Is Chinese a Language? The Answer, Plus the Complete Guide to Chinese
As a student, a pet peeve of mine was when someone asked me: “Are you learning Chinese?”
This irked me because I wasn’t learning Chinese; I was learning Mandarin.
While this may seem confusing, especially for beginners or people who haven’t had experience with the language, I’m about to answer all your questions about the Chinese language.
Then, the next time you’re asked, “Is Chinese a language?” you’ll know exactly how to respond.
- Is Chinese a Language?
- A Brief History of the Chinese Language
- Chinese Language Basics
- The Most Common Chinese Dialects Today
- And One More Thing...
Is Chinese a Language?
The short and sweet answer is no. This is also the most accurate answer.
In theory, speakers of Chinese dialects that are part of the same language should be able to understand each other (more or less).
However, many Chinese “dialects” are not mutually intelligible—meaning that speakers of two different Chinese dialects often can’t understand one another.
That means Chinese can’t be a language, based on the definition.
So “Chinese” is actually the blanket term for a group of dialects, rather than the name of a single tongue. It’s more of a language family.
Many are called “dialects” for political purposes. Since the Standard Mandarin dialect is the official “language” of China, the others are called “dialects” even though they should be considered languages.
So when people say “Chinese,” they typically mean Mandarin.
A Brief History of the Chinese Language
The Spoken Forms
Many linguists believe that Chinese began as Proto-Sino-Tibetan, though there is hardly any written documentation of languages during the suspected time period. The many forms of modern spoken Chinese are classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family.
According to EthnoMed, many of China’s dialects were formed between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE.
Old Chinese, for example, was the common language of China in the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (11th-7th centuries BCE). It was first discovered by linguists inscribed on bronze artifacts, as well as in the poems of the 诗经 (shī jīng) —”Classic of Poetry” and in a few other texts.
Centuries later, linguists of the Qing Dynasty were the first to attempt to reconstruct Old Chinese. Their work gives us hints about the ancient language’s phonetics, such as heavy breathing for differentiating consonants.
Another particularly important form of Chinese was used during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties of the 7th to 10th centuries CE.
In this time period, Middle Chinese became the common language, which can be further divided into Early Middle Chinese and Late Middle Chinese.
What we know about the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from rhyming dictionaries, modern dialect variations and foreign transliterations of words.
From Middle Chinese, hundreds of Chinese dialects evolved.
Almost all who live in the wide plains of Northern China use Mandarin subdialects.
The geography of Southern China—mostly mountains and rivers—helped create pockets of linguistic diversity. These areas hardly spoke Mandarin until the mid-20th century, around the time when the government began promoting standardized pronunciation and Simplified characters.
The Written Forms
EthnoMed also reports that the Chinese language family has over 6,000 years of history and is the world’s oldest written language.
In fact, the Chinese writing system is one of China’s most valuable inventions.
Many oral forms of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, but the dialects all share the same writing system. So, despite the vast number of dialects and subdialects, written Chinese has helped maintain communication among such a diverse population.
The Evolution of Written Chinese
This is how written Chinese developed through the dynasties:
- Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE): Ancestral pictograms were carved on animal bones and tortoise shells.
- Zhou Dynasty (1040-771 BCE): Bronze inscriptions had more structure and thicker lines.
- Warring States Period (475-221 BCE): No standard script; each state had its own.
- Qing Dynasty (221-206 BCE): Qin Shi Huang unites China and standardizes script as small seal characters with proportional brushstrokes within diamond shapes. This is the origin of the contemporary writing system.
- Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE): Official script developed to look less like pictograms and more like characters made up of broken and curved brushstrokes. In the later years, this began transitioning into regular script.
- Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 CE): Regular script changed stylistically over the years.
- Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE): Regular script reached its final form, known today as Traditional Chinese.
- People’s Republic of China (1912-today): The Chinese government introduced Simplified Chinese to increase literacy by using characters with fewer brushstrokes. Pinyin was also introduced during this time period.
Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese
It’s worth knowing the difference between Traditional and Simplified characters as both are used today in various places.
As mentioned, Traditional Chinese characters developed into their final form during the Tang Dynasty, and many still exist in contemporary Chinese.
With the rise of print media in the 1950s, however, China’s government decided to simplify the writing system so the nation could have access to news and announcements. Around 2,000 characters have been simplified.
You’ll see Traditional characters in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, and Simplified characters in China, Singapore and Malaysia.
To compare the two, take a look at these examples. Traditional characters are on the left and Simplified on the right.
麵 vs. 面 (miàn) — Noodles
腦 vs. 脑 (nǎo) — Brain
國 vs. 国 (guó) — Country
Chinese Language Basics
Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese sounds. The pinyin system uses the same letters as the Latin alphabet and functions in place of an alphabet, which Chinese does not have.
