Five Major Dialect Groups of Chinese
It is estimated that more than 1,000,000,000 people, approximately one fourth of the earth's population, are speakers of some form of Chinese. Genetically, Chinese is an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Within the Chinese branch, there are a number of dialects, which can be classified into a mini m um of five groups on the basis of their structural affinities.
This is the major dialect group in China, both in terms of political importance and in terms of n umber of speakers. The native speakers of this dialect group represent approximately 70 per cent of the total Chinese population. They occupy the North China plain, the middle Yangzi plain, the Huia plain, the north-east plain, the Sichuan basin and most of Guangxi, Gueizhou and Yunnan provinces. The term 'Mandarin' is an English translation of the old Beijing expression guiin-hua 'official language', which was for man y centuries the dialect of Beijing. In modern China, Beijing dialect was accepted as a standard for the official language in the early part of this century. Since the 1950s, because of political and geographical boundaries , the official language of China , called Putonghua 'common speech ', and the official language of Taiwan , called Guoyu 'national language', differ from each other slightly in both vocabulary and grammar, although both are based on the Beijing dialect. One of the four official languages of Singapore, huayu, is also based on the Beijing dialect. Again, it is somewhat different from both Putonghua and Guoyu.
The other basis for considering Mandarin as the 'major' Chinese dialect group is that, in terms of both vocabulary and structure, the modern written language is closer to Mandarin than to any of the other dialects.
The Wu dialects are spoken around the lower Yangzi River and its tributaries: the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui, which include the major urban centres of Shanghai, Suzhou and Wenzhou.
These dialects are spoken by people living in Taiwan and Fujian provinces and Hainan Island in the Gulf of Tonkin. In English, these dialects are sometimes referred to as 'Fukkianese', 'Hokkianese', 'Amoy ' and 'Taiwanese'. Most of the people of Taiwan are descendants of Min speakers who emigrated from the coastal regions of Fujian province. For this reason, 85 per cent of the people in Taiwan still speak a Min dialect as their native language. For the same reason, most of the speakers of Chinese in Singapore are also native speakers of a Min dialect.
The Yue dialects are spoken primarily in the province of Guangdong. Yue dialects, including the well-known Cantonese, the language of Guangzhou (Canton), are spoken in many parts of the Chinese diaspora, particularly Hong Kong and overseas Chinese settlements such as the Chinatowns in the United States, Europe and South-East Asia. For this reason , many of the English words borrowed from Chinese have their origins in Cantonese, such as kumquat from Cantonese [kamkwat] and chop suey from Cantonese [tsap sui].
The Hakka dialects are the least well known outside of China, because few of the Hakka people have emigrated from China. Most of the Hakka are scattered throughout southeastern China in Guangx1 province and throughout the Min and Yue regions, as small, tightly-knit agricultural communities. Historically, the Hakka people were northerners who moved south during several waves of migration. Their name Hakka mea ns 'guest', indicating their immigrant status in the southern areas to which they moved.
We have chosen to use the term 'dialect' for these five major groups of languages, even though the differences among them, in terms of both vocabulary and structure, are sufficient to cause mutual unintelligibility. There are two reasons for this choice. First, genetically related languages of one nation are typically considered 'dialects'. Secondly, China has always had a uniform written language which is logographic . People who cannot understand each other’s' speech can still read the same written language provided that they are educated. This tends to reinforce the idea of 'dialects' as opposed to separate languages.
All Chinese dialects, with rare exceptions, share two easily perceptible phonological properties: they are all tone languages, and they have a very highly constrained syllable structure. We will ta l k about each of these properties in turn.
The Writing System
The Chinese writing system is called a logographic or character system, because each symbol is a character. There are five processes by which the characters are created.
Writing i n China began over 4,000 years ago with drawings of natural objects. The pictures were gradually simplified and formalized, giving rise to pictorial characters, called pictographs.
Ideographs are characters derived from diagrams symbolizing ideas or abstract notions.
3) Compound Ideographs
A compound ideograph is a character whose meaning is in some way represented by the combination of the meanings of its parts.
4) Loan Characters
Loan character result from borrowing a character for a word whose pronunciation is the same as that of another word represented by that character.
5) Phonetic Compounds (Simplified Characters)
A phonetic compound is the combination of two characters, one representing a semantic feature of the word, the other representing the character, condensing several strokes into one and replacing a complex character or parts of a complex character with a simpler one.
Dialect Map of China