Varieties of Chinese

Chinese, also known as Sinitic,[a] 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 mountainous southeast. A widely quoted classification divides these varieties into seven groups: Mandarin, Wu, Min, Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Yue, though a more recent classification splits some of these to obtain ten groups, and some varieties remain unclassified.

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.

Standard Chinese takes its phonology from the Beijing dialect, with vocabulary from the Mandarin group and grammar based on literature in the modern written vernacular. It is the sole official language of China and the de facto official language of Taiwan, one of the four official languages of Singapore, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and other regions with historic immigration from China
Linguistic classificationSino-Tibetan
  • Chinese
Early forms
ISO 639-5zhx
Map of sinitic languages cropped-en
Primary branches of Chinese according to the Language Atlas of China
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese漢語
Simplified Chinese汉语
Hanyu PinyinHànyǔ
Literal meaning"Language of the Han"


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.[4]

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.[5] The Fangyan (early 1st century AD) is devoted to differences in vocabulary between regions.[6] 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.[7] This standard, known as Middle Chinese, is believed to be a diasystem based on the reading traditions of northern and southern capitals.[8]

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.[9][10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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 Mandarin Chinese now dominates public life in mainland China, and is much more widely studied than any other variety of Chinese.[13] Outside China and Taiwan, the only varieties of Chinese commonly taught in university courses are Standard Mandarin and Cantonese.[14]

Comparison with Europe

Chinese has been likened to the Romance languages of Europe, the modern descendants 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.[14][15]

On the other hand, there are major differences. In China, political unity was restored in the late 6th century (by the Sui dynasty) and has persisted (with relatively brief interludes of division) until the present day. Meanwhile, 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 for the local varieties. The new national standard, Vernacular Chinese, the written counterpart of spoken Standard Chinese, is also used as a literary form by literate speakers of all varieties.[16][17]


Dialectologist Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Dialect groups

Proportions of first-language speakers[21]

  Mandarin (66.2%)
  Min (6.2%)
  Wu (6.1%)
  Jin (5.2%)
  Yue (4.9%)
  Gan (4.0%)
  Hakka (3.5%)
  Xiang (3.0%)
  Huizhou (0.3%)
  Pinghua, others (0.6%)

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.[22] 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.[23] The conventionally accepted set of seven dialect groups first appeared in the second edition of Yuan Jiahua's dialectology handbook (1961):[24][25]

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 Shanghainese features several atypical innovations.[26] Wu varieties are distinguished by their retention of voiced or murmured obstruent initials (stops, affricates and fricatives).[27]
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".[28][29]
The Xiang varieties are spoken in Hunan and southern Hubei. 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.[30]
These varieties originated in the mountainous terrain of Fujian and eastern Guangdong, and form 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.[20] 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.[31][32] Varieties from the coastal region around Xiamen have spread to Southeast Asia, where they are known as Hokkien (named from a dialectical pronunciation of "Fujian"), and Taiwan, where they are known as Taiwanese.[33] Other offshoots of Min are found in Hainan and the Leizhou Peninsula, with smaller communities throughout southern China.[32]
The Hakka (literally "guest families") are a group of Han Chinese living in the hills of northeastern Guangdong, southwestern Fujian and many other parts of southern China, as well as Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Meixian dialect is the prestige form.[34] 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.[35]
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 (historically called "Canton"), which is also the native language of the majority in Hong Kong and Macau.[36] Taishanese, from the coastal area of Jiangmen southwest of Guangzhou, was historically the most common Yue variety among overseas communities in the West until the late 20th century.[37] 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.[35]

The Language Atlas of China (1987) follows a classification of Li Rong, distinguishing three further groups:[38][39]

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.[40]
The Hui dialects, spoken in southern Anhui, share different features with Wu, Gan and Mandarin, making them difficult to classify. Earlier scholars had assigned to them one or other of these groups, or to a group of their own.[41][42]
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.[43]

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.[44] This region is an area of great linguistic diversity but has not yet been conclusively described.

Most of the vocabulary of the Bai language of Yunnan appears to be related to Chinese words, though many are clearly loans from the last few centuries. Some scholars have suggested that it represents a very early branching from Chinese, while others argue that it is a more distantly related Sino-Tibetan language overlaid with two millennia of loans.[45][46][47]

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.[48] 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.[19]

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.[49]

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 Gan) 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.[50]

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

  • 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 mutual 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 mutual 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 and perhaps even as much as Indo-European languages as a whole.[51][52][53] These varieties form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family (with Bai sometimes being included in this grouping).[54] 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,[55] and this is also the official position.[56] 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.[18] 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.[57] Other linguists choose to refer to the major groupings as languages.[52]

In Chinese, the term fāngyán[b] 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 have customarily been translated into English as dialect, a practice that has been criticized as confusing. The neologisms regionalect and topolect have been proposed as alternative renderings of fāngyán.[59][c]

The only varieties usually recognized as languages in their own right are Dungan and Taz. This is mostly due to political reasons as they are spoken in the former Soviet Union and are usually not written in Han characters but in Cyrillic. Dungan is in fact a variety of Mandarin, with high although asymmetric mutual intelligibility with Standard Mandarin. Various mixed languages, particularly those spoken by ethnic minorities, are also referred to as languages such as Tangwang language and E language. Some people and institutions may also allude to Taiwanese language, Cantonese language, and Hakka languages. The Taiwanese Ministry of Education uses the terms "Minnan language" and "Taiwan Minnan language".[61]


