Varieties of Chinese

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Sinitic languages
mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore and other areas with historic immigration from China.
Linguistic classification: Sino-Tibetan
ISO 639-2 / 5: zhx
Glottolog: sini1245
Primary branches of Chinese
Varieties of Chinese
Traditional Chinese 漢語
Simplified Chinese 汉语
Literal meaning "Language of the Han [Chinese]"

Chinese (汉语/漢語 Hànyǔ), also known as Sinitic, is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family consisting of hundreds of local language varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The differences are similar to those within the Romance languages, with variation particularly strong in the more rugged southeast. These varieties have been classified into seven to ten groups, the largest being Mandarin (e.g. Beijing dialect), Wu (e.g. Shanghainese), Min (e.g. Taiwanese Hokkien), and Yue (e.g. Cantonese).

Chinese varieties differ most in their phonology, and to a lesser extent in vocabulary and syntax. Southern varieties tend to have fewer initial consonants than northern and central varieties, but more often preserve the Middle Chinese final consonants. All have phonemic tones, with northern varieties tending to have fewer distinctions than southern ones. Many have tone sandhi, with the most complex patterns in the coastal area from Zhejiang to eastern Guangdong.


At the end of the 2nd millennium BC, a form of Chinese was spoken in a compact area around the lower Wei River and middle Yellow River. From there it expanded eastwards across the North China Plain to Shandong and then south into the valley of the Yangtze River and beyond to the hills of south China. As the language spread, it replaced formerly dominant languages in those areas, and regional differences grew. Simultaneously, especially in periods of political unity, there was a tendency to promote a central standard to facilitate communication between people from different regions.[1]

The first evidence of dialectal variation is found in texts from the Spring and Autumn period (722–479 BC). At that time, the Zhou royal domain, though no longer politically powerful, still defined standard speech.[2] The Fangyan (early 1st century AD) is devoted to differences in vocabulary between regions.[3] Commentaries from the Eastern Han period (first two centuries AD) contain much discussion of local variations in pronunciation. The Qieyun rhyme book (601 AD) noted wide variation in pronunciation between regions, and set out to define a standard pronunciation for reading the classics.[4] This standard, known as Middle Chinese, is believed to be a diasystem based on the reading traditions of northern and southern capitals.[5]

The North China Plain provided few barriers to migration, leading to relative linguistic homogeneity over a wide area in northern China. In contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have spawned the other six major groups of Chinese languages, with great internal diversity, particularly in Fujian.[6][7]

Standard Chinese

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people spoke only their local language. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà (官話, literally "speech of officials"). Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.[8]

In the early years of the Republic of China, Literary Chinese was replaced as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern dialects. In the 1930s a standard national language was adopted, with its pronunciation based on the Beijing dialect, but with vocabulary also drawn from other Mandarin varieties.[9] It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China and of the Republic of China governing Taiwan, and one of the official languages of Singapore.

Standard Chinese now dominates public life, and is much more widely studied than any other variety of Chinese.[10] Outside of China, the only two varieties commonly taught in formal courses are Standard Chinese and Cantonese.[11]


Chinese has a diversity that has been likened to that within the Romance languages.[11][12] The dialectologist Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese.[13] These varieties form a dialect continuum, in which differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, although there are also some sharp boundaries.[14] However, the rate of change in mutual intelligibility varies immensely depending on region. For example, the varieties of Mandarin spoken in all three northeastern Chinese provinces are mutually intelligible, but in the province of Fujian, where Min varieties predominate, the speech of neighbouring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible.[15]

Dialect groups

Circle frame.svg

Proportions of first-language speakers (all countries)[16]

  Mandarin (70.9%)
  Jin (3.8%)
  Wu (6.5%)
  Huizhou (0.4%)
  Gan (1.7%)
  Xiang (3.0%)
  Min (6.0%)
  Hakka (2.5%)
  Yue (5.0%)
  Pinghua (0.2%)

Classifications of Chinese varieties in the late 19th century and early 20th century were based on impressionistic criteria. They often followed river systems, which were historically the main routes of migration and communication in southern China.[17] The first scientific classifications, based primarily on the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials, were produced by Wang Li in 1936 and Li Fang-Kuei in 1937, with minor modifications by other linguists since.[18] The conventionally accepted set of seven dialect groups first appeared in the second edition of Yuan Jiahua's dialectology handbook (1961):[19][20]

