Linguistic Features of the Chinese Language Family

The Chinese languages and their dialects are characterized linguistically as isolating, or analytic, in that word units do not change due to inflection. Each Chinese character generally corresponds to exactly one syllable and one morpheme. The phonological structure of Chinese syllables is subject to strict limitations. In Mandarin, for example, it may have anywhere from a single vowel to up to five phonemes (the smallest unit of sound), and end in either a vowel, -n, -ng, or -r. With all these restrictions, the number of possible syllables in Chinese has a clear maximum limit. In practice, there are a total of only 1,277 different syllables in Mandarin, including the tonal variances, and 261 of these possible pronunciations correspond to only one word each. The number goes down to around 400 different syllables if tone distinctions are omitted. Since each of the Chinese languages has as rich a vocabulary as any other living language, this results in a tremendous number of homophones, with Mandarin demonstrating the greatest number.

There has been a strong tendency in the Chinese language family over the last 2,000 years for single morpheme words to develop into compounds of two or more morphemes. This has reduced ambiguity and enriched the language. The flexibility of Chinese compound formation patterns also makes it easy to invent new vocabulary items as needed. Thus, airplane in Mandarin is "flying machine," shampoo is "wash-hair essence," and automobile clutch is "separate/combine device."

Tones (i.e., variations in vocal pitch while pronouncing each morpheme) go a long way to reducing the number of homophones. Homophonous words pronounced in different tones are as dissimilar to the ear of a native Chinese speaker as bat, bet, bit, and but are to a native English speaker, and thus are easily distinguished. Mandarin has four tones: The first is a high, level tone; the second starts mid-range and rises; the third starts mid-low, falls, then rises; and the fourth starts high and falls sharply. Some functional particles and unstressed syllables are pronounced in a fifth, or "neutral" tone.

Except for certain tone sandhi (predetermined tonal changes in the environment of adjacent tones), the tone of a word is invariable. In Mandarin, for instance, a third tone is changed to a second when it occurs before another third tone word; and some tones become "neutralized" in certain environments. The dynamic effect of these tonal variations in the voice pitch of Chinese language speakers is a distinctly different phenomenon from the emotion-colored intonation patterns of any language, including Chinese itself. For example, a question asked in Chinese is not necessarily indicated by a rise of the voice at the end of a phrase or sentence. Instead, a final interrogative particle or other grammatical means may be used. A word given particular stress in English by a vocal pitch rise could be emphasized in most Chinese languages by stretching out the length of utterance.

Grammatically, the Chinese languages display a basic subject-verb-object word order, as does English. Some linguists have proposed the topic-comment syntactic model as a more appropriate one for Chinese, where a topic is introduced, and then some comment is made on it. There is some logic to champion this model, since a common Chinese sentence pattern is "As for..., it..." exemplified by the Chinese sentence "As for the clothes, I have already washed them." Many Chinese subscribe to the popular notion that Chinese languages have no grammar, partly because grammar is not taught as a subject in schools, and also because of the lack of inflection in Chinese. It would be more accurate to say that the Chinese languages have an uninflected, highly word order dependent grammar.

Rather than adding, for example, an ending (such as -ed in English) to indicate a past tense, Chinese speakers use particles (such as le , which indicates completion or a new situation) and context (words like yesterday or next year) to place ideas in time. The same applies to plurals.

Classifiers, or measure words, are a notable feature of modern Chinese and most Sino-Tibetan and Southeast Asian languages. Measure words, comparable to piece in a piece of cake and sheet in a sheet of paper in English, are required for almost all nouns in Mandarin when preceded by a number or demonstrative pronoun. Thus, "a table" is "one sheet of table"; "two cats" are "two one-of-a-pair cats"; and, "this person" is "this unit of person." Classifiers often describe the shape of the noun they modify: strip, piece, drop, and so forth. One classifier, wei, conveys respect, as in "one respected professor."

Traditional Chinese grammarians only divided the words of their language into two categories: substantial or "meaningful' words, and functional or "empty" grammatical particles. This sparse distinction may reflect the fact that, even today, many words in the Chinese language family cannot be definitively classified as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so forth except as they are used in specific contexts. They can serve as one part of speech or another with no external change in form or pronunciation, although not every word occurs as every part of speech. For example, in Mandarin, the word shu can be a noun meaning "book" or a verb meaning "write." Depending on context, fen can be a verb, "to divide," an adjective, "branch" (as in branch office), or a measure word, "minute" or "cent."