Chinese syllable tree
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.[62] In general, southern varieties have fewer initial consonants than northern and central varieties, but more often preserve the Middle Chinese final consonants.[63] Some varieties, such as Cantonese and the Shanghai dialect, include syllabic nasals as independent syllables.[64]


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.[65]

Initials of selected varieties[66][67]
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 ɲ ŋ m n
Sonorants l l l ɻ/ʐ

The initial system of the Fuzhou dialect of northern Fujian is a minimal example.[68] 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.[69]
  • 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.[70]
  • The Middle Chinese retroflex initials are retained in many Mandarin dialects, including Beijing but not southwestern and southeastern Mandarin varieties.[71]
  • In many northern and central varieties there is palatalization of dental affricates, velars (as in Suzhou), or both. In some places, including Beijing, palatalized dental affricates and velars have merged to form a new palatal series.[72]


Chinese finals may be analysed as an optional medial glide, a main vowel and an optional coda.[73]

Conservative vowel systems, such as those of Gan dialects, have high vowels /i/, /u/ and /y/, which also function as medials, mid vowels /e/ and /o/, and a low /a/-like vowel.[74] In other dialects, including Mandarin dialects, /o/ has merged with /a/, leaving a single mid vowel with a wide range of allophones.[75] Many dialects, particularly in northern and central China, have apical or retroflex vowels, which are syllabic fricatives derived from high vowels following sibilant initials.[76] In many Wu dialects, vowels and final glides have monophthongized, producing a rich inventory of vowels in open syllables.[77] Reduction of medials is common in Yue dialects.[78]

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 such as Cantonese.[35] 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.[79] 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.[80]


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 seven distinct pitch contours, denoting different morphemes. For example, the Beijing dialect distinguishes ( "mother"), ( "hemp"), ( "horse") and ( "to scold"). The number of tonal contrasts varies between dialects, with Northern dialects tending to have fewer distinctions than Southern ones.[81] 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 or phrase.[82] 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 four tones of Middle Chinese, though cognate tonal categories in different dialects are often realized as quite different pitch contours.[83] Middle Chinese had a three-way tonal contrast in syllables with vocalic or nasal endings. The traditional names of the tonal categories are "level"/"even" ( píng), "rising" ( shǎng) and "departing"/"going" ( ). 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/.[84]

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 "upper" (/ yīn) and "lower" (/ yáng). 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 as well as one in unchecked syllables. (The latter distinction has disappeared again in many varieties.) However, most Chinese 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 distributed amongst the four remaining tones, seemingly at random.[85]

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[86] Taiyuan 1 ˩ 3 ˥˧ 5 ˥ 7 ˨˩ 8 ˥˦
Mandarin[86] 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[87] Changsha 1 ˧ 2 ˩˧ 3 ˦˩ 6 5 ˥ 6 ˨˩ 7 ˨˦
Shuangfeng 1 ˦ 2 ˨˧ 3 ˨˩ 6 5 ˧˥ 6 ˧ 2, 5
Gan[88] Nanchang 1 ˦˨ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˨˩˧ 6 5 ˦˥ 6 ˨˩ 7 ˥ 8 ˨˩
Wu[89] 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[90] Xiamen 1 ˥ 2 ˨˦ 3 ˥˩ 6 5 ˩ 6 ˧ 7 ˧˨ 8 ˥
Hakka[91] Meixian 1 ˦ 2 ˩˨ 3 ˧˩ 1,3 1 5 ˦˨ 7 ˨˩ 8 ˦
Yue[92] Guangzhou 1 ˥˧ 2 ˨˩ 3 ˧˥ 4 ˨˦[d] 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.[89] (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.[93] Particularly complex sandhi patterns are found in Wu dialects and coastal Min dialects.[94] 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.


Most morphemes in Chinese varieties are monosyllables descended from Old Chinese words, and have cognates in all varieties:

