Almost one in five people in the world speak some form of Chinese. Whilst total speakers of all forms of Chinese total almost 1.2 billion people, Mandarin is the most recognised, with 960 million speakers. By contrast, English is spoken by around 400 million people. Depending on classification, there are between 7 and 13 main regional varieties of Chinese, derived from the 56 main ethnic groups recognised in China.
Standard Chinese, a standardised form of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, is the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of the four official languages of Singapore, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Amongst the other varieties of Chinese, Cantonese is the most widely used, as the official language of Hong Kong and Macau, which makes it the only other variety of Chinese used for official administrative purposes.
Interpreting: We recently provided interpreters for a two-day event in London with a visiting delegation of Chinese businessmen. We arranged for three pairs of native-speaking interpreters to work in shifts to cover the conference, and also provided the necessary equipment to facilitate effective participation between all attendees. We also regularly provide Chinese interpreters to the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions and more.
History of the Chinese Language
Chinese is usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but academics note that they are as diverse as a distinct language family. The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but in truth they may be even more varied. Most varieties of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, although some, such as Xiang and certain Southwestern Mandarin dialects, may share some common terms and a degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.
Most academics classify all varieties of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many other languages spoken across the Himalayas and the Southeast Asian Massif.
Earliest examples of Chinese date back to inscriptions found on bronze artefacts from around 1250 BC – or the late Shang dynasty. Old Chinese was commonly used in written form until around the sixth century AD, from which point Middle Chinese became dominant, owing to publication of literature that became popular across the country. The first dictionary codifying the language was published in 1324 AD, and it describes many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin dialects.
Up until the early 20th century, most Chinese spoke only their local variety of the language. As a practical measure, officials conducted the administration of the Ming and Qing dynasties using a common language based on Mandarin, known as 官话/官話 – or the language of officials. For most of this period, the language was a koiné based on dialects spoken around Nanjing, the former capital, although not identical to any single dialect. By the middle of the 19th century, however, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for the conduct of business with the imperial court.
The 1930s saw the adoption of a standard national language, or 国语/國語. After much dispute, principally between proponents of northern and southern dialects, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The People’s Republic, founded 17 years later in 1949, retained this standard, calling it common speech – or 普通话/普通話.
In mainland China and Taiwan, diglossia has been a common feature: it is common for a person to be able to speak two or even three varieties of Chinese together with Standard Chinese. For example, in addition to Standard Chinese, a resident of Shanghai might speak Shanghainese; and, if he or she grew up elsewhere, then he or she is also likely to be fluent in the particular dialect of that local area. A native of Guangzhou may speak both Cantonese and Standard Chinese. In addition to Mandarin, most Taiwanese also speak Minnan, Hakka, or an Austronesian language. A Taiwanese may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Mandarin and other Taiwanese languages, and this mixture is considered normal in daily or informal speech.
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Dawn has a degree in French & German with an MA in Translation Studies. She and her team take care of over 1,700 complex projects each year for clients ranging from City banks, law firms, film studios, sports teams, universities and more.
What Goes Into High-Quality Chinese Translation?
Our Favourite Chinese Idioms
2. In Chinese, you’re not better late than never. You “mend the flock after the sheep have been lost.” (亡羊补牢, wángyángbǔláo)
3. A Chinese person won’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But he might “drain the pond to catch all the fish.” (竭泽而渔, jiézé’éryú)
4. The Chinese don’t gild the lily. They “paint a snake with feet” (画蛇添足, huàshétiānzú)
5. In Chinese, she’s not just drop-dead gorgeous. She could be “dazzling enough to make the fish drown and the geese fall from the sky.” (沉鱼落雁, chényúluòyànyan)
6. The Chinese don’t dream of Eden. They imagine “the stream in the peach orchard that leads to paradise.” (世外桃源, shìwàitáoyuán)