English Speaker: Have a look, what is this?China has not one but a family of related languages. Despite the name they're given: Chinese 'dialects' are not mere accents like how British and American are in English or Kansai and Tokyo are in Japanese; they are separate languages, as different and near-impossible to comprehend without education as Spanish, French, and Italian. But because pan-Chinese nationalism has long sought to reduce the differences between the Chinese people, these languages were called 'dialects' as a way of implying that they were all varieties of a single language — rather than different languages in their own right. The various Chinese dialect groups (or "subethnicities within "Chinese") have, however, shared a common writing system, i.e., Classical Chinese i.e. , for more than a millennium now, which lends some credence to the "dialect" definition. The 'dialect' vs 'language' debate is not helped by the fact that the Chinese themselves always call the dialect of every province/nation a language, regardless of whether that province/nation actually has a distinct dialect, or the fact that the Chinese word that we translate as dialect (方言 fāngyán) actually means something slightly different. The dialect promoted by the scholars of the Ming Empire (six hundred years ago, for use in the examination system, poetry recitals, etc. etc.)note , First Republic, and later Communist Republic (since most literate people and businessmen knew at least a little) is Mandarin Chinese, spoken on the northern North China Plain including Beijing. Thanks to six decades of ruthless promotion and huge population growth it now has close to 1 billion speakers and is the basis for Pinyin, the transcription system we're using on this page. Others variants include Cantonese (in Guangdong-Guangxi and Hong Kong), Xiāng and Gan (spoken in Hunan on the mid-Yangzi), Wú (spoken about the Lower Yangzi delta including around Shanghai), Hakka (dispersed around Guangdong and southern China) and Mǐn (Fujian and Taiwan). While we said earlier that the dialects all use the one writing system, that's not quite true — there's a split between areas/countries (it's complicated) that use the old and new writing systems. In the Imperial era (everything before about 1912), Literary Chinese (a very archaic form of the language, based on the Late Old Chinese spoken during the Han Empire 2000 years ago) was the standard written language due to the needs of bureaucracy and administration and other factors; you can sort of think of it as being like the retention of Latin in Europe for official records and scientific/intellectual correspondence in Europe up until the Early Modern period. After the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty both the Nationalists and, later, the Communists used the Beijing dialect (Mandarin, if you can believe the coincidence) as the basis of a standard national language, and modern written Chinese reflects that. Certain places and countries (Hong Kong, Macau and the ROC) still use classical character forms (繁體字 fán tǐ zì) for historical/political reasons, but most of mainland China and indeed Japan use versions of the characters that were aggressively (and somewhat politically) simplified by the CCP in the 1950s-'60s (简体字 jián tǐ zì). While Mandarin is the official language of the country and taught in all the schools, people will still use the local language among family and friends. A traveler who is not obviously foreign (i.e. anyone from East or Southeast Asia, or of East or Southeast Asian descent)note may need to frequently explain that he or she only speaks Mandarin. Fortunately, only the oldest generations lack knowledge of Mandarin, though not knowing the local language puts a traveler at a distinct disadvantage, whether it be in understanding locals (elements of local dialects will creep into the Mandarin spoken in a given region; this is such an issue that most local news broadcasts will subtitle interviews in Standard Mandarin for the benefit of non-locals) or in reading printed matter (a lot of places other than Beijing have dialects with grammar that vastly differ from Mandarin, such that writing down what is said in Chinese characters will leave non-locals confused). This 2005 New York Times article gives some idea of the challenges involved in the linguistic unification of China. The existence and mutual incompatibility of these dialects plays a role in Chinese humour, usually as a result of what happens when a word has completely different meanings in two dialects. Lennier might be referencing this when he mentions a word, N'kai, that appears in every Minbari dialect and subtongue but never means the same thing twice. Possible meanings include sand, father, and boot. In a real world example, some Mandarin dialects refer to shoes as hai-zi, which sounds remarkably similar or identical to child in Standard Mandarin. In general, the speech of southeastern China exhibits the greatest diversity, as it is home to the Wu, Cantonese, Gan, Min, Xiang, Hakka, and Yue major dialects/languages. Some of these are further divided: for instance, Min is divided into Northern, Southern, Eastern, Central, and Puxian forms, all of which are just as unintelligible to each other as Cantonese is to Mandarin. You see, Min branched off Old Chinese whereas all other varieties are descendants of Middle Chinese—at least 500 years of separation. The reason for the Southeast's high diversity is related to its age, geography, and distance from traditional centers of Imperial power—the south is one of the oldest parts of Chinese civilization, but for geographic reasons the north (the cradle of Mandarin) was easier to hold together as a united state, while the south tended to fracture whenever the dynasties were in decline, a process exacerbated by the fact that the imperial capital was almost always in the north. The southwest and northwest speak Mandarin on account of giant and fairly recent (Ming Dynasty and later in the Southwest, late Qing and Republican in the northwest) floods of immigration from the north-central and northeast regions, where Mandarin is spoken. As a result, their dialects are less divergent than the tongues of the southeast, although Southwestern Mandarin is rather difficult for speakers of other Mandarin dialects to understand—it reflects Ming and early Qing Dynasty usage, and thus preserves some archaic features we won't get into now.
