|March 8, 2014|
|states=China (the People's Republic of China|PRC and the Republic of China|ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Chinese communities around the world
|speakers=1.2 billion|rank=1 (if considered a single language)
|nation=People's Republic of China|PRC, Republic of China|ROC, Singapore
|agency=In the PRC: http://www.china-language.gov.cn/ various agencies(in Chinese)
in the ROC: Mandarin Promotion Council
|iso1=zh|iso2=chi (B) / zho (T)|sil= --
The Chinese language (汉语/漢語, 华语/華語, or 中文; Pinyin: H?nyǔ, Hu?yǔ, or Zhōngw?n) is a tonal language and a member of the Sino-Tibetan languages|Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Although Chinese is often regarded for cultural reasons as a single language, its range of regional variation is comparable to that of the Romance languages. However, all of the users of spoken varieties of Chinese have always used a common formal written language, which has since the beginning of the twentieth century been Vernacular Chinese (based on Standard Mandarin|Mandarin), written using a nearly identical set of Chinese characters.
About one-fifth of the world speaks some form of Chinese as their native language, making it the language with the most native speakers. The Chinese language, spoken in the form of Standard Mandarin, is the official language of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore, and one of six official languages of the United Nations. Spoken in the form of Standard Cantonese, Chinese is one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English language|English) and of Macao (together with Portuguese language|Portuguese).
Image:Zhongwen.png|frame|left|"Chinese (written) language" (pinyin: zhōngw?n) written in Chinese characters
The terms and concepts used by Chinese to separate spoken language from written language are different from those used in the West, because of differences in the political and social development of China in comparison with Europe. Whereas Europe fragmented into smaller nation-states after the fall of the Roman Empire, the identities of which were often defined by language, China was able to preserve cultural and political unity through the same period, and maintained a common written language throughout its entire history, despite the fact that its actual diversity in spoken language has always been comparable to Europe. As a result, Chinese makes a sharp distinction between "written language" (w?n; 文) and "spoken language" (yǔ; 語). The concept of a distinct and unified combination of both written and spoken forms of language is therefore much stronger in the West than in China.
main|Chinese spoken language
<!--This is a SUMMARY. Please add new information to Chinese spoken language.-->
Image:Y-NL400b.gif|right|thumb|280px|The varieties of spoken Chinese in China
The map on the right depicts the subdivisions ("languages" or "dialect groups") within Chinese. The seven main groups are:
Linguists who distinguish ten instead of seven major groups separate the following groups:
There are also many smaller groups that are not yet classified, such as: Danzhou dialect, spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island; Xianghua (乡话), not to be confused with Xiang (湘), spoken in western Hunan; and Shaozhou Tuhua, spoken in northern Guangdong. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.
There is also Standard Mandarin, the official standard language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Singapore. Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, which is the dialect of Mandarin (linguistics)|Mandarin as spoken in Beijing, and the governments intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it as a common language of communication. It is therefore used in government, in the media, and in instruction in schools.
There is much controversy around the terminology used to describe the subdivisions of Chinese, with some preferring to call Chinese a language and its subdivisions dialects, and others preferring to call Chinese a language family and its subdivisions languages. Even though Dungan language|Dungan is very closely related to Mandarin, not many people consider it "Chinese", because it is written in Cyrillic and spoken by Dungan|people outside of China who are not considered Overseas Chinese|Chinese in any sense.
It is common for speakers of Chinese to be able to speak several varieties of the language. Typically, in southern China, a person will be able to speak Standard Mandarin, the local dialect, and occasionally a more general regional dialect, such as Cantonese (linguistics)|Cantonese. Such polyglots will frequently code-switching|code switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect, depending on the situation. A person living in Taiwan, for example, will commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese (linguistics)|Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered socially appropriate under many circumstances.
Is Chinese a language or a family of languages?
Spoken Chinese comprises many regional and often mutually unintelligible variants. In the West, many people are familiar with the fact that the Romance languages all derive from Latin and so have many underlying features in common while being mutually unintelligible. The linguistic evolution of Chinese is similar, while the socio-political context is quite different.
In Europe, political fragmentation gave rise to independent states which are roughly the size of Chinese provinces. This in turn generated a political desire to create separate cultural and literary standards to differentiate nation-states and to standardize the language within a nation-state. In China, a single cultural and literary standard (Classical Chinese and later, Vernacular Chinese) continued to exist while at the same time the spoken language continued to diverge between different cities and counties, much in the same manner as European languages diverged from each other, as a result of the sheer scale of the country, and the obstruction of communication by geography.
