Chinese ( 汉语; 漢語; Hànyǔ; Han language; or especially though not exclusively for written Chinese: 中文; Zhōngwén) is a group of related, but in many cases not mutually intelligible, language varieties, forming the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the ethnic Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.
The varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family.Template:Efn The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages but may be even more varied. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (about 800 million, e.g. Southwestern Mandarin), followed by Min (75 million, e.g. Southern Min), Wu (74 million, e.g. Shanghainese), Yue (68 million, e.g. Cantonese), etc.Template:Sfnp Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, and even dialect groups within Min Chinese may not be mutually intelligible. Some, however, like Xiang and certain Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and a certain degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.
Standard Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà/Guóyǔ/Huáyǔ) is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. It is the official language of China, a national language of Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The written form of the standard language (Template:Lang; Zhōngwén), based on the logograms known as Chinese characters (Template:Lang/Template:Lang; Hànzì), is shared by literate speakers of otherwise unintelligible dialects.
The earliest Chinese written records are Shang dynasty-era oracle inscriptions, which can be traced back to 1250 BCE. The phonetic categories of Archaic Chinese can be reconstructed from the rhymes of ancient poetry. During the Northern and Southern dynasties period, Middle Chinese went through several sound changes and split into several varieties following prolonged geographic and political separation. Qieyun, a rime dictionary, recorded a compromise between the pronunciations of different regions. The royal courts of the Ming and early Qing dynasties operated using a koiné language (Guanhua) based on Nanjing dialect of Lower Yangtze Mandarin. Standard Chinese was adopted in the 1930s, and is now the official language of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan.
- 1 Classification
- 2 History
- 3 Varieties
- 4 Phonology
- 5 Grammar
- 6 Vocabulary
- 7 Writing system
- 8 As a foreign language
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Linguists classify all varieties of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many other languages spoken in the Himalayas and the Southeast Asian Massif.Template:Sfnp Although the relationship was first proposed in the early 19th century and is now broadly accepted, reconstruction of Sino-Tibetan is much less developed than that of families such as Indo-European or Austroasiatic. Difficulties have included the great diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them, and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller languages are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to reach, and are often also sensitive border zones.Template:Sfnp Without a secure reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan, the higher-level structure of the family remains unclear.Template:Sfnp A top-level branching into Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages is often assumed, but has not been convincingly demonstrated.Template:Sfnp
- Main article: History of the Chinese language
The first written records appeared over 3,000 years ago during the Shang dynasty. As the language evolved over this period, the various local varieties became mutually unintelligible. In reaction, central governments have repeatedly sought to promulgate a unified standard.Template:Sfnp
Old and Middle Chinese
The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones from around 1250 BCE in the late Shang dynasty.Template:Sfnp Old Chinese was the language of the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE), recorded in inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the Classic of Poetry and portions of the Book of Documents and I Ching.Template:Sfnp Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the phonology of Old Chinese by comparing later varieties of Chinese with the rhyming practice of the Classic of Poetry and the phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters.Template:Sfnp Although many of the finer details remain unclear, most scholars agree that Old Chinese differs from Middle Chinese in lacking retroflex and palatal obstruents but having initial consonant clusters of some sort, and in having voiceless nasals and liquids.Template:Sfnp Most recent reconstructions also describe an atonal language with consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, developing into tone distinctions in Middle Chinese.Template:Sfnp Several derivational affixes have also been identified, but the language lacks inflection, and indicated grammatical relationships using word order and grammatical particles.Template:Sfnp
Middle Chinese was the language used during Northern and Southern dynasties and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (6th through 10th centuries CE). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the Qieyun rime book (601 CE), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by rhyme tables such as the Yunjing constructed by ancient Chinese philologists as a guide to the Qieyun system.Template:Sfnp These works define phonological categories, but with little hint of what sounds they represent.Template:Sfnp Linguists have identified these sounds by comparing the categories with pronunciations in modern varieties of Chinese, borrowed Chinese words in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean, and transcription evidence.Template:Sfnp The resulting system is very complex, with a large number of consonants and vowels, but they are probably not all distinguished in any single dialect. Most linguists now believe it represents a diasystem encompassing 6th-century northern and southern standards for reading the classics.Template:Sfnp
Classical and literary forms
- Main article: Classical Chinese
The relationship between spoken and written Chinese is rather complex. Its spoken varieties have evolved at different rates, while written Chinese itself has changed much less. Classical Chinese literature began in the Spring and Autumn period.
