The Chinese Language(s)

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most widely spoken languages in the world is Chinese. 

In addition to being one of the most popular languages in the world, it also has some of the oldest roots and, in many respects, is completely different from every other language spoken today. 

But when we refer to the Chinese language, what exactly are we even referring to? Can we even say that there is a language called Chinese?

Learn more about the Chinese languages and what makes them unique on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Let me start by saying that I do not speak any dialect of Chinese. I know a couple of words and phrases that are necessary when traveling, but even then, I probably butcher the pronunciation.

As such, this episode isn’t intended to be an introduction to speaking Chinese or a lesson in pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar. 

My goal is to take a higher-level linguistic look at the language. This comes not only from doing research on the subject but from many conversations I’ve had over the years with Chinese speakers, both native speakers and those who learned it as a second language.

The reason for doing this episode is because, as you will see, Chinese is very different from every other language in the world, and it is one of the most spoken languages in the world. 

So, we have to start the episode with a very basic question, what is Chinese? 

When someone in casual conversation says that they speak Chinese or even reference Chinese as a language, what they are usually referring to is the spoken dialect of Chinese we in English call Mandarin. 

Mandarin is just one of many languages spoken by Han Chinese people and is one of many Sinitic languages. 

Mandarin was the dialect of Chinese spoken by the bureaucratic ruling Mandarin class in China, and most importantly, it is the dialect spoken in and around Beijing. 

Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken of all Chinese dialects, with an estimated 66% of all speakers of Chinese languages speaking Mandarin. 

The dominance of Mandarin was a political choice that successive governments set in the 20th century. 

In 1909, in the last days of the Qing Dynasty, it was set as the official dialect of China. 

Immediately after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China set up the National Language Unification Commission and established the Beijing dialect as the National Language. 

This was subsequently confirmed by the Communist government after the revolution. 

At the time of the Communist Revolution, only about 40% of Chinese could understand Mandarin, and today it is over 90%.

The reason why the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China created a national unification language was precisely because there was no single Chinese language, and it was a huge problem. 

There are a host of Chinese languages, most of which are totally unintelligible to each other. 

Here I have to explain what the difference is between a dialect and a language. There is a joke amongst linguists that a language is just a dialect with a flag. 

So Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are all considered to be separate languages, primarily because they are separate countries. However, people from each country can sort of talk to each other, although they may have to talk slowly. 

Likewise, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin are all very similar to each other to the point where they consume the same media, but they are called different languages. 

These European examples are actually closer to different dialects of a common language.

Different Chinese dialects can be totally different from each other, yet they are called dialects, not languages. Again, this is due to the fact that they are all in the same country, but also due to their writing systems, which I will get to in a bit.

Some of the more popular Chinese languages other than Mandarin are Wu, which is spoken around Shanghai, Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, Hunanese, spoken in Hunan, and Hokkien, which is a southern Chinese language which was taken by the Chinese diaspora to much of Southeast Asia.

The number of Chinese languages is hard to pin down because while some are totally unintelligible to each other, some are very similar and are mutually intelligible. Estimates put the number of different Chinese languages and dialects, which are all along a spectrum, in the hundreds. 

This wide diversity in Chinese languages was the reason behind the creation of a universal national Chinese dialect.

Several years ago, I was in Sydney, and I went to dinner with a woman from Bejing. We went to a Chinese restaurant, and the waiter immediately began speaking to my friend in Chinese.

However, he was speaking Cantonese, and she only knew Mandarin. She told him she had no idea what he was saying, and everything else proceeded in English. 

For a non-Chinese speaker, perhaps the defining characteristic of any Chinese language is the fact that it is a tonal language. Mandarin and other Chinese languages use tones to indicate a word, not just pronunciation. 

Mandarin has four different tones. 

The example usually given to explain the tones is the word ma. In English, ma is a short form of mother. No matter how you say it, the meaning is the same. 

In Mandarin, however, ma can have four different meanings depending on the tone.

M? means ‘mother’

Má means ‘hemp’

M? means ‘horse’

Mà means ‘scold’

My apologies to any Mandarin speakers for my pronunciation.

Just to give you an idea of how different Chinese languages are from each other, Cantonese has six tones which are used in everyday modern usage, and as many as nine in classical Mandarin. 

The tones are why most non-Chinese speakers consider Mandarin to be a difficult language to learn. Chinese is not the only tonal language in the world, but tonal languages are a minority, and it is something that non-tonal speakers have difficulty with.

However, many people who have learned Mandarin have told me that it is actually quite easy once you get over the tones.

That is because most Chinese languages have very simple grammar. 

The best example I can give that most English speakers might be familiar with is the expression, “long time, no see.” 

“Long time, no see” isn’t grammatically correct in English. However, it could have come right out of Chinese. In fact, I’ve had native Chinese speakers tell me that they thought it was a literal translation of a Chinese phrase. 

So far, I’ve only talked about spoken Chinese languages. 

What really separates Chinese from every other language is its system of writing. 

As I mentioned before, when I refer to Chinese as a spoken language, I can either refer to Mandarin, the most widely spoken Chinese dialect, or I can refer to the entire category of Chinese languages. 

For the system of writing, however, that is not the case. For all practical purposes, and there are some exceptions, all the Chinese languages, regardless if they are mutually intelligible, use the same system of writing. 

The Chinese system of writing is unique in that it is the only logographic writing system widely used in the world today. 

A logographic system uses characters to represent an entire word. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform are examples of logographic writing systems. 

Every other language in the world today uses some form of alphabet where characters represent sounds. The Latin alphabet, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Ethiopian, Armenian, Thai, Hangul, and Hiragana, are all phonetic alphabets. 