As a case in point, mountainous South China displays more linguistic diversity than the flat North China. There's even a saying in Chinese, n?n chu?n běi mǎ (南船北馬), meaning "Boats in the South and horses in the North." The flat plains of northern China allows one to cross with relative ease using a horse, but the dense vegetation and numerous mountains and rivers of the south prevented this. In southern China, the most efficient means of transportation was by boat. For instance, Wuzhou is a city that lies about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in the south. By contrast, Taishan is only 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou, but several rivers must be crossed in order to reach it. Because of this, the dialect spoken in Taishan, relative to the dialect spoken in Wuzhou, has actually diverged more from the Standard Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou (Ramsey, 1987).
This diversity in spoken forms and commonality in written form has created a linguistic context that is very different from that of Europe. For example, in Europe, the language of a nation-state was usually standardized to be similar to that of the capital, making it easy, for example, to classify a language as French or Spanish. This had the effect of sharpening linguistic differences. A farmer on one side of the border would start to model his speech after Paris while a farmer on the other side would model his speech after Madrid. Moreover, the written language would be modelled after the dialect of the capital, and the use of local speech or mixtures of local speech would be considered substandard and erroneous. In China, this standardization did not occur.
More relevant to China's situation is that of India. Though India has historically not been as unified as China, parts of it speaking multiple languages have long been united in various states, and many of the List of Indian languages by total speakers|languages have not until the last few decades been standardized through political centralization. Sanskrit long played a role as a common written language. In India, however, the status of the different descendant languages of Sanskrit as separate languages is not in question; 16 of them are official languages.
Few linguists would seriously hold that Cantonese and Mandarin are the same language in the way they use the term, but for the popular classification of a speech variety as a language or dialect, linguistic considerations are often not as important as cultural or nationalistic ones. In self-description, Chinese people generally consider Chinese to be one single language, partly because of the common written language. In order to describe dialects, Chinese people typically use the speech of location, for example Beijing dialect (北京話/北京话) for the speech of Beijing or Shanghai dialect (上海話/上海话) for the speech of Shanghai. Often there is not even any awareness among laypeople that these various "dialects" are then categorized into "languages" based on mutual intelligibility, though in areas of greater linguistic diversity (such as the southeast) people do think of dialects as being grouped into categories like Wu (linguistics)|Wu or Hakka (linguistics)|Hakka. So although it is true that many parts of north China are quite homogeneous in language, while in parts of south China, major cities can have dialects that are only marginally intelligible even to close neighbours, there is a tendency to regard all of these as "Chinese dialects" — equal subvariations of a single Chinese language. As with the concept of Chinese language itself, the divisions among different "dialects" are mostly geographical rather than based on linguistic distance. For example, Sichuan dialect is considered as being distinct from Beijing dialect in the same way that Cantonese is, despite the fact that linguistically Sichuan dialect and Beijing dialect are both considered Mandarin dialects by linguists while Cantonese is not.
Due to this self-perception of a single Chinese language by the majority of its speakers, some linguists respect this terminology, and use the word "language" for Chinese and "dialect" for Cantonese, but most follow the intelligibility requirement and consider Chinese to be a group of related languages, since these languages are not at all mutually intelligible, and show ranges of variation comparable to those among the Romance languages. As with many areas that have been linguistically diverse for a long time, whether the speech of a particular area of China should be considered a language in its own right or a dialect of another is not always clear, and many of the languages do not have sharp boundaries between them. The Ethnologue lists a total of http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=1270 fourteen, but the number varies between seven and seventeen depending on how strict the intelligibility criterion is.
The distinction between a single language and a language family has major political overtones, and the amount of emotion put into this issue arises from political implications. To some, the description of Chinese as a language family implies that China should actually be considered several different nations, and challenges the notion that there is a single Han Chinese "race". For this reason, some Chinese are uncomfortable with the idea that Chinese is not a single language, as this perception might legitimize secessionist movements. Supporters of Taiwanese independence do tend to be strong promoters of Min- and Hakka-language education, for example. Furthermore, for some, the implication that describing Chinese as multiple languages is more correct carries with it the implication that the notion of a single Chinese language and a single Chinese state or nationality is backward, oppressive, artificial, and out of touch with reality.
