THE CHINESE LANGUAGE
First of all, the Chinese language is a part of the Sino Tibetan group, spoken by 1/6 of the Earth. Also, there is no space between pictograms, but only between sentences.
Do not make the mistake
If many wrongly talk about Chinese as a language in itself, in fact, the latter refers to a group of dialects.
The main dialects
China gathers about 300 dialects, still daily spoken, but some dozens might die in a near future.
First, Mandarin is by far the main one of all. With more than 850 million speakers, it is also the most spoken in the world in terms of native speakers. Then are Wu with almost 80 million speakers and Cantonese with more than 70 million speakers. After that come Min and Jin with about 60 and 45 million speakers. To that, we can add Xiang, Hakka and Gan which count for 30 to 40 million speakers. Finally, Hui and Ping complete this list with more than 3 and 2 million speakers.
Based on the legend, a man named Cang Jie (倉頡) gave birth to the first Chinese signs, nearly 5,000 years ago. After seeing how a hunter could identify the chased animal by its footprint, he built his first writing system. The latter allowed to know all things by an easy and fast mark.
The archaic Chinese is the oldest known form of spoken Chinese, dated before the Han dynasty from the first millennium BC. Actually, it was closer to Tibetan than to modern Chinese dialects. Under the Han, the Chinese "language" spread so that to unify the country. Through the dynasties, it then evolved into a Medieval Chinese form. But people spoke it in the 11th and 12th century only. At the time, we could already rank popular dialects and dialects reserved to scholars and official writings. Mandarin appeared in the Zhōngyuán Yīnyùn, a rhyming book published under the Yuan dynasty between 1269 and 1378. We consider this book as a cornerstone of the history of the language. However, until the 20th century, Chinese people living in South China did not speak Mandarin.
Far from clichés
At first glance, Chinese signs look complex. That is why we often think Mandarin as one of the most difficult dialects in the world.
However, syntax, grammar and tenses of them are straight forward. Only a word placed before or after the verb is enough to talk about past or future. As for the structure of a sentence, we just have to play with the order or words to avoid mistakes.
A story of tones
If there is no homonym in Chinese dialects, it is so true that we must respect tones at all costs. Please note that Mandarin counts 5 tones: high level, high rising, low falling rising, high falling and neutral. Indeed, tones give a word a total different meaning. Thus, even if we can pronounce a word on a same way, the tone used transforms its meaning. Of course, no confusion on paper as a same word with a different tone has its own symbol. But, depending on the region, a same word can have until 9 to 12 different tones, which may become crazy.
Above all, keep in mind that Chinese dialects are among the oldest living ones there is. For instance, the oldest written records found date from over 3,000 years ago. In fact, a series of inscribed graphs dates back to the 7th millennium BC. Although pictograms have evolved a lot, their system remains more or less the same. They fascinate not only for the multi millennia of history they carry, but also for their such graceful design.
First, Chinese signs purely take roots from real shapes, such as fish or human body. No more, no less. Second, beyond their beauty, it is very pleasant to note how well they reflect the refinement of Chinese culture through ages. Third, Chinese calligraphy is pure Art. And this, at any time of its existence, as shown here. Indeed, you just have to analyze the order with which we must paint each stroke to realize it. Not to mention the gesture and deeper meaning of every character which hide a real philosophy. Plus, there is no such thing as chance in the choice and quality of the ink, paper and brush paint. In short, they are just perfection.
Gave birth to others
Due to the empire expansion, China's culture and language spread to its neighbours. That is why Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese derive from Chinese. For centuries, Mandarin even got the status of language of administration and scholarship in these countries. Today, still 50% of Chinese words make language of these three foreign countries.
How they are formed
Most of the time, one sign requires between 1 to 3 parts and each part have its own meaning. In case of several parts, the first one is often a key. For instance, when you know that the key refers to an animal, you can then guess that the whole pictogram refers to an animal. The most complex ones are in fact a set of several symbols combined together.
Did you know that?
Have you ever wonder what was the most complex character? Here it is: biáng biáng miàn (noodles) which gather 56 to 70 strokes to make it, depending on the region. By the way, that reflect how eating is important there.
The Chinese lexicon never stops to grow. While it counted about 1,000 characters in year 100, the number reached 105,000 in 2004. Do not panic! 3,000 characters are enough to understand 99% of any hard papers.
Chinese signs can be designed in a couple of styles, or scripts. Among them, the Seal script is the oldest one still used, but only in artistic seals. Few people are able to read it with no effort. The Oracle Bone script is older but no longer used. Then come the Clerical script, Regular script mostly used for printing, and Semi cursive script for handwriting. That is not all as we also have the Cursive script, well know for its amazing beauty even if it is quite hard to read. Also, other scripts, born outside China, exist.
FROM THE 1950s
What a revolution! In order to foster the learning of Mandarin, China spread its system allowing to transcribe its signs into Latin script. Contrary to what most of people think, this system has existed since the 16th century.
The first of the most known ones was from the EFEO. The latter was very used until the last century, before being replaced by the pinyin which is the second one. The pinyin is now used woldwide for teaching. But not only, as schools use it with Chinese signs. Also, even parents use it to teach their children the sounds and tones of new words.
What does this term refer to? That consists in the overall reduction of the number of strokes of signs. Since the 1950s, but even more from the 1964 official list, the Chinese language has been simplified. Indeed, the country has agreed the using of simplified symbols in Mainland China. However, some places were not affected by the reform such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Also, there is no absolute rule for using either system. Actually, many debates took place before that date. The decision resulted from the will to greatly reduce functional illiteracy among adults, a major concern at the time.
If Mandarin counts for 9.2% of global speakers, experts plan a very slight increase by 2050 with 8% of global speakers only.
Two reasons can explain this fact:
- First, this dialect is largely limited to China. On the contrary, French is spread all over the world, should boom and reach 8% too.
- Second, when Chinese people go to foreign countries for business, they speak the local language. As in Africa, due to the fact that locals do not learn Mandarin. However, it should remain No 1 in terms of native speakers.
Also, China's economy has grown at a crazy rate over the past few decades. It is then poised to overtake the US to become the world's largest economy in the coming years. Thanks to that, Mandarin is now a trendy language and should soon be the second most spoken language in trade relations, after English. Its dominance throughout South and East Asia has made its language to be one of the most sought after in the labour market.
It is now the second most popular language among Internet users, as well. If the web use grows again in the main Asian countries, it might even overtake English as the most used language on the web.