Is there a single Chinese language?

Last Updated December 14, 2020

For most of us the Chinese language is equivalent with Mandarin, as this is the most commonly used variety of this language, somehow imposed on the citizens by the central authorities. So where can we find the “real” Chinese language, if such exists at all?

Instead of being a language, Chinese can be said to be rather a set of dialects belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. In China, just like in Arab countries, there is diglossia, i.e. differences between the spoken language and the official one. Standard Chinese based on Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, Singapore and Taiwan. Although most texts are written in this language, they are read and pronounced in local dialects. Standard Chinese is taught at schools and it is used in the public space. What is common to the whole country is the Chinese writing – though it is read with different accents and differently pronounced depending on the region.

Diglossia has its consequences. Most television programs (made in standard Chinese) are show with subtitles in the local dialect, which is due to considerable differences in the pronunciation between the various regional dialects.

Politics and the language

The political situation in China is also reflected in the linguistic reality of this country. The government has led to downgrading various Chinese languages to dialects and introducing a single standard Chinese language (Mandarin). It is based on Cantonese, but is not identical with it. Mandarin itself evolved yet in the days of the Chinese Empire and was widely used by the then officials (mandarins – hence its name).

The common speech (as this is the translation of the official name: Pŭtōnghuà) was introduced in 1956. This measure was intended to highlight the internal policy of China and unify the ethnically and culturally divided country. The authorities’ aim – to eliminate the local languages – was achieved to a certain extent only, which definitely did not satisfy the authorities of the PRC. The extinction of the languages was supposed to eliminate cultural divisions present in China, which was to minimize the risk of fragmentation of the country and possible revolts.

Variety prevails

As already mentioned, in their everyday lives, the Chinese use the language/dialect prevailing where they live, and it does not seem that the standard language can be used also in Chinese homes. There are seven major groups of the Chinese language, of which each is divided into at least another few regional varieties.

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