This is the group spoken in northern and southwestern China and has by far the most speakers. This group includes the Beijing dialect, which forms the basis for Standard Chinese, called Putonghua or Guoyu in Chinese, and often also translated as "Mandarin" or simply "Chinese". In addition, the Dungan language of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is a Mandarin variety written in the Cyrillic script.
These varieties are spoken in Shanghai, most of Zhejiang and the southern parts of Jiangsu and Anhui. The group comprises hundreds of distinct spoken forms, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The Suzhou dialect is usually taken as representative, because the Shanghai dialect features several atypical innovations.[21] Wu varieties are distinguished by their retention of voiced or murmured obstruent initials (stops, affricates and fricatives).[22]
These varieties are spoken in Jiangxi and neighbouring areas. The Nanchang dialect is taken as representative. In the past, Gan was viewed as closely related to Hakka because of the way Middle Chinese voiced initials became voiceless aspirated initials as in Hakka, and were hence called by the umbrella term "Hakka–Gan dialects".[23][24]
The Xiang varieties are spoken in Hunan. The New Xiang varieties, represented by the Changsha dialect, have been significantly influenced by Southwest Mandarin, whereas Old Xiang varieties, represented by the Shuangfeng dialect retain features such as voiced initials.[25]
Spoken in Fujian, eastern Guangdong, Hainan, Taiwan, parts of Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, Min is the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. It is also the most diverse, with many of the varieties used in neighbouring counties—and, in the mountains of western Fujian, even in adjacent villages—being mutually unintelligible. The most widely spoken Min language is Hokkien, which includes the Amoy dialect of southern Fujian, Taiwanese in Taiwan, and is also spoken by many Chinese in Southeast Asia.[15] Early classifications divided Min into Northern and Southern subgroups, but a survey in the early 1960s found that the primary split was between inland and coastal groups.[26][27]
The Hakka (literally "guest families") are group of Han Chinese living in the hills of northeast Guangdong and many other parts of southern China, as well as Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore. The Meixian dialect is the prestige form.[28] Most Hakka varieties retain the full complement of nasal endings, -m -n -ŋ and stop endings -p -t -k, though there is a tendency for Middle Chinese velar codas -ŋ and -k to yield dental codas -n and -t after front vowels.[29]
These varieties are spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau, and have been carried by immigrants to Southeast Asia and many other parts of the world. The prestige variety is Cantonese, from the city of Guangzhou, which is also the native language of the majority in Hong Kong and Macau.[30] Taishanese, from a coastal area southwest of Guangzhou, is the most common Yue dialect among overseas communities.[31] Not all Yue varieties are mutually intelligible. Most Yue varieties retain the full complement of Middle Chinese word-final consonants (p, t, k, m, n and ŋ) and have rich inventories of tones.[29]

The Language Atlas of China (1987) follows a classification of Li Rong, distinguishing three further groups:[32][33]

These varieties, spoken in Shanxi and adjacent areas, were formerly included in Mandarin. They are distinguished by their retention of the Middle Chinese entering tone category.[34]
The Hui dialects, spoken in southern Anhui, were previously considered a transitional group between Wu and Gan.[35]
These varieties are descended from the speech of the earliest Chinese migrants to Guangxi, predating the later influx of Yue and Southwest Mandarin speakers. Some linguists treat them as a mixture of Yue and Xiang.[36]

Some varieties remain unclassified, including the Danzhou dialect of northwestern Hainan, Waxiang, spoken in a small strip of land in western Hunan, and Shaozhou Tuhua, spoken in the border regions of Guangdong, Hunan, and Guangxi.[37] This region is an area of great linguistic diversity and has not yet been conclusively described.

Relationships between groups

Jerry Norman classified the traditional seven dialect groups into three larger groups: Northern (Mandarin), Central (Wu, Gan, and Xiang) and Southern (Hakka, Yue, and Min). He argued that the Southern Group is derived from a standard used in the Yangtze valley during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), which he called Old Southern Chinese, while the Central group was transitional between the Northern and Southern groups.[38] Some dialect boundaries, such as between Wu and Min, are particularly abrupt, while others, such as between Mandarin and Xiang or between Min and Hakka, are much less clearly defined.[14]

Scholars account for the transitional nature of the central varieties in terms of wave models. Iwata argues that innovations have been transmitted from the north across the Huai River to the Lower Yangtze Mandarin area and from there southeast to the Wu area and westwards along the Yangtze River valley and thence to southwestern areas, leaving the hills of the southeast largely untouched.[39]

Quantitative similarity

A 2007 study compared fifteen major urban dialects on the objective criteria of lexical similarity and regularity of sound correspondences, and subjective criteria of intelligibility and similarity. Most of these criteria show a top-level split with Northern, New Xiang, and Gan in one group and Min (samples at Fuzhou, Xiamen, Chaozhou), Hakka, and Yue in the other group. The exception was phonological regularity, where the one Gan dialect (Nanchang) was in the Southern group and very close to Hakka, and the deepest phonological difference was between Wenzhounese (the southernmost Wu dialect) and all other dialects.[40]

The study did not find clear splits within Northern and Central area:

  • Changsha (New Xiang) was always within the Mandarin group. No Old Xiang dialect was in the sample.
  • Taiyuan (Jin or Shanxi) and Hankou (Wuhan, Hubei) were subjectively perceived as relatively different from other Northern dialects but were very close in subjective intelligibility. Objectively, Taiyuan had substantial phonological divergence but little lexical divergence.
  • Chengdu (Sichuan) was somewhat divergent lexically but very little on the other measures.

