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Introduction To The Chinese Language
Copyright ? Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World, Published by Routledge, with modifications by Samuel Chong

Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. Since estimates of the current population of China are only approximate, figures for the number of speakers of Chinese must likewise be approximate. An educated guess would be about 1.1 billion in the People's Republic of China, to which must be added another 20 million on Taiwan, 5 million in Hong Kong, 4 million in Malaysia, l? million in Singapore, one million in Vietnam, and lesser numbers in other countries including the United States. Thus Chinese has more than twice the number of speakers of English, though of course it lacks the universality of English and is spoken by few people not of Chinese origin. Chinese has been an official language of the United Nations since the founding of the organization in 1945.

Though Chinese has many dialects, Mandarin, based on the pronunciation of Beijing, is considered the standard and is spoken by about two-thirds of the population. The other major dialects are (I) Wu, spoken by about 50 million people in the Shanghai area and in Zhejiang Province to the south; (2) Cantonese, spoken by about 45 million people in the extreme southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi; (3) Fukienese, or Min, spoken by about 45 million people, and generally subdivided into Northern Fukienese, or Foochow (15 million speakers), of northern Fujian, and Southern Fukienese, or Amoy (30 million speakers), of southern Fujian, Amoy Island, and Taiwan; (4) Hakka, with 20 million speakers in northeastern Guangdong and southern Jiangxi provinces; (5) Xiang, with 15 million speakers in Hunan Province. In addition the Fukienese dialects are widely spoken in Malaysia and Singapore, while Cantonese is also spoken in Hong Kong and on the Southeast Asia mainland. Nearly all Chinese in the United States speak Cantonese.

Chinese, like the other languages of the Sino-Tibetan family, is a tonal language, meaning that different tones, or intonations, distinguish words that otherwise are pronounced identically. The four Chinese tones are (I) flat tone; (2) rising tone; (3) low rising tone; (4) down tone. It is not unusual for a syllable to be pronounced in each of the four tones, each yielding a word with a completely different meaning. For example, Yi in tone one can mean, among other things, "one," "clothes," "doctor," and "to cure"; yi2 "aunt," "doubt, ""suitable," and "to shift"; yi3 "already," "because of," and "by"; yi4 "easy," "strange," "benefit," and the number "100 million."

One thing about Mandarin, in contrast to Cantonese and Min, is that a large percentage of vocabulary items are polysyllabic--mostly disyllabic. When people read about all those homophonous monosyllables in the various tones, they are intimidated. However, in the spoken language, no one says just "yi1" when they mean "doctor"--they say "yi1sheng1". And, when they mean "clothes", they say "yi1fu" or "yi1shang". Nor do they say "yi4" when they mean "easy"--they say "rong2yi4". (Notice that the languages that are more monosyllabic also have much more complex syllable structures.)

Chinese is written with thousands of distinctive characters called ideographs which most of the times have little relation to the sound of a word. In a large dictionary there are 40-50,000 characters, while the telegraphic code book contains nearly 10,000. A Chinese child learns about 2,000 characters by the time he is ten, but it takes two or three times as many to be able to read a newspaper or novel. One kind of Chinese type-writer has 5,400 characters. The number of strokes required to draw a Chinese character can be as high as 36.

The earliest Chinese characters were pictographs, such as a crescent for the moon, or a circle with a dot in the center to represent the sun. Gradually these gave way to nonpictorial ideographs which, in addition to standing for tangible objects, also represented abstract concepts. Today two characters "sometimes the same, sometimes different" often stand side by side to form a third. Thus two "tree" characters mean "forest," while "sun" + "moon" = "bright" and "woman" + "child" = "good." No matter how many single characters are combined into one, the resulting character always has the same square appearance and is the same size as any other character.

The majority of Chinese characters, however, consist of two elements: a signific, which indicates the meaning of a word, and a phonetic, which indicates the sound. The significs, or radicals, number 214 in Chinese, and indicate the class of objects to which the word belongs. For example, all words relating to wood, such as "tree" and "table," contain the "wood" radical. The phonetic consists of the character for a word whose meaning is totally unrelated to the word in question, but whose pronunciation happens to be the same. Thus the character for "ocean" consists of the signific "water" plus the phonetic "sheep," the word for "sheep" being pronounced the same as the word for "ocean."

Despite their apparent complexity, the Chinese characters do have the advantage of making written communication possible between people speaking mutually unintelligible dialects and languages. A given word may be quite different in Mandarin and Cantonese, but it would be written identically in the two dialects. Since the Chinese characters are also used in Japanese, each language, when written, is partially intelligible to a speaker of the other, despite the fact that the two spoken languages are totally grammatically dissimilar. 

Numerous attempts have been made over the years to simplify the Chinese system of writing. In 1955 the Chinese People's Republic initiated a plan to simplify more than 1,700 characters, this number to be increased gradually so that over half of the most commonly used symbols would eventually be simplified. But the ultimate hope for easy readability of Chinese would appear to be an alphabetic script. In 1958 a new Chinese alphabet based on the Roman script was introduced, but thus far it appears to have made little headway.  See more information about "Learn Chinese Characters"

English words of Chinese origin include tea, typhoon, fengshui, qigong, kowtow, and Shanghai.

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