However, the links between ethnicity, politics, and language can be complex. For example, many Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese speakers who would consider their own varieties to be separate spoken languages, and the Han Chinese race to be a single entity, do not regard these two positions as contradictory; instead they consider the Han Chinese to be an entity that is, and has always been, characterized by great internal diversity. Moreover, the government of the People's Republic of China officially states that China is a Nationalities of China|multinational state, and that the very term "Chinese" refers to a broader concept called Zhonghua minzu that incorporates groups that do not natively speak Chinese at all, such as Tibetan people|Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongols. (Those that do speak Chinese and are considered "ethnic Chinese" from an outsider point of view are called Han Chinese — this is seen as an ethnic and cultural concept, not a political one.) Similarly on Taiwan, one can find supporters of Chinese unification who are also interested in promoting the local language, and supporters of Taiwan independence who have little interest in the topic. And, in an analogy to the mainland Chinese idea of Zhonghua minzu, the Taiwanese identity also incorporates Taiwanese aborigines, who are not at all considered Han Chinese because they speak Austronesian languages, predate Han Chinese migration to Taiwan, and are culturally and genetically linked to other Austronesian-speaking peoples such as the Polynesians.
main|Chinese written language
<!--This is a SUMMARY. Please add new information to Chinese written language.-->
The relationship among the Chinese spoken and written languages is complex. This complexity is compounded by the fact that the numerous variations of spoken Chinese have gone through centuries of evolution since at least the late Han Dynasty, while written Chinese has changed much less.
Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was done in w?ny?n (文言), translated as Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese, which was very different from any of the spoken varieties of Chinese in much the same way that Classical Latin is different from modern Romance languages. Since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the formal standard for written Chinese was changed to b?ihu? (白話/白话), or Vernacular Chinese, which, while not completely identical to the grammar and vocabulary of Mandarin, was based mostly on it. The term standard written Chinese now refers to Vernacular Chinese.
Chinese characters are understood as morphemes that are independent of phonetic change. Thus, although the number one is "yi" in Mandarin (linguistics)|Mandarin, "yat" in Cantonese (linguistics)|Cantonese and "tsit" in Min-nan|Hokkien, they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and still share an identical character: 一. Nevertheless, the orthographies of Chinese dialects are not completely identical. The vocabularies used in the different dialects have diverged. In addition, while literary vocabulary is often shared among all dialects, colloquial vocabularies are often different. Colloquially written Chinese usually involves the use of "dialectal characters" which may not be understood in other dialects or characters that are considered archaic in standard written Chinese.
Cantonese is unique among non-Mandarin regional languages in having a widely used written colloquial standard with a large number of unofficial characters for words particular to this variety of Chinese. By contrast, the other regional languages do not have such widely used alternative written standards. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging, although for formal written communications Cantonese speakers still normally use standard written Chinese.
<!--This is a SUMMARY. Please add new information to Chinese character.-->
The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin h?nz?), a systems based on logograms, where each symbol represents a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language). Chinese characters appear to have originated some time during the Shang dynasty. Initially, characters were pictures of their meanings with and without much abstract meaning, but as time passed the characters evolved to express a more complex language as well as becoming highly stylized . Today, the vast majority of characters consist of one element (the radical) that gives an indication of meaning, and another element (the phonetic) that gives (or at least once gave) a fairly good indication of the pronunciation. Easily recognizable pictorial resemblances to real-life objects have been all but lost through stylization.
Image:shodo.jpg|thumb|250px|Various styles of Chinese calligraphy.
Many styles of Chinese calligraphy|Chinese calligraphic writing developed over the centuries, such as seal script|zhuanshu (篆書, seal-script), caoshu (草書, grass script), lishu (隸書, official script) and kaishu (楷書, standard script). As with Latin script, a wide variety of fonts exists for printed Chinese characters, a great number of which are often based on the styles of single calligraphers or schools of calligraphy.
There are currently two standards for Chinese characters. One is the Traditional Chinese character|Traditional system, used in Taiwan. Mainland China and Singapore have adopted a Simplified Chinese character|simplified system developed by the PRC government in the 1950s, that reduced the amount of strokes needed to write certain radicals as well as reducing the number of synonymous characters. Most simplified versions were derived from historically established, though obscure, cursive simplifications. Hong Kong and Macau use mainly the Traditional system, but for some characters they have adopted the simplified form. In Taiwan, many simplifications are used when characters are handwritten, whereas in printing, traditional characters are the norm. In addition, most Chinese use some personal simplifications.