The two Wu dialects occupied an intermediate position, closer to the Northern/New Xiang/Gan group in lexical similarity and strongly closer in subjective intelligibility but closer to Min/Hakka/Yue in phonological regularity and subjective similarity, except that Wenzhou was farthest from all other dialects in phonological regularity. The two Wu dialects were close to each other in lexical similarity and subjective similarity but not in subjective intelligibility, where Suzhou was actually closer to Northern/Xiang/Gan than to Wenzhou.

In the Southern subgroup, Hakka and Yue grouped closely together on the three lexical and subjective measures but not in phonological regularity. The Min dialects showed high divergence, with Min Fuzhou (Eastern Min) grouped only weakly with the Southern Min dialects of Xiamen and Chaozhou on the two objective criteria and was actually slightly closer to Hakka and Yue on the subjective criteria.


Local varieties from different areas of China are often mutually unintelligible, differing at least as much as different Romance languages.[41] These varieties form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family (with Bai sometimes being included in this grouping).[42] Because speakers share a standard written form, and have a common cultural heritage with long periods of political unity, the varieties are popularly perceived among native speakers as variants of a single Chinese language,[43] and this is also the official position.[44] Conventional English-language usage in Chinese linguistics is to use dialect for the speech of a particular place (regardless of status) while regional groupings like Mandarin and Wu are called dialect groups.[13] ISO 639-3 follows the Ethnologue in assigning language codes to eight of the top-level groups listed above (all but Min and Pinghua) and five subgroups of Min.[16] Other linguists choose to refer to the major groupings as languages.

In Chinese, the term fāngyán[lower-alpha 1] is used for any regional subdivision of Chinese, from the speech of a village to major branches such as Mandarin and Wu. Linguists writing in Chinese often qualify the term to distinguish different levels of classification. All these terms used have customarily been translated into English as dialect, a practice that has been criticized as confusing.[46][lower-alpha 2]


Traditional Chinese syllable structure

The usual unit of analysis is the syllable, traditionally analysed as consisting of an initial consonant, a final and a tone.[48] In general, southern varieties have fewer initial consonants than northern and central varieties, but more often preserve the Middle Chinese final consonants.[49] Some varieties, such as Cantonese and the Shanghai dialect, include syllabic nasals as independent syllables.[50]


In the 42 varieties surveyed in the Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects, the number of initials (including a zero initial) ranges from 15 in some southern dialects to a high of 35 in the dialect of Chongming Island, Shanghai.[51]

Initials of selected varieties[52][53]
Fuzhou (Min) Suzhou (Wu) Beijing (Mandarin)
Stops and
voiceless unaspirated p t ts k p t ts k p t ts k
voiceless aspirated tsʰ tsʰ tɕʰ tsʰ tɕʰ tʂʰ
voiced b d g
Fricatives voiceless s x f s ɕ h f s ɕ ʂ x
voiced v z ʑ ɦ
Nasals m n ŋ m n ȵ ŋ m n
Sonorants l l l ɹ/ʐ

The initial system of the Fuzhou dialect of northern Fujian is a minimal example.[54] With the exception of /ŋ/, which is often merged with the zero initial, the initials of this dialect are present in all Chinese varieties, although several varieties do not distinguish /n/ from /l/. However, most varieties have additional initials, due to a combination of innovations and retention of distinctions from Middle Chinese. Most non-Min varieties have a labio-dental fricative /f/, which developed from Middle Chinese bilabial stops in certain environments.[55] The voiced initials of Middle Chinese are retained in Wu dialects such as Suzhou and Shanghai, as well as Old Xiang dialects, but have merged with voiceless initials elsewhere.[56] The Middle Chinese retroflex initials are retained in many Mandarin dialects, including Beijing but not southwestern and southeastern Mandarin varieties.[57] In many northern and central varieties there is palatalization of dental affricates or velars (or both).[58]


Chinese finals may be analysed as an optional medial glide, a main vowel and an optional coda.[59]

Conservative vowel systems, such as those of Gan and Hakka dialects, have high vowels /i/, /u/ and /y/, which also function as medials, mid vowels /e/ and /o/, and a low /a/-like vowel.[60] In other dialects, including Mandarin dialects, /o/ has merged with /a/, leaving a single mid vowel with a wide range of allophones.[61] Many dialects, particularly in northern and central China, have apical or retroflex vowels, which are syllabic fricatives derived from high vowels following sibilant initials.[62] In many Wu dialects, vowels and final glides have monophthongized, producing a rich inventory of vowels in open syllables.[63] Reduction of medials is also common in Yue dialects.[64]

The Middle Chinese codas, consisting of glides /j/ and /w/, nasals /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/, and stops /p/, /t/ and /k/, are best preserved in southern dialects, particularly Yue dialects.[29] In Jin, Lower Yangtze Mandarin and Wu dialects, the stops have merged as a final glottal stop, while in most northern varieties they have disappeared.[65] In Mandarin dialects final /m/ has merged with /n/, while some central dialects have a single nasal coda, in some cases realized as a nasalization of the vowel.[66]


All varieties of Chinese, like neighbouring languages in the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, have phonemic tones. Each syllable may be pronounced with between three and six distinct pitch contours, denoting different morphemes. The number of tonal contrasts varies between dialects, with northern dialects tending to have fewer distinctions than southern ones.[67] For example, in the standard language the four phonemic tones can be demonstrated with (; "mother"), (; "hemp"), (; "horse") and (; "to scold"). Many dialects have tone sandhi, in which the pitch contour of a syllable is affected by the tones of adjacent syllables in a compound word of phrase.[68] This process is so extensive in Shanghainese that the tone system is reduced to a pitch accent system much like modern Japanese.

