As a global language service provider, we deal with hundreds of languages every day – both written and spoken. We also deal with language variants – you could call these dialects, creoles, or regional variants, for instance; French and Canadian French, Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese; Iberian and Latin Spanish.

With such a diverse global workforce at thebigword, often commanding multiple tongues, if anyone has a quick question on a certain language, there is most often always someone in the office who will be on hand with the answer.

So, what is Chinese? Is it one language?

The simple answer is no.

For example, both Cantonese and Mandarin, are both referred to as ‘Chinese’. However, both can be considered different languages due to their mutual unintelligibility.

According to Li Rong’s ‘Language Atlas of China’ (1987) there are several main ‘varieties’ of Chinese;

  • Mandarin 漢
  • Wu 吳
  • Gan 贛
  • Yue (Cantonese) 粵
  • Xiang 湘
  • Min (Hokkien) 閩
  • Hakka 客家

Sometimes the below three ‘varieties’ are classified into Mandarin, Wu, and Yue, and sometimes classified independently.

  • Jin 晉
  • Hui 徽
  • Ping 平

Different views on what is ‘Chinese’

Linguists, such as the late John DeFrancis (author of ‘The Chinese Language: Fact and Fiction’), may argue that these various ‘varieties’ of Chinese are actually different languages based of differing levels of mutual (un)intelligibility, grammar, vocabulary and so on.

Others, such as the government of the People’s Republic of China, suggest that these ‘varieties’ are dialects only, and only the Mandarin variety should be classified as a language. Conversely, the Republic of China (Taiwan) recognises five national languages.

Essentially the age-old adage ‘a language is a dialect with an army’ rings true in the dialect/language argument. Much in the same way each of the Scandinavian languages Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are linguistically similar and mutually intelligible to such an extent that they could be, and by linguists often are, considered dialects of one another.

China is much the same, but even more complicatedly so. In China, Chinese ‘varieties’ share much the same writing system, as well as a common culture and history.

For instance, Cantonese and Hokkien are often identified with Hong Kong and Taiwanese culture and identity.

History

Chinese has been around a long time – it wasn’t until the late 1800s that something resembling modern Mandarin was brought in as the country wide official ‘language’. Prior to this, it was the Chinese writing system that provided a ‘unified’ mode of communication.

This ‘unified’ standard writing system was introduced over two millennia ago by the Qin dynasty, achieved precisely the same as Mandarin nowadays – to increase ‘national unity’ and ensure officials in different parts of the Empire understood the various Imperial edicts, missives, and directives, and therefore could more effectively govern itself.

When we speak about ‘Chinese’ in ‘Chinese’ things get even more complicated.

Zhongwen(中文),Huawen(華文),Hanwen(漢文), Huayu (華語),Hanyu(漢語),Guoyu(國語),and Putonghua(普通話)can all be used to refer to ‘Chinese’ or ‘Mandarin’.

Why so many names for the same thing?

The first three terms(中文,華文,漢文)all contain the character ‘wen’ 文 which tends to refer to the written form, whereas the rest with ‘yu’ or ‘hua’ (語 or話) refer to the spoken. Confusingly, all can be used to refer to Mandarin, be it written or spoken!

The origins and usage of these different terms in Chinese is as interesting as it is lengthy; however, none of these terms sound like the English name for the language – ‘Mandarin’. This is because the origin of the English word is not actually from the Chinese!

The officials of the historic Ming and Qing dynasties spoke ‘the speech of the officials’ (官話), which was a partly constructed language based on the dialect spoken in the area where the Chinese capital was based. In more recent history, this location has been known as Beijing. When foreigners came into contact with Chinese, it was most often some official that would be spoken to. Portuguese traders, officials, and missionaries of the time referred to these officials as ‘Mandarim’, which itself comes from the word for ‘official or minister’ in Malay ‘Menteri’ (or ‘Mantin’ in Sanskrit). It is then from the Portuguese that this word made its way into the English language as ‘Mandarin’.

James Halstead, Client Program Manager

James is a Client Program Manager in thebigword’s UK offices and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese, alongside being proficient in reading and writing both Simplified and Traditional Character sets. Having lived, worked and studied in China for close to a decade, with an understanding of Cantonese, and with family on both sides of the Straits (that is, both in Taiwan and China), James has a strong interest in the history and complexities of the place and the language. He also currently Co-Chair of Association of Speakers of Chinese as a Second Language.