Chinese Language

汉语 -----Chinese

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything--------Confucius
Sino-Tibetan languages form the language family that is second only to the Indo-European stock in the number of its speakers, spoken by over a billion people in central and Southeast Asia . The language of Chinese is one of the three subfamilies of Sino-Tibetan languages and the other two are Tibeto-Burman and Tai or Thai.

It is controversial to classify the members of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Some people also assign the Tai and Chinese languages to a single subfamily called Sino-Siamese of Sinitic. It seems that the classification of a number of the languages suggested for the Sino-Tibetan family and its various subfamilies it still unresolved, and more work must be done before general agreements is reached.

The language of Chinese comprises a number of variants and those variants are classed, though separate languages, among the many dialects of Chinese, Mandarin Chinese is the standard form of Chinese and is spoken in North and Central China by over 835 million people as their first language.

The Chinese refer to themselves and their languages as Han, a name that derives from the Han Dynasty. Han Chinese is to be distinguished from the non-Han minority languages used in China . There are over 50 of non-Han minority languages spoken by about 6% of the Chinese population.

Form of Chinese:

The most widespread form of Chinese is Mandarin, which, originally spoken in the Beijing region and in northern China generally, is now regarded as modern standard Chinese, or Putonghua. Today Putonghua is the official language of government and education, and everyone is expected to learn to speak it.

Before 1911 when the Nationalists seized control, the language of the court at Beijing during the imperial period was called guanhua (official speech). After the Nationalists seized control in 1911, the name was changed to guoyu (national tongue). In 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded, the government adopted and simplified the Beijing dialect of Mandarin as the basis for a national language, renaming it Putonghua (generally understood speech). Mandarin in its various forms is spoken by about 70% of the population of China . It is the official language of the People's Republic of China and is employed as one of the official language of the United Nations.

The leading forms of Chinese (dialects) include:

Northern dialect----the language spoken north of the Changjiang River in the northern areas of China by over 70% of the China 's population; the basic part of Putonghua;

Dialect of Cantonese or Yue----the tongue spoken by over 65 million people residing in Guangxi and Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, South East Asia and the United States;

Dialect of Wu----the dialect of about 65 million people in Shanghai,Jiangsu and Zhejiang;

Dialect of Hakka or Kejia----the language of about 35 million persons in Guangdong,Jiangxi,and Fujian Province;

Dialect of Min----the tongue of about 65 million people distributed in Fujian Province, Guangdong Province, the island of Taiwan and many places outside mainland China;

Dialect of Xiang----spoken largely in Hunan Province by about 65 million people;

Dialect of Gan----mostly spoken in Jiangxi Province and part of Hubei Province by about 31 million people;

Even though there are those major dialects in China , the main differences between them are firstly revealed in pronunciation and then in vocabulary. There is little difference in terms of grammer.

As China is a big country with many national minorities and dialects, Putonghua plays a very important role in the communication among the national minorities within the country. If a foreigner learns Putonghua, he or she can travel anywhere in China , able to understand others and to be understood in return.


There is little difference in grammar between the various forms of Chinese. There are differences in vocabulary and pronunciation is the most differential of all.

There is a big similarity of word order between Chinese and English. In English the major word order is subject + verb + object and in Chinese that is the same case. For instance, in English a boy may say “ I love you” to his girl friend. In Chinese , the word order is exactly the same: “ 我( I ) 爱 (love) 你 (you).”

Chinese is a language that has no inflection to indicate person, number, gender, case, tense, voice and so on. The verb does not indicate the tense or the voice. When people want to express ideas that contain tense, they use adverbials. If, for example, one wants to express the idea of a perfect tense, one uses the particle le ( 了 ), a sign of the perfect tense of the verb. In passive voice bei ( 被 ) is often used for the English “by”.

There is no inversion in a question in Chinese as in English, People use 吗 (ma) plus a question mark instead when they ask a question.

In Chinese there are no articles like a, an and the as in English. Many English learners of Chinese have difficulty learning and using English articles because they have no articles in their mother tongue. The lack of articles might reduce the difficulty of learning Chinese for the foreigner, but there are other things that may offset the convenience. What may be the most difficult for foreigners to master is sisheng ( 四声 ), the four tones.

The Four Tones

The four tones in Chinese are very important. Whether or not one speaks good Chinese depends in a great degree on how well one uses the four tones.

Chinese is a language that is rather tonal, namely, different tones distinguishing words that are pronounced alike otherwise. There are four tones in Putonghua, a high tone, a rising tone, a tone that combines a falling and a rising inflection, and the falling tone. A pronunciation in different tones may mean different things. For example, ma may mean mother with the high tone, but it means horse in the falling-rising tone, or curse of scold if it is in the falling tone.

Because the Chinese is a language rich in homophones and so there are in the language a lot of characters sharing the same pronunciation, it is highly important if the four tones are rightly applied.

Please do not be frustrated with the four tones. Do not forget that in English there is the old saying of “practice makes perfect'. If one keeps practicing in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, one will be able to have good Chinese.

English and Chinese

Legends have it that Chinese characters were invented about 4,500 year ago by the historian Cang Jie, huangdi's official in charge of history. Chinese being one of the oldest languages of the world, we can find in English words that came from Chinese. To name a few, in English there are words borrowed from Chinese, like ginseng, silk, oolong, fengshui, kow-tow, mah-jong, typhoon, Tao, yin and yang, Tai Chi, and kung-fu. Probably the Chinese tea is spread most widely in the world. In most languages in the world, the work for tea is based on “ 茶 ” and is pronounced similarly to the sound of “cha”.

In Chinese there are also characters borrowed from English. The popular expression of “ 因特网 ” is translated from the English “internet”.

The Reform of Chinese Characters

It is true that there are four “difficulties” in Chinese characters, difficult to pronounce, difficult to write, difficult to remember and difficult to look up in the dictionary. As the Chinese language records culture and knowledge, it is not possible to get rid of it for another one. What can be done is to reform Chinese characters for easy pronunciation, easy writing, easy to remember, and easy to look up in the dictionary.

At present, the task of the reform is to promote and make popular Putonghua and Pinyin. Meanwhile effort must be made to simplify characters in terms of strokes and to reduce the number of basic vocabulary in common use (two different characters are now written with the same character). A large-scale reform was continued after the founding of the People's Republic of China . In 1955, 1,053 variant characters were eliminated. In 1965, the Scheme of Simplified basic components of characters. The Second Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters was promulgated in 1977 but was repealed in 1986 amid general disapproval.

The earliest words, like those in ancient Egyptian, were ideographs. Later on those ideographs died away and were replaced by phonetic letters. That replacement is a great revolution. It is believed that if effort is continued in the reform of characters, the old language of Chinese will attract more readers and users and people will have much ease learning and using it.


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