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Number of Speakers: 885 million

Key Dialects: Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern, Eastern or Lower Yangtze River

Geographical Center: China

Mandarin is the most widely spoken of all Chinese languages/dialects and is used by upwards of 720 million people in China, or 70 percent of the population of China (Grimes 1992). It is spoken in a huge area of the mainland running diagonally from the extreme southwest to Manchuria and also along the entire east coast north of Shanghai. To generalize, most of China with the exception of the southeastern provinces from Vietnam in the southwest to Shanghai in the northeast is Mandarin speaking. Other exceptional areas are in the far west. There are also non-Chinese speaking minorities in many areas of China.

Substantial numbers of speakers are in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, the USA, Mongolia, Vietnam, Brunei, South Africa, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. The total number of speakers in approximately 885 million (Grimes 1994).

Mandarin, belongs to an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. This includes several major subfamilies: Tibetan, spoken in Tibet; Lolo-Burmese, in Burma, and in discontinuous parts of southern China, etc.; and Karen, in lower Burma. Tibetan, Lolo-Burmese, and Karen are more closely related than the Chinese languages/dialects are to any of the other subfamily members.

The major linguistic distinctions within Chinese are Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue (commonly known as Cantonese), and Hakka (Kejia). Wu, Min, Yue and Hakka are all spoken in the southern and southeastern provinces of China (Guangdong, Fujian, most of Hunan, Jianxi, and Zhejiang, and parts of Guangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu) and on the islands of Taipei (Taiwan) and Hainan. Cantonese is more closely related to Min and Hakka; it is spoken in Guangdong and Guangzi provinces and in Hong Kong.

Several subgroups of dialects have been distinguished, including: Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern, and lower Yangtze River dialects. For the most part these are very homogeneous and there is a high level of mutual comprehension among all speakers of Mandarin dialects. The Beijing dialect provides the standard for the national language which is officially called Putonghua in China, Guoyu in Taiwan, and Huayu in Singapore. There are some minor differences between these three. Other names which have been used are Pei, Northern Chinese, Potinhua, and Beijinghua. Modern Standard Chinese also is used to refer to the Beijing-based standard.

Although this profile speaks of "Chinese languages/dialects" the Chinese themselves refer to all forms of spoken Chinese as "dialects" even though some of them are as different as Spanish and Italian and are not mutually intelligible. The fiction of a single Chinese language--despite the many historical forms, styles, and regional variants--persists because of a common writing system with deep historical roots and because of a common ideal of cultural unity.

Mandarin is written in traditional Chinese characters, a system that developed over 4,000 years ago. It utilizes a set of logographs of several types: pictographs, ideographs, compound ideographs, loan characters, and phonetic compounds. The latter forms over 90 percent of the total set of as many as 40,000 characters (Li and Thompson 1979, 1987). There is also an official romanization called Pinyin. There are other systems but Pinyin, developed in the 1950s, has become widespread throughout China, and has received official encouragement.

There is little connection between the written and spoken language: the Chinese system of writing, for the most part, does not symbolize the spoken language. Because it is ideographic, speakers of all Chinese languages/dialects, regardless of the similarity of spoken form, can read and understand Chinese writing and literature (for further information see the Cantonese Profile).

Chinese is predominantly an isolating language, meaning that for the most part it is devoid of inflection, which characterizes many European languages including English. Word order, particles, prepositions and discourse--rather than a system of affixes attached to nouns or verbs--indicate grammatical relations, that is, how the various constituents of a sentence interrelate.

Compared to other languages, word structure is also simple and uncomplicated, with words consisting of one or two morphemes, and there are few inflectional morphemes, such as those in other languages that indicate, for example, tense, person, number, gender, and case.

There is some morphological complexity. Definite nouns may be overtly marked by various modifiers but usually any sentential constituents before the verb are considered as definite. Number also can be expressed by a suffix but only for nouns indicating human beings and also obligatorily for personal pronouns; otherwise it is ignored or shown by lexical means, e.g. a numeral. Modifiers precede nouns.

Verbs can occur in compounds in which the second element indicates result or direction. Tense is not indicated in verb phrases; instead there are particles which are suffixed to the verb to indicate certain aspects, such as perfect, durative, inchoative, and experiential.

There is also a set of particles which occur at the end of sentences; these function, for example, to change declarative sentences into questions, to produce commands or suggestions, and so on.

In Mandarin, compounding and derivational morphemes are common; thus, the language is largely polysyllabic in word structure in contrast to Cantonese, for example, where the characterization of "monosyllabic" is accurate.

The syntax is rather simple and uncomplicated but unusual from the standpoint of English. Notions such as subject, direct and indirect object play no significant role. Serial verb constructions in expressing subordinate relationships such as purpose are the norm and there are no overt markers for indicating subordination or coordination. The distinction between active and passive voice is often left unmarked but there are prepositions which can be used to indicate agents. Indirect objects in most cases are marked by a preposition and precede the verb. Pronouns are remarkable in how infrequently they are used.

Mandarin is a tone language in which each stressed syllable has a significant contrastive pitch which is an integral part of the syllable. All Chinese languages/dialects have tone, but Mandarin has one of the simplest systems, consisting of four basic tones (high level, high rising, dipping/falling, high falling) in contrast to Cantonese, for example, with nine contrastive tones.

Morpheme structure in Chinese is relatively simple, for example, consonant clusters are not tolerated and only a restricted number of consonants can occur in syllable-final position.

Mandarin, under the term "Putonghua" is the official language of the People's Republic of China. It is also the official language of Taiwan, where it is called Guoyu, and is one of the official languages of Singapore where it is referred to as Huayu. All of the official standards are based on the Beijing dialect. The term Mandarin itself derives from a Beijing expression, which means "officials' language." Since Mandarin, in the guise of Modern Standard Chinese, was adopted in 1956 as the officially sanctioned language for the nation, it has been actively and zealously promoted through the media of education, broadcasting, television, and the press. It is steadily making inroads in traditional non-Mandarin areas, especially as a written language.

Three periods in the history of Chinese can be distinguished: Preclassical from 1500 to 500BC; Classical from 500BC to 200AD; and Postclassical from 200AD to the present.

The earliest attestations date from the first period, in the form of inscriptions on bone and tortoise shell; they are in the form of short oracle inscriptions; later on they were done on bronze. Also from later in this period there is an anthology of 305 poems, called the Shijing (The Book of Songs, or Classic of Poetry) from which scholars have been able to infer much about the structure and form of the language from that period.

The Classical period begins with the earliest writings of Confucius and ends with the Han dynasty (206BC - 220AD). Many prose works dating from this time exist. The language of the postclassical period was modeled on that of the Classical period, but in the meantime the vernaculars had evolved to the point that the writing of this period when read aloud was not comprehensible. Nevertheless it continued as a form used by administrators, scholars and the literate and some of the greatest literature of the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) and neo-Confucian works were produced during this period. This style endured into the first half of the twentieth century when there was a reaction against some of the highly stylized literature of the various historical periods. In the early years of the twentieth century serious efforts were undertaken to provide the masses with a form of the language that could be understood by all. This culminated in 1956 with the adoption of Modern Standard Chinese whose model for pronunciation is the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, and for grammar the regional variant of Northern Mandarin, and for its lexicon the modern vernacular literature. Part of the reform movement included the simplification of the traditional characters and the formation and dissemination of a phonetic alphabet, known as Pinyin. Both were motivated by the desire to eliminate illiteracy.

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