If we pause for a minute to ruminate on languages, we will realise what a highly fascinating invention they are. From their large variety and complexity to how widely spoken each and every one of them is, languages are just as unique as our DNA.
There are many factors that control how far a language can spread and how many people can effectively communicate with it. Ironically, though, this has little to do with the language difficulty level. Instead, it is run by a set of other factors, a strong economy, for instance.
No language can better demonstrate this other than Chinese. It has the maximum number of native speakers. It is also the second most spoken language in the world, after English.
That said, Chinese is reportedly the most challenging language to learn. More elaborately, everything about it is complicated, from its structure and writing to its painfully hard-to-remember characters, pronunciation, and dialects.
So how could these contradicting facts come together? What makes this language so hard? And how, despite that, has it become so incredibly popular?
Well, that is what we are discussing in today’s lesson.
So let’s hop into it.
Mandarin is the standardised language used all over China. It is also largely spoken in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia and it is the same language anyone who wishes to have any contact with any of these countries must learn.
Unlike most other languages, Mandarin does not have an alphabet. Instead of letters, there are characters or symbols. Each character represents one syllable, a word, and is represented by a sound. When characters are combined, they make a sentence which can have a different meaning than that of each of the characters.
One thing that makes Mandarin so challenging to learn is the huge number of characters. In total, there are about 13,000 characters used in Mandarin. Some dictionaries even list up to 20,000 characters. To be able to read the newspaper, for instance, one must learn at least 3,000 characters.
Secondly, how characters are ‘drawn’ is also super demanding. In fact, each character is complicated because it has many strokes drawn in many directions.
For example, there is the horizontal stroke (一), the vertical stroke (丨), the right-falling stroke (乀), the left-falling stroke (丿), and the rising stroke (╭ ). Learners must study how these strokes can be combined to form a character. A word pronounced (Ni Hao), and meaning (hi) is written like this 你好.
But wait a second. Did we just not say Mandarin is the standardised language? Is there another ‘non-standardised’ language?
Well, this requires us to learn a little about the development of the Chinese language. So let’s take a few thousand steps back in time to see how this happened.
As we mentioned earlier, Mandarin Chinese is the standardised language used in China. It is the language officially used by the state in education and business, and the one every Chinese person must learn and communicate with.
Mandarin was developed—we will see how later—and standardised during the 20th century. Before that, people in China used to speak in many different varieties. Estimated to be over 300, these varieties are more divergent in pronunciation than vocabulary or grammar.
Some people consider these varieties just dialects as long as they can understand a wide range of them, just like the dialect used in London (called Cockney) and that of Manchester, known as Mancunian. They have differences in pronunciation, but both of them are still English.
But when some varieties are so different that they hinder the meaning and understanding, they are mostly considered separate languages.
Those hundreds of varieties, or dialects, are categorised into seven groups based on how widely spoken they are. The most common variety is Mandarin, with 93 dialects. Mandarin is spoken by 800 million native speakers.
The second in line is the Min group, comprising at least nine dialects spoken by 74 million people. Then there are the Wu, Yue, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka groups. Many of these varieties are unintelligible to those who speak different dialects.
Development of local dialects
OK. But where did all these dialects come from?
Well, they emerged from a common ancestor, the Middle Chinese language. This language itself is the development of the Old Chinese language. At the same time, these dialects, as we will see later, have inspired Mandarin.
Each of these three languages, Old, Middle, and Modern Chinese, lasted for a certain period of time, typically a few centuries. Their gradual development was mainly influenced by the political changes China witnessed throughout its history. Accordingly, writing evolved as well.
It is not known when Old Chinese came into existence or how it developed. Yet, scholars believe it lasted from 2000 BCE to 221 BCE. Everything we know now about it came from ancient records.
The oldest written records ever found go back to 1250 BCE. They were bones with Old Chinese characters carved on them. In fact, scholars believe that these characters date back to much earlier than that, around 1766 BCE.
The bones, on the other hand, are known as oracle bones. The ancient people used them for divination. This was an old practice that tried to tell the future or uncover the unknown about specific events.
The writings on these oracle bones were not understood very well. But, there were not many anyways, and the topics they spoke about were unclear.
After that, many bronze inscriptions that date back to 1000 BCE were also found. These were more lengthy. The language seemed richer in vocabulary and was written in a more developed syntax. This made it easy to follow the meaning. Therefore, these bronze inscriptions have become a rich source to learn about tis ancient language.
Records from the following centuries show a much more developed language. Literature also flourished during that time. The Classic of Poetry is by far the oldest collection of Chinese poetry. The works included in that book, a total of 305, are believed to have been written between 1100 BCE and 600 BCE.
Later on, the Book of Documents was written. It dates back to 300 BCE and contains written speeches believed to have been given by some political figures in ancient China.
This Old Chinese language gradually changed, especially in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Additionally, contact with other languages used in the neighbouring countries, such as the Tibetan language, influenced other changes. Over time, those changes resulted in the development of the Middle Chinese language.
From Middle Chinese, dialects started to emerge. The main reason for that is the fact that China had not been a united country. Instead, it was just many neighbouring regions that were not unified until the third century BCE.
These regions were incredibly isolated from one another thanks to their geographical nature. The more physical barriers there are, the harder it is for a dialect to spread. So every region pretty much preserved its own dialect without influencing or getting influenced by other dialects.
That is also why there are more southern dialects than northern because there are more mountains in the south of China than in the north.
As a result, many of these dialects became not mutually intelligible as they developed very differently and separately from one another.
