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Chinese dialect

Linguists classify the variations in spoken Chinese language into seven (sometimes ten) groups, often called dialects. Within these groups, there are many subgroups, many of which are mutually unintelligible.

Although dialect is often used to translate the Chinese term (fangyan), the linguistic difference between the spoken versions of the dialects are greater than what would be considered separate languages in Europe. Most Chinese do not however think of these variation as separate languages because they share a common written standard and literary traditions and because there are socially accepted continuums between different dialects. It is possible to make a distinction between spoken language (语; yu) and written language (文; wen).

There are also great differences in the geographical variation of intelligibility. Mandarin dialects are remarkably constant with people living hundreds of kilometers from each other able to communicate intelligibly. In Fujian, people living ten kilometers away from each other can be speaking unintelligible variations of Min.

Table of contents
1 Classification
2 Sociolinguistics of spoken variations of Chinese
3 Manifestations of language differentiation
4 Related topics
5 References


Chinese dialects can be divided into a number of categories. However because two people are speaking dialects within the same category does not mean that they can necessarily understand each other. The general situation is one of dialect continuum where one can understand perfectly people speaking the local dialect and that the intelligibility decreases as the the speaker comes from more and more distant regions.

In addition, the linguistic categories that speakers are used to classify different dialects may be only loosely related to their linguistic features. For example, two speakers of Cantonese from different cities (say Taishan and Hong Kong) tend to think of themselves as speaking the same dialect, whereas speaker of Wu from Hangzhou and one from Shanghai would tend to think of themselves as speaking the different dialects.

One distinctive feature of Mandarin is the partial loss of tones in comparison to Middle Chinese and the other dialects. Another is the loss of consonants on the ends of syllables, so that while Middle Chinese had an inventory of "-p, -t, -k, -m, -n, ng", Mandarin only has "-n, -ng". In addition, Mandarin underwent less tone splits than the other dialects. As a result, many words which sound different in dialects such as Cantonese are homophones in Mandarin. Mandarin has adjusted by developing compound words in order to make up for the development of homophones. This is less common in other dialects.

(The following three dialect groups are not always classified separately.)

Sociolinguistics of spoken variations of Chinese

In general, Chinese in southern China are fluent speakers of both Mandarin and the local dialect, but use a different variation based on the social situation. Mandarin is usually considered more formal and is required when speaking to a person who does not understand the local dialect. The local dialect is generally considered more intimate and is used among close family members and friends and in everyday conversation within the local area. Chinese speakers will frequently code switch between Mandarin and the local dialect. Parents will generally speak to their children in dialect, and the relationship between dialect and Mandarin appears to be stable.

Knowing the local dialect is of considerable social benefit and most Chinese who permanently move to a new area will attempt to pick up the local dialect. Learning a new dialect is usually done informally through a process of immersion and recognizing sound shifts. Typically, a speaker of one dialect of Chinese will need about a year of immersion to understand the local dialect and about three to five years to become fluent in speaking it. Because of the variety of dialects spoken, there are usually few formal methods for learning a local dialect.

Within the People's Republic of China there has been a strong official policy of not discouraging the use of local dialect or to imply that local dialect is inferior. On the other hand, in the Republic of China, the government had a policy until the mid-1980s of promoting Mandarin as high status and the local languages -- Taiwanese and Hakka -- as low status, a situation which caused a great deal of resentment and has produced somewhat of a backlash in the 1990s as part of the Taiwanese localization movement.

Manifestations of language differentiation

Although most people speak of Chinese as though it were one language with perhaps some differences in "accent" or "dialect" as one moves from area to area of the country, in fact the differences are in some cases quite stark. For instance, in Taiwanese, to express the idea that one is feeling a little ill, one might say

Go kā-kī lâng ū tān-po̍h--á bô sóng-khoài.

which, when translated cognate-by-cognate into Mandarin would be something like

Wǒ zjǐ rn yǒu dānb a b shuǎngkuài.

an awkward sentence, if not simply non-productive. A little more colloquially it would be

Wǒ zjǐ yǒu yīdiǎn b shūf.

A little better would be

Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎn b shūf.

removing the reflexive pronoun (zjǐ), not usually needed in Mandarin. And perhaps some people (likely from the north of China) would really say

Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎr b shūf.

Related topics