Family and Speakers
汉语/漢語 Hànyǔ, 华语/華語 Huáyǔ or 中文 Zhōngwén belongs to the sino-tibetan language family, along with Thai, Tibetan and Burmese; among the Asian languages it is the one spoken by most people: there are over a billion people in China, and almost all of them speak Chinese. The territorial unity achieved under the T'ang dynasty (618-907) also led to the complete linguistic unification of China, extending the literary language of Beijing to the whole empire. However, even if for cultural reasons Chinese is often associated with the idea of a single language, the regional linguistic variation of the vast territories of China is comparable to that which exists, for example, among the Romance languages.
Traditionally the eight main varieties of Chinese have been erroneously considered as "dialects", but their not mutual intelligibility suggests that they should be treated as distinct languages. The most important dialect is pǔtōnghuà (普通话) the language of “the mandarins”, used by the ancient imperial administration officials, and today spoken, more or less, throughout the north-central China. It is the official language of the Republic of China (中华人民共和国 , Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó).
In south-eastern coastal regions there are very different dialects, such as the Wúyǔ dialects (吴语), spoken in the regions of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui, and the dialects of the region of Canton Yuèyǔ (粤语).
In the linguistic tradition of China it is necessary to distinguish between the written and the spoken language, that is to say a classical and a vernacular one, which differ in both the lexicon and the syntax. The former (文言,wén yán), characterized by extreme concision, is the language of the sacred texts of Confucianism, of philosophy and classical literature; the latter (白话, báihuà), once used only for certain literary genres, is now spreading as a written language and is used in scientific and literary production, as well as by the media and in the movies.
The main characteristics of the Chinese language are:
1.- every word, in its elementary form, consists of one single syllable, which is formed, in the current pronunciation of Beijing, by a vocal element (a vowel or a diphtong) that may or may not be preceded by a consonant and followed by –n, -ng or -r;
2.- Every word is absolutely invariable, i.e. maintains its form unchanged regardless of gender, number, tense, etc. Its grammatical function is determined by its position in the sentence.
3.- Chinese is a tonal language: each word is recognized not only by the sounds that compose it, but also by the tone, i.e. the particular musical inflection of the voice with which it is delivered. Homophonic words are often represented by the same sign; to avoid possible confusion in the reading of a sign, peculiar distinctive characters are often added to it, known as “keys”, usually related to the class of the object or concept the word refers to.
Origins of the writing system
Chinese characters evolved over time from earlier forms of hieroglyphs. The first document known to us dates from the mid second millennium BC; since then the characters have basically remained the same, though often changed or simplified in graphical form.
- Enciclopedia Grolier
- Giammarco Pappadà, 'Comparazione tipologica e livelli di interfaccia: un confronto interlinguistico tra italiano, inglese e cinese, unpublished doctoral dissertation.