Rise of northern dialects
After the fall of the Northern Song dynasty, and during the reign of the Jin (Jurchen) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern China, a common speech (now called Old Mandarin) developed based on the dialects of the North China Plain around the capital.Template:Sfnp The Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324) was a dictionary that codified the rhyming conventions of new sanqu verse form in this language.Template:Sfnp Together with the slightly later Menggu Ziyun, this dictionary describes a language with many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin dialects.Template:Sfnp
Up to the early 20th century, most of the people in China spoke only their local variety.Template:Sfnp 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 (Template:Zh/Template:Zh, literally "language of officials").Template:Sfnp For most of this period, this language was a koiné based on dialects spoken in the Nanjing area, though not identical to any single dialect.Template:Sfnp By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court.Template:Sfnp
In the 1930s a standard national language Guóyǔ (Template:Lang/Template:Lang "national language") was adopted. After much dispute between proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The People's Republic founded in 1949 retained this standard, calling it pǔtōnghuà (Template:Lang/Template:Lang "common speech").Template:Sfnp The national language is now used in education, the media, and formal situations in both Mainland China and Taiwan.Template:Sfnp In Hong Kong and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the language used in education, the media, formal speech, and everyday life remains the local Cantonese, although the standard language has become very influential and is being taught in schools.Template:Sfnp
The Chinese language has spread to neighbouring countries through a variety of means. Northern Vietnam was incorporated into the Han empire in 111 BCE, marking the beginning of a period of Chinese control that ran almost continuously for a millennium. The Four Commanderies were established in northern Korea in the first century BCE, but disintegrated in the following centuries.Template:Sfnp Chinese Buddhism spread over East Asia between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE, and with it the study of scriptures and literature in Literary Chinese.Template:Sfnp Later Korea, Japan, and Vietnam developed strong central governments modeled on Chinese institutions, with Literary Chinese as the language of administration and scholarship, a position it would retain until the late 19th century in Korea and (to a lesser extent) Japan, and the early 20th century in Vietnam.Template:Sfnp Scholars from different lands could communicate, albeit only in writing, using Literary Chinese.Template:Sfnp
Although they used Chinese solely for written communication, each country had its own tradition of reading texts aloud, the so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations. Chinese words with these pronunciations were also extensively imported into the Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese languages, and today comprise over half of their vocabularies.Template:Sfnp This massive influx led to changes in the phonological structure of the languages, contributing to the development of moraic structure in JapaneseTemplate:Sfnp and the disruption of vowel harmony in Korean.Template:Sfnp
Borrowed Chinese morphemes have been used extensively in all these languages to coin compound words for new concepts, in a similar way to the use of Latin and Ancient Greek roots in European languages.Template:Sfnp Many new compounds, or new meanings for old phrases, were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to name Western concepts and artifacts. These coinages, written in shared Chinese characters, have then been borrowed freely between languages. They have even been accepted into Chinese, a language usually resistant to loanwords, because their foreign origin was hidden by their written form. Often different compounds for the same concept were in circulation for some time before a winner emerged, and sometimes the final choice differed between countries.Template:Sfnp The proportion of vocabulary of Chinese origin thus tends to be greater in technical, abstract, or formal language. For example, in Japan, Sino-Japanese words account for about 35% of the words in entertainment magazines, over half the words in newspapers, and 60% of the words in science magazines.Template:Sfnp
Vietnam, Korea, and Japan each developed writing systems for their own languages, initially based on Chinese characters, but later replaced with the Hangul alphabet for Korean and supplemented with kana syllabaries for Japanese, while Vietnamese continued to be written with the complex Chữ nôm script. However, these were limited to popular literature until the late 19th century. Today Japanese is written with a composite script using both Chinese characters (Kanji) and kana. Korean is written exclusively with Hangul in North Korea, and supplementary Chinese characters (Hanja) are increasingly rarely used in South Korea. Vietnamese is written with a Latin-based alphabet.
Examples of loan words in English include "tea", from Hokkien (Min Nan) Template:Zh (Template:Linktext), "dim sum", from Cantonese dim2 sam1 and "kumquat", from Cantonese gam1gwat1 (Template:Linktext).