The tonal categories of modern varieties can be related by considering their derivation from the tones of Middle Chinese, though cognate tonal categories in different dialects are often realized as quite different pitch contours.[69] Middle Chinese had a three-way tonal contrast on all syllables except those ending in stops. The traditional names of the tonal categories are píng (; "level"), shǎng (; "rising"), and (; "departing"). Syllables ending in a stop consonant /p/, /t/ or /k/ (checked syllables) had no tonal contrasts but were traditionally treated as a fourth tone category, (; "entering"), corresponding to syllables ending in nasals /m/, /n/, or /ŋ/.[70]

The tones of Middle Chinese, as well as similar systems in neighbouring languages, experienced a tone split conditioned by syllabic onsets. Syllables with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch, and by the late Tang Dynasty, each of the tones had split into two registers conditioned by the initials, known as the yīn (; ; "upper"), and the yáng (; ; "lower"). When voicing was lost in all dialects except the Wu and Old Xiang groups, this distinction became phonemic, yielding eight tonal categories, with a six-way contrast in unchecked syllables and a two-way contrast in checked syllables. Cantonese maintains these tones and has developed an additional distinction in checked syllables. However, most varieties have reduced the number of tonal distinctions. For example, in Mandarin, the tones resulting from the split of Middle Chinese rising and departing tones merged, leaving four tones. Furthermore, final stop consonants disappeared in most Mandarin dialects, and such syllables were reassigned to one of the other four tones.[71]

Tonal categories and pitch contours in colloquial layers
Middle Chinese tone and initial
level rising departing entering
vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd. vl. n. vd.
Jin[72] Taiyuan 1 ˩ 3 ˥˧ 5 ˥ 7 ˨˩ 8 ˥˦
Mandarin[72] Xi'an 1 ˧˩ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˦˨ 5 ˥ 1 2
Beijing 1 ˥ 2 ˧˥ 3 ˨˩˦ 5 ˥˩ 1,2,3,5 5 2
Chengdu 1 ˦ 2 ˧˩ 3 ˥˧ 5 ˩˧ 2
Yangzhou 1 ˨˩ 2 ˧˥ 3 ˧˩ 5 ˥ 7 ˦
Xiang[73] Changsha 1 ˦ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˥˨ 6 5 ˦˩˨ 6 ˧˩ 7 ˦ 8 ˨˧
Shuangfeng 1 ˦ 2 ˨˧ 3 ˨˩ 6 5 ˧˥ 6 ˧ 2, 5
Gan[74] Nanchang 1 ˦˨ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˨˩˧ 6 5 ˦˥ 6 ˨˩ 7 ˥ 8 ˨˩
Wu[75] Suzhou 1 ˦ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˦˩ 6 5 ˥˩˧ 6 ˧˩ 7 ˦ 8 ˨˧
Shanghai 1 ˦˨ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˧˥ 2 3 2 7 ˥ 8 ˨˧
Wenzhou 1 ˦ 2 ˧˩ 3 ˦˥ 4 ˨˦ 5 ˦˨ 6 ˩ 7 ˨˧ 8 ˩˨
Min[76] Xiamen 1 ˥ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˥˩ 6 5 ˩ 6 ˧ 7 ˧˨ 8 ˥
Hakka[77] Meixian 1 ˦ 2 ˩˨ 3 ˧˩ 1,3 1 5 ˦˨ 7 ˨˩ 8 ˦
Yue[78] Guangzhou 1 ˥˧ 2 ˨˩ 3 ˧˥ 4 ˨˦[lower-alpha 3] 5 ˦ 6 ˧ 7a ˥ 7b ˦ 8 ˧

In Wu, voiced obstruents were retained, and the tone split never became phonemic: the higher-pitched allophones occur with initial voiceless consonants, and the lower-pitched allophones occur with initial voiced consonants.[75] (Traditional Chinese classification nonetheless counts these as different tones.) Most Wu dialects retain the tone categories of Middle Chinese, but in Shanghainese several of these have merged.

Many Chinese varieties exhibit tone sandhi, in which the realization of a tone varies depending on the context of the syllable. For example, in Standard Chinese a third tone changes to a second tone when followed by another third tone.[79] Particularly complex sandhi patterns are found in Wu dialects and coastal Min dialects.[80] In Shanghainese, the tone of all syllables in a word is determined by the tone of the first, so that Shanghainese has word rather than syllable tone.


