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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Chinese - The Sinitic Languages

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Err...what should we do today?

Today let's talk about Chinese.

No, let's talk about written Chinese.

No, let's talk about classical Chinese.

Or, maybe standard Chinese.

No, no, we're gonna talk about various Chinese dialects.

Okay, let's just talk about all of them.

[Traditional Chinese Music]

Hello everyone, welcome to the Langfocus and my name is Paul.

Today we're going to talk about Chinese.

But, the big question is:

What do I mean when I say 'Chinese'?

The word 'Chinese' refers to standard Chinese which is based on Mandarin,

but it also refers to a large group of languages and dialects spoken throughout China and indeed, throughout the world.

Chinese languages, also called Sinitic languages, are a sub-family of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Chinese is not a single language, but rather a number of related dialect groups,

which are united by a common written language, a common writing system.

Some people consider them all Chinese dialects, but I'm going to refer to these dialect groups as distinct languages,

because in many cases they are unintelligible.

All Chinese languages are tonal languages

The meaning of a word depends on the tone or the tones that you say it with.

狮, 十, 是.

If you change the tone, the meaning of the word changes.

There are more than 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese, if we include all its varieties.

Standard Chinese, generally referred to as Mandarin, is the official language of The People's Republic of China,

The Republic of China, also known as Taiwan or Chinese Taipei.

And it's one of the four official languages of Singapore.

Chinese languages are also spoken in lots of diaspora communities throughout Asia,

like in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, and in different communities around the world.


The Sinitic languages, or, the Chinese languages developed from Proto-Sino-Tibetan,

which existed perhaps around 4000 BCE.

The earliest written examples of Chinese are from around 1250 BCE.

They were written using a form of Chinese called the Oracle Bone Script,

which was carved onto turtle shells and animal bones,

which were used for divination.

Like a kind of fortune telling.

A more recognisable form of Old Chinese

developed during the Zhou dynasty between 1046 to 256 BCE

It can be found on bronze sculptures from that time period, as well as in some literature, like 'Classic of Poetry'.

It's generally thought that during this early time period Chinese had not yet developed tones.

Those developed later in the transition to Middle Chinese.

The form of written Chinese that developed between this period and the end of the Han dynasty, in the 3rd century CE,

is known as classical Chinese, or literary Chinese.

Classical Chinese continued to be used as the formal written language until the beginning of the 20th century

Spoken Chinese continued to evolve into Middle Chinese 中古汉语.

Middle Chinese is the ancestor of almost all Modern Chinese varieties.

The exception is Min Chinese, which developed earlier, maybe during the Han period.

Middle Chinese was not a single unified language but consistent of a number of mutually intelligible dialects

that began diverging in different directions around the 10th century CE.

And you probably hear me say that every time I talk about a language family.

Those local varieties of Chinese continued to develop in their own directions as distinct languages over the centuries.

With a lot of local dialectal variation within each language.

As I mentioned before, classical Chinese was being used as the formal written language,

but during this time period, written vernacular Chinese also developed alongside it.

Written vernacular Chinese refers to ways of writing Chinese that reflect the spoken language in its different varieties.

These forms of Chinese were used for some informal writing.

People were already writing in written vernacular Chinese during the Tang and Sung dynasties,

from the 7th-13th centuries CE.

Old Mandarin


After the Northern Sung dynasty, and during the Jin and Yuan dynasties,

a language recognisable as a form of Mandarin was spoken.

This variety of Chinese is known as Old Mandarin.

The Yuan dynasty was a period of Mongol control of China.

The wars leading up to the Mongol conquest caused large scale migration of Old Mandarin speakers to the South.

This spread early Mandarin dialects to more areas, and also had an influence on other emerging Chinese languages.

During the Ming and Quing dynasties,

an official administrative language was created on the Mandarin dialect of the capital, Nanjing,

with some features of other dialects as well.

This was the first point at which the language became referred to as 'Mandarin',


which means 'speech of officials'.

We now refer to the stage of the language as Middle Mandarin.

In the late 19th century, towards the end of the Ch'ing dynasty,

the specific dialect of Beijing started to grow in importance and became the new high variety of Chinese,

replacing the older high variety which was based on a number of different dialects.

At the beginning of the 20th century,

a form of written vernacular Chinese based on a number of Mandarin dialects

was introduced as the new official written language instead of classical Chinese.

But it was later decided that the new official language should be based specifically on the Beijing dialect.

This new standard language was called 普通話,

which means common language, or,

國語, which means national language.

People often refer to this standard language as Mandarin because it's based on the Mandarin dialect of Beijing,

but, to be precise, the word 'Mandarin' refers to a range of Northern dialects.

Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, now fulfils the role that classical Chinese used to fulfil,

as the official written language that's used by speakers of all varieties of Chinese, for most purposes.

But, written vernacular languages still do exist and are used for some informal situations.

So, how many varieties of Chinese are there?

Well, that depends on how you're counting and categorising them,

but it's often said that there are over 200 distinct varieties of Chinese,

which comprise around 13 distinct dialect groups.

The local dialects within each of these groups are often intelligible,

so it's reasonable to consider these groups as languages.

At least I think so!

Out of these 13 groups of dialects, there are seven that are generally considered as major.

These are:

Mandarin, 官話; Yue, 廣東話; Xiang, 湘語; Min, 閩語; Gan, 贛語; Wu, 吳語 and Hakka, 客家話.

The writing system

Chinese is written in Chinese characters, or, 漢字.

Hànzì are logograms, single characters that represent entire words, or entire units of meaning.

For example, this character means 'China', and this character means 'character',

as in, a written character,

and together they mean 'Chinese character', or, hànzì, the kind we're talking about.