Pinyin was introduced in schools shortly after the formation of Simplified Chinese, so even Chinese people today use the pinyin system to type and text.
Like in English, pinyin is composed of consonants and vowels.
These are the pinyin consonants, also known as initials:
b p m f d t n l g k h j q x zh ch sh r z c s y w
In Chinese, vowels can be singular or combinations. Here are the pinyin vowels, also known as finals:
a e i o u ü
ai ei ui ao ou
iu ie üe er
an en in un ün
ang eng ing ong
A pinyin syllable is created by combining one initial and one final.
Although these are familiar letters, they aren’t pronounced like they are in English. Here are the first four pinyin letters with an English pronunciation guide:
And here is a helpful video for learning proper pinyin pronunciation:
There are only so many combinations you can make with pinyin, and thus many characters share the same spelling.
Tones help you differentiate between words, like 好 (hǎo) and 号 (hào), which mean “good” and “number.”
Most Chinese dialects use four main tones and a neutral tone (with the notable exception of Cantonese, as mentioned earlier).
These are the tones in Mandarin Chinese:
- The first or flat tone as in 妈 (mā) — Mother
- The second or rising tone as in 钱 (qián) — Money
- The third or dipping tone as in 远 (yuǎn) — Far
- The fourth or falling tone as in 慢 (màn) — Slow
- The fifth or neutral tone with no mark, as in 的 (de) — Of (possessive particle)
Tone marks are always placed on vowels. If a pinyin syllable has more than one vowel, the tone mark is placed according to this order: a, o, e, i, u, ü.
Tones are usually the first challenge beginners run into, especially because English (and most other languages) aren’t tonal. However, I promise it’s not as difficult as it seems.
If you’re worried about accidentally offending someone, saying the wrong thing or not understanding, there’s usually no need to. And the more you listen to Chinese, you’ll hear the tones more easily and naturally.
I recommend using an immersion program like FluentU, which lets you watch subtitled Chinese videos.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
In the meantime. here’s a video to help you learn to pronounce the Mandarin tones:
To write Chinese characters, you use strokes.
Generally, there are eight types of strokes. Many of these can be used together to create compound strokes.
丶is known as 点 (diǎn) or “dot”
一 is known as 橫 (héng) or “horizontal stroke”
丨 is known as 竖 (shù) or “vertical stroke”
丿 is known as 撇 (piě) or “slant,” drawn from right to left
⁄ is known as 提 (tí) or “raise,” drawn from left to right
㇏ is known as 捺 (nà) or “forcefully pressing,” drawn from left to right
㇄ is known as 弯 (wān) or “curve,” drawn from left to right
亅 is known as 钩 (gōu) or “hook,” a part of compound strokes that can go in any direction
Now, just like the letters of the alphabet, there’s a proper way to write out Chinese characters.
The basic rules of Chinese stroke order are:
- Left to right, top to bottom
- Horizontal first, vertical second
- Diagonal to the left first, diagonal to the right second
- Center first for vertically symmetrical characters
- Outside to inside before closing the frame for boxed characters
Each Chinese character can be divided into smaller building blocks known as radicals and components.
Radicals are similar to the first letter of an English word, meaning that they’re traditionally the reference point for looking up Chinese words in the dictionary. These days, of course, you can simply look up Chinese words using pinyin.
There are 214 radicals. Each character can only contain one radical, normally found at the left or the top of the character. The other parts are components.
Radicals and components can offer clues on the definition or pronunciation of the character. For example:
The character 床 (chuáng) means “bed.”
广 is the radical and 木 is the component.
The radical 广 (guǎng) means “wide” and offers a phonetic clue: 广 and 床 have similar pinyin spellings.
木 (mù), meaning “wood,” is a semantic component, since “wood” is related to “bed.” 广 also contributes to the overall meaning as a bed can be “a wide piece of wood.”
I’ve heard one too many times that Chinese has no grammar, which is completely untrue because it would be impossible. Every language has some sort of system in place for constructing a sentence.
So while Chinese doesn’t have tenses, genders and plurals, it does have grammar. In fact, basic sentence structure in Chinese is pretty similar to English.
The lack of those common grammar elements, however, often throws people off. But it also makes Chinese grammar that much easier to learn. The fewer rules, the less there is to remember!
There are also way fewer exceptions to grammar rules in Chinese, especially when compared with English. Overall, Chinese grammar is pretty straightforward.
The Most Common Chinese Dialects Today
Of the more than 300 Chinese variants, there are eight major dialects that each have their own sub-dialects and regional variations.