The following table was transliterated using the International Phonetic Alphabet. The forms account for lexical (writing) differences in addition to phonological (sound) differences. For example, the Mandarin word for the pronoun "s/he" is 他 [tʰa˥], but in Cantonese (Yue) a different word, 佢 [kʰɵy˩˧], is used. [Wu, Xiang missing tone]

English Beijing
Hong Kong
I wɔ˨˩˦ ŋu ŋo ŋo˨˩˧ ŋai˩ ŋɔː˩˧ ɡua˥˩
you ni˨˩˦ noŋ n̩˨˩˧ n˩, nʲi˩ nei˩˧, lei˩˧ li˥˩
(s)he tʰa˥ ɦi tʰo kiɛ˨˩˧ kʰi˩, ki˩ kʰɵy˩˧
this tʂɤ˥˩ ɡəʔ ko ko˨˩˧ e˧˩, nʲia˧˩ niː˥, jiː˥ tɕɪt˥
that na˥˩ ɛ lai hɛ˨˦ ke˥˧ kɔː˧˥ he˥
human ɻən˧˥ ȵin zɛ̃ ɳin˦˥ nʲin˩ jɐn˨˩ laŋ˩˦
man nan˧˥ lan˦˥ nam˩ naːm˨˩, laːm˨˩ lam˩˦
woman ny˨˩˦ ȵy ɳy ɳi˨˩˧ ŋ˧˩, nʲi˧˩ nɵy˩˧, lɵy˩˧ li˥˩
father pa˥˩ pa˩ ɦia io ia˦˥ a˦ pa˦ paː˥ lau˧ pe˧
mother ma˥ ma˨ ȵiã m mo ɳiɔŋ˦˥ a˦ me˦ maː˥ lau˧ bo˥˩
child ɕjɑʊ˩ χai˧˥ ɕiɔ ȵiŋ ɕi ŋa tsɨ ɕi˦˥ ŋa tsɨ se˥˧˥ nʲin˩ e˧ sɐi˧ lou˨ ɡɪn˥ a˥˩
fish y˧˥ ɦŋ y ɳiɛ˦˥ ŋ˩ e˧ jyː˨˩ hi˩˦
snake ʂɤ˧˥ zo sa˦˥ sa˩ sɛː˨˩ tsua˩˦
meat ɻoʊ˥˩ ȵioʔ zəu ɳiuk˥ nʲiuk˩ jʊk˨ ba˧˨ʔ
bone ku˨˩˦ kuəʔ kui kut˥ kut˩ kʷɐt˥ kut˥
eye jɛn˨˩˦ ŋɛ ŋã ŋan˨˩˧ muk˩, ŋan˧˩ ŋaːn˩˧ ba˦k
ear ɑɻ˨˩˦ ȵi ə ɛ˨˩˧ nʲi˧˩ jiː˩˧ hĩ˧
nose pi˧˥ biɪʔ pi pʰit˨ pʰi˥˧ pei˨ pʰĩ˧
to eat tʂʰɨ˥ tɕʰiɪʔ tɕʰio tɕʰiak˥ sɨt˥ sɪk˨ tɕia˦ʔ
to drink χɤ˥ haʔ tɕʰio tɕʰiak˥ sɨt˥, jim˧˩ jɐm˧˥ lɪm˥
to say ʂwɔ˥ kɑ̃ ua˨˩ ʋa˥˧, ham˥˧, kɔŋ˧˩ kɔːŋ˧˥ kɔŋ˥˩
to hear tʰiŋ˥ tʰin tʰiɛ̃ tʰiaŋ˦˨ tʰaŋ˥˧ tʰɛːŋ˥ tʰiã˥
to see kʰan˥˩ kʰø ɕiɔŋ˦˥, mɔŋ˨˩ kʰon˥˧ tʰɐi˧˥ kʰuã˧˩
to smell wən˧˥ mən uɛ̃ ɕiuŋ˦˥ ʋun˩, pʰi˥˧ mɐn˨˩ pʰĩ˧
to sit tswɔ˥˩ zu tsu tsʰo˨˩ tsʰɔ˦ tsʰɔː˩˧ tse˧
to be lying down tʰɑŋ˨˩˦ kʰuən tʰã kʰun˨˦ min˩, sɔi˥˧, tʰoŋ˧˩ fɐn˧ to˥˩
to stand tʂan˥ liɪʔ tsã tɕʰi˨˩ kʰi˦ kʰei˩˧ kʰia˧
sun tʰaɪ˥˩ jɑŋ˧˥ ȵiɪʔ dɤ ɳi tɛu ɳit˥ tʰɛu nʲit˩ tʰɛu˩ tʰaːi˧ jœːŋ˨˩ lɪt˧˩ tʰau˩˦
moon ɥœ˥˩l jɑŋ˩ ɦyɪʔ liã y liã ɳiot˨ kuɔŋ nʲiet˥ kuɔŋ˦ jyuːt˨ kʷɔːŋ˥ ɡe˧˩ʔ niu˩˦
mountain ʂan˥ san˦˨ san˦ saːn˥ suã˥
water ʂweɪ˨˩˦ ɕyei sui˨˩˧ sui˧˩ sɵy˧˥ tsui˥˩
red χʊŋ˧˥ ɦoŋ xɛ̃ fuŋ˦˥ fuŋ˩ hʊŋ˨˩ aŋ˩˦
green ly˥˩ loʔ ləu liuk˥ liuk˥, tsʰiaŋ˦ lʊk˨ lɪ˦k
yellow χwɑŋ˧˥ ɦuã õ uɔŋ˦˥ ʋoŋ˩ wɔːŋ˨˩ ŋ˩˦
white pai˧˥ bɐʔ pʰak˨ pʰak˥ paːk˨ pe˦ʔ
black χei˥ həʔ u˦˨ ʋu˦ haːk˥ ɔ˥
daytime pai˧˥ tʰiɛn˥ ɳiɪʔ li ɕiã pə tʰiẽ ɳit˥ li nʲit˩ sɨn˩ tʰeu˩ jɐt˨ tʰɐu˧˥ dʒɪ˧˩t ɕi˩˦
night jɛ˥˩ wan˨˩˦ ɦia tɔ io ka tsi ia˨˩ li am˥˧ pu˦ tʰeu˩,
am˥˧ pu˦ sɨn˩
jɛː˨ maːn˩˧ am˥˩ ɕi˩˦