Most linguists classify all of the variations of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, similar to Indo-European languages|Proto Indo-European, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relations between Chinese and the other Sino-Tibetan languages are still unclear and an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is very good documentation that allows us to reconstruct the ancient sounds of Chinese, there is no written documentation concerning the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and Chinese. In addition, many of the languages that would allow us to reconstruct proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly documented or understood.
Categorization of the development of Chinese is a subject of scholarly debate. One of the first systems was devised by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren; what follows is a modern revision of his system.
Old Chinese (上古漢語), sometimes known as 'Archaic Chinese', was the language common during the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC)|Zhou Dynasty (11th to 7th centuries B.C.), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the Shijing, the history of the Shujing, and portions of the Yijing (I Ching). The phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters also provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynasty philologists.
Middle Chinese (中古漢語) was the language used during the Sui dynasty|Sui, Tang dynasty|Tang, and Song dynasty|Song dynasties (7th through 10th centuries A.D.). It can be divided into an early period, to which the 切韻 'Qieyun' rime book | rhyme table (A.D. 601) relates, and a late period in the 10th, which the 廣韻 'Guangyun' rime book | rhyme table reflects. Linguists are confident of having a good reconstruction of how Middle Chinese sounded. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries, and foreign transliterations. In addition, ancient Chinese philologists devoted a great deal of effort to summarizing the Chinese phonetic system through "rhyming tables", and these tables serve as a basis for the work of modern linguists. Finally, Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words also provide plenty of clues about the nature of Middle Chinese phonetics. However, all reconstructions are tentative; scholars have shown, for example, that trying to reconstruct modern Cantonese from the rhymes of modern Cantopop would give a very inaccurate picture of the language.
The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. The language tree shown below indicates how the present main divisions of the Chinese language developed out of an early common language. Comparison with the map above will give some idea of the complexities that have been left out of the tree. For instance, the Min language that is centered in Fujian Province contains five subdivisions, and the Mandarin dialects (Beifanghua) also contains nine, such as Yunnan hua and Sichuan hua.
Image:Chinese language tree plain.png|725px|Chinese language tree
Most Chinese living in northern China, in Sichuan and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home language. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is largely the result of geography, namely the plains of north China. By contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have promoted linguistic diversity. The presence of Mandarin in Sichuan is largely due to a plague in the 12th century. This plague, which may have been related to the Black Death, depopulated the area, leading to later settlement from north China.
Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese living in southern China did not speak any Mandarin. However, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various Chinese dialects, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least during <!-- i.e., circa? --> the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up orthoepy academies (正音書院 zhengyin shuyuan) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard (Beijing being the capital of Qing), but these attempts had little success. During the last 50 years of the Qing Dynasty, in the late 19th century, the Nanjing Mandarin standard was finally replaced in the imperial court by Beijing Mandarin. For the general population, although variations of Mandarin were already widely spoken in China then, a single standard of Mandarin did not exist. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their regionalects for every aspect of life. The new Beijing Mandarin court standard was thus fairly limited.
This situation changed with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC) of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by a majority of people in Mainland China and in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese language|Cantonese, but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.
Throughout history Chinese culture and Chinese politics|politics has had a great influence on unrelated languages such as Korean language|Korean, Vietnamese language|Vietnamese, and Japanese language|Japanese. Korean and Japanese both have writing systems employing Chinese characters, which are called Hanja and Kanji, respectively. Vietnamese was, until the 19th century, written with Chu Nom, but this has now been completely replaced by a modified Latin script. In South Korea, the Hangul alphabet is generally used, but Hanja is used as a sort of boldface. (In North Korea, Hanja has been discontinued.) Since the modernization of Japan in the late 19th century, there has been debate about abandoning the use of Chinese characters, but the practical benefits of a radically new script have so far not been considered sufficient.
Languages within the influence of Chinese culture also have a very large number of loan words from Chinese. In Korean 50% or more of the vocabulary is of Chinese origin and the influence on Japanese and Vietnamese has been considerable. Chinese also shares a great many grammatical features with these and neighboring languages, notably the lack of grammatical gender|gender and the use of classifier (linguistics)|classifiers.