Technically, because they’re mutually unintelligible and can each be divided further, these eight “dialects” could each be called a language.
Before we dive in to the list, take a look at this fun video featuring 25 different Chinese dialects! See if you can notice any major similarities or differences.
1. 官话 (guān huà) — Mandarin
Estimated speakers: 1.1 billion
官话 is linguists’ term for the group of languages spoken primarily in Northern and Southwestern China.
Colloquially known as 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) meaning “common speak,” Mandarin Chinese is a family of dialects used across China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
Mandarin is by far the most popular Chinese dialect, so if you’re going to learn one, it’s probably the most practical.
Now, Standard Mandarin is a specific branch of 官话 , and Standard Mandarin is what people are referring to when they say that Mandarin is the national language of China.
China’s national language is based on the Beijing pronunciation and usage, which greatly distinguishes it from other Chinese dialects. It employs what’s called 儿化音 (ér huà yīn) — “r” sound.
This means in Beijing people typically add an “r” sound to the end of words, such as:
一点儿 (yī diǎn(r)) — A little
花儿 (huā(r)) — Flower
哪儿 (nǎ(r)) — Where
2. 粤语 (yuè yǔ) — Yue
Estimated speakers: 80 million
“Yue” is often used interchangeably with “Cantonese,” though Cantonese is actually just the most prominent variety of the Yue dialect.
Yue is the most common dialect in Southern China, and is widely spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong.
Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, was once called Canton—hence the origin of the name “Cantonese.”
3. 吴语 (wú yǔ) — Wu
Estimated speakers: 80 million
Again, the most popular version of this dialect—Shanghainese—is often used in place of the actual name “Wu.”
Wu is primarily spoken in the municipality of Shanghai, though it’s also spoken in other nearby provinces, such as Zhejiang, as well as the larger Yangtze river delta.
4. 闽语 (mǐn yǔ) — Min
Estimated speakers: 67 million
The Min dialect can be heard primarily in the Fujian Province, though it’s also spoken in other parts of China and Southeast Asia.
Min has many sub-dialects, including Northern Min, Southern Min, Central Min and Shaojiang Min. In Taiwan, the primary Min variant is often referred to as Taiwanese or Taiwanese Hokkien.
5. 晋语 (jìn yǔ) — Jin
Estimated speakers: 63 million
Jin Chinese is a broad group of dialects in Northern China.
The majority of Shanxi province, central Inner Mongolia and surrounding areas in Hebei and Henan provinces all speak Jin dialects.
6. 客家语 (kè jiā yǔ) — Kejia
Estimated speakers: 45 million
The Kejia dialect, often called “Hakka,” is mostly spoken by the Hakka ethnic group.
It’s used in the southeastern coastal region of China, and is also spoken in Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities, particularly in East and Southeast Asia.
7. 湘语 (xiāng yǔ) — Xiang
Estimated speakers: 37 million
Mostly spoken in Hunan Province, Xiang is also called “Hunanese.” This dialect is also prevalent in Northern Guangxi, as well as some parts of Guizhou and Hubei provinces.
The relatively low number of speakers makes Xiang Chinese one of the most endangered of the eight main dialects.
8. 赣语 (gàn yǔ) — Gan
Estimated speakers: 22 million
Gan dialects are spoken in Jiangxi and neighboring provinces like Fujian, Hunan, Hubei and Anhui.
Mandarin or Wu speakers may be able to understand small amounts of Gan, despite the differences. This dialect is actually the most similar to the Kejia/Hakka dialect—they even share a few words!
Standard Mandarin vs. Cantonese
As presented in the list, the top two most widely spoken varieties of Chinese are Standard Mandarin and Yue Chinese, also known as Cantonese.
The most important distinction between Standard Mandarin and Cantonese is that they do not sound the same and are not mutually intelligible.
Even beyond that, these dialects definitely have more differences than similarities. Take a look:
|Spoken in:||all regions of China and several other countries||the Guangdong region of China and surrounding areas|
|Helpful for:||multiple other Chinese dialects||other Yue subdialects|
|Written with:||simplified characters (except in Taiwan)||traditional characters*|
|Romanized via:||the standard pinyin system||commonly Jyupting or Yale, but no standard system|
|Number of tones:||four plus a neutral tone||six tones with nine sounds|
* Because Cantonese is such a colloquial language, it even has some unique characters all its own!
So, technically: No, Chinese is not a language, but rather a blanket term for over 300 dialects spoken today and all the culture that comes along with them.
Next time someone asks, “Is Chinese a language?” you can enlighten them with all of this fascinating history and information about the Chinese language family.
And One More Thing...
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