Examples of variations

The Min languages are often regarded as furthest removed linguistically from Standard Chinese in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. Historically, the Min languages were the first to diverge from the rest of the Chinese languages (see the discussion of historical Chinese phonology for more details). The Min languages are also the group with the greatest amount of internal diversity and are often regarded as consisting of at least five separate languages, e.g. Northern Min, Southern Min, Central Min, Eastern Min, and Puxian Min.

To illustrate, in Taiwanese (a variety of Hokkien, a Min language) to express the idea that one is feeling a little ill ("I am not feeling well."), one might say (in Pe̍h-oē-jī)

Goá kā-kī lâng ū tām-po̍h-á bô sóng-khoài.


which, when translated cognate-by-cognate into Mandarin, would be spoken as an awkward or semantically unrecognizable sentence:

Wǒ jiājǐ rén yǒu dànbó wú shuǎngkuài.

Could roughly be interpreted as:
My family's own person is weakly not feeling refreshed.

Whereas when spoken colloquially in Mandarin, one would either say,

Wǒ zìjǐ yǒu yīdiǎn bù shūfu.


I myself feel a bit uncomfortable.


Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎn bù shūfu.


I feel a bit uncomfortable.

the latter omitting the reflexive pronoun (zìjǐ), not usually needed in Mandarin.

Some people, particularly in northern China, would say,

Wǒ yǒu diǎnr bù shūfu.


Literally: I am [a] bit[DIM.] uncomfortable.


Comparison with Europe

Chinese has been likened to the Romance languages of Europe, the modern descendents of Latin. In both cases, the ancestral language was spread by imperial expansion over substrate languages 2000 years ago, by the QinHan empire in China and the Roman Empire in Europe. In Western Europe, Medieval Latin remained the standard for scholarly and administrative writing for centuries, and influenced local varieties, as did Literary Chinese in China. In both Europe and China, local forms of speech diverged from the written standard and from each other, producing extensive dialect continua, with widely separated varieties being mutually unintelligible.[11][81]

On the other hand, there are major differences. In China, political unity was restored in the late 6th century and has persisted (with interludes of division) until the present day, while Europe remained fragmented and developed numerous independent states. Vernacular writing, facilitated by the alphabet, supplanted Latin, and these states developed their own standard languages. In China, however, Literary Chinese maintained its monopoly on formal writing until the start of the 20th century. The logographic writing, read with varying local pronunciations, continued to serve as a source of vocabulary and idioms in the local varieties. The new national standard, Vernacular Chinese, the written counterpart of spoken Standard Chinese, was also used as a literary form by speakers of all varieties.[82][83]

Bilingualism with the standard variety

In southern China (not including Hong Kong and Macau), where the difference between Standard Chinese and local dialects are particularly pronounced, well-educated Chinese are generally fluent in Standard Chinese,[citation needed] and most people have at least a good passive knowledge of it,[citation needed] in addition to being native speakers of the local dialect. The choice of dialect varies based on the social situation. Standard Chinese is usually considered more formal and is required when speaking to a person who does not understand the local dialect. The local dialect (be it non-Standard Chinese or non-Mandarin altogether) is generally considered more intimate and is used among close family members and friends and in everyday conversation within the local area. Chinese speakers will frequently code switch between Standard Chinese and the local dialect. Parents will generally speak to their children in dialect, and the relationship between dialect and Mandarin appears to be mostly stable[citation needed]. Local languages give a sense of identity to local cultures.

