You’ve probably heard of Mandarin and even Cantonese, but did you know there is not really one Chinese language? Rather, a collection of dialects/languages on a continuum of intelligibility. These dialects/languages are all a part of the Sino-Tibetan family, but there are even languages spoken in large parts of China that do not even belong to this family. Let’s get into it!
Picture credit: Babbel
Mandarin vs Cantonese:
When talking about “Chinese” the two you are most likely familiar with, or at least heard of, is Mandarin and Cantonese.
Mandarin, or 普通话 [pǔtōnghuà], is the official language of China, and the one spoken by the vast majority of Chinese citizens.
However, if you go to the Guangdong province or the bustling metropolitan city of Hong Kong, the language of the everyday citizen is Cantonese, or 广东话 [Gwóngdūng wá]. Spoken by almost 70 million worldwide, this is the second most popular Sinitic language (the family group encompassing Cantonese & Mandarin, as well as others).
What makes them different?
Pronunciation: One of the main differences between Cantonese and Mandarin. Cantonese has a tonal system with nine tones, while Mandarin has a tonal system with four tones. This means that the same word can have a different meaning depending on the tone used in Cantonese, while in Mandarin the tone may change the meaning of a word.
Grammar: Cantonese is more complex and has more particles compared to Mandarin. Cantonese also has a more complex system of verb tenses and verb aspects.
Vocabulary: Cantonese and Mandarin have some overlap, but there are also many words that are unique to each language. Cantonese has a lot of loanwords from other languages, while Mandarin has a greater number of loanwords from classical Chinese.
In addition to Mandarin and Cantonese, there are several other Sinitic languages spoken in China that are not as widely known. Here is a brief idea of where they are spoken and just how many people speak them.
- Hokkien: also known as Minnan, is spoken by around 60 million people in the Fujian province.
- Shanghainese: also known as the Shanghai dialect, is spoken by around 14 million people in the city of Shanghai and the surrounding areas.
- Wu: also known as Shanghainese, is spoken by around 90 million people in the same region.
- Min Dong: a dialect spoken by around 2.5 million people in the eastern part of Fujian province.
- Hakka: spoken by around 35 million people in southern China.
- Gan: spoken by around 20 million people in Jiangxi province.
- Xiang: spoken by around 38 million people in Hunan province.
- Jin: spoken by around 33 million people in the Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei provinces.
- Kejia: spoken by around 24 million people, the Hakka people in Guangdong and Fujian provinces. It’s important to note that these population numbers are approximate and may vary depending on the source.
Additionally, many of these languages have variations and sub-dialects spoken by different ethnic groups and minorities, and not all of them have accurate statistics.
Chinese Languages That Are Not Sinitic:
While a majority of China does speak a Sinitic-based language, there are huge populations of speakers that speak languages of different families or branches. There are many to talk about, but the most major three would be:
- Tibetan: spoken by around 6 million people in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai provinces. It is a Tibeto-Burman language and is the official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
- Mongolian: spoken by around 5 million people in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. It is a Mongolic language and is the official language of Inner Mongolia.
- Uighur: spoken by around 10 million people in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. It is a Turkic language and is one of the official languages of Xinjiang
It is also interesting to note that these provinces of China are also the most autonomous of the country.
So, is there just one Chinese language? No. China is an incredibly, linguistically diverse nation, and even just saying the “Chinese Language” carries over a billion speakers of interesting and varied languages. However, due to one thing or another, Mandarin has become the default Lingua Franca of the nation and of the Chinese population at large. However, if you are meeting a Chinese person in your life, or are taking one-to-one, online, Mandarin classes here at LangaugeBird, ask if they speak a regional dialect or language. This will open your eyes to just how diverse China can be and truly is!