Chinese spoken language


Spoken Chinese
Spoken Chinese

The Chinese spoken language(s) comprise(s) many regional variants. Although the English word dialect is often used to translate the Chinese term fangyan (方言), the differences between the major spoken variations of Chinese are such that they are mutually unintelligible.

See Is Chinese a language or a family of languages? for the debate on whether the variations of spoken Chinese should be considered "dialects" or "languages".



Chinese makes a very strong distinction between written language (文 wn) and spoken language (语[語] ), and Chinese tend to conceptualize the variations of Chinese as different spoken languages sharing a common written standard and literary and cultural tradition. Within Chinese, there is a collective term for the Chinese written language (中文 zhōngwn), while there is no collective term that encompasses all of the variations of the spoken language. Terms used to describe spoken Chinese, such as 汉语 hnyǔ or 国语 guyǔ refer only to one specific variation of spoken Chinese.

When forced to conceptualize these variations in terms of language and dialect common in the West, most Chinese do not think of these variations as separate languages because they share a common written standard and literary and cultural tradition. However, the linguistic distance between different Chinese dialects is often much greater than forms of speech in other parts of the world, and thus are unquestionably considered distinct languages.

Linguists divide the variations in spoken Chinese language into seven to ten groups. However, the fact that two people are speaking dialects within the same category does not necessarily mean that they can completely understand each other. The converse is also true in that the two people speaking dialects in different groups can sometimes understand each other. The general situation is one of dialect continuum where one can understand perfectly people speaking the local dialect and that the intelligibility decreases as the speaker comes from more and more distant regions. This results in the common situation where A can understand B, B can understand C, but A cannot understand C.

The linguistic diversity is particularly pronounced in southern variations such as Min, in which two towns which are five kilometers from each other can have types of speech that are completely unintellegible with one another. By contrast, there are areas in northern China that are several hundred kilometers apart but have mutually intelligible forms of Mandarin.

In addition, the categories that speakers use to self-classify the variety they are speaking may not correspond at all to a classification based strictly on linguistic features. For example, two speakers of Cantonese from different cities (say Taishan and Hong Kong) tend to think of themselves as speaking the same dialect, whereas speaker of Wu from Hangzhou and one from Shanghai would tend to think of themselves as speaking different dialects. Furthermore, a person speaking Sichuanese or Hunanese will think of themselves as speaking a variety of Chinese that is distinct from the national standard Putonghua, notwithstanding the fact that linguists place these forms of Chinese in the same linguistic category.

The various forms of Spoken Chinese are usually classfied into the following broad groups. (See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects.)

  • Mandarin 北方話/北方话: This is the mother dialect of Chinese living in northern and southwestern China. It is the basis for Standard Mandarin, the official spoken language of Chinese.
One distinctive feature of Mandarin is the partial loss of tones in comparison to Middle Chinese and the other dialects. Another is the loss of consonants on the ends of syllables, so that while Middle Chinese had an inventory of "-p, -t, -k, -m, -n, ng", Mandarin only has "-n, -ng". (A few dialects, such as that of Nanjing, also have /-?/, the glottal stop.) In addition, Mandarin underwent fewer tone splits than the other dialects. As a result, many words which sound different in dialects such as Cantonese are homophones in Mandarin. Mandarin has adjusted by developing compound words in order to make up for the development of homophones. The use of compounds is less frequent in other dialects.
  • Wu 吳語/吴语: spoken in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Wu includes Shanghai dialect. Wu dialect is notable among Chinese dialects in having kept voiced consonants, such as /b/, /d/, /g/, /z/, /v/, /dZ/, /Z/ etc.
  • Hakka/Kejia 客家話/客家话: spoken by the Hakka people in several provinces across southern China. The term "Hakka" itself translates as "guest families", and the Hakka people are descended from immigrants from North China in ancient times. Hakka has kept many features of northern Middle Chinese that have been lost in the North. It also has a full complement of nasal endings, -m -n ŋ and occlusive endings -p -t -k, maintaining the four categories of tonal types, with splitting in the ping and ru tones, giving six tones. Some dialects of Hakka have seven tones, due to a splitting in the qu tone. One of the distinguishing features of Hakka phonology is that Middle Chinese voiced initials are transformed into Hakka voiceless aspirated initials.
  • Yue 粵語/粤语: spoken in Guangdong province, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, all over Southeast Asia and by Overseas Chinese. Used by linguistics, "Cantonese" covers all the Yue dialects, such as Toishanese, though the term is also used to refer to just the Standard Cantonese of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Some dialects of Yue have intricate sets of tone compared to other Chinese dialectswith varieties having up to nine or ten tones. Yue keeps a full complement of ancient Chinese word-final consonants (p, t, k, m, n, ng)
  • Xiang 湘語/湘语: spoken in Hunan province. Xiang is usually divided into the "old" and "new" types, with the new type being significantly closer to Mandarin.
  • Gan 贛語/赣语: spoken in Jiangxi province. In the past, it was viewed as closely related to Hakka dialects, because of the way Middle Chinese voiced initials have become voiceless aspirated initials, as those in Hakka. Thus, they were called Hakka-Gan dialects.

(The following three dialect groups are not always classified separately.)