Knowing the local dialect is of considerable social benefit, and most Chinese who permanently move to a new area will attempt to pick up the local dialect. Learning a new dialect is usually done informally through a process of immersion and recognizing sound shifts. Generally the differences are more pronounced lexically than grammatically. Typically, a speaker of one dialect of Chinese will need about a year of immersion to understand the local dialect[citation needed] and about three to five years to become fluent in speaking it.[citation needed] Because of the variety of dialects spoken, there are usually few formal methods for learning a local dialect.

Due to the variety in Chinese speech, Mandarin speakers from each area of China are very often prone to fuse or "translate" words from their local tongue into their Mandarin conversations.[citation needed] In addition, each area of China has its recognizable accents while speaking Mandarin.[citation needed] Generally, the nationalized standard form of Mandarin pronunciation is only heard on news and radio broadcasts. Even in the streets of Beijing, the flavour of Mandarin varies in pronunciation from the Mandarin heard on the media.[citation needed]

Language policy

A school in Guangdong with writing "Please speak Standard Chinese. Please write standard characters" on the wall.

Within mainland China, there has been a persistent drive towards promoting the standard language (大力推广普通话; dàlì tuīguǎng Pǔtōnghuà); for instance, the education system is entirely Mandarin-medium from the second year onward.[citation needed] However, usage of local dialect is tolerated and socially preferred in many informal situations.[citation needed] In Hong Kong, colloquial Cantonese characters are never used in formal documents other than quoting witnesses' spoken statements during legal trials, and within the PRC a character set closer to Mandarin tends to be used.[citation needed] At the national level, differences in dialect generally do not correspond to political divisions or categories, and this has for the most part prevented dialect from becoming the basis of identity politics. Historically, many of the people who promoted Chinese nationalism were from southern China and did not natively speak the national standard language, and even leaders from northern China rarely spoke with the standard accent.[citation needed] For example, Mao Zedong often emphasized his Hunan origins in speaking, rendering much of what he said incomprehensible to many Chinese.[citation needed] One consequence of this is that China does not have a well-developed tradition of spoken political rhetoric, and most Chinese political works are intended primarily as written works rather than spoken works. Another factor that limits the political implications of dialect is that it is very common within an extended family for different people to know and use different dialects.[citation needed]

Before 1945, most of the population of Taiwan were Han Chinese speaking Taiwanese Hokkien or Hakka, with a minority of Taiwanese aborigines speaking Formosan languages.[84] When the Kuomintang retreated to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they brought a substantial influx of speakers of Northern Chinese, and viewed the use of Mandarin as part of their claim to be a legitimate government of the whole of China.[85] Education policy promoted the use of Mandarin over the local languages, and was implemented especially rigidly in elementary schools, with punishments and public humiliation for children using other languages at school.[85] From the 1970s, the government promoted adult education in Mandarin, required Mandarin for official purposes, and encouraged its increased use in broadcasting.[86] Over a 40-year period, these policies succeeded in spreading the use and prestige of Mandarin through society at the expense of the other languages.[87] They also aggravated social divisions, as Mandarin speakers found it difficult to find jobs in private companies but were favoured for government positions.[87] From the 1990s, Taiwanese native languages were offered in elementary and middle schools, first in Yilan county, then in other areas controlled by the Democratic Progressive Party, and finally throughout the island.[88]

See also


  1. 方言 is a compound of fāng , meaning "place, region, area", and yán meaning "speech, talk, language". This was the title of the first work of Chinese dialectology in the Han dynasty, and has had a range of meanings in the millennia since.[45]
  2. John DeFrancis proposed the neologism regionalect to serve as a translation for fāngyán when referring to mutually unintelligible divisions [46] and Victor Mair coined the term topolect as a translation for all uses of fāngyán.[47] The latter term appears in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
  3. Some words of literary origin with voiced initials shifted to category 6.[78]