Mandarin Speaker: 你看，这是什么? (ni kan, zhe shi shen me?)
Shanghainese Speaker: 侬看看这是什么子? (non kui kui zui sai sa me zi?)
Cantonese Speaker: 你睇睇，呢個係乜嘢嚟? (nei tai tai, ni go hai mat ye lei?)
Mandarin Speaker: 你看，这是什么? (ni kan, zhe shi shen me?)
Shanghainese Speaker: 侬看看这是什么子? (non kui kui zui sai sa me zi?)
Cantonese Speaker: 你睇睇，呢個係乜嘢嚟? (nei tai tai, ni go hai mat ye lei?)
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The Mandarin Dialects are spoken around northern and southwestern China. The Mandarin Dialects provide the basis of pronunciation for modern Standard Chinese. As much of the information on this dialect overlaps with Standard Chinese, more information on this dialect could be found on Chinese Language.
The Yue dialects are native to the coastal parts of the province of Guangdong and eastern Guangxi Zhuang AR, including Hong Kong and Macao, concentrated on the Pearl River Delta as well upriver of its many inflowing rivers. They are widely spoken among Overseas Chinese communities around the world because for historical reasons, Chinese immigrants overwhelmingly came from this region. Cantonese, a Yue dialect spoken in Guangdong Province, the eastern half of Guangxi Province, Hong Kong and Macau, is probably the best-known dialect outside of China. Hong Kong's status as a point of contact with the English-speaking world has resulted in several Cantonese phrases passing into English, such as dim sum. English even uses the a translated version of the Cantonese name to refer to the city itself (In true Cantonese it would be "Heung Gong")note . In Mandarin it is written the same (香港), but pronounced Xiãnggǎng. The Cantonese dialect is generally not accepted as a formal written language, even in Hong Kong. It is seen as slang/spoken language, and the public exams require you to write basically in "Mandarin" vocabulary (and grammar). Despite this, it is also the only Chinese dialect with an actively used written form, even it's only used in the colloquial. Interestingly, vocabulary unique to Cantonese can be divided into two types. The first kind is your normal type, with words basically deviating and changing over time in pronunciation and meaning. These words basically have no written form, although they have kind of been "invented" or taken from homophones which is common enough for you to recognize. The second type is that the slang is actually an archaic way of saying something. These actually have a written form, but the characters are so obscure that only Chinese majors know them. They are still treated as casual/spoken form, and can't be written in formal settings. In terms of spoken language, the laan yam (literally "lazy sounds") pronunciation shift has become common. Some common examples are saying l- instead of n- and mixing up the ending sounds -n and -ng, which is why there are oral tests in the public exam syllabus that is particularly asinine about this. Despite the widespread perception that Cantonese is somehow a "deviation from the more sophisticated Mandarin Chinese", Cantonese is actually one of the closest things the modern world has to Middle Chinese (中古漢語), which was the prestige language of the Tang Dynasty (6th to 10th century) and the Song Dynasty (10th to 13th century). Poetry from these two dynasties were thought to be some of the best works of literature to ever come out of China - and because Cantonese is closer to Middle Chinese than Mandarin is, Cantonese is much more helpful than Mandarin if you would like to study the said poetry. It has been noted that Cantonese itself carries a semi-nationalistic pride among Cantonese people, to the level that the language, by itself, caused an extremely thorny controversy in 2010. Nevertheless, Cantonese is only the third-largest variety of Chinese: Wu Chinese, spoken around Shanghai in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, has about six million more speakers (77 million vs. 71 million). The Other Wiki has more detailed articles about the Cantonese language and its distinct cultural heritage. Lastly, aside from Cantonese, Taishanese (spoken in southwestern Guangdong) and Weitou (spoken in the walled villages of Hong Kong and Shenzhen) also belong to the Yue subfamily, although both have little mutual intelligibility with Cantonese.
