Chinese language branch, Victoria Harbour

Chinese Language Branch

Chinese languages/dialects constitute an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. About one-fourth of the world’s population speaks some variety of Chinese as their native language. By the sheer number of its speakers, the antiquity of its unbroken documented written history, its cultural significance, and its influence on other languages, Chinese is one of the most important languages in the world.

Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Chinese (all dialects) is spoken in the United States.




Standard Mandarin is the official standard of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and one of the official languages of Singapore. The governments of these countries intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it as a lingua franca. It is used in government, in the media, and in education.

  • People’s Republic of China
    The situation in the People’s Republic of China is characterized by diglossia. For instance, it is common for people to speak Standard Mandarin, plus local dialect(s), plus sometimes a regional lingua franca, such as Cantonese. People frequently switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect(s), depending on the situation.
  • In the Republic of China (Taiwan), speakers commonly switch back and forth between Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered socially appropriate under many circumstances.
  • In Hong Kong, it is acceptable to switch between Cantonese and English, and in some cases, also Standard Mandarin.
  • In Singapore, people switch between Standard Mandarin, Mĭn, and English.



The identification of the varieties of Chinese as languages or dialects is a controversial issue. Some call Chinese a language and its subdivisions dialects, while others call Chinese a language branch and its subdivisions languages. The Chinese themselves refer to all forms of spoken Chinese as dialects. This perception is reinforced by a common cultural and political identity and by a common writing system with deep historical roots.

Chinese is distinguished by a great deal of internal diversity. To date, some 1500 varieties of spoken Chinese have been identified. Many variants of spoken Chinese are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible. In fact, the intelligibility between any two of the Chinese dialects is less than that between any two Romance languages. Furthermore, the dialects themselves are far from uniform. There is a great deal of variation within the dialects themselves which also affects intelligibility.

Chinese is usually classified into these major dialect groups:

  • Mandarin
    Mandarin is the major dialect of China both in terms of number of speakers (about 70% of the total population) and political importance.The term Mandarin is an English translation of guān-huà ‘official language’, i.e., the dialect spoken in Běijīng. The Běijīng dialect has been the standard for the official language of China for many centuries. Because of geographical and political considerations, the language came to be known by different names: in the People’s Republic of China it is called pŭtōnghuà ‘common speech’, in Taiwan it is called guóyŭ ‘national language’, and in Singapore and Malaysia it is called huáyŭ ‘Chinese language.’ Although pŭtōnghuà, guóyŭ and huáyŭ are all technically based on the Běijīng dialect, they differ from the dialect spoken in Běijīng. They also differ from each other mostly in pronunciation and vocabulary.

  • The Wú dialects, also known as Shanghainese, are spoken by some 77 million people along the lower Yángzĭ River and the provinces of Jiāngsū, Zhèjiāng and Ānghuī, including China’s largest city of Shànghăi.
  • Yuè
    The Yuè dialects, also known as Cantonese, are spoken by 71 million people in the province of Guăndōng and the city of Guăngzhōu (Canton), as well as in Hong Kong, and in expatriate Chinese communities and Chinatowns in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. Most Chinese loanwords that made their way into English came from Cantonese, rather than from Mandarin.
  • Mĭn
    The Mĭn dialects, also known as Taiwanese, Fukkianese, Hokkienese, and Amoy, are spoken by close to 60 million people in Táiwān, the Fújiàn province, and Hăinán Island in the Gulf of Tonkin. Most Chinese in Táiwān and Singapore speak Mĭn as their first language because they are descendants of Mĭn speakers from Fújiàn province.Hakka (kè-jiá)
    The Hakka dialects are spoken by over 30 million people throughout southeastern China. The Hakka people were settlers who came from northern China. The name Hakka means ‘guest’.
  • Jìnyǔ
    The Jinyŭ dialects are spoken by 45 million people in a large area of northern China, west of Beijing, including the provinces of Shănxī, Shānxī, Héběi, Hénán, and Inner Mongolia.
  • Xiáng
    The Xiáng dialects, also known as Hunanese, are spoken by 36 million people in Húnán, Sichūan, Guăngxī, and Guăndōng provinces.
  • GànThe Gàn dialect is spoken by 21 million people in Jiangxi, and some parts of Ānghuī, Húnán, Jiāngsī, and Fújiàn provinces.