  • Hui 徽語/徽语: spoken in the southern parts of Anhui provinceusually classified as a sub-branch of Gan.
  • Pinghua 平話/平话: spoken in parts of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is sometimes classified together with Cantonese.

Some varieties remain unclassified. These include:

  • Xianghua 鄉話/乡话: spoken in a small strip of land in western Hunan, this is a group of dialects that have not been conclusively classified.
  • Shaozhou Tuhua 韶州土話/韶州土话: spoken at the border regions of Guangdong, Hunan, and Guangxi, this is an area of great linguistic diversity, and has not yet been conclusively described or classified.

In addition, the Dungan language (東干語/东干语) is a language descended from Chinese spoken in Kyrgyzstan, and is akin to northwestern dialects of Mandarin. However, it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet and may not be considered by all to be part of spoken Chinese.

Sociolinguistics of spoken variations of Chinese

In southern China where the difference between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect is particularly pronounced, well-educated Chinese are generally fluent in Mandarin, and most people have at least a good passive knowledge of it, in addition to being native speakers of the local dialect. The choice of dialect varies based on the social situation. Standard Mandarin is usually considered more formal and is required when speaking to a person who does not understand the local dialect. The local dialect (be it nonstandard Mandarin or non-Mandarin altogether) is generally considered more intimate and is used among close family members and friends and in everyday conversation within the local area. Chinese speakers will frequently code switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect. Parents will generally speak to their children in dialect, and the relationship between dialect and Mandarin appears to be mostly stable.

Knowing the local dialect is of considerable social benefit and most Chinese who permanently move to a new area will attempt to pick up the local dialect. Learning a new dialect is usually done informally through a process of immersion and recognizing sound shifts. Typically, a speaker of one dialect of Chinese will need about a year of immersion to understand the local dialect and about three to five years to become fluent in speaking it. Because of the variety of dialects spoken, there are usually few formal methods for learning a local dialect.

Within the People's Republic of China there has been a consistent drive towards promoting the standard language; for instance, the education system is entirely Mandarin-medium from the second year onwards. However, usage of local dialect is tolerated, and in many informal situations, socially preferred. Unlike Hong Kong, where colloquial Cantonese characters are often used for formal occasions, within the PRC a character set closer to Mandarin tends to be used. At the national level, differences in dialect generally do not correspond to political divisions or categories, and this has for the most part prevented dialect from becoming the basis of identity politics. Historically, many of the people who promoted Chinese nationalism were from southern China and did not natively speak the national standard language. One example of this is Mao Zedong often emphasized his Hunan origins in speaking, rendering much of what he said incomprehensible to many Chinese. One consequence of this is that China does not have a well developed tradition of spoken political rhetoric, and most Chinese political works are intended primarily as written works rather than spoken works.

Another factor that limits the political implications of dialect is that it is very common within an extended family for different people to know and use different dialects. In addition, while speaking similar dialect provides very strong group identity at the level of a city or county, the high degree of linguistic diversity limits the amount of group solidarity at larger levels. Finally, the linguistic diversity of southern China makes it likely that in any large group of Chinese, that Standard Mandarin will be the only form of speech that everyone understands.

On the other hand, in the Republic of China on Taiwan, the government had a policy until the mid-1980s of promoting Standard Mandarin as high status and the local languages—Taiwanese and Hakka—as low status, a situation which caused a great deal of resentment and has produced somewhat of a backlash in the 1990s as part of the Taiwanese localization movement.

Manifestations of language differentiation

The Min dialects are often regarded as the dialects furthest removed from Standard Mandarin, in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. To illustrate: in Taiwanese, a variety of Min, to express the idea that one is feeling a little ill, one might say

Go kā-kī lâng ū tān-po̍h--á bô sóng-khoài.

which, when translated cognate-by-cognate into Mandarin would be something like:

Wǒ zjǐ rn yǒu dānb a b shuǎngkuài. (我自己人有單(?)仔不爽快)

An awkward sentence, if not simply non-productive. A little more colloquially it would be:

Wǒ zjǐ yǒu yīdiǎn b shūf. (我自己有一點不舒服.)

A little better would be:

Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎn b shūf. (我有一點不舒服.)

which removes the reflexive pronoun (zjǐ), not usually needed in Mandarin. Instead, some people, particularly in the north of China, would say:

Wǒ yǒu yīdiǎr b shūf. (我有一点ㄦ不舒服.)

Related topics


  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686
  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)

External links

Chinese: spoken varieties

Mandarin | Jin | Wu | Hui | Xiang | Gan | Hakka | Yue | Pinghua | Min
Danzhouhua | Shaozhou Tuhua | Xianghua

Subcategories of Min: Min Dong | Min Bei | Min Zhong | Pu Xian | Min Nan | Qiong Wen | Shao Jiang
Note: The above is only one classification scheme among many.
Comprehensive list of Chinese dialects
Official spoken varieties: Standard Mandarin | Standard Cantonese
Historical phonology: Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Proto-Min | Proto-Mandarin | Haner
Chinese: written varieties
Official written varieties: Classical Chinese | Vernacular Chinese
Other varieties: Written Cantonese
he:שפות סיניות

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools