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Mandarin (linguistics)

Mandarin is the official variant of the Chinese language used in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC). It is also one of four official languages in Singapore. The efforts of both the PRC and ROC to promote Mandarin as the standard tongue has made it the most widely-spoken Chinese "dialect. There are more speakers of Mandarin than of any other spoken language.

Table of contents
1 Name
2 History
3 Mandarin and Beijingese
4 Variations
5 Transcription systems
6 Tones
7 Pronunciation and Grammar
8 Adoption of Foreign Words
9 Mandarin Chinese and other dialects
10 External links


The English term comes from the Portuguese mandarim (from Malay menteri, from Sanskrit mantri, meaning minister); it is a translation of the Chinese term Guanhua (官話), which literally means the language of the mandarins (imperial magistrates). (The term Guanhua is often considered archaic by Chinese speakers of today.)

In the PRC, the language is known as Putonghua (普通話, "the common dialect") or Hanyu (漢語, the language of the Han). On Taiwan, the language is officially known as Guoyu (國語,"the national language"). Among overseas Chinese communities, particularly in South East Asia, the language is known as Huayu (華語 "the Chinese language"). (Note that while the term Han yu is commonly used to refer to Mandarin, this terminology is sometimes contested by speakers of other variants of Chinese, who feel the name implies that the language is somehow closer to ancient Chinese than other dialects. Some speakers of Hakka, for example, will object that their own dialect should carry the name Han yu, as its grammar is closer to that of ancient texts.)

The standard form of Mandarin Chinese uses the sounds of Beijing minus some pronounced regionalisms. There are regional variations in pronunciation, however, for two reasons. The first is that the geographical area where this language is the mother tongue of most speakers is so large that there are pronounced regional variations encountered as one moves from place to place. These regional differences are as pronounced as the regional versions of the English language found in England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. The second reason for pronounced variations in pronunciation is that speakers of Mandarin as a second language frequently flavor it with a strong infusion of the speech sounds of their native tongues. Taiwanese Mandarin, for instance, has become a fairly consistent variant of standard Mandarin as defined by educational authorities. Mandarin is also sometimes incorrectly known as Beijingese (Beijing hua or Beijing fangyan), or Jing pianzi (京片子). In Taiwan, those espousing Taiwan independence often insist on using the term Beijing hua instead of Guoyu in order to promote the idea that Taiwanese should be their new national language.

It will perhaps be easier to understand how these seventeen languages are associated with geographical areas of China by examining the maps below. Note that the languages named Bei-yu (represented on the left-hand map by lines drawn from Beijing), Jin, and Dungan (a Chinese language spoken by the Muslim population of Kyrghyzstan) are classified as members of the first of the seven main groups of languages. The Gan and Hakka languages are grouped together, as the second of the seven. And the five Min languages are grouped together as the third of the seven. The other four have no subdivisions so their names are carried in both the column for the seven main language groups and in the column for the seventeen languages. In the right-hand map, the geographical scope of the Mandarin family is clearer, but some other details are lost. Note that the relatively small Min (Fujian) area is linguistically more complicated than the Mandarin area. (The exact locations of five Min sub-divisions are not indicated.) Note also that the Yue (Cantonese) division is more closely allied to the Mandarin division, that the Hakka language is an early incursion due to a process of immigration that occured in historical times, and that the remaining three divisions (surrounding the Min division) are more closely related to the Min than to the Mandarin division. The Jin division of the first main group differs significantly from the Mandarin spoken in surrounding areas because it retains significant "archaic" elements, especially notable among which is the entering tone (ru4 sheng1).

In the West, many people are familiar with the fact that the Romance languages all derive from Latin and so have many underlying features in common while being mutually unintelligible. Some people refer to the lesser variations within a single language, such as the regional variations within Spanish, as dialects. Chinese linguists speak of what we call Chinese as a member of the Sino-Tibetan "language family" (yu3 zu2). Within this language family there are two systems (xi4): the Sinitic (Han4 yu3 xi4) and the Tibeto-Burmese systems. Within the Sinitic system there are seven main groups of languages spoken by ethnic Han Chinese and four more related groups of languages spoken by minority groups. Among these, seventeen languages (yu3) are distinguished, and each of these can show a further level of differentiation (fang1 yan2).



