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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society Traditions

The Chinese Language

There are several main regional dialects of Chinese. The most populous dialects are
Mandarin with approximately 850 million speakers, Wu with about 90 million, Min with and estimated 70 million, and Cantonese with at least 70 million.

Mandarin therefore is the main dialect in China both in numerical terms and as well as being sanctioned as the main language by the Chinese government and therefore of most benefit to the aspiring student. The word Mandarin is a translation from the Beijing expression guan-huŕ meaning "official language" that was the dialect of this city for several centuries. This dialect was accepted as the official language at the beginning of the 20th century. Mandarin is also spoken in Taiwan though differences in syntax and vocabulary do exist.

Wu is spoken in the Zhejiang province, the municipality of Shanghai, southern province of Jiangsu as well as parts of the Anhui, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces. Min is spoken in the southeastern province of Fujian as well as by migrants from this province to Guangdong, Hainan, three counties in southern Zhejiang, and the Zhoushan archipelago, and Taiwan. In contrast, the areas with the highest concentration of speakers of Cantonese are in Guangdong province, parts of Guanx, in southern mainland China, Hong Kong and Macua. Of the four official languages that are spoken in Singapore, huáyu, is based on the dialect of Beijing, though once again differences are present.

Native Mandarin speakers number about 70 per cent of the total of the population of China and live mainly in the western plains region. This region includes the central Yángzi, the plain of Huái, the neoriental plain, Sichuan and the the provinces of Guangxi, Gučizhou and Yunan.

The different dialects spoken are normally understood by the different language groups and can be divided as follows: Septentrional, spoken in the northern region and it includes the dialect of Pekín; Noroccidental includes the dialects of the Loess plain and territories to the west; Southoccidental, spoken in Sichuan and the adjacent regions; and Oriental, that represent the dialects spoken in Nanking.

Chinese is a tonal language. The tonal difference is one of the most common variations among the different Chinese dialects. At times it happens that the dialects of two villages separated only by a few kilometers have different tonal systems. For example, the tonal system of the dialect spoken in Pekin is the typical way of speaking in the septentrional region.

In this area Mandarin of Beijing represents one of the simplest Chinese dialects from the point of view of the tonal aspect, having four different tones that indicate the four levels of the words: very high, high, medium, and fallen high.

The romanization system officially adopted by the government of Beijing, called pinyin, represents the tones making use of diacritical superimposed signs on the nuclear vocal of the word.

About the Author

Jacob Lumbroso is a world traveler and an enthusiast for foreign languages, history, and foreign cultures. He writes articles on history and languages for and has used Pimsleur courses to learn various languages