Chinese is a language family often expressed with a common set of non-phonetic logogram characters rather than a single language.
How Many Languages Are There in China?At least three hundred. . . .Two suggestions from me:1. The speakers are still calling all these languages / varieties "dialects", which means they must be mutually intelligible and / or at least closely related, which is far, far from the truth. . . .A lect (often a regional or minority language) as part of a group or family of languages, especially if they are viewed as a single language, or if contrasted with a standardized idiom that is considered the 'true' form of the language (for example, Cantonese as contrasted with Mandarin Chinese or Bavarian as contrasted with Standard German). . . .Why must these local lects be stigmatized?Let's use the neutral, linguistically exact term "topolect", calqued on Sinitic "fāngyán 方言" (NOT "dialect").2. Instead of referring to all of the many languages of China as "Chinese", I propose that they be divided into two main groups, "Sinitic" and "non-Sinitic". Sinitic includes all the languages of China that fall under the designation Hànyǔ 漢語, not just Mandarin, and especially not just Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) (Pǔtōnghuà 普通話). Non-Sinitic would include Mongolic, Tungusic, Turkic, and the scores of other languages that are unrelated to Hànyǔ 漢語 ("Sinitic").China is not a nation of linguistic uniformity, as is often falsely alleged.
From Language Log (a 13:54 YouTube video discussing the issue is linked at the link and is what the commentary above is discussing). The author is a linguist with at least one specialty in Chinese languages.
The Wikipedia redirect from Hànyǔ above contains the following centering introduction (emphasis mine):
Chinese (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ or also 中文; Zhōngwén, especially for the written language) is a group of languages that form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages family, spoken by the ethnic Han Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in Greater China. About 1.3 billion people (or approximately 16% of the world's population) speak a variety of Chinese as their first language.The spoken varieties of Chinese are usually considered by native speakers to be variants of a single language. However, their lack of mutual intelligibility means they are sometimes considered separate languages in a family. Investigation of the historical relationships among the varieties of Chinese is ongoing. Currently, most classifications posit 7 to 13 main regional groups based on phonetic developments from Middle Chinese, of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (with about 800 million speakers, or 66%), followed by Min (75 million, e.g. Southern Min), Wu (74 million, e.g. Shanghainese), and Yue (68 million, e.g. Cantonese). These branches are unintelligible to each other, and many of their subgroups are unintelligible with the other varieties within the same branch (e.g. Southern Min). There are, however, transitional areas where varieties from different branches share enough features for some limited intelligibility, including New Xiang with Southwest Mandarin, Xuanzhou Wu with Lower Yangtze Mandarin, Jin with Central Plains Mandarin and certain divergent dialects of Hakka with Gan (though these are unintelligible with mainstream Hakka). All varieties of Chinese are tonal to at least some degree, and are largely analytic.
In linguistic typology, an analytic language is a language that conveys relationships between words in sentences primarily by way of helper words (particles, prepositions, etc.) and word order, as opposed to using inflections (changing the form of a word to convey its role in the sentence).
For example, the English-language phrase "The cat chases the ball" conveys the fact that the cat is acting on the ball analytically via word order.
This can be contrasted to synthetic languages, which rely heavily on inflections to convey word relationships (e.g., the phrases "The cat chases the ball" and "The cat chased the ball" convey different time frames via changing the form of the word chase).
Most languages are not purely analytic, but many rely primarily on analytic syntax.
When a language is "tonal" then the inflection and tone with which the phonemes in a word are pronounced determines which word is being used, as opposed, for example, to merely expressing feelings about the content of what is being said, or merely serving as punctuation (e.g. the raised tone at the end of a sentence in English to indicate that it is a question rather than a statement).
The geographic distribution of tonal languages tends to be an areal feature common to all languages in a geographic area regardless of the ancestral languages from which they are derived and tends to be more common in more tropical areas.
Tonal languages also tend to substitute for phonemes. Tonal languages tend to have fewer distinct consonants and vowels than non-tonal languages do, with tones making up for that shortage of sounds from which to make words.