Click here to further explore Chinese dialects with interactive maps.



Sound system

All Chinese dialects share two basic properties:

  • Tones

Every syllable in Chinese has a pitch that is an integral part of the pronunciation of that syllable. Pitch distinguishes one syllable from another. The Romanization system adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China, called Pīnyīn, represents tones by diacritical marks over vowels. Dialects differ from each other both in the number and the quality of tones. For instance, Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has six. As an example, the syllable ma in Mandarin can be written in the following four ways that indicate tones:

1st tone high level ‘mother’
2nd tone rising ‘hemp’
3rd tone falling-rising ‘horse’
4th tone falling scold’
  • Simple syllable structure

This means that no dialect allows consonant clusters, and all dialects allow only a few consonants (mostly nasals) at the end of syllables.



All Chinese dialects are predominantly isolating, or analytic, meaning that for the most part, words have only one grammatical form. Grammatical functions are expressed through word order, particles, prepositions, and discourse, rather than by suffixes attached to nouns or verbs, such as in Indo-European languages. Because of the lack of inflections, Chinese grammar may appear quite simple compared to that of Indo-European languages.



Mandarin nouns are not marked for number, gender or case. Below are some of the most frequent noun markers.

  • Classifiers
    Classifiers are noun markers that are attached to quantifiers and demonstratives. There is one general classifier –ge which occurs with most nouns, e.g., sān-ge chēzi ‘three [classifier] cars’. In general, a noun in Chinese can occur with only one classifier. There are dozens of classifiers, and one has to learn which classifier goes with which noun. As an example, the classifier for books is bĕn, e.g., yī-bĕn shū ‘one [classifier] book’.
  • Locative markers
    Locative markers occur with prepositions and nouns to specify location, e.g., wŏ zài chuáng-shàn ‘I in bed on’.
  • Possessive (genitive) marker)
    The possessive marker –de is used with personal pronouns, turning them into possessive pronouns, e.g., wŏ-de ‘I + possessive = my.’



Mandarin verbs are not marked for person and number. The most important verb category is aspect. The perfective aspect is marked by the suffix -le, e.g., wŏ chī-le sān-wăn fàn ‘I eat [perfective marker] three [classifier] rice’.


Sentence markers

There is a set of particles that occur at the end of sentences. For instance, the particle ma placed at the end of a sentence changes statements into questions, e.g., tā chī-le ‘He/she ate’ and tā chī-le ma? ‘Has he eaten?’


Word order

Chinese is a topic-prominent language. This means that the topic of the sentence, defined as old or known information, precedes comment, i.e., new or added information. This is illustrated by an example from Mandarin below.

Topic (old or known information)
Comment (new or added information)
zhèi-bĕn shū
kàn-guo le
‘This book’
‘I have read’



Chinese dialects share a major portion of their vocabulary, although there are some regional differences. Foreign words and concepts are adopted by creating new compound words that translate the concept behind them. For example, the Mandarin word for computer is diànnao, ‘electric brain’, the word for telephoneis diànhuà, literally ‘electric speech’. Transliteration of borrowed words does not work very well in Chinese because Chinese characters are not well-suited to represent foreign sounds, and because the pronunciation of characters differs from dialect to dialect.

Most Chinese words are made up of one or two morphemes. Grammatical categories such as number, person, case, tense, and aspect are not expressed by inflections. The most common word building devices are described below with examples from Mandarin.

  • Compounding
    Examples of nominal compounds are fàn-wăn ‘rice bowl,’ and hŭo-chē ‘fire + vehicle = train.’.
  • Reduplication
    Another frequently used word building device is reduplication, e.g., rén ‘person’ and rénrén ‘people.’
  • Prefixation
    Prefixation is not very common, but a prefix can be added to a verb to form an adjective, e.g., the prefix – can be added to the verb xiào ‘laugh’ to form an adjective kă-xiào ‘laughable’.
  • Suffixation
    There are few derivational suffixes. One example is jiā ‘-ist’, e.g., lishĭ-jiā ‘historian.’
  • Borrowing
    Chinese tends not to borrow words from other languages. Instead, it uses native elements to create words for expressing new concepts, e.g., dyàn-huà‘electricity + speech = telephone’.