The development of the Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. The language tree given here shows how the present main divisions of the Chinese language developed out of an early common language. Comparison with the map above will give some idea of the complexities that have been left out of the tree. For instance, the Min language that is centered in Fujian Province contains five subdivisions, and the so-called northern language (which is called Mandarin in the West), also contains named subdivisions such as Yun-nan hua, Si-chuan hua, etc.

Most Chinese living in northern China, in Sichuan, and, actually, in a broad arc from the north-east (Manchuria) to the south-west (Yun-nan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home 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, Beijingese Mandarin became dominant at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音書院 Zhengyin Shuyuan) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard. But these attempts had little success.

This situation changed with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC) 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, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.

Mandarin and Beijingese

One common misconception is that Mandarin is the same as "Beijing dialect". It is true that the standard pronunciation and grammar of the language of instruction is based on the Beijing dialect, but "standard Mandarin" is a rather elusive concept since it is a set of "constructed" language standards imposed on people who are asked to give up their accustomed regional pronunciations. Over the vast area from Manchuria in the north-eastern part of China to Yun-nan in the south-western part of China, the home language of most people is Mandarin (in the global sense), but these home languages all differ from the pronunciation, vocabulary, and sometimes even the grammar of the language of instruction.

Specifically as regards the language of the natives of Beijing, most speakers conform well to the standard pronunciation of the initial retroflex sounds (zhi, chi, shi, ri), but they add a final "er" -- commonly used as a diminuitive -- sound to vocabulary items that other speakers would leave unadorned (儿音 eryin). There are also many vocabulary items that have wide local currency but are hardly ever used outside of the Beijing area. On top of those differences, as with London and New York City, there is more than one local "accent" in Beijing.

Those few exceptions aside, the local pronunciation of Beijing natives generally conforms very well to the standard pronunciation. Generally speaking, the local pronunciations of people from other Mandarin-speaking areas depart more and more from the standard as distance increases. People who live in Tianjing also have quite standard pronunciations. People who live in the northeastern part of China frequently change j-initial sounds to g- or k-initial sounds and have difficulty pronouncing initial "ri" sounds. People from more southernly parts of China generally substitute sounds for the standard initial retroflex consonants of standard Mandarin. ("Zhi" becomes "zi," "chi" becomes "ci," "shi" becomes "si," and "ri" may sound more like "zi.") In some areas people do not distinguish between initial "l" and "n" sounds, and in some areas final "ng" sounds change into "n" sounds. The language of instruction employs many neutral tones for the second syllables of words (syllables whose tone contour is so short and light that it is difficult or impossible to discriminate), but in many areas, especially in the south, the tones of both syllables are made clear.


From an official point of view, there are two Mandarins, since the Beijing government refers to that on the Mainland Putonghua, or "Common Language", whereas the Taipei government refers to their official language as Kuo-yü, or "National Language". Officially, Putonghua includes pronunciations from a number of different regions, while Kuoyu is theoretically based on the Beijing sounds only. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of "school" Mandarin are often quite different from the Mandarin that is spoken in accordance with regional habits. Just as more than one dialect of English can be found in London and in New York City, there is more than one "accent" to be found just in Beijing.

Not all variations of spoken Mandarin are readily mutually intelligible. Specifically, according to SIL International [1]:

Mandarin varieties in the Lower Plateau in Shaanxi are not readily intelligible with Putonghua. Mandarin varieties of Guilin and Kunming are inherently unintelligible to speakers of Putonghua.

Nevertheless, educated speakers of the official language of instruction living in southwestern cities such as Guilin and Kunming will be found to speak quite adequate Putonghua, as well as their own mother tongue.