Colloquial pronunciations of cognate morphemes[95]
Word Jin Mandarin Xiang Gan Wu Min Hakka Yue
Taiyuan Xi'an Beijing Chengdu Yangzhou Changsha Shuangfeng Nanchang Suzhou Wenzhou Fuzhou Xiamen Meixian Guangzhou
'person' zəŋ1 ʐẽ2 ʐən2 zən2 lən2 ʐən2 ɲiɛn2 ɲin5 ɲin2 ɲiaŋ2 nøyŋ2 laŋ2 ɲin2 jɐn2
'man' næ̃1 næ̃2 nan2 nan2 liæ̃2 lan2 læ̃2 lan5 2 2 naŋ2 lam2 nam2 nam2
'woman' ny3 mi3 ny3 ɲy3 ly3 ɲy3 ɲy3 ɲy3 ɲy6 ɲy4 ny3 lu3 ŋ3 nøy4
'fish' y1 y2 y2 y2 y2 y2 y2 ɲiɛ5 ŋ2 ŋøy2 ŋy2 hi2 ŋ2 jy2
'snake' 1 ʂɤ2 ʂɤ2 se2 ɕɪ2 sa2 ɣio2 sa5 zo2 zei2 sie2 tsua2 sa2 ʃɛ2
'meat' zuəʔ7 ʐou5 ʐou5 zəu2 ləʔ7 ʐəu7 ɲu5 ɲiuk8 ɲioʔ8 ɲiəu8 nyʔ8 hɪk8 ɲiuk7 juk8
'bone' kuəʔ7 ku1 ku3 ku2 kuəʔ7 ku7 kəu2 kut7 kuɤʔ7 ky7 kauʔ7 kut7 kut7 kuɐt7a
'eye' nie3 ɲiã3 iɛn3 iɛn3 iæ̃3 ŋan3 ŋæ̃3 ŋan3 ŋɛ6 ŋa4 ŋiaŋ3 gɪŋ3 ɲian3 ŋan4
'ear' ɚ3 ɚ3 ɚ3 ɚ3 a3 ɤ3 e3 ə3 ɲi6 ŋ4 ŋei5 hi6 ɲi3 ji4
'nose' pieʔ8 pi2 pi2 pi2 pieʔ7 pi2 bi6 pʰit8 bɤʔ8 bei6 pei6 pʰi6 pʰi5 pei6
"sun", 'day' zəʔ7 ɚ1 ʐʅ5 zɿ2 ləʔ7 ɲʅ7 i2 ɲit8 ɲɪʔ8 ɲiai8 niʔ8 lit8 ɲit7 jat8
"moon", 'month' yəʔ7 ye1 ye5 ye2 yəʔ7 ye7 ya5 ɲyɔt8 ŋɤʔ8 ɲy8 ŋuɔʔ8 geʔ8 ɲiat8 jyt8
'year' nie1 ɲiæ̃2 niɛn2 ɲiɛn2 liẽ2 ɲiẽ2 ɲɪ̃2 ɲiɛn5 ɲiɪ2 ɲi2 nieŋ2 2 ɲian2 nin2
'mountain' sæ̃1 sæ̃1 ʂan1 san1 sæ̃1 san1 sæ̃1 san1 1 sa1 saŋ1 suã1 san1 ʃan1
'water' suei3 fei3 ʂuei3 suei3 suəi3 ɕyei3 ɕy3 sui3 3 sɿ3 tsy3 tsui3 sui3 ʃøy3
'red' xuŋ1 xuoŋ2 xuŋ2 xoŋ2 xoŋ2 xən2 ɣən2 fuŋ5 ɦoŋ2 ɦoŋ2 øyŋ2 2 fuŋ2 huŋ2
'green' luəʔ7 lou1 ly5 nu2 lɔʔ7 lou7 ləu2 liuk8 loʔ7 lo8 luɔʔ8 lɪk8 liuk8 luk8
'yellow' xuɒ̃1 xuaŋ2 xuaŋ2 xuaŋ2 xuɑŋ2 uan2 ɒŋ2 uɔŋ5 ɦuɒŋ2 ɦuɔ2 uɔŋ2 hɔŋ2 vɔŋ2 wɔŋ2
'white' piəʔ7 pei2 pai2 pe2 pɔʔ7 7 pia2 pʰak7 bɒʔ8 ba8 paʔ8 peʔ8 pʰak8 pak8
'black' xəʔ7 xei1 xei1 xe2 xəʔ7 xa7 ɕia2 hɛt8 hɤʔ7 xe7 xaiʔ7 hɪk7 hɛt7 hɐk7a
'above' sɒ̃5 ʂaŋ5 ʂaŋ5 saŋ5 sɑŋ5 san6 ɣiaŋ6 sɔŋ6 zɒŋ6 ji6 suɔŋ6 tsiũ6 sɔŋ5 ʃœŋ6
'below' ɕia5 xa5 ɕia5 ɕia5 5 xa6 ɣo6 ha6 ɦo6 ɦo4 a6 e6 ha2 ha6
'middle' tsuŋ1 pfəŋ1 tʂuŋ1 tsoŋ1 tsoŋ1 tʂən1 tan1 tsuŋ1 tsoŋ1 tɕyoŋ1 touŋ1 taŋ1 tuŋ1 tʃuŋ1
'big' ta5 tuo5 ta5 ta5 tai5 tai6 du6 tʰɔ6 dəu6 dəu6 tuai6 tua6 tʰai5 tai6
'small' ɕiau3 ɕiau3 ɕiau3 ɕiau3 ɕiɔ3 ɕiau3 ɕiɤ3 ɕiɛu3 siæ3 sai3 sieu3 sio3 siau3 ʃiu3

Old Chinese had two families of negatives starting with *p- and *m-, respectively.[96] Northern and Central varieties tend to use a word from the first family, cognate with Beijing pu5 , as the ordinary negator.[97] A word from the second family is used as an existential negator 'have not', as in Beijing mei2 and Shanghai m2.[98] In Mandarin varieties this word is also used for 'not yet', whereas in Wu and other groups a different form is typically used.[99] In Southern varieties, negators tend to come from the second family. The ordinary negators in these varieties are all derived from a syllabic nasal *m̩, though it has a level tone in Hakka and Yue and a rising tone in Min. Existential negators derive from a proto-form *mau, though again the tonal category varies between groups.[100]

First- and second-person pronouns are cognate across all varieties. For third-person pronouns, Jin, Mandarin, and Xiang varieties have cognate forms, but other varieties generally use forms that originally had a velar or glottal initial:[101]

Personal pronouns
Jin[95] Mandarin[102] Xiang[103] Gan[104] Wu[105] Min[106] Hakka[107] Yue[108]
Taiyuan Xi'an Beijing Chengdu Yangzhou Changsha Shuangfeng Nanchang Suzhou Wenzhou Fuzhou Xiamen Meixian Guangzhou
'I' ɣɤ3 ŋə3 uo3 ŋo3 o3 ŋo3 3 ŋɔ3 ŋəu6 ŋ4 ŋuai3 gua3 ŋai2 ŋo4
'you' ni3 ni3 ni3 ni3 liɪ3 n3, ɲi3 n3 li3, n3 ne6 ɲi4 ny3 li3 ɲi2, n2 nei4
'he/she' tʰa1 tʰa1 tʰa1 tʰa1 tʰa1 tʰa1 tʰo1 tɕʰiɛ3 li1 gi2 i1 i1 ki2 kʰøy4

Southern varieties also include distinctive substrata of vocabulary of non-Chinese origin. Some of these words may have come from Tai–Kadai and Austroasiatic languages.[109]

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.