Below are some common words and phrases in Mandarin.

Traditional characters
Ni hăo
Hello in Chinese characters
Thank you
Chinese character for man

Below are the numerals 0-10 in Mandarin.

Character for one
Character for two
Character for three
Character for four
Character for five
Character for six
Character for seven
Charater for eight
Character for nine
Character for ten





Written Chinese has an unbroken history dating back to 1,500 BC. There are several main periods in the history of Chinese writing.

  • Preclassical (1,500 to 500BC)
    The earliest records of this period are short oracle inscriptions on bone and tortoise shell and an anthology of 305 poems from which scholars have been able to get a great deal of information about the language of that period.
  • Classical (500BC to 200AD)
    This period begins with the earliest writings of Confucius and ends with the Han dynasty (206BC – 220AD). There are many prose works dating back to this period.
  • Postclassical (200 AD to mid-20th century)
    The language of this period was modeled on the language of the Classical period. However, even though the written and the spoken language(s) began to diverge to the point that the written form was no longer comprehensible to most people, it continued to be used by administrators, scholars, and the educated elite. This period produced some of the greatest literature of the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD) and a large number of neo-Confucian works. This style endured into the first half of the 20th century when efforts began to reform the written language to bring it closer to the spoken form.
  • Modern (mid-20th century to the present)
    In 1956, Modern Standard Chinese was introduced as part of a broad-sweeping reform to promote literacy. It was based on the pronunciation of the Běijīng dialect of Mandarin, the grammar of Northern Mandarin, and the vocabulary used in colloquial speech. Part of the reform movement included the simplification of the traditional characters and the development and dissemination of a phonetic alphabet, known as Pīnyīn.



Chinese writing is the oldest writing system in the world that has hardly changed in the last 4,000 years. It is thought to have originated as pictures around 2,000 BC. The earliest known logographs were inscribed on oracle bones. Some of them resembled the objects they attempted to represent. But even so, it was a real writing system and not just a series of pictures.

The precise number of characters in existence is disputed. Historically, estimates range from 40,000 to 80,000, but fluency in reading requires knowledge of approximately 3,000-5,000 characters. Modern dictionaries contain only up to about ,8500 characters, and 7,000 characters are a typical set for newspaper fonts.

The Chinese writing system is well-suited for the language because the same words are pronounced quite differently in different parts of China. For instance, the word for man is pronounced as ren, yen, nyin, or len in different regions of China, but it is written everywhere as Chinese character for man. This symbol can be understood by speakers of all Chinese dialects regardless of how they may pronounce it. In this way, the Chinese writing system is a unifying factor for all speakers of this largest language community in the world.

Click here to find out more about the origin of Chinese characters.



  • Radicals

Each character has a fundamental component, or radical. There are 214 different radicals. Characters are categorized according to their radical. They are then further subcategorized according to their total number of strokes. Each character is made up of a number of strokes, or single movements of the writing instrument, originally a brush, which must be written in a prescribed order. Stroke order refers to the numerical order in which strokes are written. The number of strokes per character ranges between one and thirty. Characters with more than thirty strokes are extremely rare. This principle of categorization is used by everybody who must learn to read and write Chinese characters because it is easier to memorize the enormous number of characters if they can be broken down into a smaller number of constituents.

Mother Character In this character for ‘mother’ the red element on the left is the radical that means ‘woman.’.


Click here to find out more about stroke order rules and different types of strokes
Click here to see animated presentations of how characters are formed.


  • Different types of characters

There are five different processes that explain how the characters were created.

  • Pictographs

Roughly 600 Chinese characters are pictographs. They are stylized depictions of objects in the real world and are among the oldest characters in Chinese. They were originally inscribed on stone tablets, bones, and tortoise shells. The evolution of two pictograms is illustrated below (from Wikipedia).
Click on Omniglot and Ancient Scripts for more detailed information.

Oracle bone
Seal type
Modern traditional
Modern simplified
Traditional Chinese character for bird
Simplified Chinese character for bird
Chinese seal type character for mountain
Traditional Chinese character for mountain
Traditional Chinese character for mountain
  • Seal type script was used in calligraphy and seals up to the 2nd century BC.
  • Simplified Chinese characters have been used since ancient times as shortened versions of traditional forms. They were officially recognized in 1958, and a few have been invented since. Some characters are simple enough not to have a simplified form, e.g., the character for ‘mountain’ above.


