal speech, and daily life, but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential after the 1997 handover.

Classical Chinese was once the lingua franca in neighbouring East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam for centuries, before the rise of European influences in 19th century.

Influences on other languages

Throughout history Chinese culture and politics has had a great influence on unrelated languages such as Korean and Japanese. Korean and Japanese both have writing systems employing Chinese characters (Hanzi), which are called Hanja and Kanji, respectively.

The Vietnamese term for Chinese writing is Hn t. It was the only available method for writing Vietnamese until the 14th century, used almost exclusively by Chinese-educated Vietnamese lites. From the 14th to the late 19th century, Vietnamese was written with Ch nm, a modified Chinese script incorporating sounds and syllables for native Vietnamese speakers. Ch nm was completely replaced by a modified Latin script created by the Jesuit missionary priest Alexander de Rhodes, which incorporates a system of diacritical marks to indicate tones, as well as modified consonants. Approximately 60% of the modern Vietnamese lexicon is recognized as Hn-Vi (Sino-Vietnamese), the majority of which was borrowed from Middle Chinese.

In South Korea, the Hangul alphabet is generally used, but Hanja is used as a sort of boldface. In North Korea, Hanja has been discontinued. Since the modernization of Japan in the late 19th century, there has been debate about abandoning the use of Chinese characters, but the practical benefits of a radically new script have so far not been considered sufficient.

In derived Chinese characters or Zhuang logograms to write songs, even though Zhuang is not a Chinese dialect. Since the 1950s, the Zhuang language has been written in a modified Latin alphabet.

Languages within the influence of Chinese culture also have a very large number of loanwords from Chinese. Fifty percent or more of Korean vocabulary is of Chinese origin, likewise for a significant percentage of Japanese and Vietnamese vocabulary. Chinese has also lent a great deal of many grammatical features to these and neighboring languages, notably the lack of gender and the use of classifiers.

Loan words from Chinese also exist in European languages such as English. Examples of such words are "tea" from the Minnan pronunciation of (POJ: t), "ketchup" from the Minnan pronunciation of (koe-tsiap), and "kumquat" from the Cantonese pronunciation of (kam kuat).


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

The phonological structure of each syllable consists of a nucleus consisting of a vowel (which can be a monophthong, diphthong, or even a triphthong in certain varieties) with an optional onset or coda consonant as well as a tone. There are some instances where a vowel is not used as a nucleus. An example of this is in Cantonese, where the nasal sonorant consonants /m/ and // can stand alone as their own syllable.

Across all the spoken varieties, most syllables tend to be open syllables, meaning they have no coda, but syllables that do have codas are restricted to /m/, /n/, //, /p/, /t/, /k/, or //. Some varieties allow most of these codas, whereas others, such as Mandarin, are limited to only two, namely /n/ and //. Consonant clusters do not generally occur in either the onset or coda. The onset may be an affricate or a consonant followed by a semivowel, but these are not generally considered consonant clusters.

The number of sounds in the different spoken dialects varies, but in general there has been a tendency to a reduction in sounds from Middle Chinese. The Mandarin dialects in particular have experienced a dramatic decrease in sounds and so have far more multisyllabic words than most other spoken varieties. The total number of syllables in some varieties is therefore only about a thousand, including tonal variation, which is only about an eighth as many as English.

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

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

(m) "mother"igh level

(m) "hemp" or "torpid"igh rising

(m) "horse"ow falling-rising

(m) "scold"igh falling

(ma) "question particle"eutral

Listen to the tones

This is a recording of the four main tones. Fifth, or neutral, tone is not included.

Problems listening to this file? See media help.

Phonetic transcriptions

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 describing 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.


Main article: Romanization of Chinese

Romanization is the process of transcribing a language in the Latin alphabet. There are many systems of romanization for the Chinese languages due to the lack of a native phonetic transcription until modern times. Chinese is first known to have been written in Latin characters by Western Christian missionaries in the 16th century.

Today the most common romanization standard for Standard Mandarin is Hanyu Pinyin, often known simply as pinyin, introduced in 1956 by the People's Republic of China, and later adopted by Singapore (see Chinese language romanisation in Singapore) and Taiwan. Pinyin is almost universally employed now for teaching standard spoken Chinese in schools and universities across America, Australia and Europe. Chinese parents also use Pinyin to teach their children the sounds and tones for teaching new words. The Pinyin romanization is usually shown below a picture of the thing the word represents, with the Chinese character alongside.

The second-most common romanization system, the Wade-Giles, was invented by Thomas Wade in 1859 and modified by Herbert Giles in 1892. As this system approximates the phonology of Mandarin Chinese into English consonants and vowels, i.e. it is an Anglicization, it may be particularly helpful for beginner Chinese speakers of an English-speaking background. Wade-Giles was found in academic use in the United States, particularly before the 1980s, and until recently was widely used in Taiwan.

When used within European texts, the tone transcriptions in both pinyin and Wade-Giles are often left out for simplicity; Wade-Giles' extensive use of apostrophes is also usually omitted. Thus, most Western readers will be much more familiar with Beijing than they will be with Bijng (pinyin), and with Taipei than T'ai-pei (Wade-Giles).

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

Mandarin Romanization Comparison



Hanyu Pinyin







Capital of the People's Republic of China



Capital of the Republic of China

Mao Tse-tung1

Mo Zdng

Former Communist Chinese leader

Chiang Chieh4-shih

Jing Jish

Former Nationalist Chinese leader (better known to English speakers as Chiang Kai-shek, with Cantonese pronunciation)

K'ung Tsu

Kng Z


Other systems of romanization for Chinese include Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the French EFEO, the Yale (invented during WWII for U.S. troops), as well as separate systems for Cantonese, Minnan, Hakka, and other Chinese languages or dialects.

Other phonetic transcriptions

Chinese languages have been phonetically transcribed into many other writing systems over the centuries. The 'Phags-pa script, for example, has been very helpful in reconstructing the pronunciations of pre-modern forms of Chinese.

Zhuyin (also called bopomofo), a semi-syllabary is still widely used in Taiwan's elementary schools to aid standard pronunciation. Although bopomofo characters are reminiscent of katakana script, there is no source to substantiate the claim that Katakana was the basis for the zhuyin system. A comparison table of zhuyin to pinyin exists in the zhuyin article. Syllables based on pinyin and zhuyin can also be compared by looking at the following articles:

Pinyin table

Zhuyin table

There are also at least two systems of cyrillization for Chinese. The most widespread is the Palladius system.

Grammar and morphology

Main article: Chinese grammar

Modern Chinese has often been erroneously classed as a "monosyllabic" language. While most of the morphemes are single syllable, modern Chinese today is much less a monosyllabic language in that nouns, adjectives and verbs are largely di-syllabic. The tendency to create disyllabic words in the modern Chinese languages, particularly in Mandarin, has been particularly pronounced when compared to Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is a highly isolating language, with each morpheme generally corresponding to a single syllable and a single character; Modern Chinese though, has the tendency to form new words through disyllabic, trisyllabic and tetra-character agglutination. In fact, some linguists argue that classifying modern Chinese as an isolating language is misleading, for this reason alone.

Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction which are the morphemes, the smallest blocks of the language. While many of these single-syllable morphemes ( z, in Chinese) can stand alone as individual words, they more often than not form multi-syllabic compounds, known as c (), which more closely resembles the traditional Western notion of a word. A Chinese c (ord) can consist of more than one character-morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.

For example:

Yun loud (traditional)

Yun loud (simplified)

Hanbaobao/Hanbao amburger (traditional)

Hanbaobao/Hanbao "hamburger" (simplified)

Wo , me

Ren eople

Diqiu arth (globosity)

Shandian ightning (traditional)

Shandian "lightning" (simplifed)

Meng ream (traditional)

Meng "dream" (simplified)

All varieties of modern Chinese are analytic languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology.e., changes in form of a wordo indicate the word's function in a sentence. In other words, Chinese has few grammatical inflectionst possesses no tenses, no voices, no numbers (singular, plural; though there are plural markers, for example for personal pronouns), and only a few articles (i.e., equivalents to "the, a, an" in English). There is, however, a gender difference in the written language ( as "he" and as "she"), but it should be noted that this is a relatively new introduction to the Chinese language in the twentieth century.

They make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood. In Mandarin Chinese, this involves the use of particles like le , hai , yijing , etc.

Chinese features Subject Verb Object word order, and like many other languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic-comment construction to form sentences. Chinese also has an extensive system of classifiers and measure words, another trait shared with neighbouring languages like Japanese and Korean. See Chinese classifiers for an extensive coverage of this subject.

