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Chinese Language

The Chinese Language Group
The Chinese languages are the languages of the Han people, the major ethnic group of China, including both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. The Chinese languages are spoken by over one billion people. Approximately 95 percent of the Chinese population speaks Chinese, as opposed to the non-Chinese languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Lolo, Miao, and Tai spoken by minorities. The vast majority of the Chinese-speaking population is in China (over 980 million), Hong Kong, and Taiwan (19 million), but substantial numbers are also found throughout the whole of southeast Asia, especially in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Important Chinese-speaking communities are also found in many other parts of the world, especially in Europe, North and South America, and the Hawaiian Islands.
General Linguistic characteristics of Chinese
Chinese, together with Tibetan and Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese) and the many tribal languages of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the family of Sino-Tibetan languages. Besides a core vocabulary and sounds, Chinese and most related languages share features that distinguish them from most Western languages: they are monosyllabic, have little inflection, and are tonal. In order to indicate differences in meaning between words similar in sound, tone languages assign to words a distinctive relative pitch-high or low-or a distinctive pitch contour-level, rising, or falling.
Language versus dialects
Spoken Chinese comprises many regional variants, generally referred to as dialects. However, the mutual unintelligibility of the subvarieties is the main ground for classifying them as separate languages or dialect groups. Each dialect group consists of a large number of dialects, many of which may themselves be referred to as languages. The boundaries between one so-called language and the next are not always easy to define. Because each dialect group preserves different features of Middle Chinese (dating back to early or even pre-T'ang times), they have proven to be valuable research tools in the phonological reconstruction of Middle and even to some extent its ancestor, Old Chinese. Most Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects, which are largely mutually intelligible.
Members of the Chinese language group
Chinese has seven major language groups of which the Mandarin language group forms the largest group. The Mandarin group consists of a wide range of dialects in the northern, central, and western regions. The Cantonese dialects are spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, parts of Hainan, Macau, and in many overseas settlements. The Hakka (Kejia) languages are spoken in Guangdong, southwestern Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hainan, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, many overseas Chinese communities, and in pockets throughout Southeast Asia. Most of the inhabitants of the south central region, in Hunan use the Xiang dialects, also known as Hunanese. The Min dialects are spoken in most of Fujian, large areas of Taiwan and Hainan, parts of Eastern Guangdong and the Leizhou Bandao Peninsula, and in areas of Southeast Asia. Most of the people living in Jiangxi, eastern part of Hunan, and the southeastern corner of Hubei use the Gan dialects. The majority of the inhabitants of Zhejiang, as well as people living in southern areas of Jiangsu and Anhui, speak the Wu dialects. The Wu dialects share marginal mutual intelligibility with the Mandarin and Gan dialects.
Chinese, The national language
The need to establish an official national language was felt as early as the 17th century when the Ch'ing dynasty established a number of "correct pronunciation institutes" to teach standard Peking pronunciation, particularly in the Cantonese and Fukienese-speaking southern provinces. The success of these schools, however, was extremely limited. The concept of a national language coalesced around 1910. In 1913, the Ministry of Education convened a Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation to establish a standard national tongue. Wu Ching-heng (also known as Wu Chih-hui, a philosopher and one of the founders of the Republic of China, was chosen to direct the task of creating a truly national language that would transcend locality and dialect. Due to the domination of the numerically superior Mandarin-speaking delegates, the Peking dialect was voted for the general foundation of the new national language 'guoyu' (national speech). It embodies the pronunciation of Peking, the grammar of the Mandarin dialects, and the vocabulary of modern vernacular Chinese literature, but features of various local dialects were also incorporated. Guoyu is now the official language of mainland China, Taiwan and one of the official languages of Singapore. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 it was renamed to putonghua (common language) . In 1956, it became the medium of instruction in all schools nationwide and a policy of promoting its use began. It is now the most widely used form of spoken Chinese. In Taiwan, it still goes under the name of guoyu, or 'national speech'. In the West it is generally referred to Mandarin.
Phonetic spelling
After several previous attempts to write Chinese using the letters of the roman alphabet, pinyin, a 58-symbol writing system was finally adopted in 1958. Some strange and unnatural sounds for the x's, q's, and zh's reflect the graphic choices of Russian linguists. Its main aims are to facilitate the spread of putonghua, and the learning of Chinese characters. In the 1970s a new map of China was published using the alphabet, and a list of standard spellings for Chinese placenames was compiled.
The number of Chinese characters
Number of characters Dictionary Period Date
3,300 Cangjiepian, Yuanlipian, Boxuepian Qin 221-206 BC
9,535 Shuowen jiezi Eastern Han 100 AD
16,917 Yupian Liang 543
26,149 Guangyun Norther Song 1011
32,200 Hongwu zhengyun Ming 1375
47,043 Kangxi zidian Qing 1716
48,000 Zhonghua da zidian ROC 1916
56,000 Xiandai Hanyu da zidian PRC 1986-90

