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Chinese Language

I. Do you know which is the language with the most native speakers in the world?

As you can probably guess, no, it is not English. English ranks at second position with about 400 million natives, not even half the amount of the native speakers of the most frequent language, Chinese. There are more than 1 Billion Chinese native speakers, about 850 million speak Mandarin (the standard Chinese, Pǔtōnghuà 普通话) which used to be the High Courts' officer’s standard language, the language of the “Mandarins”.

    ill. 24: Please speak Mandarin (Putonghua)! Qǐng jiǎng pǔtōnghuà !

    This signboard can be seen in many official places, like schools, universities, public squares etc.


II. What about other languages or dialects?

Besides Mandarin, over 250 million Chinese still speak local dialects of which the 4 most important ones are:

1. Wu (about 90 million speakers with a huge amount of strong local variations): Mainly spoken in the Shanghai agglomeration and neighbor provinces: in Zhejiang province, in southern Jiangsu province as well as in smaller parts of Anhui -, Jiangxi- and Fujian province.

2. Min (about 70 million speakers): The most widely spoken variety of Min is Hokkien which is still spoken in Zhejiang-, Fujian-, Ningbo-, Guangdong- and Hainan-Province as well as in Taiwan and Amoy

3. Cantonese (about 70 million speakers): This dialect is primarily spoken in Guangdong province and in Hong Kong

4. Hakka (about 35 million speakers): This dialect is mainly spoken in Eastern Guangdong province and other south Chinese regions as well as in Fujian and Jiangxi province. Due to the frequent historic migration of the Hakka population, bigger communities can be found in many south Asian countries and, as with the other named dialect groups, in the whole world.

Besides mainland China, Chinese characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and occasionally in Vietnam.


III. Chinese in other countries

Chinese characters have also been used and in some cases continue to be used inside other languages, most significantly in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. The pronunciation is in general different, but meanings were maintained.

ill. 25: Worldmap of major Chinese settlements

  Countries identified with Chinese as a primary, administrative, or native language
  Countries with more than 5,000,000 Chinese speakers
  Countries with more than 1,000,000 Chinese speakers
  Countries with more than 500,000 Chinese speakers
  Countries with more than 100,000 Chinese speakers
  Major Chinese speaking settlements6


Chinese in Japanese:

The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of scripts:

  1. Kanjis (漢字): modified traditional Chinese characters
  2. Hiragana (e.g. ひらがな ): a set of sillabary symbols, used to form words grammatically
  3. Katakana (e.g. カタカナ): a set of sillabary symbols used for foreign borrowings and other sounds

Chinese in Korean:

Until the 15th century, literary Chinese was the only form of written communication in Korea. In the 15th century a national writing system was developed by Sejong the Great, currently called Hangul. (한국어/조선말,):

From the 15th to the 20th century, Korean used a mixed script and usually used Hanja (Chinese characters pronounced in the Korean way) whenever possible. Hangul was used to write only grammatical suffixes and native Korean words.

Using Hangul to write Sino-Korean words became common only in the 20th century. Since the 1970’s the overwhelming majority of print publications is written in Hangul only. Hanja still appears in many newspapers' headlines where they serve to both disambiguate and abbreviate (for example, 日 il for 日本 ilbon “Japan”), in academic literature, or judicial texts.

See e.g. the preamble of the constitution of the Republic of Korea)

悠久한 歷史와 傳統에 빛나는 우리 大韓國民은 3•1 運動으로 建立된 大韓民國臨時政府의法統과
不義에 抗拒한 4•19 民主理念을 繼承하고, 祖國의 民主改革과 平和的統一의 使命에 立脚하여 正
義•人道와 同胞愛로써 民族의 團結을 鞏固히 하고, 모든 社會的弊習과 不義를 打破하며, 自律과
調和를 바탕으로 自由民主的基本秩序를 더욱 確固히 하여 政治•經濟•社會•文化의 모든 領域에
있어서 各人의 機會를 均等히 하고, 能力을 最高度로 發揮하게 하며, 自由와 權利에 따르는 責任
과 義務를 完遂하게 하여, 안으로는 國民生活의 均等한 向上을 基하고 밖으로는 恒久的인 世界平
和와 人類共榮에 이바지함으로써 우리들과 우리들의 子孫의 安全과 自由와 幸福을 永遠히 確保
할 것을 다짐하면서 1948年 7月 12日에 制定되고 8次에 걸쳐 改正된 憲法을 이제 國會의 議決
을 거쳐 國民投票에 依하여 改正한다.
1987年 10月 29日

Chinese in Vietnamese

Similar to Japan and Korea, Chinese (called Hántu, especially literary Chinese) was used by the ruling classes. But here the characters were eventually adapted to write them in Vietnamese (these varying scripts were called Chữ nôm).

As the vernacular language of Vietnam gradually grew in prestige toward the beginning of the second millennium, the Vietnamese language at this time used a mix of Chinese characters, of Hántự and Chữ nôm, in a similar pattern as used with the Kanjis in Japan.

During French colonialism, French superseded Chinese in administration. The Vietnamese writing system in use today is an almost completely adapted version of the Latin alphabet with additional diacritics for tones and certain letters. Written classical Chinese can be seen only for governing purposes or, similar to Latin and Greek in European languages, it has left traces in abstract notions of ideas and concepts, while the pronunciation has been coined by a Vietnamese vernacular.


6 Map of sinophone world http://www.answers.com/topic/chinese-language. The author grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.