- Main article: Varieties of Chinese
Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese.Template:Sfnp These varieties form a dialect continuum, in which differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, though the rate of change varies immensely.Template:Sfnp Generally, mountainous South China exhibits more linguistic diversity than the North China Plain. In parts of South China, a major city's dialect may only be marginally intelligible to close neighbors. For instance, Wuzhou is about Template:Convert upstream from Guangzhou, but the Yue variety spoken there is more like that of Guangzhou than is that of Taishan, Template:Convert southwest of Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers.Template:Sfnp In parts of Fujian the speech of neighboring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible.Template:Sfnp
Until the late 20th century, Chinese emigrants to Southeast Asia and North America came from southeast coastal areas, where Min, Hakka, and Yue dialects are spoken.Template:Sfnp The vast majority of Chinese immigrants to North America spoke the Taishan dialect, from a small coastal area southwest of Guangzhou.Template:Sfnp
Template:Pie chart Local varieties of Chinese are conventionally classified into seven dialect groups, largely on the basis of the different evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials:Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp
- Mandarin, including Standard Chinese, Pekinese, Sichuanese, and also the Dungan language spoken in Central Asia
- Wu, including Shanghainese, Suzhounese, and Wenzhounese
- Min, including Fuzhounese, Hainanese, Hokkien, Taiwanese and Teochew
- Yue, including Cantonese and Taishanese
The classification of Li Rong, which is used in the Language Atlas of China (1987), distinguishes three further groups:Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp
- Jin, previously included in Mandarin.
- Huizhou, previously included in Wu.
- Pinghua, previously included in Yue.
Some varieties remain unclassified, including Danzhou dialect (spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island), Waxianghua (spoken in western Hunan) and Shaozhou Tuhua (spoken in northern Guangdong).Template:Sfnp
- Main article: Standard Chinese
Template:See also Standard Chinese, often called Mandarin, is the official standard language of China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore (where it is called "Huáyŭ" Template:Lang or simply Chinese). Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, the dialect of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing. The governments of both China and Taiwan intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it as a common language of communication. Therefore, it is used in government agencies, in the media, and as a language of instruction in schools.
In mainland China and Taiwan, diglossia has been a common feature. For example, in addition to Standard Chinese, a resident of Shanghai might speak Shanghainese; and, if he or she grew up elsewhere, then he or she is also likely to be fluent in the particular dialect of that local area. A native of Guangzhou may speak both Cantonese and Standard Chinese. In addition to Mandarin, most Taiwanese also speak Minnan, Hakka, or an Austronesian language. A Taiwanese may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Mandarin and other Taiwanese languages, and this mixture is considered normal in daily or informal speech.
The official Chinese designation for the major branches of Chinese is fāngyán (Template:Lang, literally "regional speech"), whereas the more closely related varieties within these are called dìdiǎn fāngyán (Template:Lang/Template:Lang "local speech").Template:Sfnp Conventional English-language usage in Chinese linguistics is to use dialect for the speech of a particular place (regardless of status) and dialect group for a regional grouping such as Mandarin or Wu.Template:Sfnp Because varieties from different groups are not mutually intelligible, some scholars prefer to describe Wu and others as separate languages.Template:SfnpTemplate:Better source Jerry Norman called this practice misleading, pointing out that Wu, which itself contains many mutually unintelligible varieties, could not be properly called a single language under the same criterion, and that the same is true for each of the other groups.Template:Sfnp
Mutual intelligibility is considered by some linguists to be the main criterion for determining whether varieties are separate languages or dialects of a single language,Template:Sfnp although others do not regard it as decisive,Template:SfnpTemplate:SfnpTemplate:SfnpTemplate:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp particularly when cultural factors interfere as they do with Chinese.Template:Sfnp As Template:Harvcoltxt explains, linguists often ignore mutual intelligibility when varieties share intelligibility with a central variety (i.e. prestige variety, such as Standard Mandarin), as the issue requires some careful handling when mutual intelligibility is inconsistent with language identity.Template:Sfnp John DeFrancis argues that it is inappropriate to refer to Mandarin, Wu and so on as "dialects" because the mutual unintelligibility between them is too great. On the other hand, he also objects to considering them as separate languages, as it incorrectly implies a set of disruptive "religious, economic, political, and other differences" between speakers that exist, for example, between French Catholics and English Protestants in Canada, but not between speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin in China, owing to China's near-uninterrupted history of centralized government.Template:Sfnp
Because of the difficulties involved in determining the difference between language and dialect, other terms have been proposed. These include vernacular,Template:Sfnp lect  regionalect,Template:Sfnp topolect,Template:Sfnp and variety.Template:Sfnp
Most Chinese people consider the spoken varieties as one single language because speakers share a common culture and history, as well as a shared national identity and a common written form.Template:Sfnp To Chinese nationalists, the idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that the Chinese identity is much more fragmented and disunified than it actually is and as such is often looked upon as culturally and politically provocative. Additionally, Template:Citation needed span some of whose supporters promote the local Taiwanese Hokkien variety.
The phonological structure of each syllable consists of a nucleus that has a vowel (which can be a monophthong, diphthong, or even a triphthong in certain varieties), preceded by an onset (a single consonant, or consonant+glide; zero onset is also possible), and followed (optionally) by a coda consonant; a syllable also carries a tone. There are some instances where a vowel is not used as a nucleus. An example of this is in Cantonese, where the nasal sonorant consonants Template:IPA and Template:IPA can stand alone as their own syllable.