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The Dialects

Terminology Defined

Dialect distinctions are common in any language extending over a relatively large area, or even a relatively small one where geographic features traditionally have precluded easy communication. A geographically large nation such as China is no exception to this rule. However, in addition to a large number of dialect differences throughout the nation, certain regional groups of some dialects, mostly concentrated in the southeastern part of China, are for the most part so mutually unintelligible that they could be considered different languages of the same family. Phonetically, Fukienese, for example, is about as distinct from Mandarin as Dutch is from German, or French is from Italian. The reader therefore has to be prepared for a certain amount of confusion caused by the various descriptions of differences between such dialects stemming from the fact that such English terms as "language" or "dialect" seem to imply either too much or too little of a linguistic difference than actually is felt to exist. The customary translation of the Chinese term for these regional languages is often rendered into English as "dialect" from its literal meaning of "regional speech." It is common to regard the term "language" as a marker of political boundaries or ethnic identity, even when historical linguistic evidence might suggest otherwise. At times, this connotation of the term "language" may even run counter to common sense: a particular dialect of the English language is spoken natively by inhabitants of India, the Philippines, and certain Caribbean island nations, as is a dialect of Spanish by non-European inhabitants of various North, Central, and Latin American nations; furthermore, there are dialects of French in Haiti and Francophone Africa, and yet the speakers of these areas today share no common political or ethnic identity with England, Spain, or France, respectively. The language shared by such geographically disparate regions may primarily reflect a historical link of long-term cultural cross contact dating from earlier periods of colonial rule. Hence, our concept of language surpasses the traditional connotation of the term.

From a historical perspective, these disparate dialects of English, Spanish, or French share common roots with other dialects of the language in question and are more or less mutually intelligible, despite pronunciation, word usage and occasionally, minor syntactical differences. Thus, in this sense of common historical (and cultural) roots, use of the traditional term "dialect" to describe the regional tongues of China has a certain persuasive logic. In general, their syntactical differences are usually minor, and even in their purely spoken form, they share a very large base of common word usages inherited from Middle Chinese (or earlier). This is reinforced by the semantic word-root representation of Chinese characters in the literary language as it appeared in semi-literary and colloquial usages. Following this logic, however, creates the opposite problem, namely, how to readily express the long-standing fundamental lack of mutual intelligibility between such regional "dialects" and to account for the very palpable and at times extensive pronunciation, traditional tone class distinction, and word usage differences that exist within each regional tongue (i.e., the Chaozhou and Amoy dialects, or Cantonese and Taishan dialects). Thus, reserving the traditional term "dialect" for the regional tongues themselves forces us to express these more traditional dialect differences within each tongue through an arcane term like "sub-dialect," a term distinction generally lost on the nonspecialist. Accordingly, we refer to these regional tongues here as dialect groups which can be generally classified into the Mandarin, Hsiang, Kan, Hakka, Wu, Min, and Yue groups. Since each group preserves different features of Middle Chinese (dating back to early or even pre-Tang times), they have proven to be valuable research tools in the phonological reconstruction of Middle and even to some extent its ancestor, Old Chinese.

Dialect Group Characteristics

The Mandarin group is subdivided into Northern, Northwestern, Eastern, and Southwestern Mandarin. Dialects of the Mandarin group are spoken in three-quarters of the country by two-thirds of the population--one important reason why Mandarin was chosen for the national language (see the section on National Language)--and are for the most part mutually intelligible. They are characterized by relatively simple phonological and tone systems.

Both the Hsiang group as spoken in Changsha and the Kan group as spoken in Nanchang have six tones, including the "entering tone." The Changsha and Nanchang dialects of these groups do not distinguish between the sounds l- and n-. The Hakka group, whose speakers are mostly concentrated in Guangdong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, also has six tones. There are two main dialect divisions of Hakka: Sixian, represented by the speech of Meixian, considered the standard Hakka dialect; and Hailu, which has been strongly influenced by the Southern Fukienese group.

There is a great deal of variation among the dialects of the Wu group, spoken mostly in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. The Suzhou dialect, representative of northern Wu, has seven tones, with complex tone sandhi; the Wenzhou dialect, representing southern Wu, has eight tones; and Shanghainese has five tones. In general, the group demonstrates a rich variety of nasality and voicing in its vowels.

The main dialect of the Yue group, Cantonese, is extensively spoken throughout Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and many overseas Chinese communities. Some Yue dialects display perhaps more tones than any other dialect, a total of nine. The Yue group has been the most faithful of all the regional groups in preserving the full range of Middle Chinese final consonants into modern times, and special Chinese characters have been devised over the centuries for Cantonese to a greater extent than the dialects of other groups to record spoken forms not shared by standard written Chinese. Extensive contact with Western culture has also led to the coinage, especially in Hong Kong, of new words based on foreign loan words to a far greater extent than by any other regional group.

The Min group traditionally includes the Southern Fukienese group (one dialect of which is often called Taiwanese) spoken natively by perhaps 70 percent of the people of Taiwan. Min dialects are also spoken on Hainan Island, and many areas of Southeast Asia, including Singapore, southern Thailand and the Philippines. Most Southern Fukienese dialects have seven tones, each of which (with some exceptions) assumes the contour of a different tone when it is not the final word of a phrase or sentence. Distinctions between nasalized and non-nasalized vowel finals, as well as voiced and unvoiced initial consonants are another notable feature of dialects in this group. The Northern Fukienese group of dialects, found in the Fuzhou region, and the Southern Fukienese group are for the most part mutually unintelligible.