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

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

Tones and homophones

Official modern Mandarin has only 400 spoken monosyllables but over 10,000 written characters, so there are many homophones only distinguishable by the four tones. Even this is often not enough unless the context and exact phrase or c is identified.

The mono-syllable j, first tone in standard Mandarin, corresponds to the following characters: chicken, machine, basic, (to) hit, hunger, and sum. In speech, the glyphing of a monosyllable to its meaning must be determined by context or by relation to other morphemes (e.g. "some" as in the opposite of "none"). Native speakers may state which words or phrases their names are found in, for convenience of writing: Mngzi jio Jiyng, Jilng Jing de ji, Ynggu de yng "My name is Jiyng, the Jia for Jialing River and the ying for the short form in Chinese of UK."

Southern Chinese varieties like Cantonese and Hakka preserved more of the rimes of Middle Chinese and have more tones. The previous examples of j, for instance, for "stimulated", "chicken", and "machine", have distinct pronunciations in Cantonese (romanized using jyutping): gik1, gai1, and gei1, respectively. For this reason, southern varieties tend to employ fewer multi-syllabic words.


This section does not cite any references or sources.

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The entire Chinese character corpus since antiquity comprises well over 20,000 characters, of which only roughly 10,000 are now commonly in use. However Chinese characters should not be confused with Chinese words; since most Chinese words are made up of two or more different characters, there are many times more Chinese words than there are characters.

Estimates of the total number of Chinese words and phrases vary greatly. The Hanyu Da Zidian, an all-inclusive compendium of Chinese characters, includes 54,678 head entries for characters, including bone oracle versions. The Zhonghua Zihai (1994) contains 85,568 head entries for character definitions, and is the largest reference work based purely on character and its literary variants.

The most comprehensive pure linguistic Chinese-language dictionary, the 12-volumed Hanyu Da Cidian, records more than 23,000 head Chinese characters, and gives over 370,000 definitions. The 1999 revised Cihai, a multi-volume encyclopedic dictionary reference work, gives 122,836 vocabulary entry definitions under 19,485 Chinese characters, including proper names, phrases and common zoological, geographical, sociological, scientific and technical terms.

The latest 2007 5th edition of Xiandai Hanyu Cidian , an authoritative one-volume dictionary on modern standard Chinese language as used in mainland China, has 65,000 entries and defines 11,000 head characters.


See also: Translation of neologisms into Chinese and Transcription into Chinese characters

Like any other language, Chinese has absorbed a sizeable amount 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.

Words borrowed from along the Silk Road since Old Chinese include "grape," "pomegranate" and "lion." Some words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including "Buddha" and "bodhisattva." Other words came from nomadic peoples to the north, such as "hutong." Words borrowed from the peoples along the Silk Road, such as "grape" (pto in Mandarin) generally have Persian etymologies. Buddhist terminology is generally derived from Sanskrit or Pli, 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 "ppa", the Chinese lute, or "cheese" or "yoghurt", but from exactly which Altaic source is not always entirely clear.

Modern borrowings and loanwords

Modern neologisms are translated into Chinese primarily in three ways: free translation (by meaning), phonetic translation (by sound) and a combination of the above two (partially transcriptive with a careful selection of meaning-encoding characters). 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. Any Latin or Greek etymologies are dropped and converted into the corresponding meaning-carrying Chinese characters (e.g. anti- typically becomes "", 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 (Shanghainese: tlfon , Standard Mandarin: dlfng) during the 1920s and widely used in Shanghai, but later the Japanese (dinhu "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent. Other examples include (dinsh "electric vision") for television, (dinno "electric brain") for computer; (shuj "hand machine") for cellphone, and (lny "blue tooth") for Bluetooth. (wng zh"internet logbook") for blog in Cantonese or people in Hong Kong and Macau. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as (hnbo bo, "Hamburg bun") for hamburger. Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes, such as (tulj, "tractor," literally "dragging-pulling machine"), or for the video game character Mario. This is often done for commercial purposes, for example (bntng "running leaping") for Pentium and (Sibiwi "better-than hundred tastes") for Subway restaurants.

Foreign words, mainly proper nouns (names of people, places), 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 (pinyin: ysli), "Paris" becomes (pinyin: bl). A rather small number of direct transliterations have survived as common words, including shf "sofa," md "motor," yum "humor," luj "logic," shmo "smart, fashionable" and xisdl "hysterics." The bulk of these words were originally coined in the Shanghainese 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, and in Shanghainese actually sound more like the English "sofa" and "motor."