In Mandarin much more than in other spoken varieties, most syllables tend to be open syllables, meaning they have no coda (assuming that a final glide is not analyzed as a coda), but syllables that do have codas are restricted to nasals Template:IPA, Template:IPA, Template:IPA, the retroflex approximant Template:IPA, and voiceless stops Template:IPA, Template:IPA, Template:IPA, or Template:IPA. Some varieties allow most of these codas, whereas others, such as Standard Chinese, are limited to only Template:IPA, Template:IPA and Template:IPA.
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.Template:Efn
All varieties of spoken Chinese use tones to distinguish words.Template:SfnpTemplate:Efn A few dialects of north China may have as few as three tones, while some dialects in south China have up to 6 or 12 tones, depending on how one counts. One exception from this is Shanghainese which has reduced the set of tones to a two-toned pitch accent system much like modern Japanese.
A very common example used to illustrate the use of tones in Chinese is the application of the four tones of Standard Chinese (along with the neutral tone) to the syllable ma. The tones are exemplified by the following five Chinese words: Template:Chinese tones
Standard Cantonese, in contrast, has six tones in open syllables and three tones in syllables ending with stops:Template:Sfnp
|Template:Lang/Template:Lang||si1||high level, high falling||"poem"|
|Template:Lang||si3||mid level||"to assassinate"|
|Template:Lang||sik1||high level (stopped)||"color"|
|Template:Lang/Template:Lang||sik3||mid level (stopped)||"tin"|
|Template:Lang||sik6||low level (stopped)||"to eat"|
- Main article: Chinese grammar
Chinese is often described as a "monosyllabic" language. However, this is only partially correct. It is largely accurate when describing Classical Chinese and Middle Chinese; in Classical Chinese, for example, perhaps 90% of words correspond to a single syllable and a single character. In the modern varieties, it is usually the case that a morpheme (unit of meaning) is a single syllable; In contrast, English has plenty of multi-syllable morphemes, both bound and free, such as "seven", "elephant", "para-" and "-able".
Some of the conservative southern varieties of modern Chinese have largely monosyllabic words, especially among the more basic vocabulary. In modern Mandarin, however, most nouns, adjectives and verbs are largely disyllabic. A significant cause of this is phonological attrition. Sound change over time has steadily reduced the number of possible syllables. In modern Mandarin, there are now only about 1,200 possible syllables, including tonal distinctions, compared with about 5,000 in Vietnamese (still largely monosyllabic) and over 8,000 in English.Template:Efn
This phonological collapse has led to a corresponding increase in the number of homophones. As an example, the small Langenscheidt Pocket Chinese Dictionary lists six words that are commonly pronounced as shí (tone 2): Template:Lang "ten"; Template:Zh/Template:Zh "real, actual"; Template:Zh/Template:Zh "know (a person), recognize"; Template:Lang "stone"; Template:Zh/Template:Zh "time"; Template:Lang "food, eat". These were all pronounced differently in Early Middle Chinese; in William H. Baxter's transcription they were dzyip, zyit, syik, dzyek, dzyi and zyik respectively. They are still pronounced differently in today's Cantonese; in Jyutping they are sap9, sat9, sik7, sek9, si4, sik9. In modern spoken Mandarin, however, tremendous ambiguity would result if all of these words could be used as-is; Yuen Ren Chao's modern poem Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den exploits this, consisting of 92 characters all pronounced shi. As such, most of these words have been replaced (in speech, if not in writing) with a longer, less-ambiguous compound. Only the first one, Template:Lang "ten", normally appears as such when spoken; the rest are normally replaced with, respectively, shíjì Template:Zh/Template:Zh (lit. "actual-connection"); rènshi Template:Zh/Template:Zh (lit. "recognize-know"); shítou Template:Zh/Template:Zh (lit. "stone-head"); shíjiān Template:Zh/Template:Zh (lit. "time-interval"); shíwù Template:Lang (lit. "food-thing"). In each case, the homophone was disambiguated by adding another morpheme, typically either a synonym or a generic word of some sort (for example, "head", "thing"), the purpose of which is simply to indicate which of the possible meanings of the other, homophonic syllable should be selected.
However, when one of the above words forms part of a compound, the disambiguating syllable is generally dropped and the resulting word is still disyllabic. For example, shí Template:Lang alone, not shítou Template:Zh/Template:Zh, appears in compounds meaning "stone-", for example, shígāo Template:Lang "plaster" (lit. "stone cream"), shíhuī Template:Lang "lime" (lit. "stone dust"), shíkū Template:Lang "grotto" (lit. "stone cave"), shíyīng Template:Lang "quartz" (lit. "stone flower"), shíyóu Template:Lang "petroleum" (lit. "stone oil").