As Wikipedia further explains:
Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese. These varieties form a dialect continuum, in which differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, though the rate of change varies immensely. Generally, mountainous South China exhibits more linguistic diversity than the North China Plain. In parts of South China, a major city's dialect may only be marginally intelligible to close neighbors. For instance, Wuzhou is about 190 kilometres (120 mi) upstream from Guangzhou, but the Yue variety spoken there is more like that of Guangzhou than is that of Taishan, 95 kilometres (60 mi) southwest of Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers. In parts of Fujian the speech of neighboring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible.Until the late 20th century, Chinese emigrants to Southeast Asia and North America came from southeast coastal areas, where Min, Hakka, and Yue dialects are spoken. The vast majority of Chinese immigrants to North America up to the mid-20th century spoke the Taishan dialect, from a small coastal area southwest of Guangzhou.GroupingLocal varieties of Chinese are conventionally classified into seven dialect groups, largely on the basis of the different evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials:The classification of Li Rong, which is used in the Language Atlas of China (1987), distinguishes three further groups:
A fair amount of the differentiation of the Chinese languages is attested in the historic era, and much of it that does not dates to late Chinese prehistory:
At the end of the 2nd millennium BC, a form of Chinese was spoken in a compact area around the lower Wei River and middle Yellow River. From there it expanded eastwards across the North China Plain to Shandong and then south into the valley of the Yangtze River and beyond to the hills of south China. As the language spread, it replaced formerly dominant languages in those areas, and regional differences grew. Simultaneously, especially in periods of political unity, there was a tendency to promote a central standard to facilitate communication between people from different regions.The first evidence of dialectal variation is found in texts from the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC). At that time, the Zhou royal domain, though no longer politically powerful, still defined standard speech. The Fangyan (early 1st century AD) is devoted to differences in vocabulary between regions. Commentaries from the Eastern Han period (first two centuries AD) contain much evidence of local differences in pronunciation. The Qieyun rhyme book (601 AD) noted wide variation in pronunciation between regions, and set out to define a standard pronunciation for reading the classics. This standard, known as Middle Chinese, is believed to be a diasystem based on the reading traditions of northern and southern capitals.The North China Plain provided few barriers to migration, leading to relative linguistic homogeneity over a wide area in northern China. In contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have spawned the other six major groups of Chinese languages, with great internal diversity, particularly in Fujian.
Standard ChineseUntil the mid-20th century, most Chinese people spoke only their local language. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà (官話/官话, literally 'speech of officials'). Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.In the early years of the Republic of China, Literary Chinese was replaced as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern dialects. In the 1930s a standard national language was adopted, with its pronunciation based on the Beijing dialect, but with vocabulary also drawn from other Mandarin varieties. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China and of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and one of the official languages of Singapore.Standard Mandarin Chinese now dominates public life in mainland China, and is much more widely studied than any other variety of Chinese. Outside China and Taiwan, the only varieties of Chinese commonly taught in university courses are Standard Mandarin and Cantonese.
Comparison with EuropeChinese has been likened to the Romance languages of Europe, the modern descendants of Latin. In both cases, the ancestral language was spread by imperial expansion over substrate languages 2000 years ago, by the Qin–Han empire in China and the Roman Empire in Europe. In Western Europe, Medieval Latin remained the standard for scholarly and administrative writing for centuries, and influenced local varieties, as did Literary Chinese in China. In both Europe and China, local forms of speech diverged from the written standard and from each other, producing extensive dialect continua, with widely separated varieties being mutually unintelligible.On the other hand, there are major differences. In China, political unity was restored in the late 6th century (by the Sui dynasty) and has persisted (with relatively brief interludes of division) until the present day. Meanwhile, Europe remained fragmented and developed numerous independent states. Vernacular writing, facilitated by the alphabet, supplanted Latin, and these states developed their own standard languages. In China, however, Literary Chinese maintained its monopoly on formal writing until the start of the 20th century.The morphosyllabic writing, read with varying local pronunciations, continued to serve as a source of vocabulary and idioms for the local varieties. The new national standard, Vernacular Chinese, the written counterpart of spoken Standard Chinese, is also used as a literary form by literate speakers of all varieties.