Western foreign words have had great influence on Chinese language since the 20th century, through transcription. From French came (bli, "ballet"), (xingbn, "champagne"), via Italian (kfi, "caff"). The English influence is particularly pronounced. From early 20th century Shanghainese, many English words are borrowed .eg. the above-mentioned (shf "sofa"), (yum "humour"), and (gorf, "golf"). Later United States soft influences gave rise to (dsk, "disco"), (kl, "cola") and (mn, "mini(skirt)"). Contemporary colloquial Cantonese has distinct loanwords from English like cartoon (cartoon), (gay people), (taxi), (bus). With the rising popularity of the Internet, there is a current vogue in China for coining English transliterations, eg. (fns, "fans"), (hik, "hacker", literally "black guest"), (blug, blog, literally "interconnected tribes") in Taiwanese Mandarin.

Another result of the English influence on Chinese is the appearance of the so called (Lettered-words) spelled in Modern Chinese texts with foreign alphabets letters. This has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on web-sites and on TV screen: 3rd generation cell phones (an three + generation + shou ji mobile phones), IT "IT environment", HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi ) , GB (guobiao ), CIF (Cost, Insurance, Freight + jia4 price); e 'Electronic home' ( jia1ting1 ome); W 'Wireless generation'( shi2dai4 eneration); call, TV, 'post PC era' ( hou after/post + PC ersonal computer + shi dai epoch), etc.

Since the 20th century, another source has been Japan. Using existing kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese language, the Japanese re-moulded European concepts and inventions into wasei-kango (, literally Japanese-made Chinese), and re-loaned many of these into modern Chinese. Examples include dinhu (, denwa, "telephone"), shhu (, shakai, "society"), kxu (, kagaku, "science") and chuxing (, chsh, "abstract"). 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, jngj (, keizai), which in the original Chinese meant "the workings of the state", was narrowed to "economy" in Japanese; this narrowed definition was then reimported 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 toing-and-froing process, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese share a corpus linguistic of terms describing modern terminology, in parallel to a similar corpus of terms built from Greco-Latin terms shared among European languages.

Learning Chinese

See also: Chinese as a Foreign or Second Language

With the growing importance and influence of China's economy globally, Mandarin instruction is gaining popularity in schools in the USA, and has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst the young in the Western world, as in the UK.

In 1991 there were 2,000 foreign learners taking China's official Chinese Proficiency Test (comparable to the English Cambridge Certificate), while in 2005, the number of candidates had risen sharply to 117,660.

See also

China portal

Chinese characters

Chinese exclamative particles

Chinese honorifics

Chinese classifier

Chinese number gestures

Chinese numerals

Chinese punctuation

Classical Chinese grammar

Four-character idiom

Han unification

Haner language

HSK test

Languages of China

North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics

N shu


DeFrancis, John (1984). The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6. 

Hannas, William C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1892-X. 

Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29653-6. 

Qiu, Xigui (2000). Chinese Writing. Society for the Study of Early China and Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7. 

Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01468-X. 


^ (Chinese)


^ *David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) , p. 312. he 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. he Chinese language family is genetically classified as an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Jerry Norman. Chinese (1988), p.1. he modern Chinese dialects are really more like a family of language.

John DeFrancis. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (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."

^ Mair, Victor H. (1991). "What Is a Chinese "Dialect/Topolect"? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms" (PDF). Sino-Platonic Papers. 

^ Analysis of the concept "wave" in PST.

^ Encyclopedia Britannica s.v. "Chinese languages": "Old Chinese vocabulary already contained many words not generally occurring in the other Sino-Tibetan languages. The words for oney' and ion,' and probably also orse,' og,' and oose,' are connected with Indo-European and were acquired through trade and early contacts. (The nearest known Indo-European languages were Tocharian and Sogdian, a middle Iranian language.) A number of words have Austroasiatic cognates and point to early contacts with the ancestral language of Muong-Vietnamese and Mon-Khmer"; Jan Ulenbrook, Einige bereinstimmungen zwischen dem Chinesischen und dem Indogermanischen (1967) proposes 57 items; see also Tsung-tung Chang, 1988 Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese;.