The phonology|phonological structure of each syllable consists of a syllable nucleus|nucleus consisting of a vowel (which can be a monophthong, diphthong, or even a triphthong in certain varieties) with an optional syllable onset|onset or syllable coda|coda consonant as well as a tone (linguistics)|tone. There are some instances where a vowel is not used as a nucleus. An example of this is in Cantonese (linguistics)|Cantonese, where the nasal consonant|nasal sonorant consonants IPA|/m/ and IPA|/ŋ/ can stand alone as their own syllable.
Across all the spoken varieties, most syllables tend to be open syllables, meaning they have no coda, but syllables that do have codas are restricted to bilabial nasal|IPA|/m/, alveolar nasal|IPA|/n/, velar nasal|IPA|/ŋ/, voiceless bilabial plosive|IPA|/p/, voiceless alveolar plosive|IPA|/t/, voiceless velar plosive|IPA|/k/, or voiceless glottal plosive|IPA|/ʔ/. Some varieties allow most of these codas, whereas others, such as Mandarin (linguistics)|Mandarin, are limited to only a couple, namely IPA|/n/ and IPA|/ŋ/. Consonant clusters do not generally occur in either the onset or coda. The onset may be an affricate consonant|affricate or a consonant followed by a semivowel, but these are not generally considered consonant clusters.
The number of sounds in the different spoken dialects varies, but in general there has been a tendency to a reduction in sounds from Middle Chinese. The Mandarin dialects in particular have experienced a dramatic decrease in sounds and as a result have far more multisyllabic words than most other spoken varieties. The total number of syllables in some varieties is therefore only about a thousand, including tonal variation.
All varieties of spoken Chinese use tone (linguistics)|tones. A few dialects of north China may have as few as three tones, while some dialects in south China have up to 6 or 10 tones, depending on how one counts. One exception from this is Shanghainese which has reduced the set of tones to a two-toned pitch accent system much like modern Japanese.
A very common example used to illustrate the use of tones in Chinese are the four main tones of Standard Mandarin applied to the syllable "ma". The tones correspond to these four Chinese character|characters:
Ruby|妈|mā, "mother" - high level
Ruby|麻|m?, "hemp" - high rising
Ruby|马|mǎ, "horse" - low falling-rising
Ruby|骂|m?, "scold" - high falling
Audio|zh-pinyin_tones_with_ma.ogg|Listen to the four tones.
Chinese morphology (linguistics)|morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction which are the morphemes, the smallest building blocks, of the language. Some of these morphemes can stand alone as individual word (linguistics)|words, but contrary to what is often claimed, Chinese is not a monosyllabic language. Most words in the modern Chinese spoken varieties are in fact multisyllabic, consisting of more than one morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.
The confusion arises in how one thinks about the language. In the Chinese writing system, each individual morpheme corresponds to a single character, referred to as a z? (字). Most Chinese speakers think of words as being z?, but this view is not entirely accurate. Many words are multisyllabic, and are composed of more than one z?. This composition is what is known as a c? (詞), and more closely resembles the traditional Western definition of a word. However, the concept of c? was historically a technical linguistic term that until only the past century, the average Chinese speaker was not aware of. Even today, most Chinese speakers think of words as being z?. This can be illustrated in the following Mandarin Chinese sentence (romanization|romanized using pinyin):
The sentence literally translates to, "Jī and guāng, these two z?, what do they mean?" However, the more natural English translation would probably be, "Laser, this word, what does it mean?" Even though jīguāng is a single word, speakers tend to think of its constituents as being separate (Ramsey, 1987).
Old Chinese and Middle Chinese had many more monosyllabic words due to greater variability in possible sounds. The modern Chinese varieties lost many of these sound distinctions, leading to homonyms in words that were once distinct. Multisyllabic words arose in order to compensate for this loss. Most natively derived multisyllabic words still feature these original monosyllabic morpheme roots though. Many Chinese morphemes still have associated meaning, even though many of them no longer can stand alone as individual words. This situation is analogous to the use of the English prefix pre-. Even though pre- can never stand alone by itself as an individual word, it is commonly understood by English speakers to mean "before," such as in the words predawn, previous, and premonition.