But for a unified country with a centralised government and a standard education system, which dialect should be used? How could the people, united now in one nation, communicate with one another? How could the government issue laws and regulations, so every citizen understands and complies with them?
From here, the need for a standardised language arose. The first attempts to strandarise a language started in the early 20th century, right after establishing the Republic of China in 1912. But due to many political ups and downs within China and World War I and II, little progress was made.
Then the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and Beijing was announced as the country’s new capital. So the efforts to develop a unified language were resumed. Eventually, Mandarin came to light.
Well, Mandarin was not created out of nothing. You can instead think of it as a collage of dialects. This collage mainly comprises pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and writing, as in characters. Now let’s see how each of these elements was developed.
The new government chose the Beijing dialect to standardise since the city had become the new capital already. Besides, the Beijing dialect was considered a prestigious one and was often used by scholars too.
Secondly, the vocabulary of Mandarin came from the most mutually intelligible dialects, those that most citizens can fairly understand. That also means all the slang, colloquial, or any words specific to certain regions were excluded from Mandarin.
Then, there was the grammar and writing system. To understand those, we need to learn a little about the old Chinese writing system.
Classical Chinese is a writing system developed in the 5th century BCE. It comprised between 50,000 and 100,000 traditional, painfully hard-to-draw-or-recall characters. These characters were based on the vocabulary of Old Chinese. They used old grammatical rules to create sentences and imply meanings.
As mentioned earlier, this classical writing system generally depends on characters, symbols, and logograms rather than an alphabet. Each character represents one syllable, has a meaning, and is drawn in a certain way.
When characters are combined, they make a sentence whose meaning can differ from every character’s original meaning.
All the old literature we mentioned earlier, as well as any kind of formal writing from that time up until the 20th century, were written in Classical Chinese.
Strangely enough, this writing system was not combined with a pronunciation system. In other words, the characters did not represent any sounds. So speakers of different dialects used the same characters but pronounced them differently. Sometimes, they even interpreted them differently.
This Classical Chinese was also used as the writing system in Japan, Vietnam, and Korea. Each of these countries had its own unique sounds, and the same characters were only used to represent them. So one sentence written in it is pronounced differently and has a different meaning not only in every part of China but also in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Such a writing system was not practical for a unified country. So the need for another standard writing system emerged.
Developing a new writing system
The Written vernacular Chinese replaced the Classical Chinese writing system in the early 20th century and the current writing system of Mandarin. Grammatical rules used all over China were rearranged into a new structure. These rules made the written word sound and mean the same as the spoken word.
It was not only the grammar and pronunciation that underwent development to use in Mandarin, but tens of thousands of classical characters were also simplified.
This simplification process happened in many ways. First off, they reduced the total number of characters used in Mandarin. For instance, characters with the same pronunciation and meaning were all replaced by just one. As a result, most common modern dictionaries include less than 20,000 characters instead of 50,000.
A literate person must know 3,500 characters to moderately understand common Mandarin writings. That said, college students are required to know around 8,000 characters.
How characters were drawn was also simplified by reducing the number of strokes in each character.
This simplification process did not happen overnight but was more on a gradual scale. The new simplified characters were then collected in the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters.
Consequently, this Written vernacular Chinese has become the standardised writing system. This is how Mandarin is written. Now any sentence written using this system is interpreted the same by anyone having a good command of Mandarin.
Shifting to Mandarin
Having said all of that, making all of China speak Mandarin is such a long-term goal. In fact, Mandarin was standardised in the 1950s, yet, not all Chinese people can effectively use it in communication.
As of 2020, for instance, a little over 80% of the population is able to use Mandarin. China hopes that the entire billion-something population will be able to use it functionally by 2035.
This is known as language shift, slow but persistent progress with Mandarin being fed everywhere, every day. Whether they want it or not, everyone in China will eventually speak Mandarin.
To help spread Mandarin, China has implemented it everywhere. It is the language of the media, best represented by radio, TV, and newspapers. Ads on buses and signs on the streets and at train stations are in Mandarin. It is used and taught to students at schools from a young age as well.
Mandarin is also used at universities and at work. In some sectors, getting a high score on the Putonghua Proficiency Test—this is the Chinese test equivalent to IELTS—is mandatory to get a job.
Now, one might ask, what about the 300 local dialects? Were they prohibited? Well, not in a direct, deliberate way. But it does not take a genius to understand that standardising one single language will lead to the extinction of most, if not all, the others in the long term.
That is why the government has widely referred to Mandarin as the common tongue rather than the standard language. They are trying to convince minorities that Mandarin is not forced upon them by the majority. Instead, it is a way to unify the entire population, no matter how different they are, under one language.
Yet, there has been unrest regarding this very concern over the past few decades. Some ethnic minorities in China are strongly resisting the gradual, inevitable disappearance of their local dialects. The death of a dialect is not just one language disappearing but the entire identity and culture of those who speak it.
How can this happen, you are asking?
Well, a new standard language surely does not contain much of the regional vocabulary. So when such vocabulary gets gradually out of use and eventually disappears, the things they represent will disappear as well. This means entire cultures and identities will die out.
Here, we get to the end of today’s journey, where we had a little glimpse of the amazing Chinese language.
In this article, we demonstrated some hopefully interesting facts about Chinese. We learned about the different stages the language has gone through, and how developed it got in each one of them.
Then we looked into the many diverse dialects, how they evolved, and in what way they, along with the establishment of modern China, have led to the development of the standard language, or Mandarin.
We also learned a little about how China has been encouraging people to learn and communicate in the new standardised language.
We hope you found this article interesting as much as we loved writing it for you. You can learn more about many other languages and cultures by exploring the different pages of our website.