Dialectologist Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese. These varieties form a dialect continuum, in which differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, although there are also some sharp boundaries.However, the rate of change in mutual intelligibility varies immensely depending on region. For example, the varieties of Mandarin spoken in all three northeastern Chinese provinces are mutually intelligible, but in the province of Fujian, where Min varieties predominate, the speech of neighbouring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible.
Dialect groupsClassifications of Chinese varieties in the late 19th century and early 20th century were based on impressionistic criteria. They often followed river systems, which were historically the main routes of migration and communication in southern China. The first scientific classifications, based primarily on the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials, were produced by Wang Li in 1936 and Li Fang-Kuei in 1937, with minor modifications by other linguists since. The conventionally accepted set of seven dialect groups first appeared in the second edition of Yuan Jiahua's dialectology handbook (1961):
Mandarin This is the group spoken in northern and southwestern China and has by far the most speakers. This group includes the Beijing dialect, which forms the basis for Standard Chinese, called Putonghua or Guoyu in Chinese, and often also translated as "Mandarin" or simply "Chinese". In addition, the Dungan language of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is a Mandarin variety written in the Cyrillic script.Wu These varieties are spoken in Shanghai, most of Zhejiang and the southern parts of Jiangsu and Anhui. The group comprises hundreds of distinct spoken forms, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The Suzhou dialect is usually taken as representative, because Shanghainese features several atypical innovations. Wu varieties are distinguished by their retention of voiced or murmured obstruent initials (stops, affricates and fricatives).Gan These varieties are spoken in Jiangxi and neighbouring areas. The Nanchang dialect is taken as representative. In the past, Gan was viewed as closely related to Hakka because of the way Middle Chinese voiced initials became voiceless aspirated initials as in Hakka, and were hence called by the umbrella term "Hakka–Gan dialects".Min These varieties originated in the mountainous terrain of Fujian and eastern Guangdong, and form the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. It is also the most diverse, with many of the varieties used in neighbouring counties—and, in the mountains of western Fujian, even in adjacent villages—being mutually unintelligible. Early classifications divided Min into Northern and Southern subgroups, but a survey in the early 1960s found that the primary split was between inland and coastal groups. Varieties from the coastal region around Xiamen have spread to Southeast Asia, where they are known as Hokkien (named from a dialectical pronunciation of "Fujian"), and Taiwan, where they are known as Taiwanese. Other offshoots of Min are found in Hainan and the Leizhou Peninsula, with smaller communities throughout southern China.Hakka The Hakka (literally "guest families") are a group of Han Chinese living in the hills of northeastern Guangdong, southwestern Fujian and many other parts of southern China, as well as Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Meixian dialect is the prestige form. Most Hakka varieties retain the full complement of nasal endings, -m -n -ŋ and stop endings -p -t -k, though there is a tendency for Middle Chinese velar codas -ŋ and -k to yield dental codas -n and -t after front vowels.Yue These varieties are spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau, and have been carried by immigrants to Southeast Asia and many other parts of the world. The prestige variety and by far most commonly spoken variety is Cantonese, from the city of Guangzhou (historically called "Canton"), which is also the native language of the majority in Hong Kong and Macau. Taishanese, from the coastal area of Jiangmen southwest of Guangzhou, was historically the most common Yue variety among overseas communities in the West until the late 20th century. Not all Yue varieties are mutually intelligible. Most Yue varieties retain the full complement of Middle Chinese word-final consonants (/p/, /t/, /k/, /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/) and have rich inventories of tones.
Some varieties remain unclassified, including the Danzhou dialect of northwestern Hainan, Waxiang, spoken in a small strip of land in western Hunan, and Shaozhou Tuhua, spoken in the border regions of Guangdong, Hunan, and Guangxi. This region is an area of great linguistic diversity but has not yet been conclusively described.Most of the vocabulary of the Bai language of Yunnan appears to be related to Chinese words, though many are clearly loans from the last few centuries. Some scholars have suggested that it represents a very early branching from Chinese, while others argue that it is a more distantly related Sino-Tibetan language overlaid with two millennia of loans.
