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  • Err...what should we do today?

  • Today let's talk about Chinese.

  • No, let's talk about written Chinese.

  • No, let's talk about classical Chinese.

  • Or, maybe standard Chinese.

  • No, no, we're gonna talk about various Chinese dialects.

  • Okay, let's just talk about all of them.

  • [Traditional Chinese Music]

  • Hello everyone, welcome to the Langfocus and my name is Paul.

  • Today we're going to talk about Chinese.

  • But, the big question is:

  • What do I mean when I say 'Chinese'?

  • The word 'Chinese' refers to standard Chinese which is based on Mandarin,

  • but it also refers to a large group of languages and dialects spoken throughout China and indeed, throughout the world.

  • Chinese languages, also called Sinitic languages, are a sub-family of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

  • Chinese is not a single language, but rather a number of related dialect groups,

  • which are united by a common written language, a common writing system.

  • Some people consider them all Chinese dialects, but I'm going to refer to these dialect groups as distinct languages,

  • because in many cases they are unintelligible.

  • All Chinese languages are tonal languages

  • The meaning of a word depends on the tone or the tones that you say it with.

  • 狮, 十, 是.

  • If you change the tone, the meaning of the word changes.

  • There are more than 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese, if we include all its varieties.

  • Standard Chinese, generally referred to as Mandarin, is the official language of The People's Republic of China,

  • The Republic of China, also known as Taiwan or Chinese Taipei.

  • And it's one of the four official languages of Singapore.

  • Chinese languages are also spoken in lots of diaspora communities throughout Asia,

  • like in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, and in different communities around the world.

  • History

  • The Sinitic languages, or, the Chinese languages developed from Proto-Sino-Tibetan,

  • which existed perhaps around 4000 BCE.

  • The earliest written examples of Chinese are from around 1250 BCE.

  • They were written using a form of Chinese called the Oracle Bone Script,

  • which was carved onto turtle shells and animal bones,

  • which were used for divination.

  • Like a kind of fortune telling.

  • A more recognisable form of Old Chinese

  • developed during the Zhou dynasty between 1046 to 256 BCE

  • It can be found on bronze sculptures from that time period, as well as in some literature, like 'Classic of Poetry'.

  • It's generally thought that during this early time period Chinese had not yet developed tones.

  • Those developed later in the transition to Middle Chinese.

  • The form of written Chinese that developed between this period and the end of the Han dynasty, in the 3rd century CE,

  • is known as classical Chinese, or literary Chinese.

  • Classical Chinese continued to be used as the formal written language until the beginning of the 20th century

  • Spoken Chinese continued to evolve into Middle Chinese 中古汉语.

  • Middle Chinese is the ancestor of almost all Modern Chinese varieties.

  • The exception is Min Chinese, which developed earlier, maybe during the Han period.

  • Middle Chinese was not a single unified language but consistent of a number of mutually intelligible dialects

  • that began diverging in different directions around the 10th century CE.

  • And you probably hear me say that every time I talk about a language family.

  • Those local varieties of Chinese continued to develop in their own directions as distinct languages over the centuries.

  • With a lot of local dialectal variation within each language.

  • As I mentioned before, classical Chinese was being used as the formal written language,

  • but during this time period, written vernacular Chinese also developed alongside it.

  • Written vernacular Chinese refers to ways of writing Chinese that reflect the spoken language in its different varieties.

  • These forms of Chinese were used for some informal writing.

  • People were already writing in written vernacular Chinese during the Tang and Sung dynasties,

  • from the 7th-13th centuries CE.

  • Old Mandarin

  • 古官話

  • After the Northern Sung dynasty, and during the Jin and Yuan dynasties,

  • a language recognisable as a form of Mandarin was spoken.

  • This variety of Chinese is known as Old Mandarin.

  • The Yuan dynasty was a period of Mongol control of China.

  • The wars leading up to the Mongol conquest caused large scale migration of Old Mandarin speakers to the South.

  • This spread early Mandarin dialects to more areas, and also had an influence on other emerging Chinese languages.

  • During the Ming and Quing dynasties,

  • an official administrative language was created on the Mandarin dialect of the capital, Nanjing,

  • with some features of other dialects as well.