Although around 56,000 characters have been accumulated in Chinese, only a few thousand are needed to write Modern Chinese. A large part of the 56,000 characters (40 percent) are variants of a same character (yiti).

Number of characters Coverage rate (per cent)
500 80
1,000 91
2,400 99
3,800 99.9
5,200 99.99
6,600 99.999
Traditional and simplified writing system
In mainland China a simplified writing system is used, whereas in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas regions the traditional script is being used. Starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a growing consensus that the writing system constituted an obstacle to the achievement of a higher literacy rate. The simplified writing system differs in two ways from the traditional writing system: (1) a reduction of the number of strokes per character and (2) the reduction of the number of characters in common use (two different characters are now written with the same character). A large-scale reform was continued after the founding of the PRC. In 1955 1,053 variant characters were eliminated. In 1956, the Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters, known later as the First Scheme, was promulgated by the PRC government. It was composed of 525 simplified characters and 54 simplified basic components of characters. The Second Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters was promulgated in 1977 but was repealed in 1986 amid general disapproval.
The comeback of the traditional writing system
The use of the simplified script has also given rise to some problems. When some simplified characters become easier to learn and write, they may not necessarily be easier to recognize. Characters may become less differentiated from each other as a result of simplification of their shape. There is no balance between the legibility and distinctiveness of its basic symbols. Furthermore, simplified characters offer even fewer clues to their pronunciation than their traditional counterparts, making them more prone to mispronunciation. Finally, it is argued that the simplified script hinders access to writings before 1956, as well as those from outside mainland China. In comparison with the twenty-year period following 1956, the 1980s and 1990s have witnessed a comeback of the original traditional characters.They are everywhere to be seen on signboards of streets, stores, schools, companies, and government institutions, as well as in advertisements, slogans, and televisions subtitles. More than 50% of the universities in Beijing use traditional characters in their signs, as is the case for 85% of the restaurants in Beijing. In the southern parts of China these rates are even higher. In the ShenZhen area some schools have started to teach the traditional script again because people were not able to understand writings and contracts from the neighoring Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Differences between Putonghua and Guoyu
Obviously, there are some slight deviations between the Mandarin variants spoken in Beijing, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong SAR. These include deviations in grammar, vocabulary, stylistic aspects, and loan words. For example, there is a 23% discrepancy in standard pronunciation between the 3,500 most commonly used characters in the 'Xinhua zidian' of the mainland and 'Guoyu cidian' of Taiwan. All radio and television broadcast announcers in Beijing, both men and women, broadcast in a pitch range noticeably higher than that of their normal speaking voices. Each sentence begins high and shrill. Then pitch falls gradually, reaching a lower key by the end of the sentence. Pauses are exaggerated and more drawn out. This special type of intonation seems intended to arouse in the audience an impression of struggle and determination. In Taiwan, by contrast, announcers broadcast in a more conversational speaking voice.
Bilingual education
Bilingual education is now common in Taiwan as a way of reversing the previous neglect of Chinese dialects other than the national language. Although the mainland central government acknowledges the importance of local dialects they are several steps behind bilingual education due to the continuing efforts to establish putonghua as the national language.

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