Taking the previous example, jīguāng, jī and guāng literally mean "stimulated light," resulting in the meaning, "laser." However, jī is never found as a single word by itself, because there are too many other morphemes that are also pronounced jī, for instance, the morphemes that correspond to the meanings "chicken" and "machine." It is only in the context of other morphemes can an exact meaning of a z? be known. In certain ways, the logographic writing system helps to reinforce meaning in z? that are homophonous, since even though several morphemes may be pronounced the same way, they are written using different characters. Continuing with the example, we have:
| prettytable align=center
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=red>激</font>光
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=red>激</font>光
|laser ("<font color=red>stimulated</font> light")
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=red>激</font>起
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=red>激</font>起
|to arouse ("<font color=red>stimulated</font> rise")
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=green>雞</font>蛋
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=green>鸡</font>蛋
|<font color=green>chicken</font> egg
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|公<font color=green>雞</font>
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|公<font color=green>鸡</font>
|rooster ("male <font color=green>chicken</font>")
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|飛<font color=blue>機</font>
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|飞<font color=blue>机</font>
|airplane ("flying <font color=blue>machine</font>")
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=blue>機</font>槍
|align=center style="font-size:larger"|<font color=blue>机</font>枪
|<font color=blue>machine</font> gun
Most Chinese words are formed out of native Chinese morphemes, including words describing imported objects and ideas. However, direct phonetic borrowing of foreign words has gone on since ancient times. Words borrowed from along the Silk Road in ancient times include 葡萄 "grape" and 苜蓿 "alfalfa". Other words were borrowed from Buddhism|Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 "Buddha" and 菩薩 "bodhisattva".
There is an official system for approximating foreign words using Chinese characters, but this sometimes yields strange results and is mainly used for rendering foreign names. Characters in this case are usually taken strictly for their phonetic values. Characters which are used exclusively in the transcription of foreign words are present in Chinese; many of these characters date back to Middle Chinese wherein they were used to translate Sanskrit phonemes.
Since transliteration is often cumbersome, new words that follow Chinese word building rules have been devised. For example, the word telephone was loaned as 德律風 (Standard Mandarin: d?lǜfēng) in the 1920s, but later 电话 (di?nhu? "electric speech") became prevalent. On the other hand, 麥克風 (m?ik?fēng), a transcription of microphone, remains popular, although 话筒 (hu?tǒng, "speech tube") is gradually replacing it. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as 汉堡包 (h?nbǎo bāo, "hambur bun") for hamburger. Technical expressions, if not derived from people's names, are often translated using Chinese morphemes, dropping any Latin or Greek language|Greek etymologies they may have, making them more comprehensible for Chinese but introducing more difficulties in understanding foreign texts. A rather small number of direct phonetic borrowings have survived as common words, including 幽默 "humour", 浪漫 "romance", 邏輯 "logic", and 歇斯底里 "hysterics".
Another important source came from a related writing system, kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. The Japanese used kanji to translate many European words in the late 19th century and early 20th century, which were then loaned into Chinese. Examples include l?chǎng (立場, たちば, stance), zh?xu? (哲學, てつがく, philosophy), chōuxi?ng (抽象, ちゅうしょう, abstract), gu?yǔ (國語, こくご, national language), and zhǔy? (主義, しゅぎ, -ism). Chinese and Japanese continue to share many terms describing modern terminology as a result of this to-and-fro process, in parallel to a similar sharing among European languages of such terms, built from Greco-Latin roots.
In general, all spoken varieties Chinese are isolating languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology (linguistics)|morphology (changes in the form of the word through inflection). Because they are isolating languages, they make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate grammatical aspect|aspect and grammatical mood|mood.
Chinese features Subject Verb Object word order, and like many other languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic-comment construction to form sentences. Even though Chinese has no grammatical gender, it has a extensive system of measure words, another trait shared with neighbouring (but not related) languages like Japanese language|Japanese and Korean language|Korean. See Chinese measure words for an extensive coverage of this subject.
Other notable grammatical features common to all the spoken varieties of Chinese include the use of serial verb construction, pro-drop language|pronoun dropping (and the related null subject language|subject dropping), and the use of aspect rather than grammatical tense|tense.
Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess certain differences. See Chinese grammar for the grammar of Standard Mandarin (the standardized Chinese spoken language), and the articles on other varieties of Chinese for their respective grammars.
Resources for students of Chinese
Resources on Chinese in general
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