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Mandarin (Chinese) Language

by poonam bisht

Mandarin Language Overview: The term “Mandarin Chinese” actually refers to a vast language family made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of regional dialects in mainland China. If all these speakers…

Mandarin Language Overview:

The term “Mandarin Chinese” actually refers to a vast language family made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of regional dialects in mainland China. If all these speakers are counted together, Mandarin is unequivocally the most widely-spoken language in the world, with close to a billion people speaking it natively. Differences in pronunciation and slang can be so profound, however, that two speakers of “Mandarin” from different spots on the globe might be unable to converse comfortably.

The historically diverse cultures that made up ancient China usually had to develop a “common” language to converse with one another outside of their various dialects. This continues today, with Standard Chinese, which is also called “Mandarin,” having been declared the official common tongue of China. Most people still speak their local dialects in their everyday lives, but knowledge of Standard Chinese is widespread and increasingly a practical necessity.

Roots of the Mandarin Language:

Spoken Chinese has been evolving for thousands of years, usually centered around local provinces. The various forms of it change rapidly, but today’s standard form of Mandarin is largely based on the dialect spoken in and around the city of Beijing. Most Chinese in the northern, central, and southwestern areas of the country speak a language that is somewhat derived from Mandarin, but the details of this classification are quite debatable. Chinese people in other parts of the country tend to speak local languages that are more sharply diversified from the standard. The Anglicized name “Mandarin” comes from early European explorers noting that there was a language commonly used among all the officials, or mandarins, for political business between the various districts.

Mandarin Language Characteristics:

Most Chinese dialects are tonal languages, and Mandarin is no exception. It relies on pitch to convey many shades of meaning, with less of a dependence on modified verbs, linking words, or prepositions. The language does not use tenses, conveying time with separate, specific words rather than inflections. Suffixes and prefixes are also rare in Mandarin Chinese. Chinese languages tend to make a strong distinction between the spoken and written forms, with the latter considered to be near-universal and the former largely dependent on regional pronunciation and modes of speaking.

Mandarin Language Written form:

Classical or Literary Chinese, the written language whose characters form the basis of all modern Chinese dialects, comprised all official writings for several centuries. In the nineteenth century, “written vernacular” Chinese (which better reflects a system of speaking, rather than just reading) began to gain in prominence and had largely replaced Literary Chinese by the middle of the twentieth century. Simplified Chinese, a means of simplifying the complex characters for easier reading and writing, also became common as newsprint and computers became more central to daily life.

The characters that are used in written Chinese have changed remarkably little over the course of millennia. Naturally, a few things have been modified, but no written language has seen continuous use for as long a time as Chinese while still remaining completely visually recognizable. Meanwhile, pronunciation has diverged considerably. Because of this, several different speakers of different Chinese dialects could all comprehend the same written text, but if one were to read it aloud, it would become near unintelligible to the others.

Chinese characters represent whole words or syllables rather than specific sounds, and so do not form an alphabet in the Western sense of such things (the English alphabet, for example, contains 26 letters, while written Chinese comprises several thousand characters). They most likely evolved out of pictographs used by Stone Age peoples on the continent, but have since become one of the most sophisticated written languages on the planet. Chinese characters form the basis of or have deeply influenced the written languages in some other cultures, as well, most notably those of the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese.

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