Bilingualism with the standard variety

In southern China (not including Hong Kong and Macau), where the difference between Standard Chinese and local dialects is particularly pronounced, well-educated Chinese are generally fluent in Standard Chinese, and most people have at least a good passive knowledge of it, 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; even a diglossia. 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 and about three to five years to become fluent in speaking it. 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 language into their Mandarin conversations. In addition, each area of China has its recognizable accents while speaking Mandarin. Generally, the nationalized standard form of Mandarin pronunciation is only heard on news and radio broadcasts. Even in the streets of Beijing, the flavor of Mandarin varies in pronunciation from the Mandarin heard on the media.

Language policy

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

Chinese Mainland

Within mainland China, there has been a persistent drive towards promoting the standard language (Chinese: 大力推广普通话; pinyin: dàlì tuīguǎng Pǔtōnghuà); for instance, the education system is entirely Mandarin-medium from the second year onward. However, usage of local dialect is tolerated and socially preferred in many informal situations. 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. 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. For example, Mao Zedong often emphasized his origins in Hunan in speaking, rendering much of what he said incomprehensible to many Chinese. Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen were also from southern China, and this is reflected in their conventional English names reflecting Cantonese pronunciations for their given names, and differing from their Mandarin pinyin spellings Jiǎng Jièshí and Sūn Yìxiān. 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.


Before 1945, other than a small Japanese-speaking population, most of the population of Taiwan were Han Chinese, who spoke Taiwanese Hokkien or Hakka, with a minority of Taiwanese aborigines, who spoke Formosan languages.[110] 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 other dialects from across China), and viewed the use of Mandarin as part of their claim to be a legitimate government of the whole of China.[111] 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.[111] From the 1970s, the government promoted adult education in Mandarin, required Mandarin for official purposes, and encouraged its increased use in broadcasting.[112] 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.[113] They also aggravated social divisions, as Mandarin speakers found it difficult to find jobs in private companies but were favored for government positions.[113] From the 1990s, Taiwanese native languages were offered in elementary and middle schools, first in Yilan county, then in other areas governed by elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians, and finally throughout the island.[114]


In 1966, the Singaporean government implemented a policy of bilingual education, where Singaporean students learn both English and their designated native language, which was Mandarin for Chinese Singaporeans (even though Singaporean Hokkien had previously been their lingua franca). The Goh Report, an evaluation of Singapore's education system by Goh Keng Swee, showed that less than 40% of the student population managed to attain minimum levels of competency in two languages.[115] It was later determined that the learning of Mandarin among Singaporean Chinese was hindered by home use of other Chinese varieties, such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka.[116][117] Hence, the government decided to rectify problems facing implementation of the bilingual education policy, by launching a campaign to promote Mandarin as a common language among the Chinese population, and to discourage use of other Chinese varieties.

Launched in 1979 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew,[118] the campaign aimed to simplify the language environment for Chinese Singaporeans, improve communication between them, and create a Mandarin-speaking environment conducive to the successful implementation of the bilingual education programme. The initial goal of the campaign was for all young Chinese to stop speaking dialects in five years, and to establish Mandarin as the language of choice in public places within 10 years.[119][120] According to the government, for the bilingual policy to be effective, Mandarin should be spoken at home and should serve as the lingua franca among Chinese Singaporeans.[121] They also argued that Mandarin was more economically valuable, and speaking Mandarin would help Chinese Singaporeans retain their heritage, as Mandarin contains a cultural repository of values and traditions that are identifiable to all Chinese, regardless of dialect group.[122]

See also


  1. ^ From Late Latin Sinae "the Chinese". In 1982, Paul K. Benedict proposed a subgroup of Sino-Tibetan called "Sinitic" comprising Bai and Chinese.[1] The precise affiliation of Bai remains uncertain,[2] but the term "Sinitic" is usually used as a synonym for Chinese, especially when viewed as a language family.[3]
  2. ^ 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.[58]
  3. ^ John DeFrancis proposed the neologism regionalect to serve as a translation for fāngyán when referring to mutually unintelligible divisions.[59] Victor Mair coined the term topolect as a translation for all uses of fāngyán.[60] The latter term appears in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
  4. ^ Some words of literary origin with voiced initials shifted to category 6.[92]



  1. ^ Wang (2005), p. 107.
  2. ^ Wang (2005), p. 122.
  3. ^ Mair (1991), p. 3.
  4. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 183, 185.
  5. ^ Norman (1988), p. 183.
  6. ^ Norman (1988), p. 185.
  7. ^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 116–117.
  8. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 24–25.
  9. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 183–190.
  10. ^ Ramsey (1987), p. 22.
  11. ^ Norman (1988), p. 136.
  12. ^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 3–15.
  13. ^ Norman (1988), p. 247.
  14. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 187.
  15. ^ Ramsey (1987), p. 7.
  16. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 2–3.
  17. ^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 16–18.
  18. ^ a b Norman (2003), p. 72.
  19. ^ a b Norman (1988), pp. 189–190.
  20. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 188.
  21. ^ Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2012), p. 3.
  22. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 36–41.
  23. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–53.
  24. ^ Norman (1988), p. 181.
  25. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 53–55.
  26. ^ Yan (2006), p. 90.
  27. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 199–200.
  28. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 46, 49–50.
  29. ^ Yan (2006), p. 148.
  30. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 207–209.
  31. ^ Kurpaska (2010), p. 49.
  32. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 233.
  33. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 232–233.
  34. ^ Norman (1988), p. 224.
  35. ^ a b c Norman (1988), p. 217.
  36. ^ Norman (1988), p. 215.
  37. ^ Ramsey (1987), p. 98.
  38. ^ Wurm et al. (1987).
  39. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56.
  40. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 60–61.
  41. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 222–223.
  42. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 43–44, 48, 69, 75–76.
  43. ^ Yan (2006), p. 235.
  44. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 72–73.
  45. ^ Ramsey (1987), pp. 290–291.
  46. ^ Norman (2003), pp. 73, 75.
  47. ^ Wang (2005).
  48. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 182–183.
  49. ^ Iwata (2010), pp. 102–108.
  50. ^ Tang & Van Heuven (2007).
  51. ^ Norman (1988), p. 1.
  52. ^ a b Mair (2013).
  53. ^ Yan (2006), p. 2.
  54. ^ Norman (2003), p. 73.
  55. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 1–2.
  56. ^ Liang (2014), p. 14.
  57. ^ Lewis, Simons & Fennig (2015).
  58. ^ Mair (1991), pp. 3–6.
  59. ^ a b DeFrancis (1984), p. 57.
  60. ^ Mair (1991), p. 7.
  61. ^ "Ministry of Education Republic of China (Taiwan)". 25 October 2017.
  62. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 138–139.
  63. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 212–213.
  64. ^ Ramsey (1987), p. 101.
  65. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 186–188.
  66. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 69, 90, 127.
  67. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 139, 236.
  68. ^ Yan (2006), p. 127.
  69. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 211, 233.
  70. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 199–200, 207.
  71. ^ Norman (1988), p. 193.
  72. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 182, 193, 200, 205.
  73. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 28, 141.
  74. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 150–151.
  75. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 141, 198.
  76. ^ Norman (1988), p. 194.
  77. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 200–201.
  78. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 216–217.
  79. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 193, 201–202.
  80. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 193, 201.
  81. ^ Norman (1988), p. 9.
  82. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 147, 202, 239.
  83. ^ Norman (1988), p. 54.
  84. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 34–36.
  85. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 52–54.
  86. ^ a b Norman (1988), pp. 195–196, 272.
  87. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 108, 116–117.
  88. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 162–163.
  89. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 202.
  90. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 238–239.
  91. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 225–226.
  92. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 218.
  93. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 146–147.
  94. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 202, 239.
  95. ^ a b Beijing University (1989).
  96. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 97–98.
  97. ^ Norman (1988), p. 182.
  98. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 196, 200, 204.
  99. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 196–197, 203–204.
  100. ^ Norman (1988), p. 213.
  101. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 182, 214.
  102. ^ Norman (1988), p. 196.
  103. ^ Norman (1988), p. 208.
  104. ^ Norman (1988), p. 205.
  105. ^ Norman (1988), p. 203.
  106. ^ Norman (1988), p. 234.
  107. ^ Norman (1988), p. 227.
  108. ^ Norman (1988), p. 220.
  109. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 17–19, 213–214, 219, 231–232.
  110. ^ Hsieh (2007), pp. 12–13.
  111. ^ a b Hsieh (2007), p. 15.
  112. ^ Hsieh (2007), pp. 16–17.
  113. ^ a b Hsieh (2007), p. 17.
  114. ^ Hsieh (2007), pp. 20–21.
  115. ^ 'The Goh Report' Archived 2 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  116. ^ Manfred Whoa Man-Fat, "A Critical Evaluation of Singapore's Language Policy and its Implications for English Teaching", Karen's Linguistics Issues. Retrieved on 4 November 2010
  117. ^ Bokhorst-Heng, W.D. (1998). "Unpacking the Nation". In Allison D. et al. (Ed.), Text in Education and Society (pp. 202–204). Singapore: Singapore University Press.
  118. ^ Lee, Kuan Yew (2000). From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-019776-6.
  119. ^ Lim Siew Yeen and Jessie Yak, Speak Mandarin Campaign Archived 7 January 2014 at, Infopedia, National Library Board Singapore, 4 July 2013.
  120. ^ (in Chinese) "讲华语运动30年 对象随大环境改变", Hua Sheng Bao, 17 March 2009.
  121. ^ Bokhorst-Heng, Wendy (1999). "Singapore's Speak Mandarin Campaign: Language ideological debates and the imagining of the nation". In Blommaert, Jan (ed.). Language Ideological Debates. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 235–265. ISBN 978-3-11-016350-6.
  122. ^ Wee, Lionel (2006). "The semiotics of language ideologies in Singapore". Journal of Sociolinguistics. 10 (3): 344–361. doi:10.1111/j.1360-6441.2006.00331.x.

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.
  • Baron, Stephen P. (1983), "Chain shifts in chinese historical phonology : problems of motivation and functionality", Cahiers de Linguistique – Asie Orientale, 12 (1): 43–63, doi:10.3406/clao.1983.1125.
  • Ben Hamed, Mahé (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, JSTOR 30047639, PMC 1599877, PMID 16024359.
  • Ben Hamed, Mahé; Wang, Feng (2006), "Stuck in the forest: Trees, networks and Chinese dialects", Diachronica, 23 (1): 29–60, doi:10.1075/dia.23.1.04ham.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Chen, Ping (1999), Modern Chinese: History and sociolinguistics, New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-64572-0.
  • Escure, Geneviève (1997), Creole and Dialect Continua: standard acquisition processes in Belize and China (PRC), John Benjamins, ISBN 978-90-272-5240-1.
  • Francis, Norbert (2016), "Language and dialect in China", Chinese Language and Discourse, 7 (1): 136–149, doi:10.1075/cld.7.1.05fra.
  • 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, CiteSeerX
  • Handel, Zev (2015), "The Classification of Chinese: Sinitic (The Chinese Language Family)", in Wang, William S. Y.; Sun, Chaofen (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 34–44, ISBN 978-0-19-985633-6.
  • Hannas, Wm. C. (1997), Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1892-0.
  • 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.
  • Sagart, Laurent (1998), "On distinguishing Hakka and non-Hakka dialects", Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 26 (2): 281–302, JSTOR 23756757.
  • 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.
  • Yue, Anne O. (2003), "Chinese dialects: grammar", in Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.), The Sino-Tibetan languages, Routledge, pp. 84–125, ISBN 978-0-7007-1129-1.
  • Hatano Tarō (波多野太郎) (1963–1972). Chūgoku hōshi shoroku hōgen kaihen(中国方志所錄方言滙編) Yokohama Shiritsu Daigaku Kiyō(横濱市立大學紀要) Series A-33 no.147, A-34 no.150, A-36 no.154, A-37 no.161, A-40 no.172, A-42 no.182, A-45 no.189, Humanities science no .1, Humanities science no .3. Yokohama : Yokohama City University.
  • 陈晓锦 & 甘于恩 (2010). 东南亚华人社区汉语方言概要(全三册). Guangzhou: 世界图书出版公司. ISBN 978-7-5100-8769-1.

External links

Ba-Shu Chinese

Ba-Shu Chinese (Chinese: 巴蜀語; pinyin: Bāshǔ yǔ; Wade–Giles: Ba1 Shu3 Yü3; Sichuanese Pinyin: Ba¹su²yu³; IPA: [pa˥su˨˩y˥˧]), or Old Sichuanese (or Old Szechwanese; Chinese: 蜀語), is an extinct Sinitic language formerly spoken in what is now Sichuan and Chongqing, China. This language is first attested in Fangyan during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE) and represents one of the earliest splits from Old Chinese or Early Middle Chinese. It became extinct during the Ming dynasty, when it was supplanted by Southwestern Mandarin after settlement by people from other parts of China.

Phonological aspects of Ba-Shu Chinese are preserved in the Minjiang dialect of Sichuanese Mandarin and there is debate on whether it is a variant of Southwestern Mandarin or a modern day descendant of Ba-Shu.

Badong Yao language

Badong Yao language (Chinese:八垌瑶语) is an unclassified Sinitic language spoken by the Yao people in Xinning County, Hunan province, China. Badong Yao is currently endangered, and is spoken in the villages of Huangyandong 黄岩峒, Malindong 麻林峒, and Dazhendong 大圳峒 in Huangjin Ethnic Yao Township 黄金瑶族乡, Xinning County. It is also spoken in Malin Ethnic Yao Township 麻林瑶族乡, located just to the east of Huangjin Township.

Central Min

Central Min, or Min Zhong (simplified Chinese: 闽中语; traditional Chinese: 閩中語; pinyin: Mǐnzhōngyǔ), is a part of the Min group of varieties of Chinese. It is spoken in the valley of the Sha River in Sanming prefecture in the central mountain areas of Fujian, consisting of Yong'an, the urban area of Sanming (Sanyuan and Meilie districts) and Sha County.


Chinese can refer to:

Something of, from, or related to China

Chinese people, people of Chinese nationality, citizenship, or one of several Chinese ethnicities

Zhonghua minzu, the supra-ethnic Chinese nationality

Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China, Singapore, and Taiwan

Ethnic minorities in China, non-Han Chinese people in China

Citizens of the People's Republic of China

Overseas Chinese, people of Chinese ancestry outside China Mainland, such as Taiwan

Chinese language, a language spoken predominantly in China in different mutually intelligible and unintelligible varieties and forms, sharing the same written standard but with disparate regional written vernaculars

Standard Chinese, the standard form of Chinese in China, Taiwan and Singapore

Varieties of Chinese, the topolects grouped under Chinese

Written Chinese, the writing system used for Chinese

Chinese cuisine, styles of food originating from China

American Chinese cuisine

Chinese language

Chinese (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ; literally: 'Han language'; or especially though not exclusively for written Chinese: 中文; Zhōngwén; 'Chinese writing') is a group of related, but in many cases not mutually intelligible, language varieties, forming the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the ethnic Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.

The varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family. The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but may be even more varied. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (about 960 million, e.g. Southwestern Mandarin), followed by Wu (80 million, e.g. Shanghainese), Min (70 million, e.g. Southern Min), Yue (60 million, e.g. Cantonese), etc. Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, and even dialect groups within Min Chinese may not be mutually intelligible. Some, however, like Xiang and certain Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and a certain degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.

