Standard Mandarin Speaker: 你看，这是什么? (ni kan, zhe shi shen me?)
Shanghainese Speaker: 侬看看叫，搿是啥物事？ (non khoe khoe jiau, ge zr sa meq zr?)
Cantonese Speaker: 你睇睇，呢個係乜嘢嚟? (nei tai tai, nei goh hai mat ye lei?)
Hokkien Speaker: 汝看看，這是啥物? (lu khoa khoa, che si ha mih?)
Hakka Speaker: 你看看，這係麼個? (ngi khon khon, lia he ma kai?)
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 mutually unintelligible as English, German, and Dutch. But since pan-Chinese nationalism has long sought to reduce the differences among Chinese people, these languages were called "dialects" as a way of implying that they are all varieties of a single language, rather than different languages in their own rights. Originally all these Chinese "dialects" were just dialects of one ancestral Chinese language known as Old Chinese, but they continued to call them dialects even after they became mutually unintelligible. Contrast this with the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.), which are treated as separate languages even though they were all also originally dialects of the same language, Latin.
The various sub-ethnic groups within Han Chinese (or just "dialect groups"; 漢族民系, literally "Han ethnic lineage") have, however, shared a common written language, i.e., Classical Chinese, for more than a millennium now, which lends... a little bit of credence to the "dialect" definition i.e. . The linguistic situation in China is remarkably similar to the one faced in the Arab World, where the "dialects" of Arabic spoken in different countries/regions are mutually unintelligible, but they shared the same written language, Classical Arabic, for hundreds of years.note
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. There is also the issue that the Chinese word that we translate as "dialect" (方言 fāngyán) actually means something slightly different i.e. .
The dialects 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) both came from the Guan or Mandarin family. Modern Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect and it has become synonymous with Mandarin Chinese for non-linguists. Mandarin itself is a diverse branch of Chinese and not a single language. The Mandarin spoken by the court of the early Ming was Nanjing Mandarin while the late Ming and Qing spoke Beijing Mandarin — the two are mutually unintelligible.
Thanks to six decades of ruthless promotion and huge population growth, Standard Mandarin (which is similar to Beijing Mandarin) 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 Yue (in Guangdong-Guangxi, Hong Kong, and Macau), Xiāng (spoken in Hunan), Gan (spoken primarily in Jiangxi and surrounding regions), Wú (spoken about the Lower Yangzi delta around Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai), Hakka (dispersed around Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Taiwan, and other parts of southern China) and Mǐn (Fujian, Taiwan, Hainan, parts of Guangdong and parts of Zhejiang).
While the Han Chinese subgroups mostly use the same writing system (the Chinese characters), there's a split between areas/countries (it's complicated) that use old and new characters, not to mention peripheral stuffs like characters that are used only in certain dialects, the Chinese alphabets (especially common in Taiwan), Latin alphabets (which Min dialects and Hakka dialects particularly favor, to the point that their Wikipedias are currently written in Latin alphabets rather than Chinese characters), and Nüshu.
Before the Xinhai Revolution in 1912, Classical 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/Taiwan) still use classical character forms (繁體字 fántǐzì) for historical/political reasons, but most of mainland China and Singapore use character forms that were aggressively (and somewhat politically) simplified by the CCP in the 1950s-'60s (简体字 jiántǐzì).note
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 they only speak 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, Gan, Min, Xiang, Hakka, and Yue dialects. 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, influence from other nearby Chinese languages due to migration into the area, and retains features from the now extinct Ba-Shu Chinese language group. Southeastern varieties of Chinese also demonstrate substrate influences from the indigenous people who once populated southern China as Chinese civilization began in north China and many different ethnic groups were absorbed as the civilization moved southwards.
There is debate on the number of Chinese varieties there are due to many of them being spoken in remote regions where linguists have not thoroughly studied as well as what constitutes a language and how it is separate from a dialect making it damn near impossible to reach a concrete number; it is at least somewhere in the hundreds.
More commonly known as "Mandarin" to non-Chinese speakers. The Mandarin Dialects are spoken around northern and southwestern China. The Mandarin Dialects provide the basis of pronunciation for modern Standard Chinese. Mandarin itself is far from homogeneous - the form of Standard Chinese/Standard Mandarin people usually learn is constructed based on the Beijing dialect. Linguists have, however, noted that Han Chinese subgroups from other supposedly Mandarin-speaking regions often at best have severe difficulties understanding Beijing Mandarin without prior education, and their local tongues actually have different grammars. Thus, 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.
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 Macau, 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 by far the best known Yue dialect and probably the best-known Chinese dialect outside of China. Cantonese is the prestige dialect of the Yue language family and originates from Guangdong's capital, Guangzhou. It was known as "Guangzhou hua" or Guangzhounese historically within China but the prestige of Guangzhou has led it being conflated with the entirety of Guangdong province and is now known as simply "Guangdong hua". The English name "Canton" derived from Portuguese Cantão or Cidade de Cantão, a muddling of dialectical pronunciations of "Guangdong" (e.g., Hakka Kóng-tûng). Although it originally and chiefly applied to the walled city, it was occasionally conflated with Guangdong by some authors. Other Yue branches are not mutually intelligible with Cantonese but are frequently labelled "Cantonese" anyway, much to the chagrin of non-Cantonese Yue people.
