Toll Free: (800) 790-3680
Recent News: Translation Cloud LLC now an Accredited Business of BBB!
Website In: 

Chinese: Language or language family?

Linguists often view Chinese as a language family, though owing to China's socio-political and cultural situation, and the fact that all spoken varieties use one common written system, it is customary to refer to these generally mutually unintelligible variants as “the Chinese language”. The diversity of Sinitic variants is comparable to the Romance languages.

From a purely descriptive point of view, "languages" and "dialects" are simply arbitrary groups of similar idiolects, and the distinction is irrelevant to linguists who are only concerned with describing regional speeches technically. However, the idea of a single language has major overtones in politics and cultural self-identity, and explains the amount of emotion over this issue. Most Chinese and Chinese linguists refer to Chinese as a single language and its subdivisions dialects, while others call Chinese a language family and its subdivisions languages.

Free quote

Chinese itself has a term for its unified writing system, zhongwen (中文), while the closest equivalent used to described its spoken variants would be Hanyu (漢語/汉语,“spoken language[s] of the Han Chinese) – this term could be translated to either “language” or “languages” since Chinese possesses no grammatical numbers. In the Chinese language, there is much less need for a uniform speech-and-writing continuum, as indicated by two separate character morphemes 語/语 yu and 文 wen. Ethnic Chinese often consider these spoken variations as one single language for reasons of nationality and as they inherit one common cultural and linguistic heritage in Classical Chinese. Han native speakers of Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese, for instance, may consider their own linguistic varieties as separate spoken languages, but the Han Chinese race as one – albeit internally very diverse – ethnicity. To Chinese nationalists, the idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that the Chinese identity is much more fragmentary and disunified than it actually is and as such is often looked upon as culturally and politically provocative. Additionally, in Taiwan, it is closely associated with Taiwanese independence, where some supporters of Taiwanese independence promote the local Taiwanese Minnan-based spoken language.

Within the People’s Republic of China and Singapore, it is common for the government to refer to all divisions of the Sinitic language(s) beside standard Mandarin as fangyan (“regional tongues”, often translated as “dialects”). Modern-day Chinese speakers of all kinds communicate using one formal standard written language, although this modern written standard is modeled after Mandarin, generally the modern Beijing substandard.

Chinese Translation Articles:

Chinese Translation :: Chinese: Language or Language Family? :: Chinese Characters :: Chinese Phonology :: Chinese Vocabulary :: Chinese Learning