There are still some Chinese-based logograms used in Vietnam, Korea and Japan.  In Japan, it is known as Kanji, and in Korea, it is known as Hanja. In North Korea, Hanja has completely disappeared, and in South Korea, it is sometimes seen, but its use has decreased dramatically in favor of the Hangul alphabet. 

Hangul is actually a man-made language and is one of the most logical writing systems in the world and will be the subject of a future episode. 

Chinese symbols originally began as pictographs and, over time, became more stylized. 

Chinese symbols generally represent one word, but multiple characters can be put together to represent words. The characters used for the United States are beautiful and country. The characters for France are law and country.

There are foreign words that are sometimes represented by putting together characters that replicate the syllables in a quasi-phonetic way.

The total number of Chinese characters number in the tens of thousands, but most of them are highly specialized or historic characters no longer in use. 

The average literate Chinese college graduate is estimated to know approximately 3,000 to 4,000 characters. 

Each character has to be memorized separately, as there is no phonetic information in the character for how it should be pronounced. 

There have been competitions in China that are the equivalent of spelling bees in English, where contestants have to write often obscure or historical characters after hearing the word spoken.

This means that almost every Chinese-spoken language can use the exact same writing system, even though the words for each character can be totally different. 

So a Cantonese speaker and a Wu speaker might not be able to talk to each other, but they would be able to read the same newspaper. 

There are some exceptions and some characters that might only exist in one particular Chinese language, but for the most part, this holds true. 

The best way to understand this would be with a logographic system that most people listening are familiar with, emojis. 

An emoji of a heart can imply love. Anyone seeing the heart will probably know that it means love, but the words they use for love will be different in whatever language they speak. 

This is the opposite of an alphabet. If you know the Latin alphabet, you can roughly pronounce a word in a foreign language you don’t understand. You might not know what it means, but you can sound it out. 

In Chinese, you know what it means, but you can’t sound it out in a different Chinese dialect. 

A logographic system like Chinese writing has pluses and minuses. 

The biggest plus is that it is very compact. Because each character is a word, you can convey more information in less space. 

The minus are many. Many of them have been recgonized problems for centuries. 

The biggest one is that learning thousands of characters is difficult, which historically made literacy a problem in China. Learning Chinese writing is much more difficult than learning how to speak in any Chinese dialect.

Another problem is the lack of any order. Alphabets have a limited number of characters, and there is an order to them. Hence, it is easy to sort words in a database or a dictionary. That doesn’t exist with Chinese characters. 

The workaround is usually to count the number of strokes in a character. At the Beijing Olympics, countries in the opening ceremony came into the stadium in the order of the number of strokes in the country name. 

Some characters can also be very difficult to write. While a typical Chinese character will be informationally dense, they may take a while to write. Some rare Chinese characters have over 50 strokes, and a few commonly used characters have over 20 strokes. 

There were also problems adapting Chinese characters to modern communications tools such as Morse code and keyboards, but those were all overcome. 

Chinese characters can be quicker to read but often take longer to write. 

There were several attempts to solve these problems. 

After the Communist Revolution, it is said that Mao Zedong originally wanted to do away with the entire Chinese writing system and replace it with a phonetic one, but he was convinced by Joseph Stalin in 1952 not to do so. That story may be apocryphal, so take it with a grain of salt.

What Mao did do is implement a system of Simplified Chinese characters. The simplified system had been in the works since the late Qing Dynasty but was implemented under the communists. This merged or removed strokes from some complicated characters with the intended goal of improving literacy and making it easier and faster to write. 

Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan never adopted the simplified Chinese character and traditional characters and are still the dominant form used today. 

Another movement has been to adapt the Latin alphabet to the Chinese language. 

Needless to say, this is very difficult to do because the Latin alphabet doesn’t have anything to represent tones. 

The first system, developed in the 19th century, was the Wade-Giles system. The problem with the Wade-Giles system was that it didn’t accurately reflect the pronunciation of various words in Mandarin.

It was replaced by the Hanyu Pinyin system in the 1950s. Also known as just Pinyin, it is the system that is used today to romanize Chinese words. Technically, diacritical marks should be used to represent tones, but most Chinese words are presented without them. 

The transition to Pinyin was the reason why the capital of China went from Peking to Beijing. Unlike other cities like Constantinople and Bombay, which actually did change their names, Beijing never changed its name. 

Beijing, in the Pinyin system, was just more accurate than Peking was using the Wade-Giles system.

There were discussions in the Chinese government in the 1970s about the wide-scale adoption of Pinyin, but nothing ever became of it.

Most of you listening to this do not speak any dialect of Chinese and probably never will. 

Nonetheless, Chinese is one of the most important languages in the world, and everyone should have at least a basic understanding of what it is and how it works.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener BobbyDodo from Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write:

The Best “Sad Day”

In the dark depths of Canadian winter, I started walking for exercise. I chose EED to be my walking companion. As the walks got longer, more and more episodes were consumed. Sometimes my wife would join me, and fewer episodes, if any, were reached. As of yesterday, I joined the completionist club, and I am left with a sense of profound sadness that I am now limited to just one new episode per day. This is the best podcast I have ever heard. Gary – what am I to listen to now? I will start from the beginning again. As for topic suggestions – just one, “Breaking the Sound Barrier.”

Thanks, Bobby! I am honored to be your audio companion on your walks. 

You will be happy to know that the story of Chuck Yeager and his Bell X-1 aircraft, the Glamorous Glennis, will be a future episode. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show. A note to everyone listening on Podcasting 2.0 apps, my ability to get boostagrams has been down the last week. I hope to have it back up and running soon.