  • This was the first point at which the language became referred to as 'Mandarin',

  • 官話

  • which means 'speech of officials'.

  • We now refer to the stage of the language as Middle Mandarin.

  • In the late 19th century, towards the end of the Ch'ing dynasty,

  • the specific dialect of Beijing started to grow in importance and became the new high variety of Chinese,

  • replacing the older high variety which was based on a number of different dialects.

  • At the beginning of the 20th century,

  • a form of written vernacular Chinese based on a number of Mandarin dialects

  • was introduced as the new official written language instead of classical Chinese.

  • But it was later decided that the new official language should be based specifically on the Beijing dialect.

  • This new standard language was called 普通話,

  • which means common language, or,

  • 國語, which means national language.

  • People often refer to this standard language as Mandarin because it's based on the Mandarin dialect of Beijing,

  • but, to be precise, the word 'Mandarin' refers to a range of Northern dialects.

  • Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, now fulfils the role that classical Chinese used to fulfil,

  • as the official written language that's used by speakers of all varieties of Chinese, for most purposes.

  • But, written vernacular languages still do exist and are used for some informal situations.

  • So, how many varieties of Chinese are there?

  • Well, that depends on how you're counting and categorising them,

  • but it's often said that there are over 200 distinct varieties of Chinese,

  • which comprise around 13 distinct dialect groups.

  • The local dialects within each of these groups are often intelligible,

  • so it's reasonable to consider these groups as languages.

  • At least I think so!

  • Out of these 13 groups of dialects, there are seven that are generally considered as major.

  • These are:

  • Mandarin, 官話; Yue, 廣東話; Xiang, 湘語; Min, 閩語; Gan, 贛語; Wu, 吳語 and Hakka, 客家話.

  • The writing system

  • Chinese is written in Chinese characters, or, 漢字.

  • nzì are logograms, single characters that represent entire words, or entire units of meaning.

  • For example, this character means 'China', and this character means 'character',

  • as in, a written character,

  • and together they mean 'Chinese character', or, hànzì, the kind we're talking about.

  • These characters need to be learned one by one,

  • because just knowing the pronunciation of a word doesn't give you any indication of how to write it.

  • Speakers of all varieties of Chinese typically write in standard Chinese, or Mandarin,

  • even though their spoken language is different.

  • When they're reading standard Chinese out loud,

  • they'll probably pronounce each character the way it's pronounced in their local variety of Chinese.

  • This has led to the common misconception that

  • all Chinese languages are exactly the same except

  • for their pronunciation.

  • The fact is Chinese languages often

  • differ in grammar and vocabulary as well pronunciation.

  • The various forms of written vernacular Chinese that developed alongside classical Chinese

  • still exist today, alongside standard Chinese.

  • They're only used in some limited situations,

  • but, Cantonese in particular is fairly widely used, from what I understand.

  • Most of the characters used are the same,

  • but they'll be pronounced differently, and some different characters might be used to represent the different vocabulary,

  • and the order of the characters might be different to represent the different syntax.

  • Pronunciation

  • As previously mentioned, Chinese languages are tonal,

  • that means that tones are one part of the pronunciation that can change the meaning of a word.

  • The same written word can be pronounced very differently in different Chinese languages.

  • This is the word for 'telephone'.

  • First, in Mandarin:

  • Diànhuà

  • Next, in Cantonese:

  • hnwāa

  • In Shanghainese:

  • Diwū

  • And in Hakka:

  • Tiēnfa

  • Let me explain a little further.

  • Mandarin has four main tones, plus one neutral tone.

  • The tones are:

  • Number 1, a high flat tone; 2, a rising tone; 3, a falling-rising tone;

  • 4, a falling tone; and 5, the neutral tone.

  • Meaning that syllable is not distinguished by tone at all.

  • Mā, má, mă, mà, ma.

  • Now, Cantonese has six tones.

  • The six Cantonese tones are:

  • Number 1, a high flat tone; 2, a mid-rising tone; 3, a mid-flat tone;

  • 4, a low-falling tone; 5, a low-rising tone; and 6, a low flat tone.

  • Sī, sí, si, sìh, síh, sih.

  • Shanghainese has a different type of tone system entirely.

  • It's more of a pitch accent system like Japanese.

  • The are really only two tones: high and low,

  • and the tone of the first syllable determines the tone pattern of the following syllables.