These characters need to be learned one by one,

because just knowing the pronunciation of a word doesn't give you any indication of how to write it.

Speakers of all varieties of Chinese typically write in standard Chinese, or Mandarin,

even though their spoken language is different.

When they're reading standard Chinese out loud,

they'll probably pronounce each character the way it's pronounced in their local variety of Chinese.

This has led to the common misconception that

all Chinese languages are exactly the same except

for their pronunciation.

The fact is Chinese languages often

differ in grammar and vocabulary as well pronunciation.

The various forms of written vernacular Chinese that developed alongside classical Chinese

still exist today, alongside standard Chinese.

They're only used in some limited situations,

but, Cantonese in particular is fairly widely used, from what I understand.

Most of the characters used are the same,

but they'll be pronounced differently, and some different characters might be used to represent the different vocabulary,

and the order of the characters might be different to represent the different syntax.


As previously mentioned, Chinese languages are tonal,

that means that tones are one part of the pronunciation that can change the meaning of a word.

The same written word can be pronounced very differently in different Chinese languages.

This is the word for 'telephone'.

First, in Mandarin:


Next, in Cantonese:


In Shanghainese:


And in Hakka:


Let me explain a little further.

Mandarin has four main tones, plus one neutral tone.

The tones are:

Number 1, a high flat tone; 2, a rising tone; 3, a falling-rising tone;

4, a falling tone; and 5, the neutral tone.

Meaning that syllable is not distinguished by tone at all.

Mā, má, mă, mà, ma.

Now, Cantonese has six tones.

The six Cantonese tones are:

Number 1, a high flat tone; 2, a mid-rising tone; 3, a mid-flat tone;

4, a low-falling tone; 5, a low-rising tone; and 6, a low flat tone.

Sī, sí, si, sìh, síh, sih.

Shanghainese has a different type of tone system entirely.

It's more of a pitch accent system like Japanese.

The are really only two tones: high and low,

and the tone of the first syllable determines the tone pattern of the following syllables.


Here, the first syllable has a low tone, which depends on the character.

That makes the second syllable high and it doesn't matter what character it is.

Tone is only connected to meaning in the first syllable.

Word order

There are both similarities and differences in the word orders of Chinese languages.

Mandarin is generally SVO, though it's SOV in some structures.

And Cantonese is also SVO, more so than Mandarin.

Shanghainese and other Wu dialects are both SVO and SOV.

So in Mandarin, we have:


Which means 'I drink juice'.

Here's the subject, verb and object.

And in Cantonese:


Again, subject, verb, object.

And now, in Shanghainese:


In these examples, in turns out that the word order's the same,

but notice that each language uses a different character for the verb, to reflect different vocabulary.

Let's look at another element of word order.

Mandarin places an indirect object before the direct object.

Cantonese places it after the direct object,

like in this sentence, which means 'give me the book'.

In Mandarin:


So word for word it's 'give me book'.

And in Cantonese:


Word for word it's 'give book me'.

And if you imagine a 'to' in their, it's like 'give book to me'.

Also notice the character for 'give' is different here.

And in Shanghainese:


Here the word order is like Mandarin, but notice the different word for 'give',

and the variant character for 'me'.

Another example difference:

Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, places the adverb before the verb.

This sentence means: 'I'll go first'.

In Mandarin it's:


Word for word it's 'I first go'.

But Cantonese places the adverb after the verb.


Word for word it's 'I go first'.

And in Shanghainese:


Here, the main word order is the same as Mandarin, with the adverb before the verb.

But notice the additional particles at the end,

which are for exclamation, but don't have any core meaning.

Another example difference:

Mandarin places the adjective after the noun.

So the phrase meaning 'strong wind' -

in Mandarin it's literally 'wind strong'.


Cantonese places the adjective before the noun, so literally it's 'strong wind'.


And in Shanghainese:


Here, the adjective comes after the noun, just like in Mandarin,

but notice that one of the two characters is different.

Those are just a few samples of the variation between the different Chinese languages and their dialects.

We could go very deeply into these differences, but that's beyond the scope of this general video.

One other difference we should talk about though,

is that there are two different systems for writing Chinese characters.

There are traditional characters, the ones that are written as they were in classical Chinese,

and then there are simplified characters, which were created in the 1950s and '60s to increase literacy.

Simplified characters are used in the People's Republic of China and in Singapore.

Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong and Macau,

which were not under Chinese rule when simplified characters were introduced.

They are also used in many Chinese diaspora communities.

Here's a traditional character on the left, and here's its simplified equivalent on the right.

So you can see that they are different and it's probably easier to write the simplified one,

but despite the differences literate native speakers generally have no trouble reading either

type of character.

As you can see, the Sinitic language family, which is often called Chinese,

is a large diverse group of languages and dialects which are often unintelligible.

What unites them all together is their shared origin, growing out of Middle Chinese

and the classical Chinese literary tradition,

and they're also united by a common written language, which is learned and understood by

speakers of all Chinese varieties.

However, even those speakers of different Chinese languages can easily communicate with each other

in writing, that shared writing system isn't enough to help them communicate verbally without

specifically learning Mandarin.

This is a good reason to consider Chinese a group of languages, or a language family,

rather than a single language with many dialects.

So, the question of the day:

To native speakers of any variety of Chinese:

Do you consider Chinese to be a group of distinct languages?

Or do you consider it one language with a lot of dialectal variation?

And I'm just asking you to explain the way that you personally think about it,

so there's no right or wrong answer, here.

And for people who have studied any variety of Chinese:

Just tell us something that you've found fascinating about your journey with that language.

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And once again, I'd like to say thank you to all of my fantastic Patreon supporters,

especially these amazing people right here on the screen.

Thank you for watching, and have a nice day.


The Description of Chinese - The Sinitic Languages