Most modern varieties of Chinese have the tendency to form new words through disyllabic, trisyllabic and tetra-character compounds. In some cases, monosyllabic words have become disyllabic without compounding, as in kūlong Template:Lang from kǒng 孔; this is especially common in Jin.
Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction. Although many of these single-syllable morphemes (zì, Template:Lang) can stand alone as individual words, they more often than not form multi-syllabic compounds, known as cí (Template:Zh/Template:Zh), which more closely resembles the traditional Western notion of a word. A Chinese cí ("word") can consist of more than one character-morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.
- yún Template:Zh/Template:Zh – "cloud"
- hànbǎobāo, hànbǎo Template:Zh/Template:Zh, Template:Zh/Template:Zh – "hamburger"
- wǒ Template:Lang – "I, me"
- rén Template:Lang – "people, human, mankind"
- dìqiú Template:Lang – "The Earth"
- shǎndiàn Template:Zh/Template:Zh – "lightning"
- mèng Template:Zh/Template:Zh – "dream"
All varieties of modern Chinese are analytic languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology—i.e., changes in form of a word—to indicate the word's function in a sentence.Template:Sfnp In other words, Chinese has very few grammatical inflections—it possesses no tenses, no voices, no numbers (singular, plural; though there are plural markers, for example for personal pronouns), and only a few articles (i.e., equivalents to "the, a, an" in English).Template:Efn
They make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood. In Mandarin Chinese, this involves the use of particles like le Template:Lang (perfective), hái Template:Zh/Template:Zh ("still"), yǐjīng Template:Zh/Template:Zh ("already"), and so on.
Chinese has a subject–verb–object word order, and like many other languages of East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic–comment construction to form sentences. Chinese also has an extensive system of classifiers and measure words, another trait shared with neighboring languages like Japanese and Korean. Other notable grammatical features common to all the spoken varieties of Chinese include the use of serial verb construction, pronoun dropping and the related subject dropping.
Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess differences.
The entire Chinese character corpus since antiquity comprises well over 20,000 characters, of which only roughly 10,000 are now commonly in use. However Chinese characters should not be confused with Chinese words. Because most Chinese words are made up of two or more characters, there are many more Chinese words than characters. A more accurate equivalent for a Chinese character is the morpheme, as characters represent the smallest grammatical units with individual meanings in the Chinese language.
Estimates of the total number of Chinese words and lexicalized phrases vary greatly. The Hanyu Da Zidian, a 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 CC-CEDICT project (2010) contains 97,404 contemporary entries including idioms, technology terms and names of political figures, businesses and products. The 2009 version of the Webster's Digital Chinese Dictionary (WDCD), based on CC-CEDICT, contains over 84,000 entries.
The most comprehensive pure linguistic Chinese-language dictionary, the 12-volume Hanyu Da Cidian, records more than 23,000 head Chinese characters and gives over 370,000 definitions. The 1999 revised Cihai, a multi-volume encyclopedic dictionary reference work, gives 122,836 vocabulary entry definitions under 19,485 Chinese characters, including proper names, phrases and common zoological, geographical, sociological, scientific and technical terms.
The 7th (2016) edition of Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, an authoritative one-volume dictionary on modern standard Chinese language as used in mainland China, has 13,000 head characters and defines 70,000 words.
Like any other language, Chinese has absorbed a sizable number of loanwords from other cultures. Most Chinese words are formed out of native Chinese morphemes, including words describing imported objects and ideas. However, direct phonetic borrowing of foreign words has gone on since ancient times.