  • Diwu

  • Here, the first syllable has a low tone, which depends on the character.

  • That makes the second syllable high and it doesn't matter what character it is.

  • Tone is only connected to meaning in the first syllable.

  • Word order

  • There are both similarities and differences in the word orders of Chinese languages.

  • Mandarin is generally SVO, though it's SOV in some structures.

  • And Cantonese is also SVO, more so than Mandarin.

  • Shanghainese and other Wu dialects are both SVO and SOV.

  • So in Mandarin, we have:

  • 我喝果汁

  • Which means 'I drink juice'.

  • Here's the subject, verb and object.

  • And in Cantonese:

  • 我飲果汁

  • Again, subject, verb, object.

  • And now, in Shanghainese:

  • 我吃果汁

  • In these examples, in turns out that the word order's the same,

  • but notice that each language uses a different character for the verb, to reflect different vocabulary.

  • Let's look at another element of word order.

  • Mandarin places an indirect object before the direct object.

  • Cantonese places it after the direct object,

  • like in this sentence, which means 'give me the book'.

  • In Mandarin:

  • 給我本書

  • So word for word it's 'give me book'.

  • And in Cantonese:

  • 俾本書我

  • Word for word it's 'give book me'.

  • And if you imagine a 'to' in their, it's like 'give book to me'.

  • Also notice the character for 'give' is different here.

  • And in Shanghainese:

  • 把吾俾本

  • Here the word order is like Mandarin, but notice the different word for 'give',

  • and the variant character for 'me'.

  • Another example difference:

  • Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, places the adverb before the verb.

  • This sentence means: 'I'll go first'.

  • In Mandarin it's:

  • 我先走

  • Word for word it's 'I first go'.

  • But Cantonese places the adverb after the verb.

  • 我走先

  • Word for word it's 'I go first'.

  • And in Shanghainese:

  • 我先走特了

  • Here, the main word order is the same as Mandarin, with the adverb before the verb.

  • But notice the additional particles at the end,

  • which are for exclamation, but don't have any core meaning.

  • Another example difference:

  • Mandarin places the adjective after the noun.

  • So the phrase meaning 'strong wind' -

  • in Mandarin it's literally 'wind strong'.

  • 風好大

  • Cantonese places the adjective before the noun, so literally it's 'strong wind'.

  • 好大風

  • And in Shanghainese:

  • 風老大

  • Here, the adjective comes after the noun, just like in Mandarin,

  • but notice that one of the two characters is different.

  • Those are just a few samples of the variation between the different Chinese languages and their dialects.

  • We could go very deeply into these differences, but that's beyond the scope of this general video.

  • One other difference we should talk about though,

  • is that there are two different systems for writing Chinese characters.

  • There are traditional characters, the ones that are written as they were in classical Chinese,

  • and then there are simplified characters, which were created in the 1950s and '60s to increase literacy.

  • Simplified characters are used in the People's Republic of China and in Singapore.

  • Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong and Macau,

  • which were not under Chinese rule when simplified characters were introduced.

  • They are also used in many Chinese diaspora communities.

  • Here's a traditional character on the left, and here's its simplified equivalent on the right.

  • So you can see that they are different and it's probably easier to write the simplified one,

  • but despite the differences literate native speakers generally have no trouble reading either

  • type of character.

  • As you can see, the Sinitic language family, which is often called Chinese,

  • is a large diverse group of languages and dialects which are often unintelligible.

  • What unites them all together is their shared origin, growing out of Middle Chinese

  • and the classical Chinese literary tradition,

  • and they're also united by a common written language, which is learned and understood by

  • speakers of all Chinese varieties.

  • However, even those speakers of different Chinese languages can easily communicate with each other

  • in writing, that shared writing system isn't enough to help them communicate verbally without

  • specifically learning Mandarin.

  • This is a good reason to consider Chinese a group of languages, or a language family,

  • rather than a single language with many dialects.

  • So, the question of the day:

  • To native speakers of any variety of Chinese:

  • Do you consider Chinese to be a group of distinct languages?

  • Or do you consider it one language with a lot of dialectal variation?

  • And I'm just asking you to explain the way that you personally think about it,

  • so there's no right or wrong answer, here.