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Chinese language history

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Chinese Language Facts

About 1.3 billion people (one-fifth of the world) speak some form of Chinese, making it the language with the most native speakers. The Chinese language, spoken in the form of Standard Mandarin, is the official language in the largest part of mainland China and Taiwan, one of the four in Singapore, and an official idiom of the United Nations.

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In the form of Standard Cantonese (66 million speakers), Chinese is spoken in GuangDong province and is one of the two official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and Macau (together with Portuguese).

The terms and concepts used by Chinese Translators to think about language are different from those used in the West, partly because of the unifying effects of the Chinese characters used in writing, and also due to differences in the political and social development of China in comparison with Europe, for example. Whereas after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fragmented into small nation-states, whose identities were often defined by the language, China was able to preserve cultural and political unity through the same period. It maintained a common written standard throughout its entire history, despite the fact that its actual diversity in spoken language has always been comparable to Europe.

As a result, Chinese make a sharp distinction between written language (“wen”) and spoken language (“yu”). The concept of a unified combination of both written and spoken forms of language is much less strong in Chinese than in the West.

The written Chinese language consists of about 40,000 characters, which can have as many as 30 strokes, while all varieties of spoken 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 and Cantonese has between 6 and 9.

With some experts predicting it will outpace US as the largest economy in the world, China’s continued strong economic growth is a major positive force in Asia. As a huge engine of growth and import demand, China offers more opportunities for other economies in the region following its accession to the World Trade Organisation. This has made the Chinese economy to play an increasingly bigger role in stabilising the world economy and chinese tranlation services have become more popular around the world.

Roots of Chinese language

Most linguists classify all of the variations of spoken Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan family and believe that there was an original language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, similar to Proto Indo-European, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended.

The relations between Chinese and the other Sino-Tibetan languages are still unclear and an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that there is no written documentation concerning the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and Chinese. In addition, many of the languages that would allow the reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly documented or understood.

Old Chinese

Old Chinese, sometimes known as “Archaic Chinese”, was the common language during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (11th to 7th centuries B.C.), whose texts include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the “Shijing”, the history of the “Shujing”, and portions of the Yijing. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynasty philologists.

The phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters also provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants.

The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. For instance, the Min language that is centered in Fujian Province contains five subdivisions, and the so-called northern language “Bei yu” (which is called Mandarin in the West), also contains named subdivisions, such as “Yunnan hua” and “Sichuan hua”.

READ MORE: TT's guide to the history of the Japanese language

Middle Chinese

Middle Chinese was the language used during the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (7th through 10th centuries A.D.). It can be divided into an early period, to which the “Qieyun” rhyme table (601 A.D.) relates, and a late period in the 10th century, which the “Guangyun” rhyme table reflects. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries, and foreign transliterations.

Contemporary Chinese

Most Chinese living in northern China, in Sichuan, and, actually, in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their native language. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is largely the result of geography, namely the plains of north China.

By contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have promoted linguistic diversity. The presence of Mandarin in Sichuan is largely due to a plague in the 12th century. This plague, which may have been related to the Black Death, depopulated the area, leading to later settlement from north China.

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese living in southern China did not speak any Mandarin. However, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various Chinese dialects, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard (Beijing was the capital of Qing), but these attempts had little success.

The Nanjing Mandarin standard was finally replaced in the imperial court with Beijing Mandarin during the last 50 years of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century. For the general population, although variations of Mandarin were already widely spoken in China then, a single standard of Mandarin did not exist. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to speak their regional dialects for every aspect of life. The new Beijing Mandarin court standard was thus fairly limited.

This situation changed with the creation of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in Mainland China and in Taiwan. In Hong Kong and Macau, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese.

Spoken in the Guangdong and southern Guangsi provinces of mainland China, Cantonese has appeared in writing since the 19th century. It is used mainly in personal correspondence, diaries, comics, poetry, advertising, popular newspapers, magazines and, to some extent, in literature.

There are two standard ways of written Cantonese: a formal version and a colloquial version. The formal version is quite different from spoken Cantonese but very similar to Standard Chinese and can be understood by Mandarin speakers without too much difficulty. The colloquial version is much closer to spoken Cantonese and largely unintelligible to Mandarin speakers.

Colloquial Cantonese is written with a mixture of standard Chinese characters and hundreds of extra characters invented specifically for Cantonese. Some of the characters are rarely used or applied differently in standard Chinese.

Did you find this article useful? If so, you might like to read more about the history of the world's languages.

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