Chinese Languages


The word’s languages are all thought to belong to five major language families namely Indo- European, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic and Austonesian.

Chinese in one form or another, is spoken by more people worldwide than any other language. It is the world’s oldest language still in use and its cultural history can be traced back over 3,500 years. It is a fascinating and at times a complex topic and I hope I can do justice to the subject in this short account.

There are scores of Chinese dialects, and although many are related sound so different that a speaker of one cannot understand another speaker so basically they are really separate languages. This clearly creates communication problems so since the early 20th century successive governments encouraged their people to speak and understand one standard and universal Chinese language. Chinese languages are the oldest in the world being over 3,500 years old and the only languages without an alphabet. Instead of an alphabet thousands of characters exist which I will describe later.

This article will consider the Chinese language Mandarin its history and basic structure. It is a fascinating topic being an amazing language. At present there are three main languages spoken in China namely Mandarin, Shanghaiese and Cantonese spoken by 885 million, 91 million and 55 million people respectively.

It is a fascinating topic being an amazing language spoken by over 830 million people. Mandarin Chinese, along with a number of other languages spoken in Asia, like Myanmar and Tibetan, is a member of the Sino-Tibetan family mentioned above.  The current form of Mandarin Chinese spoken in China today was developed in the early 20th century to serve as the ‘national language’ to help people from all over China to communicate with each other more easily as previously the numerous dialects and languages caused communication problems. Mandarin is also the main language of Hong Kong, Taiwan and one of the official languages of Singapore. However there is still resistance to its introduction by people in Hong Kong and Southern China who wish to continue speaking Cantonese.

Mandarin has a number of different names in China namely Guo(2)yu(3) – national language, Pu(3)tong(1)hua(4) – universal language, Han(4)yu(3) – language of Han and Zhong(1)wen(2) – Chinese language. The numbers reflect the tones used for particular words. The first tone (1) is pronounced high, flat and long. The second tone (2) is a rising tone slowly from low to high, the third tone (3) dips first and then rises and finally the fourth tone (4) falls sharply from high to low. There is a fifth tone namely a neutral one where the syllable is toneless which is pronounced weakly and not marked. I will explain the tones in more detail later.

Mandarin Chinese is represented by Pinyin. Pinyin is a Romanised phonetic system officially adopted in China. A standardised Romanization system was developed to teach children and foreigners to pronounce the characters. This standard system was developed in 1956 and is called Pin(1)yin(1) and this has become the standard method of writing phonetically and has now been adopted for educational purposes, along with computer and mobile phone input editors. Today in Chinese cities you will see Pinyin every-where: on maps, road signs, shop signs and in brand names. Nevertheless some Chinese cannot read Pinyin especially in rural areas but this is gradually changing. Nowadays everyone in China learns the language although some older people still have difficulty speaking it.

The laws for grammar are much simpler than for English and many other languages which makes learning the language much easier. Also the language is very economical it is not a verbose language like many other world languages conversations are in the majority of cases concise and precise. Some other features of the language include the following aspects:

  • Nouns have no singular and plural distinction.
  • There are no definite or indefinite articles (e.g. ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’).
  • Verbs do not change their form to indicate past, present, future or continuous.
  • Questions are formed in Chinese by adding a spoken syllable at the end of a statement or by inserting the negative form of a verb or modifier immediately after that verb or modifier.
  • Word order is not too different from English. The common patterns are: subject+verb+object/subject+specific time+verb+object/subject+verb+a period of time/subject+place+verb (+object).

The Chinese love their language and use lots of puns, proverbs, idioms and four character expressions. The Chinese are fascinated by mathematics and this is reflected in the language e.g. the word agitated is given in the expression qi(1)shang(4) ba(1)xia(4) literary meaning seven up eight down. Another example is zai(4)san(1) meaning again three or over and over. A classic saying ‘It takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred years to bring up a generation of good men is expressed’ as  shi(2)nian(2)shu(4)mu(4), bai(3)Nian(2)shu(4)ren(2). A well quoted proverb by Guan Zhong c 723 BCE to 645BCE a famous economist, philosopher and politician is fan(4)hou(4)bai(3)bu(4)zou(3)hou(2)dao(4)jiu(3)shi(2)jiu(3) a hundred paces after a meal, live to ninety nine.

As in other languages there can be many meanings for the same word or phrase even when it has the same tone. This is particularly the case for Mandarin. However the language is very context based as the situation in which the conversation occurs helps when one is talking with someone. A good example to illustrate this is the various meaning of ma and will show the importance of the tones ma(1) means mother, ma(2) linen/hemp, ma(3) horse and ma(4) scold/to swear. The neutral tone ma is a question mark when speaking Mandarin. Learning the exact tones can be a challenge when learning Mandarin. You can see from this example how important it is to use the correct tone otherwise you will cause confusion and in some cases offence to the listener.


Written Chinese employs the character script which has existed virtually unchanged for over 2,000 years. Only recently a range of simplified characters began to be introduced in the 1950s. Words in Chinese are made up of one or two syllabuses, each of which is represented by a character in the written scripts and as mentioned above have also be transcribed into Western alphabetic form called Pinyin. The characters that constitute Chinese are essentially monosyllabic with around 400 basic sounds, relatively few because of successive simplifications over the 3,500 years as the language evolved and developed. Although monosyllabic, Chinese is also tonal with four tones as mentioned above. So this increases the different sounds to about 1,400 as some sound and associated tones don’t exist. Chinese is often described as a language of pictograms. Many of the basic characters are in fact highly stylised pictures of what they represent. Many Chinese characters evolved from pictograms like symbols for a person and forest.

A well-educated Chinese reader recognises approximately 4,000 to 6,000 characters, 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper whilst a scholar may memorise 10,000. Literacy is defined by the Government as knowing 2,000 characters. Official sources state that a knowledge of the 500 most common characters covers about 75% of Chinese writing, 1,000 gives 86%, 2,000 gives 96% and 3,000 gives 99% (the exact number depends on the context). There are over 50,000 Chinese characters in existence but the majority are just of historical importance especially when researching ancient texts. Indeed the bulkiest Chinese dictionaries have some 100,000 characters. During the 1950s and 1960s the People’s Republic developed a simplified set of Chinese characters to promote literacy amongst the general population as well as to encourage foreigner to learn the language. Traditional characters are still used in some Chinese speaking regions, notably Taiwan. Dictionaries are available that use both the simplified and traditional characters.

Foot note:

Learning Mandarin is an interesting and challenging exercise. One has to learn a number of key elements e.g. how to pronounce the Pinyin, recognise and use the correct tones, recognise the associated character and identify the context in which the conversations are being held. It provides a wonderful insight into Chinese history and culture and is an excellent stimulus to the brain cells!

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