^ *Sheng Ding and Robert A. Saunders, Talking Up China: An Analysis of China's Rising Cultural Power and Global Promotion of the Chinese Language EASTASIA, Summer 2006, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 4

^ Zhou, Minglang: Multilingualism in China: The Politics of Writing Reforms for Minority Languages, 1949-2002 (Walter de Gruyter 2003); ISBN 3-11-017896-6; p. 251258.

^ 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.

^ BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | How hard is it to learn Chinese?

^ (Chinese) "200512", Xinhua News Agency, January 16, 2006.

Further reading

ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary. Editor: John de Francis. (2003) University of Hawai Press. ISBN 0-8248-2766-X.

ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. Axel Schuessler. 2007. University of Hawai Press, Honolulu. ISBN 978-0-8248-2975-9.

External links

Chinese language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Keys to the Chinese Language: Book IIoogle Books

v  d  e

Chinese language(s)

Spoken varieties

Major Subdivisions


Northeastern  Jilu  Jiao-Liao  Zhongyuan  Southwestern  Lanyin  Jianghuai  Taiwanese Mandarin  Beijing  Dungan  Xuzhou  Luoyang  Jinan  Karamay  Nanking  Sichuanese  Kunming  Shenyang  Harbin  Qingdao  Guanzhong  Dalian  Weihai


Chuqu  Taihu  Hangzhou  Ningbo  Quzhou  Shanghainese  Suzhou  Changzhou  Wenzhou  Wuxi  Taizhou  Jiangyin  Qihai  Jiangshan  Qingtian  Jinxiang


Cantonese  Gaoyang  Siyi  Goulou  Wuhua  Yongxun  Luoguang  Qinlian  Guanbao  Haihua  Tanka  Taishan


Min Bei  Min Dong  Min Nan  Min Zhong  Puxian  Qiong Wen  Taiwanese Minnan  Teochew  Jian'ou  Hokkien  Haifeng  Zhenan  Longyan  Fuzhou  Zhanjiang  Leizhou  Nanlang  Zhongshan  Sanxiang  Zhangzhou  Quanzhou  Amoy  Shantou


Changsha  Shuangfeng


Dapeng  Yuantang


Chang Jing  Ying Yi  Yi Liu  Da Tong


Huizhou  Jin  Pinghua  Hohhot  Danzhou


Xianghua  Yuebei Tuhua  Linghua


Standard Mandarin


Historical  Cantonese  Mandarin


Old Chinese  Middle Chinese  Proto-Min  Proto-Gan  Proto-Mandarin  Haner

Written varieties


Classical  Vernacular


Vernacular Cantonese  Vernacular Donggan  Vernacular Minnan

List of Chinese dialects  Identification of Chinese language varieties

v  d  e

Chinese language loan vocabularies

Sino-Japanese  Sino-Korean  Sino-Vietnamese

v  d  e

Languages of Asia



Afghanistan  Armenia1  Azerbaijan1  Bahrain  Bangladesh  Bhutan  Brunei  Burma2  Cambodia  People's Republic of China  Cyprus1  East Timor3  Egypt4  Georgia4  India  Indonesia  Iran  Iraq  Israel  Japan  Jordan  Kazakhstan4  North Korea  South Korea  Kuwait  Kyrgyzstan  Laos  Lebanon  Malaysia  Maldives  Mongolia  Nepal  Oman  Pakistan  Philippines  Qatar  Russia4  Saudi Arabia  Singapore  Sri Lanka  Syria  Tajikistan  Republic of China5  Thailand  Turkey4  Turkmenistan  United Arab Emirates  Uzbekistan  Vietnam  Yemen

States with limited


Abkhazia1  Nagorno-Karabakh  Northern Cyprus  Palestine  South Ossetia1 



other territories

Aceh  Adjara1  Akrotiri and Dhekelia  Altai  British Indian Ocean Territory  Buryatia  Christmas Island  Cocos (Keeling) Islands  Guangxi  Hong Kong  Inner Mongolia  Iraqi Kurdistan  Khakassia  Macau  Nakhchivan  Ningxia  Papua  Sakha Republic  Tibet  Tuva  West Papua  Xinjiang 

1 Sometimes included in Europe, depending on the border definitions.  2 Officially known as Myanmar.  3 Sometimes included in Oceania, and also known as Timor-Leste.  4 Transcontinental country.  5 Commonly known as Taiwan. 

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Official languages of the United Nations

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