Standard Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà/Guóyǔ/Huáyǔ) is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. It is the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The written form of the standard language (中文; Zhōngwén), based on the logograms known as Chinese characters (汉字/漢字; Hànzì), is shared by literate speakers of otherwise unintelligible dialects.

The earliest Chinese written records are Shang dynasty-era oracle inscriptions, which can be traced back to 1250 BCE. The phonetic categories of Archaic Chinese can be reconstructed from the rhymes of ancient poetry. During the Northern and Southern dynasties period, Middle Chinese went through several sound changes and split into several varieties following prolonged geographic and political separation. Qieyun, a rime dictionary, recorded a compromise between the pronunciations of different regions. The royal courts of the Ming and early Qing dynasties operated using a koiné language (Guanhua) based on Nanjing dialect of Lower Yangtze Mandarin. Standard Chinese was adopted in the 1930s, and is now the official language of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Danzhou dialect

The Danzhou dialect (simplified Chinese: 儋州话; traditional Chinese: 儋州話; pinyin: Dānzhōuhuà), locally known as Xianghua (simplified Chinese: 乡话; traditional Chinese: 鄉話; pinyin: xiānghuà; literally: 'village speech'), is a Chinese variety of uncertain affiliation spoken in the area of Danzhou in northwestern Hainan, China.

It was classified as Yue in the Language Atlas of China,

but in more recent work is treated as an unclassified southern variety.

Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects

The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects (Chinese: 現代漢語方言大詞典; pinyin: Xiàndài Hànyǔ fāngyán dà cídiǎn) is a compendium of dictionaries for 42 local varieties of Chinese following a common format.

The individual dictionaries cover dialects spread across the dialect groups identified in the Language Atlas of China:


Northeastern Mandarin: Harbin dialect

Ji–Lu Mandarin: Jinan dialect

Jiao–Liao Mandarin: Muping dialect

Central Plains Mandarin: Luoyang dialect, Wanrong dialect, Xi'an dialect, Xining dialect, Xuzhou dialect

Lanyin Mandarin: Urumqi dialect, Yinchuan dialect

Southwestern Mandarin: Chengdu dialect, Guiyang dialect, Liuzhou dialect, Wuhan dialect

Lower Yangtze Mandarin: Nanjing dialect, Yangzhou dialect

Jin: Taiyuan dialect, Xinzhou dialect

Wu: Chongming dialect, Danyang dialect, Hangzhou dialect, Jinhua dialect, Ningbo dialect, Shanghai dialect, Suzhou dialect, Wenzhou dialect

Hui: Jixi dialect

Gan: Lichuan dialect, Nanchang dialect, Pingxiang dialect

Xiang: Changsha dialect, Loudi dialect

Min: Fuzhou dialect, Haikou dialect, Jian'ou dialect, Leizhou dialect, Xiamen dialect

Yue: Dongguan dialect, Guangzhou dialect

Hakka: Meixian dialect, Yudu dialect

Pinghua: Nanning dialectEach dictionary was prepared by specialists in the dialect, and opens with an introduction to the characteristics of the dialect. The main body of each dictionary has between 7,000 and 10,000 entries.

Huizhou Chinese

Huizhou (simplified Chinese: 徽州话; traditional Chinese: 徽州話; pinyin: Huīzhōu-huà) or Hui (simplified Chinese: 徽语; traditional Chinese: 徽語; pinyin: Huīyǔ), is a group of closely related varieties of Chinese spoken over a small area in and around the historical region of Huizhou (for which it is named), in about ten or so mountainous counties in southern Anhui, plus a few more in neighbouring Zhejiang and Jiangxi.

Although the Hui area is small compared with other Chinese dialect groups, it displays a very high degree of internal variation. Nearly every county has its own distinct dialect unintelligible to a speaker from a few counties away. For this reason, bilingualism and multilingualism are common among speakers of Hui. It is estimated that there are around 4.6 million speakers of Huizhou varieties.


Junjiahua, Junhua or Junsheng refers to a collection of isolated dialects in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Fujian, and Taiwan region. Some believe that they are a Mandarin dialect group that assimilated to local Chinese variants in southern China. Junhua began as a lingua franca in the army, being spoken between soldiers from all parts of China during the Ming dynasty. It was subsequently spread to areas around the camps where the army settled. It is now an endangered language. In Hainan, it's still spoken by about 100,000 people. These speakers mainly live in Sanya, Changjiang Li Autonomous County, Danzhou, Dongfang and Lingao.

Some also consider the Dapenghua spoken in Dapeng Peninsula of Shenzhen to be a form of Junjiahua.

Language Atlas of China

The Language Atlas of China (Chinese: 中国语言地图集; pinyin: Zhōngguó Yǔyán Dìtú Jí), published in two parts in 1987 and 1989, maps the distribution of both the varieties of Chinese and minority languages of China.

It was a colloborative effort by the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published simultaneously in the original Chinese and in English translation.Endymion Wilkinson rated this joint venture "outstanding".A second edition was published in 2012.

List of varieties of Chinese

The following is a list of Varieties of Chinese. The varieties of Chinese is the first layer of classification. Each variety of Chinese has several dialects underneath, and these dialects vary in mutual intelligibility tremendously based on geographical distance. Sometimes, professional linguists may use dialect group to refer to a group of regiolects.

Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters

Differing literary and colloquial readings for certain Chinese characters are a common feature of many Chinese varieties, and the reading distinctions for these linguistic doublets often typify a dialect group. Literary readings (文讀; wéndú) are usually used in formal loan words or names, when reading aloud, and in formal settings, while colloquial readings (白讀; báidú) are usually used in everyday vernacular speech.

