An introduction to the Chinese Language

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Written ChineseSpoken ChineseMandarin vs. Cantonese

Written Chinese

Chinese writing uses a series of pictographic glyphs known as “characters” to express thoughts in written form. There are two different systems for the formation of “characters” in Chinese writing: Traditional and Simplified.

Traditional Chinese characters first appeared during the Han Dynasty, and have been used since the 5th century. Today Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and by some overseas Chinese communities, especially those originating from the aforementioned countries/regions or who emigrated before the widespread adoption of Simplified characters in the People’s Republic of China.

Simplified Chinese characters were officially Simplified by the government of the People’s Republic of China in an attempt to promote literacy. This character set is used for most Chinese-language printing in Mainland China and Singapore. Simplified characters are gradually gaining popularity among many overseas Chinese communities as more mainland Chinese are emigrating from their homeland. Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes in each character, and there are less characters overall in the Simplified Chinese character set.

The name is a bit misleading, since only a fraction of characters were actually ‘Simplified,’ and many characters are identical is Simplified and Traditional Chinese. There are also a large number of Simplified characters whose forms are regularly derived using rules that replace Traditional character components with Simplified components. Some Simplified characters are actually an older form of the Traditional character they replace. A small number of Simplified characters, however, are not regularly derived from Traditional Chinese, and some Simplified characters are completely different from Traditional characters.

The use of Traditional versus Simplified Chinese has been a long running debate among Chinese communities.

Example: Pairs of characters that have the same meaning in Traditional (TCH) and Simplified (SCH) Chinese writing systems.
Pairs of characters that have the same meaning in Traditional and Simplified Chinese writing systems.

Although Simplified and Traditional Chinese are only written variations of spoken Chinese, it is not unusual to find that those who read only Traditional Chinese cannot understand Simplified Chinese, and vice versa. Therefore, it is important to determine whether Simplified or Traditional Chinese should be used for a particular target market when assigning Chinese translation.

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Spoken Chinese

Chinese is a family of closely-related but mutually unintelligible languages (though there is significant dispute as to whether Chinese is a collection of separate languages or a single language with numerous but mutually unintelligible dialects). These languages are known variously as fāngyán (regional languages), dialects of Chinese, or varieties of Chinese.

You will most likely encounter Mandarin or Cantonese for the majority of your projects, but it’s also likely you will run into someone who will tell you they speak Taiwanese (a derivation of Mandarin) or some other regional dialect, and keeping track of this can be important, especially if your client is selling to a market where a particular dialect is prevalent.

Notable features

  • All varieties of Chinese are tonal. This means that each syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. For example Mandarin has 4 tones, Cantonese has between 6 and 9 (it depends who you ask) and Taiwanese has 7 tones.
  • The major varieties of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, but most people in China and Taiwan who don’t speak Mandarin as their first language, can speak or at least understand it a bit.
  • Each of the major varieties of Chinese has numerous dialects. For example, Mandarin can be divided into northern, southern and south-western dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.
  • There some 15 major dialects in use today which include: Pŭtōnghuà (Mandarin), Yuè (Cantonese), Wú, Mĭn Nán (Southern Min), Jìnyŭ, Hakka, Xiāng (Hunanese), Gàn, Mín Bĕi (Northern Min), Mín Dōng (Eastern Min), Mín Zhōng (Central Min), Dungan, Pŭ-Xián, Huīzhōu

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Mandarin vs. Cantonese

Mandarin and Cantonese dialects are the most widely used among Chinese speakers worldwide.

Mandarin encompasses numerous regional dialects, but most often refers to dialects that sound like Standard Mandarin (Putonghua/Guoyu), based on the Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing. Standard Mandarin functions as the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China, the official spoken language of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and one of the official spoken languages of Singapore. “Chinese” — de facto, Standard Mandarin — is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. This is currently the most widely spoken dialect in the World.
Cantonese is mainly spoken in parts of southern Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, by Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia and by many overseas Chinese of Guangdong and Hong Kong origin worldwide, such as San Francisco and New York. The name is derived from Canton, a former romanized Western name for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province.

In everyday use, “Mandarin” refers usually to just Standard Mandarin. The broader group of Mandarin dialects consists of diverse related dialects, some less mutually intelligible than others. It is a grouping defined and used mainly by linguists, and is not commonly used outside of academic circles as a self-description. Instead, when asked to describe the spoken form they are using, Chinese speaking a form of Mandarin will describe the variant that they are speaking, for example Sichuan dialect or Northeast China dialect, and consider it distinct from “

[Standard] Mandarin”; they may not recognize that it is in fact classified by linguists as a form of “Mandarin” in a broader sense. Nor is there a common “Mandarin” identity based on language; instead, there are strong regional identities centered around individual Mandarin dialects, due to the wide geographical distribution of its speakers.

People who can understand only a single dialect of Chinese (such as Mandarin or Cantonese) can communicate with people of different dialects ONLY in writing, because dialects use the same written characters with a few exceptions. However, Cantonese written in Chinese characters is sometimes hard for Mandarin speakers to understand because Cantonese speakers use many colloquial expressions in their daily speech. Then there is the issue of whether they read Traditional or Simplified Characters, and much will depend on where the target audience is located.

Exceptions often arise based on where groups from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have resettled. For example in Oakland, which has been mostly Cantonese, more and more Chinese residents are getting accustomed to the Mandarin dialect. Another example is in Silicon Valley, mostly Mandarin, where Cantonese speakers are also adapting and speaking more in Mandarin dialects.

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