Some early Indo-European loanwords in Chinese have been proposed, notably Template:Linktext mì "honey", Template:Linktext/Template:Linktext shī "lion," and perhaps also Template:Linktext/Template:Linktext mǎ "horse", Template:Linktext/Template:Linktext zhū "pig", Template:Lang quǎn "dog", and Template:Linktext/Template:Linktext é "goose".Template:Efn Ancient words borrowed from along the Silk Road since Old Chinese include Template:Lang pútáo "grape", Template:Lang shíliu/shíliú "pomegranate" and Template:Zh/Template:Zh shīzi "lion". Some words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including Template:Lang Fó "Buddha" and Template:Zh/Template:Zh Púsà "bodhisattva." Other words came from nomadic peoples to the north, such as Template:Lang hútòng "hutong". Words borrowed from the peoples along the Silk Road, such as Template:Lang "grape," generally have Persian etymologies. Buddhist terminology is generally derived from Sanskrit or Pāli, the liturgical languages of North India. Words borrowed from the nomadic tribes of the Gobi, Mongolian or northeast regions generally have Altaic etymologies, such as Template:Lang pípá, the Chinese lute, or Template:Lang lào/luò "cheese" or "yoghurt", but from exactly which source is not always clear.Template:Sfnp
Template:See also Modern neologisms are primarily translated into Chinese in one of three ways: free translation (calque, or by meaning), phonetic translation (by sound), or a combination of the two. Today, it is much more common to use existing Chinese morphemes to coin new words in order to represent imported concepts, such as technical expressions and international scientific vocabulary. Any Latin or Greek etymologies are dropped and converted into the corresponding Chinese characters (for example, anti- typically becomes "Template:Lang", 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 Template:Zh/Template:Zh (Shanghainese: télífon Template:IPA, Mandarin: délǜfēng) during the 1920s and widely used in Shanghai, but later Template:Zh/Template:Zh diànhuà (lit. "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent (Template:Lang is in fact from the Japanese Template:Lang denwa; see below for more Japanese loans). Other examples include Template:Zh/Template:Zh diànshì (lit. "electric vision") for television, Template:Zh/Template:Zh diànnǎo (lit. "electric brain") for computer; Template:Zh/Template:Zh shǒujī (lit. "hand machine") for mobile phone, Template:Zh/Template:Zh lányá (lit. "blue tooth") for Bluetooth, and Template:Zh/Template:Zh wǎngzhì (lit. "internet logbook") for blog in Hong Kong and Macau Cantonese. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as Template:Zh/Template:Zh hànbǎobāo (Template:Lang hànbǎo "Hamburg" + Template:Lang bāo "bun") for "hamburger". Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes (phono-semantic matching), such as Template:Zh/Template:Zh tuōlājī "tractor" (lit. "dragging-pulling machine"), or Template:Zh/Template:Zh Mǎlì'ào for the video game character Mario. This is often done for commercial purposes, for example Template:Zh/Template:Zh bēnténg (lit. "dashing-leaping") for Pentium and Template:Zh/Template:Zh Sàibǎiwèi (lit. "better-than hundred tastes") for Subway restaurants.
Foreign words, mainly proper nouns, continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations. For example, "Israel" becomes Template:Lang Yǐsèliè, "Paris" becomes Template:Lang Bālí. A rather small number of direct transliterations have survived as common words, including Template:Zh/Template:Zh shāfā "sofa", Template:Zh/Template:Zh mǎdá "motor", Template:Lang yōumò "humor", Template:Zh/Template:Zh luóji/luójí "logic", Template:Zh/Template:Zh shímáo "smart, fashionable", and Template:Lang xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics". The bulk of these words were originally coined in the Shanghai dialect during the early 20th century and were later loaned into Mandarin, hence their pronunciations in Mandarin may be quite off from the English. For example, Template:Zh/Template:Zh "sofa" and Template:Zh/Template:Zh "motor" in Shanghainese sound more like their English counterparts. Cantonese differs from Mandarin with some transliterations, such as Template:Lang so1 faa3*2 "sofa" and Template:Lang mo1 daa2 "motor".
Western foreign words representing Western concepts have influenced Chinese since the 20th century through transcription. From French came Template:Lang bālěi "ballet" and Template:Lang xiāngbīn, "champagne"; from Italian, Template:Lang kāfēi "caffè". English influence is particularly pronounced. From early 20th century Shanghainese, many English words are borrowed, such as Template:Zh/Template:Zh gāoěrfū "golf" and the above-mentioned Template:Zh/Template:Zh shāfā "sofa". Later, the United States soft influences gave rise to Template:Lang dísikē/dísīkē "disco", Template:Zh/Template:Zh kělè "cola", and Template:Lang mínǐ "mini [skirt]". Contemporary colloquial Cantonese has distinct loanwords from English, such as Template:Lang kaa1 tung1 "cartoon", Template:Lang gei1 lou2 "gay people", Template:Lang dik1 si6*2 "taxi", and Template:Lang baa1 si6*2 "bus". With the rising popularity of the Internet, there is a current vogue in China for coining English transliterations, for example, Template:Zh/Template:Zh fěnsī "fans", Template:Lang hēikè "hacker" (lit. "black guest"), and Template:Lang bókè "blog". In Taiwan, some of these transliterations are different, such as Template:Lang hàikè for "hacker" and Template:Lang bùluògé for "blog" (lit. "interconnected tribes").