The Wu dialects are spoken around the Yangtze River Delta, in and around Shanghai and the neighboring provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and northern Fujian. Wu is rather interesting in itself, as it has the most reduced tone system of all the Chinese varieties. In Shanghai itself, the tone system has atrophied down to just two tones, bordering on a system of pitch accent more like what exists in Japanese and Swedish than the other forms of Chinese. The Shanghainese dialect is said to be understood by most of Zhejiang and the southern half of Jiangsu, although there are differences in accents, such that Wuyue peoples (Han Chinese groups who speak Wu languages) can easily tell which city one another are from based on accents alone. Historically being one of the cultural centres of China, the Wuyue region (where Wu is spoken) has produced a considerable amount of cultural heritage. Wu has quite a bit of variation within itself, such that some have proposed treating it as a subfamily within the Sinitic/Chinese language family (notice the 's' in 'Wu Dialects'?). The Wenzhounese dialect (spoken in the city of Wenzhou, which locates at the southeast of Zhejiang), for instance, is totally incomprehensible for Wuyue peoples from the rest of the Wuyue region. In fact, it has been well-known for being so complicated, even other Wuyue peoples have a hard time trying to learn it, and linguists have suggested that Wenzhounese is very suitable for making codes that are going to be extremely hard to decipher.
The Min dialects are mainly spoken in coastal southeast China, from southern Zhejiang province, much of coastal Fujian, and into eastern Guangdong, as well as on the tropical island of Hainan. The first ethnic Chinese to migrate to the island of Taiwan mainly came from these regions, which is why their distinct, non-Mandarin dialect is closer to those spoken in Xiamen or Quanzhou. They are also spoken among Overseas Chinese communities, mainly in Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia) as well as in Australia, Europe, and North America. The Min dialects reflect the greatest amount of diversity and the greatest degree of mutual unintelligibility, as they had branched off from Old Chinese while all the other Chinese dialects diverged from Middle Chinese. The dialect generally referred to as Taiwanese is closely related to Southern Min (also referred to as "Hokkien", "Hoklo", or "Minnan"), spoken across the strait in Fujian. And that province is itself noteworthy for having almost a dozen dialects associated with it. Taiwan itself is home to 26 languages, none of which are related to the Chinese languages; they instead form all but one of the branches of the Austronesian language family. The last branch? Malayo-Polynesian: Malay, Indonesian, Filipino/Tagalog, Maori, Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian.... The peoples who spoke these 26 "Formosan" languages are not ethnic Chinese, but most have long lost their ancestral tongues and speak Taiwanese Southern Min or Mandarin. Going further south, Hokkiennote is the most commonly spoken dialect in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and among the working class, the odds are higher that a given person can speak Hokkien than Mandarin Chinese. Hokkien has one benefit over other dialects in that it is an excellent tongue to swear in, particularly in its lewd terms referring to human anatomy. The Southern Min language is certainly no slouch when it comes to producing cultural heritage.
The Hakka dialects are scattered all over Southern China, reflecting their historic migration patterns from Northern China. Although of Chinese extraction, the Hakka peoples have preserved enough of their distinct customs and identity that often times they clashed with locals.
The Gan dialects are spoken mainly in Jiangxi province, which is well-known for having Jingdezhen - a city renowned for producing many, many styles of porcelains.
The Xiang dialects are spoken mainly in the province of Hunan, where Mao Zedong is from. Hunanese cuisine is noted for its use of spices.
The Bashu dialects were once spoken in the area around Sichuan, though it is now extinct and replaced by Southwestern Mandarin. However, certain traces of the language have persisted and survived in Southwestern Mandarin (or Sichuanese Mandarin), making the latter considerably difficult to understand for speakers of Standard Mandarin. Sichuan is known for its spicy cuisine and... well, being the home of pandas.
The Jin dialects are spoken in the northern province of Shanxi.