  1. Norman (1988), pp. 183, 185.
  2. Norman (1988), p. 183.
  3. Norman (1988), p. 185.
  4. Ramsey 1987, pp. 116–117.
  5. Norman (1988), pp. 24–25.
  6. Norman (1988), pp. 183–190.
  7. Ramsey (1987), p. 22.
  8. Norman (1988), p. 136.
  9. Ramsey (1987), pp. 3–15.
  10. Norman (1988), p. 247.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Norman (1988), p. 187.
  12. Ramsey (1987), pp. 6–7.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Norman (2003), p. 72.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Norman (1988), pp. 189–190.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Norman (1988), p. 188.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Lewis, Simons & Fennig (2015).
  17. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 36–41.
  18. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–53.
  19. Norman (1988), p. 181.
  20. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 53–55.
  21. Yan (2006), p. 90.
  22. Norman (1988), pp. 199–200.
  23. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 46, 49–50.
  24. Yan (2006), p. 148.
  25. Norman (1988), pp. 207–209.
  26. Kurpaska (2010), p. 49.
  27. Norman (1988), p. 233.
  28. Norman (1988), p. 224.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Norman (1988), p. 217.
  30. Norman (1988), p. 215.
  31. Ramsey (1987), p. 98.
  32. Wurm et al. (1987).
  33. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56.
  34. Yan (2006), pp. 60–61.
  35. Yan (2006), pp. 222–223.
  36. Yan (2006), p. 235.
  37. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 72–73.
  38. Norman (1988), pp. 182–183.
  39. Iwata (2010), pp. 102–108.
  40. Tang & Van Heuven (2007).
  41. Norman (1988), p. 1.
  42. Norman (2003), p. 73.
  43. Norman (1988), pp. 1–2.
  44. Liang (2014), p. 14.
  45. Mair (1991), pp. 3–6.
  46. 46.0 46.1 DeFrancis (1984), p. 57.
  47. Mair (1991), p. 7.
  48. Norman (1988), pp. 138–139.
  49. Norman (1988), pp. 212–213.
  50. Ramsey (1987), p. 101.
  51. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 186–188.
  52. Yan (2006), pp. 69, 90, 127.
  53. Norman (1988), pp. 139, 236.
  54. Yan (2006), p. 127.
  55. Norman (1988), pp. 211, 233.
  56. Norman (1988), pp. 199–200, 207.
  57. Norman (1988), p. 193.
  58. Norman (1988), pp. 182, 193, 200, 205.
  59. Norman (1988), pp. 28, 141.
  60. Yan (2006), pp. 160–151.
  61. Norman (1988), pp. 141, 198.
  62. Norman (1988), p. 194.
  63. Norman (1988), pp. 200–201.
  64. Norman (1988), pp. 216–217.
  65. Norman (1988), pp. 193, 201–202.
  66. Norman (1988), pp. 193, 201.
  67. Norman (1988), p. 9.
  68. Norman (1988), pp. 147, 202, 239.
  69. Norman (1988), p. 54.
  70. Norman (1988), pp. 34–36.
  71. Norman (1988), pp. 52–54.
  72. 72.0 72.1 Norman (1988), pp. 195–196, 272.
  73. Yan (2006), pp. 116–117.
  74. Yan (2006), pp. 162–163.
  75. 75.0 75.1 Norman (1988), p. 202.
  76. Norman (1988), pp. 238–239.
  77. Norman (1988), pp. 225–226.
  78. 78.0 78.1 Norman (1988), p. 218.
  79. Norman (1988), pp. 146–147.
  80. Norman (1988), pp. 202, 239.
  81. Ramsey (1987), p. 7.
  82. Norman (1988), pp. 2–3.
  83. Ramsey (1987), pp. 16–18.
  84. Hsieh (2007), pp. 12–13.
  85. 85.0 85.1 Hsieh (2007), p. 15.
  86. Hsieh (2007), pp. 16–17.
  87. 87.0 87.1 Hsieh (2007), p. 17.
  88. Hsieh (2007), pp. 20–21.

Works cited

Further reading

  • Ao, Benjamin (1991), "Comparative reconstruction of proto-Chinese revisited", Language Sciences, 13 (3/4): 335–379, doi:10.1016/0388-0001(91)90022-S.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Branner, David Prager (2000), Problems in Comparative Chinese Dialectology – the Classification of Miin and Hakka, Trends in Linguistics series, no. 123, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, ISBN 978-3-11-015831-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Chappell, Hilary (2001), "Synchrony and diachrony of Sinitic languages: A brief history of Chinese dialects" (PDF), in Chappell, Hilary (ed.), Sinitic grammar: synchronic and diachronic perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–28, ISBN 978-0-19-829977-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Chappell, Hilary; Li, Ming; Peyraube, Alain (2007), "Chinese linguistics and typology: the state of the art" (PDF), Linguistic Typology, 11 (1): 187–211, doi:10.1515/LINGTY.2007.014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Groves, Julie M. (2008), "Language or Dialect – or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese" (PDF), Sino-Platonic Papers, 179: 1–103.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hamed, Mahé Ben (2005), "Neighbour-nets portray the Chinese dialect continuum and the linguistic legacy of China's demic history", Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272 (1567): 1015–1022, doi:10.1098/rspb.2004.3015, PMC 1599877, PMID 16024359.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hannas, Wm. C. (1997), Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1892-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Norman, Jerry (2006), "Common Dialectal Chinese", in Branner, David Prager (ed.), The Chinese Rime Tables: Linguistic Philosophy and Historical-Comparative Phonology, Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 271, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 233–254, ISBN 978-90-272-4785-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Simmons, Richard VanNess (1999), Chinese Dialect Classification: A comparative approach to Harngjou, Old Jintarn, and Common Northern Wu, John Benjamins, ISBN 978-90-272-8433-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Yue, Anne O. (2003), "Chinese dialects: grammar", in Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.) (eds.), The Sino-Tibetan languages, Routledge, pp. 84–125, ISBN 978-0-7007-1129-1.CS1 maint: extra text: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links