Another result of the English influence on Chinese is the appearance in Modern Chinese texts of so-called Template:Zh/Template:Zh zìmǔcí (lit. "lettered words") spelled with letters from the English alphabet. This has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on web sites, and on TV: Template:Zh/Template:Zh "3rd generation cell phones" (Template:Lang sān "three" + G "generation" + Template:Zh/Template:Zh shǒujī "mobile phones"), Template:Lang "IT circles" (IT "information technology" + Template:Lang jiè "industry"), HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì, Template:Zh/Template:Zh), GB (Guóbiāo, Template:Zh/Template:Zh), Template:Zh/Template:Zh (CIF "Cost, Insurance, Freight" + Template:Zh/Template:Zh jià "price"), Template:Lang "e-home" (e "electronic" + Template:Lang jiātíng "home"), Template:Zh/Template:Zh "wireless era" (W "wireless" + Template:Zh/Template:Zh shídài "era"), Template:Lang "TV watchers" (TV "television" + Template:Lang zú "social group; clan"), Template:Zh/Template:Zh "post-PC era" (Template:Zh/Template:Zh hòu "after/post-" + PC "personal computer" + Template:Zh/Template:Zh), and so on.
Since the 20th century, another source of words has been Japanese using existing kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese). Japanese re-molded European concepts and inventions into Template:Nihongo, and many of these words have been re-loaned into modern Chinese. Other terms were coined by the Japanese by giving new senses to existing Chinese terms or by referring to expressions used in classical Chinese literature. For example, jīngjì (Template:Zh/Template:Zh; Template:Lang keizai in Japanese), which in the original Chinese meant "the workings of the state", was narrowed to "economy" in Japanese; this narrowed definition was then re-imported into Chinese. As a result, these terms are virtually indistinguishable from native Chinese words: indeed, there is some dispute over some of these terms as to whether the Japanese or Chinese coined them first. As a result of this loaning, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese share a corpus of linguistic terms describing modern terminology, paralleling the similar corpus of terms built from Greco-Latin and shared among European languages.
- Main article: Written Chinese
The Chinese orthography centers on Chinese characters, which are written within imaginary square blocks, traditionally arranged in vertical columns, read from top to bottom down a column, and right to left across columns. Chinese characters denote morphemes independent of phonetic change. Thus the character Template:Lang ("one") is uttered yī in Standard Chinese, yat1 in Cantonese and it in Hokkien (form of Min). Vocabularies from different major Chinese variants have diverged, and colloquial nonstandard written Chinese often makes use of unique "dialectal characters", such as Template:Lang and Template:Lang for Cantonese and Hakka, which are considered archaic or unused in standard written Chinese.
Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging amongst Hong-Kongers and Cantonese-speakers elsewhere. It is considered highly informal, and does not extend to many formal occasions.
The Chinese had no uniform phonetic transcription system until the mid-20th century, although enunciation patterns were recorded in early rime books and dictionaries. Early Indian translators, working in Sanskrit and Pali, were the first to attempt to describe the sounds and enunciation patterns of Chinese in a foreign language. After the 15th century, the efforts of Jesuits and Western court missionaries resulted in some rudimentary Latin transcription systems, based on the Nanjing Mandarin dialect.
In Hunan, women in certain areas write their local language in Nü Shu, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The Dungan language, considered by many a dialect of Mandarin, is nowadays written in Cyrillic, and was previously written in the Arabic script. The Dungan people are primarily Muslim and live mainly in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia; some of the related Hui people also speak the language and live mainly in China.
- Main article: Chinese characters
Each Chinese character represents a monosyllabic Chinese word or morpheme. In 100 CE, the famed Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen classified characters into six categories, namely pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Of these, only 4% were categorized as pictographs, including many of the simplest characters, such as rén Template:Lang (human), rì Template:Lang (sun), shān Template:Lang (mountain; hill), shuǐ Template:Lang (water). Between 80% and 90% were classified as phonetic compounds such as chōng Template:Lang (pour), combining a phonetic component zhōng Template:Lang (middle) with a semantic radical Template:Lang (water). Almost all characters created since have been made using this format. The 18th-century Kangxi Dictionary recognized 214 radicals.
Modern characters are styled after the regular script. Various other written styles are also used in Chinese calligraphy, including seal script, cursive script and clerical script. Calligraphy artists can write in traditional and simplified characters, but they tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.
There are currently two systems for Chinese characters. The traditional system, used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Chinese speaking communities (except Singapore and Malaysia) outside mainland China, takes its form from standardized character forms dating back to the late Han dynasty. The Simplified Chinese character system, introduced by the People's Republic of China in 1954 to promote mass literacy, simplifies most complex traditional glyphs to fewer strokes, many to common cursive shorthand variants.
Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, was the second nation to officially adopt simplified characters, although it has also become the de facto standard for younger ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. The Internet provides the platform to practice reading these alternative systems, be it traditional or simplified.
A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000 to 6,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. School-children typically learn around 2,000 characters whereas scholars may memorize up to 10,000. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.
- Main article: Romanization of Chinese
Romanization is the process of transcribing a language into the Latin script. There are many systems of romanization for the Chinese varieties, due to the lack of a native phonetic transcription until modern times. Chinese is first known to have been written in Latin characters by Western Christian missionaries in the 16th century.
Today the most common romanization standard for Standard Chinese is Hanyu Pinyin, often known simply as pinyin, introduced in 1956 by the People's Republic of China, and later adopted by Singapore and Taiwan. Pinyin is almost universally employed now for teaching standard spoken Chinese in schools and universities across America, Australia and Europe. Chinese parents also use Pinyin to teach their children the sounds and tones of new words. In school books that teach Chinese, the Pinyin romanization is often shown below a picture of the thing the word represents, with the Chinese character alongside.
The second-most common romanization system, the Wade–Giles, was invented by Thomas Wade in 1859 and modified by Herbert Giles in 1892. As this system approximates the phonology of Mandarin Chinese into English consonants and vowels, i.e. it is an Anglicization, it may be particularly helpful for beginner Chinese speakers of an English-speaking background. Wade–Giles was found in academic use in the United States, particularly before the 1980s, and until 2009 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 Běijīng (pinyin), and with Taipei than T'ai²-pei³ (Wade–Giles). This simplification presents syllables as homophones which really are none, and therefore exaggerates the number of homophones almost by a factor of four.
Here are a few examples of Hanyu Pinyin and Wade–Giles, for comparison:
|Template:Lang/Template:Lang||Mao² Tse²-tung¹||Máo Zédōng||Former Communist Chinese leader|
|Template:Lang/Template:Lang||Chiang³ Chieh⁴-shih²||Jiǎng Jièshí||Former Nationalist Chinese leader (better known to English speakers as Chiang Kai-shek, with Cantonese pronunciation)|
Other systems of romanization for Chinese include Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the French EFEO, the Yale system (invented during WWII for U.S. troops), as well as separate systems for Cantonese, Min Nan, Hakka, and other Chinese varieties.
Other phonetic transcriptions
Chinese varieties have been phonetically transcribed into many other writing systems over the centuries. The 'Phags-pa script, for example, has been very helpful in reconstructing the pronunciations of premodern forms of Chinese.
Zhuyin (colloquially bopomofo), a semi-syllabary is still widely used in Taiwan's elementary schools to aid standard pronunciation. Although zhuyin characters are reminiscent of katakana script, there is no source to substantiate the claim that Katakana was the basis for the zhuyin system. A comparison table of zhuyin to pinyin exists in the zhuyin article. Syllables based on pinyin and zhuyin can also be compared by looking at the following articles:
- Pinyin table
- Zhuyin table
There are also at least two systems of cyrillization for Chinese. The most widespread is the Palladius system.
As a foreign language
- Main article: Chinese as a foreign language
With the growing importance and influence of China's economy globally, Mandarin instruction is gaining popularity in schools in the United States, and has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst the young in the Western world, as in the UK.
In 1991 there were 2,000 foreign learners taking China's official Chinese Proficiency Test (also known as HSK, comparable to the English Cambridge Certificate), while in 2005, the number of candidates had risen sharply to 117,660. By 2010, 750,000 people had taken the Chinese Proficiency Test. By 2017, 6.5 million candidates had taken the Chinese Proficiency Test of various kinds.
According to the Modern Language Association, there were 550 elementary, junior high and senior high schools providing Chinese programs in the United States in 2015, which represented a 100% increase in two years. At the same time, enrollment in Chinese language classes at college level had an increase of 51% from 2002 to 2015. On the other hand, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages also had figures suggesting that 30,000 – 50,000 students were studying Chinese in 2015.
In 2016, more than half a million Chinese students pursued post-secondary education overseas, whereas 400,000 international students came to China for higher education. Tsinghua University hosted 35,000 students from 116 countries in the same year.
With the increase in demand for Chinese as a second language, there are 330 institutions teaching Chinese language globally according to the Chinese Ministry of Education. The establishment of Confucius Institutes, which are the public institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Education of China, aims at promoting Chinese language and culture as well as supporting Chinese teaching overseas. There were more than 480 Confucius Institutes worldwide as of 2014.
- Chinese exclamative particles
- Chinese honorifics
- Chinese numerals
- Chinese punctuation
- Classical Chinese grammar
- Four-character idiom
- Han unification
- Languages of China
- North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics
- Protection of the Varieties of Chinese
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