  • Ideographs

Ideographs are characters derived from symbols representing abstract concepts. For example, the symbols for ‘above’ and ‘below’ have become characters ‘above’ and ‘below’.


  • Compound Ideograms

Ideograms are designed to represent relatively abstract ideas, usually by combining several pictograms into a compound whose meaning can be quite arbitrary, as in the example below.

Chinese character for sun


  • Phonetic compounds

Over 90% of Chinese characters were created by combining a character with a related meaning with another character that indicates its pronunciation. This practice appeared relatively late in the development of Chinese writing as the number of homophones (words pronounced identically) uncreased. Phonetic compounding is the standard method for creating new characters today. For example, the character meaning ‘washing one’s hair’ is composed of the character for ‘tree’, because it sounds the same, and the radical for ‘water’ because it is semantically related to washing. The phrase ‘to wash one’s hair’ (mù) is pronounced the same as the character mù ‘tree’.

Chinese radical for waterxŭi ‘water
Chinese character for tree ‘tree’
Chinese radical for waterChinese character for tree ‘wash one’s hair’


  • Loan characters

Loan characters are the result of borrowing a character for a word whose pronunciation is that of another word represented by that character. For example, the character which means ‘easy’ today, formerly stood for ‘scorpion’ because ‘easy’ and ‘scorpion’ had the same pronunciation.


  • Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and some overseas Chinese communities. In contrast, simplified characters are used in Mainland China, Malaysia, Singapore and in some overseas Chinese communities, especially those from the above countries who emigrated after the widespread adoption of simplified Chinese characters.


  • Simplified Chinese characters

The movement to simplify Chinese characters started in the 1890s but did not become an official policy until the 1950s as part of a state-wide campaign to facilitate literacy. Simplification involves a reduction in the number of strokes of commonly used characters. About 2,000 characters have been simplified. Here is an example.

Traditional Chinese character for door
Chinese charactr for door simplified

Hanyŭ Pīnyīn was officially adopted in Mainland China in 1958 to romanize Mandarin. It has been used primarily for teaching Standard Mandarin as a second language/dialect. It is also used in Singapore and Taiwan, and has been adopted by much of the international community as a standard for writing Chinese words and names in the Roman alphabet. The value of Hanyŭ Pīnyīn lies in the fact that China has thousands of distinct dialects, though there is just one common written language and one common standardized spoken form.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in traditional characters, simplified characters, and in Hanyŭ Pīnyīn. Traditionally, Chinese was written vertically in columns arranged from right to left, but it is common nowadays to write it in horizontal lines from left to right, as is the case below.

Article 1


Chinese words in English

English has borrowed many words from Chinese, many of them from Cantonese spoken in the province of Guǎndōng and the city of Guăngzhōu (Canton), as well as in Hong Kong, and in expatriate Chinese communities and Chinatowns in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. For this reason, many Chinese loanwords made their way into English through Cantonese.

Chop suey American English, from Cantonese tsap sui ‘odds and ends’
Chow mein American English, from Mandarin chăo miàn ‘fried noodles’
Dim sum American English, from Cantonese dim sam, Mandarin diănxin ‘appetizer’
Kumquat From Cantonese kamkwat, from kam ‘golden’ + kwat ‘orange’
Oolong Dark variety of Chinese tea, from Mandarin wūlóng ‘back dragon’
Shih-tzu Small long-haired dog, from Mandarin zhīzigŏu , from zhī ‘lion’ + zi ‘son’ + gŏu ‘dog’
Tao Religious system founded by Lao Tzu, from Mandarin tào ‘way, path, reason’
Tea From Amoy dialect of Chinese t’e. The Mandarin word is chá. The distribution of the different forms of the word reflect the spread of the beverage in Europe. The modern English for tea, along with French the, Spanish te, German Tee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy dialect. The Portuguese form cha, Russian chay, Arabic shay, all came from the Mandarin form chá.
Tong ‘Chinese secret society’, from Cantonese t’ong ‘assembly hall’
Tycoon From Cantonese tai ‘great’ + kiun ‘lord’.



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Chinese Languages?
Mandarin and Cantonese are Category III languages in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.