China - Languages



Chinese, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family, is a monosyllabic tone language written by means of characters representing complete words. The Chinese script is not phonetic and remains constant throughout China, but the spoken language has regional phonetic differences. Spoken Chinese falls into two major groups, separated roughly by a northeast-southwest line running from the mouth of the Yangtze River to the border of Vietnam. North and west of this line are the so-called Mandarin dialects, based on the Beijing dialect and known as putonghua ("common language"). The most important dialect south of the linguistic divide is that of Shanghai, the Wu dialect spoken in the Yangtze River Delta. Hakka and Hokkien are dialects of the southeastern coastal province. Cantonese, the Yue dialect spoken in southern China, is the language of the majority of Chinese emigrants. Others include the Minbei or Fuzhou dialect, the Xiang, and Gan dialects. Mandarin Chinese was adopted as the official language of China in 1955.

To communicate in written Chinese, thousands of Chinese characters must be memorized. Since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, reform of the written language has been a major priority. A simplified system of writing, reducing the number of strokes per character, has been adopted, and the language restructured so that anyone familiar with the basic 2,000–3,000 characters is functionally literate (defined as being able to read a newspaper).

A number of systems have been developed to transcribe Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. The principal romanization scheme was the Wade-Giles system until 1979, when the PRC government adopted Pinyin, a system under development in China since the mid-1950s. Inside China, Pinyin is used in the schools to facilitate the learning of Chinese characters, in minority areas where other languages are spoken, and on commercial and street signs. Pinyin has replaced the Wade-Giles system in all of China's English-language publications and for the spelling of place names. In general, pronunciation of Pinyin follows standard American English, except that among initial sounds, the sound of q is like the sound of ch as in chart, the sound of x like the sound of sh as in ship, and the sound of zh like the sound of j as in judge, and among final sounds, the sound of e is like the sound of oo as in look, the sound of eng like the sound of ung as in lung, the sound of ui like the sound of ay as in way, and the sound of uai like the sound of wi as in wide.

Of the 55 recognized minority peoples in China, only Hui and Manchus use Chinese as an everyday language. More then 20 minority nationalities have their own forms of writing for their own languages. Minority languages are used in all state institutions in minority areas and in all newspapers and books published there.

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