In northern China, Sichuan, and other areas where the "Northern" language is spoken, the local variations of Mandarin are the mother tongues of most of the people who live in those regions. The era of mass education in Mandarin has not erased these earlier regional differences.. In the south, the interaction between Mandarin and local variations of Chinese has produced local versions of the "Northern" language that are rather different from that official standard Mandarin in both pronunciation and grammar. For example, the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan by students who speak Taiwanese (a dialect of Southern Min) or Hakka as their mother tongue is usually spoken with a grammar and accent that renders it different from the Kuoyu standard, creating a version of Mandarin commonly known as Taiwan Mandarin.

Although Mandarin is considered the standard dialect, speaking Mandarin without the local accent or speaking Mandarin instead of the local dialect can mark a person as being an outsider or as someone who is not "a regular guy." Thus many Chinese, including Chinese political leaders themselves, do not bother to learn to speak Mandarin with a standard accent.

Transcription systems

Ever since the first Westerners entered China and attempted to learn Mandarin, the need for some kind of phonetic transcription system to record the pronunciation of Chinese characters became apparent. Over the years, many such systems have been proposed. The first to be widely accepted was the Wade-Giles system, named after its 19th century inventors. This system is still in use today, though not in mainland China. It is now mostly encountered in older textbooks, histories, etc.

In the 20th century, Chinese linguists proposed various transcription systems, one of which even introduced a whole new syllabic alphabet: the Zhuyin system. The most successful of these transcription systems was Hanyu Pinyin, which was accepted as the official transcription system for the Chinese language by the PRC in 1958 and later by the United Nations and other international organizations. During the 1950s, there were plans for Pinyin to supersede the Chinese characters. These plans, however, proved to be impractical due to the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language.

A variety of transcription systems are used on Taiwan. The ROC national government adopted Tongyong Pinyin in 2002, but has permitted local governments to override that decision in favor of their own preferred romanization systems. Zhuyin is used as the method for teaching pronunciation of characters and compounds in schools. Efforts to phase out this system in favor of pinyin have been stalled due to disagreements over which form of pinyin to use, and the massive effort needed to produce new educational materials and to completely retrain teachers.

Other less popular or outdated Romanizations include:


Mandarin, like all Chinese dialects, is a
tonal language. A syllable can be left toneless or pronounced in one of four pitches. These changes in tone also change meaning, but a single phrase/word/sentence has only one set of invariable tone, independent of the speakers' mood. The four different pitches are:

  1. First tone, or high-level tone (阴平 yin1 ping2, literal meaning: yin-level):
    sounds a brighter, higher tone, as if it were being sung instead of spoken.
  2. Second tone, or rising tone (阳平 yang2 ping2, literal meaning: yang-level), or linguistically, high-rising:
    is a sound that rises from low tone to very high (i.e: What?!)
  3. Third tone (low tone, or low-falling-raising, 上声 shang4 sheng1, literal meaning: "up tone"):
    has a high-to-low descent ending with a rising tone. Its tone can be found in saying "w-e-l-l" thoughtfully or inviting an answer.
  4. Fourth tone, falling tone (去声 qu4 sheng1, literal meaning: "away tone"), or high-falling:
    features a sharp downward accent ("dipping"), and is a short, sharp tone, similar to curt commands. (i.e: Stop.)
  5. Fifth tone, or neutral tone or zeroeth tone (轻声 qing1 sheng1, literal meaning: "light tone"):
    sounds short and light. It is not technically a tone. This is the least occurring tone in Mandarin, at least as far as characters that have no other tone are concerned. In some of the local varieties of Mandarin, the second character in almost every compound is weaker in tonal prominence than the first character and is arguably a "neutral" tone. On the other hand, if a very unemphasized incorrect tone is produced, its presence may be noted by the careful listener.
  6. Entering tone. Historically, Mandarin had a fifth tone, called an "entering tone" (as do other variations of the Chinese language). It is preserved in the Jin sub-division. The entering tone has somewhat the sound of an arrow striking and entering a wooden plank, i.e., it is of short duration compared to the other tones, and it ends with either a glottal stop or a consonant. Older dictionaries such as Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary mark entering tone characters with a superscript 5.
Most romanizations represent the tones as diacritics on the vowels (e.g., Pinyin, MPS II and Tongyong Pinyin). Zhuyin uses diacritics as well. Others, like Wade-Giles, uses superscript number at the end of each syllable. Representation of Chinese tone marks/numbers is rarely practised outside of textbooks. Gwoyeu Romatzyh is a rare example where tones are not represented as special symbols, but as true alphabet letters (hence creating a very complex orthography).

To listen to the tones, see (click on the blue-red yin yang symbol).

Pronunciation also varies with context according to the rules of tone sandhi. For example, the most prominent phenomenon of this kind is the strict avoidance of two dipping (third) tones in immediate sequence. It is very difficult to produce that kind of a tonal contour, so the first of two third tones is always converted to a second tone. If there are three third tones in series, the first may or may not be converted to a second tone, depending entirely on the preference of the speaker.

Pronunciation and Grammar

The set of syllables in Chinese is very small, since each syllable has to be constructed after the pattern: "optional initial consonant followed by vowel followed by optional nasal". Not every syllable that is possible according to this rule is actually used, and in practice there are only a few hundred syllables. For example, Mandarin totally lacks the ending 'm' sound. People with a heavy Mandarin accent would often read 'time' as 'tyne'. The implications of this are discussed in the Chinese language article as are the main features of Chinese (and hence Mandarin) grammar.

See also: Chinese grammar

Adoption of Foreign Words

Since Chinese has so few syllables, Mandarin speakers typically experience great difficulty in pronouncing words from languages rich in consonant clusters, e.g. most European languages. Additionally, syllables that do not conform to the Mandarin pattern cannot be directly transcribed into Chinese characters. There is an official system for approximating foreign words using Chinese characters, but this sometimes yields strange results and is mainly used for rendering foreign names.

For example, the word "telephone" was translated into "delüfeng" in the 1920s, but later it was changed to the more harmonious "dianhua". On the other hand, the word for "microphone" remains "maikefeng". Because of the close relationship between written Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji, Mandarin borrowed many Japanese words that had originally been derived from European words in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Because of these transcription difficulties, it is more common to coin new words in Mandarin than to borrow foreign words directly. These new words are usually polysyllabic. Often one syllable conveys the word's "subject". (This is similar to the way in which many individual Chinese characters are composed.)

Since this way of incorporating foreign words is very cumbersome, the Chinese tend to invent their own words for technical innovations (the word for "train" (火車), e.g., means "fire vehicle"); so the international set of technical expressions deriving from Latin and Greek is not found in Mandarin.

Characters which are used exclusively in the transcription of foreign words are present (though not prominently so) in Chinese; many of these characters date back to Middle Chinese wherein they were used to translate Sanskrit phonemes.

Mandarin Chinese and other dialects

To the dismay of non-Mandarin speakers, the predominant role of Mandarin has led to the misidentification of Mandarin as "the Chinese language". Although both the PRC and the ROC use Mandarin as the official language and promote its nationwide use, Mandarin is still far from supplanting the local dialects that are in daily use in many parts of China, especially in the southern provinces of the PRC. Many Chinese language speakers in mainland China do not speak Mandarin very well.

In the predominantly Han areas within the People's Republic of China, the interaction between Mandarin and the local Chinese dialects has generally not been controversial. Although the use of Mandarin is encouraged as the common working language, the PRC has attempted to be sensitive to the status of local dialects and has not discouraged their use. Mandarin, however, is used very commonly for logistical reasons in that it is often the only means of communication between people of different regions, and because in some parts of China, local dialects from regions as close as a few kilometers are mutually unintelligible.

In the Republic of China, the relationship between Mandarin and local dialects, particularly Taiwanese has been more heated. Until the 1980s the government attempted to discourage the use of Taiwanese, even portraying it as inferior. This produced a backlash in the 1990s. Although some more extreme supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be opposed to Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese, efforts to replace Mandarin either with Taiwanese or with a multi-lingual standard have remained stalled.

See also:

External links