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 standard Cantonese, it would be "Heung Gong", pronounced as herng gong in a non-rhotic accent in English)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 if 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 retains many of the finals of 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 retains the finals (whereas Mandarin retains the medials and Wu the initials), Cantonese is much more helpful (e.g. rhymes better) than Mandarin if you would like to study the said poetry.
It has been noted that Cantonese 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.
There are numerous other Yue Chinese languages that are not Cantonese. Taishanese is the second most famous Yue dialect after Cantonese (spoken in southwestern Guangdong) because the Taishanese were the first Chinese subgroup to settle in the United States. Weitou is another Yue dialect and it is actually the original Yue dialect of Hong Kong (it is still spoken in parts of Shenzhen and in the walled villages of Hong Kong). The British colonization of Hong Kong caused huge numbers of Cantonese-speakers to migrate from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, a movement which ended up largely displacing the Weitou dialect in favor of Cantonese. Both Taishanese and Weitou have little mutual intelligibility with Cantonese and Cantonese people have historically discriminated against non-Cantonese Yue dialects, considering their tongues to be "inferior" to their own.
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 was the first of all southern Chinese language families to develop, chronologically making it the "oldest" branch in southern China. Wu also has both the largest and most reduced tone systems of all 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. The Wujiang dialect on the other hand has a whopping twelve tones, making it the most tonal Chinese language.
Historically being one of the cultural centres of China and still one of the most prosperous today, the Wuyue region (where Wu is spoken) has produced a considerable amount of cultural heritage. The Suzhounese dialect was once the prestige dialect of the Wu languages and considered one of the most beautiful Chinese languages. It eventually lost the place as the prestige dialect when Shanghai underwent an economic boom in the 20th century and now Shanghainese is considered the prestige dialect despite not having the cultural clout associated with Suzhounese (the Wu languages first developed in Suzhou and operas or poetry are traditionally performed in Suzhounese), nor is it considered linguistically representative of Wu as Shanghainese is heavily influenced by Mandarin and Cantonese.
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. Broadly speaking, Min can be divided into two categories: Inland Min, and Coastal Min. Coastal Min can be further classified as Eastern, Pu-Xian, or Southern.
The dialect generally referred to as Taiwanese is actually a dialect of Southern Min (also referred to as "Minnan", "Hoklo", or "Hokkien"]), spoken across the strait in Fujian. That province is itself noteworthy for having almost a dozen dialects associated with it, but that's not getting into other varieties of Min spoken in other provinces. Southern Min is generally divided into three categories: Minnan Proper (HokkienTaiwanese), Teo-Swa (or Chaoshan), and the Leizhou-Hainanese dialectsnote .
As an aside, 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 Hakka have traditionally lived near the She ethnic minority and now most She people speak Hakka dialects rather than their traditional She language.
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 and Chongqing, though they are now extinct (perhaps with the exception of the Mingjiang dialects) and replaced by Southwestern Mandarin. However, certain traces of the language have persisted and survived in Sichuanese Mandarin dialects, making the latter considerably difficult to understand for speakers of Standard Mandarin.
Sichuan is known for its spicy cuisine and being the natural habitat of pandas.
The Mingjiang dialects are sometimes debated to be modern-day descendant from the Ba-Shu languages rather than Southwestern Mandarin. Many of the Ba-Shu speakers were spared the depopulation events that plagued the rest of Sichuan and thus it retains many features of phonological features that make their language mutually unintelligible with other Sichuanese dialects. Some believe that Mingjiang is only counted as Mandarin rather than Ba-Shu because the Chinese government wants to inflate the number of Mandarin speakers on their censuses.
The Jin dialects cover most of Shanxi province except for the lower Fen River valley, much of central Inner Mongolia and adjoining areas in Hebei, Henan, and Shaanxi provinces. Due to its geographical position (i.e. being sandwiched between the heartland of China and Central Asian steppes), Jin culture is marked by a mix of medieval Chinese and Central Asian influences. There is debate among linguists on whether Jin is its own separate language family or a branch of Mandarin.
- Badong Yao - Spoken by Yao people
- Danzhou - A mix of Southern Chinese varieties
- Junjiahua - A mix of Mandarin and Southern Chinese varieties
- Mai - A mix of Southern Chinese varieties
- Shaozhou Tuhua - An extension of Ping, or a mix of different Chinese varieties, or a Sinicized Yao language
- Shehua - Spoken by She people
- Taz language - Spoken by the Taz people
- Waxiang - Spoken by the Waxiang people
- Yeheni - Spoken by Yao people
- Tangwang - Spoken by Santa Mongols
- Wutun - Spoken by Bonan Mongols
- Maojia - Spoken by Miao people
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 erhua, or 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. It is most often used as a diminutive, but is also used in differentiation of words and to make the spoken language sound smoother.
- 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). It's also interesting to note that on the Internet, the Sichuanese Mandarin dialect is sometimes used to make Gag Dubs among Mandarin Chinese speakers, and are otherwise seen as almost comical.
- 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". Oftentimes, they don't use "很 hěn" to indicate "very" but "老 lǎo" instead. They have also been noted to have a "retroflex" accent.
While 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.
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.
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), Kra-Dai (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).