Other Distinct Dialects
Accents (when speaking Mandarin)Regional accents are nearly impossible to describe in writing, but here are a few examples.
- The people of Beijing are known for adding an '-er' sound to the end of phrases. This is not done by saying 'er,' but rather by twisting the pitch of the last word up just a bit; sounds a bit like the way a Valley girl ends each sentence with a question.
- In Shanghai the local dialect is missing a sound that exists in Mandarin; locals will often drop this sound from their spoken Mandarin, thus conflating some sounds.
- Sichuanese Mandarin changes "zh", "ch", and "sh" (which sound like the "-dge" in "fudge", the "ch" in "chug", and the "sh" in "shore", respectively) to "z", "c", and "s" ("c" in Mandarin is roughly "ts"); this can make for all sorts of confusion for someone unfamiliar with the dialect, especially with regard to numbers (if you're not listening to tones carefully when talking to someone from Sichuan, the words for 4 and 10 can sound almost identical).
- Northeast Mandarin has been influenced by Korean, Japanese, and Russian. Northeasterners often use “旮旯gāla” instead of “角落jiǎoluò corner” when speaking; and use “俺们ǎnmen” instead of “我们wǒmen we/us;” they don’t use “很 hěn” to indicate “very” but “老 lǎo” instead. They have also been noted to have a "retroflex" accent.
Mandarin as a subfamily within Chinese/Sinitic languagesIn fact, Mandarin itself is far from homogeneous - the form of Standard Mandarin people usually learn is the one spoken in Beijing. Linguists have, however, noted that Han Chinese people from other supposedly Mandarin-speaking regions often have severe difficulties understanding Beijing Mandarin without education, and their tongues actually have different grammars. Thus, some linguists have proposed viewing Mandarin as a subfamily within Chinese/Sinitic languages, rather than a single language. More notable "Non-standard" Mandarin dialects include Sichuanese and perhaps Shandong dialect.
Other DifferencesWhile different regions may ostensibly be using the same Standard Chinese (filtered through accents), regional influences often also result in a few more differences like vocabulary, as this Wikipedia page shows. Some other words, while written with the same characters, can also have different standardized pronunciations (not accents), despite both standards being technically the same Standard Chinese standard. It is also not uncommon for some dialectical grammatical features to be retained in the accented Mandarin. Singapore notably has two more variations of Mandarin in the region due to English-language influence, Standard Singaporean Mandarin and Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin, also known as Singdarin.
Just for fun: A commercial for FedEx China has one of its unnamed competitors trying to tell an old lady that he has an important package for her. She doesn't understand the message in Mandarin, so the hapless delivery guy is forced to stand there repeating the message a few dozen times, each time in a different dialect. Then the FedEx delivery guy walks right up and uses the right dialect, and the old lady gives him a big hug. Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UNbrQGpWJk Hu Jintao (Paramount Leader 2003-2013) is actually the first leader of the PRC to speak "normal" Mandarin as his birth tongue. Mao Zedong's Mandarin had such a thick Hunanese Xiang accent that some don't think it should count as Mandarin—despite the government wanting you to believe so, as non-Mandarin-speaking leaders are now Banned in China. A Chinese joke: once a teacher walked into the classroom and asked the boy who was on duty that day how many pupils there were. The problem was that the teacher and the boy spoke different dialects. So, when the boy reported that there were 31 pupils in the class, the teacher heard that there was 1 pupil killed in the class.
It should be noted that China is a vast country with many indigenous ethnic groupsnote besides the overwhelming majority Han Chinese who speak their own languages that are unrelated to Chinese and are from a diverse range of language families: Sino-Tibetan (Tibetan, Achang), Tai-Kadai (Zhuang), Hmong-Mien (Hmong), Mon-Khmer (Vietnamese, Blang), Turkic (Uyghur, Kazakh, Uzbek), Mongolic (Mongolian), Tungusic (Manchu), Korean, Indo-European (Russian and Tajik), and Austronesian (Taiwanese Aboriginal languages). Of course, due to the dominance of the central government and the Standard Mandarin dialect necessary for economic migration, not many people retain their minority languages, and many are on the verge of extinction due to assimilation (e.g. the Manchu language is virtually gone because the Qing Dynasty emperors, though a ruling Manchu minority over the Han Chinese majority, ended up assimilating into Han Chinese culture and governance).