Relationships between groupsJerry Norman classified the traditional seven dialect groups into three larger groups: Northern (Mandarin), Central (Wu, Gan, and Xiang) and Southern (Hakka, Yue, and Min). He argued that the Southern Group is derived from a standard used in the Yangtze valley during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), which he called Old Southern Chinese, while the Central group was transitional between the Northern and Southern groups. Some dialect boundaries, such as between Wu and Min, are particularly abrupt, while others, such as between Mandarin and Xiang or between Min and Hakka, are much less clearly defined.Scholars account for the transitional nature of the central varieties in terms of wave models. Iwata argues that innovations have been transmitted from the north across the Huai River to the Lower Yangtze Mandarin area and from there southeast to the Wu area and westwards along the Yangtze River valley and thence to southwestern areas, leaving the hills of the southeast largely untouched.
Quantitative similarityA 2007 study compared fifteen major urban dialects on the objective criteria of lexical similarity and regularity of sound correspondences, and subjective criteria of intelligibility and similarity. Most of these criteria show a top-level split with Northern, New Xiang, and Gan in one group and Min (samples at Fuzhou, Xiamen, Chaozhou), Hakka, and Yue in the other group. The exception was phonological regularity, where the one Gan dialect (Nanchang Gan) was in the Southern group and very close to Meixian Hakka, and the deepest phonological difference was between Wenzhounese (the southernmost Wu dialect) and all other dialects.The study did not find clear splits within the Northern and Central areas:
Changsha (New Xiang) was always within the Mandarin group. No Old Xiang dialect was in the sample.Taiyuan (Jin or Shanxi) and Hankou (Wuhan, Hubei) were subjectively perceived as relatively different from other Northern dialects but were very close in mutual intelligibility. Objectively, Taiyuan had substantial phonological divergence but little lexical divergence.Chengdu (Sichuan) was somewhat divergent lexically but very little on the other measures.
The two Wu dialects (Wenzhou and Suzhou) occupied an intermediate position, closer to the Northern/New Xiang/Gan group in lexical similarity and strongly closer in subjective intelligibility but closer to Min/Hakka/Yue in phonological regularity and subjective similarity, except that Wenzhou was farthest from all other dialects in phonological regularity. The two Wu dialects were close to each other in lexical similarity and subjective similarity but not in mutual intelligibility, where Suzhou was actually closer to Northern/Xiang/Gan than to Wenzhou.In the Southern subgroup, Hakka and Yue grouped closely together on the three lexical and subjective measures but not in phonological regularity. The Min dialects showed high divergence, with Min Fuzhou (Eastern Min) grouped only weakly with the Southern Min dialects of Xiamen and Chaozhou on the two objective criteria and was actually slightly closer to Hakka and Yue on the subjective criteria.
These varieties form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family (with Bai sometimes being included in this grouping). Because speakers share a standard written form, and have a common cultural heritage with long periods of political unity, the varieties are popularly perceived among native speakers as variants of a single Chinese language, and this is also the official position.
Conventional English-language usage in Chinese linguistics is to use dialect for the speech of a particular place (regardless of status) while regional groupings like Mandarin and Wu are called dialect groups.
ISO 639-3 follows the Ethnologue in assigning language codes to eight of the top-level groups listed above (all but Min and Pinghua) and five subgroups of Min. Other linguists choose to refer to the major groupings as languages. Sinologist David Moser stated that the Chinese authorities refer to them as "dialects" as a way to reinforce China as being a single nation.In Chinese, the term fāngyán is used for any regional subdivision of Chinese, from the speech of a village to major branches such as Mandarin and Wu. Linguists writing in Chinese often qualify the term to distinguish different levels of classification. All these terms have customarily been translated into English as dialect, a practice that has been criticized as confusing. The neologisms regionalect and topolect have been proposed as alternative renderings of fāngyán.The only varieties usually recognized as languages in their own right are Dungan and Taz. This is mostly due to political reasons as they are spoken in the former Soviet Union and are usually not written in Han characters but in Cyrillic. Dungan is in fact a variety of Mandarin, with high although asymmetric mutual intelligibility with Standard Mandarin.