For example, in Mandarin the character for the word "white" (白) is generally pronounced bái ([pǎi]), but as a name or in certain formal or historical settings it can be pronounced bó ([pwǒ]). This example is particularly well known due to its effect on the modern pronunciation of the names of the Tang dynasty (618–907) poets Bai Juyi and Li Bai (alternatively, "Bo Juyi" and "Li Bo").

Generally speaking, colloquial readings preserve more ancient and conservative pronunciations, while literary readings represent newer pronunciations influenced by the dialects of historical capital areas such as Nanjing or Beijing. The case is reversed in Mandarin Chinese, however, where literary pronunciations are usually older.

Mai dialect

Mai (simplified Chinese: 迈话; traditional Chinese: 邁話; pinyin: Mài huà) is a variety of Chinese of uncertain affiliation spoken in the area of 崖县 Yáxiàn (Sanya) in southern Hainan, China. It was classified as Yue in the Language Atlas of China, but that is no longer certain. There are about 15,000 speakers of Maihua in southern Hainan.

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin ( (listen); simplified Chinese: 官话; traditional Chinese: 官話; pinyin: Guānhuà; literally: 'speech of officials') is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of Standard Mandarin or Standard Chinese. Because Mandarin originated in North China and most Mandarin dialects are found in the north, the group is sometimes referred to as the Northern dialects (北方话; běifānghuà). Many local Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, Mandarin is often placed first in lists of languages by number of native speakers (with nearly a billion).

Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, spoken by 70 percent of all Chinese speakers over a large geographical area, stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is generally attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas.

Most Mandarin varieties have four tones. The final stops of Middle Chinese have disappeared in most of these varieties, but some have merged them as a final glottal stop. Many Mandarin varieties, including the Beijing dialect, retain retroflex initial consonants, which have been lost in southern dialect groups.

The capital has been within the Mandarin area for most of the last millennium, making these dialects very influential. Some form of Mandarin has served as a national lingua franca since the 14th century. In the early 20th century, a standard form based on the Beijing dialect, with elements from other Mandarin dialects, was adopted as the national language. Standard Chinese is the official language of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is used as one of the working languages of the United Nations. It is also one of the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities internationally.


Pinghua (simplified Chinese: 平话; traditional Chinese: 平話; pinyin: Pínghuà; Yale: Pìhng Wá; sometimes disambiguated as Chinese: 廣西平話/广西平话) is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken mainly in parts of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with some speakers in Hunan province. Pinghua is a trade language in some areas of Guangxi, where it is spoken as a second language by speakers of Zhuang languages. Some speakers of Pinghua are officially classified as Zhuang, and many are genetically distinct from most other Han Chinese. The northern subgroup of Pinghua is centered on Guilin and the southern subgroup around Nanning. Southern Pinghua has several notable features such as having four distinct checked tones, and using various loanwords from the Zhuang languages, such as the final particle wei for imperative sentences.

Shrimp roe noodles

Shrimp roe noodles or Shrimp noodles are a variety of Chinese noodle popular in Hong Kong and Guangdong. One of the special characteristic that distinguish this noodle from the many other varieties of Chinese noodle is the salty shrimp roe forming tiny black spots on strips of the noodles.

Waxiang Chinese

Waxiang (simplified Chinese: 瓦乡话; traditional Chinese: 瓦鄉話; pinyin: wǎxiānghuà; ɕioŋ˥tsa˧) is a divergent variety of Chinese, spoken by the Waxiang people, an unrecognized ethnic minority group in the northwestern part of Hunan province, China. Waxiang is a distinct language, very different from its surrounding Southwestern Mandarin, Xiang and Qo Xiong languages.

Written vernacular Chinese

Written vernacular Chinese (Chinese: 白话文; pinyin: báihuàwén; literally: 'White Speech Writings'), also known as Baihua, is the forms of written Chinese based on the varieties of Chinese spoken throughout China, in contrast to Classical Chinese, the written standard used during imperial China up to the early twentieth century. A written vernacular based on Mandarin Chinese was used in novels in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and later refined by intellectuals associated with the May Fourth Movement. Since the early 1920s, this modern vernacular form has been the standard style of writing for speakers of all varieties of Chinese throughout mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore as the written form of Modern Standard Chinese. This is commonly called Standard Written Chinese or Modern Written Chinese to avoid ambiguity with spoken vernaculars, with the written vernaculars of earlier eras, and with other written vernaculars such as written Cantonese or written Hokkien.

Yeheni language

Yeheni 爷贺尼 (Pingdi Yao 平地瑶) is an unclassified Sinitic language spoken by the Yao people in Jianghua Yao Autonomous County 江华, Hunan (Jianghua County Almanac). It is spoken in Taoxu Town 涛圩镇 and Helukou Town 河路口镇 in Jianghua County, Hunan.

Standard Mandarin
Hanyu PinyinHànyǔ
Gwoyeu RomatzyhHannyeu
RomanizationHuu nyy
Yue: Cantonese
Yale RomanizationHon-yúh
Southern Min
Varieties ofChinese
Major subdivisions
Set phrase
Input method
Sino-Tibetan branches
Western Himalayas
(Himachal, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Sikkim)
Eastern Himalayas
(Tibet, Bhutan, Arunachal)
circum-Myanmar tribal belts
East and Southeast Asia
Dubious (possible isolates)
Proposed groupings

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