A celebration of the Chinese language

The United Nations celebrates one of its six official languages, Chinese, on April 20th. Chinese Language Day marks the contribution of the Chinese language and culture to world culture.

Jia Fei, PhD, a senior lecturer teaching Chinese language and culture at Simon Fraser University (SFU) feels that the Chinese language is special and she hopes more people try to taste it. “Don’t be intimidated by others saying how hard it is to learn, try a little bit and it’ll be a very unique experience,” she says.

What is Chinese?

Over 3000 years ago, early Chinese writing appeared in the form of curved markings on oracle bones (usually turtle shells). Fei explains that written language varied in different regions of ancient China, only unifying during the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE. As China evolved through different dynasties so did the language.

Oracle bone from the reign of King Wu Ding (late Shang dynasty).
| Photo courtesy of babelstone

“Before Mandarin, Chinese had a writing system that was different from how it’s spoken,” she says. “People spoke a colloquial language, but writing was very classical, almost like Latin.”

Today, the most popular dialect and the official language of China is Mandarin, a Western word derived from the Portuguese for “minister” or counsellor”, i.e. the officials with whom missionaries and traders interacted during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The term reflected the Chinese phrase Guanhua, “language of the officials.” Mandarin pronunciation and vocabulary are based on a dialect from the northern regions of China, especially the Beijing dialect. However, its grammar was taken from modern Chinese literature written in the early 20th century. Over 20 years ago, Cantonese, a very different form of Chinese originating in Southern China, was mainly spoken overseas, as was the case in Vancouver. Nowadays, Mandarin is slowly overtaking Cantonese due to the emigration of Mandarin-speaking people.

The basics of Chinese

“Chinese is a very unique language and certainly very different from English,” Fei explains. Chinese is what’s known as a meaning-cohesive language that doesn’t have strict grammar rules. Whether it’s a question or a statement, the speaker would begin by stating the subject, then the predicate, and then clauses or an object. In Chinese, verb tenses don’t change but rely on time clauses to indicate when something happened. Another feature of Chinese is how pronouns, whether singular or plural, don’t affect verbs.

Are dialects simply different accents?

Fei points out that dialects are different vernacular versions of the Chinese language. The term has different connotations as well. In a political sense, Mandarin, often referred to as “Standard Chinese”, is the only official language; anything else is called a dialect. From a linguistics point of view, dialects differ from languages in that they don’t have a comprehensive writing system. On paper, all dialects look the same, using one of two different ways of writing (traditional characters and simplified characters). In China, dialects can be very different, and they might not be mutually intelligible, but all are called Chinese languages, nonetheless.

History also plays a role in the development of dialects. Southern China was historically fractured into small, independent kingdoms, and some of the dialects spoken there today have different language structures and even different vocabularies.

“Someone from Dongbei, Liaoning provinces, or even Beijing, cannot necessarily understand a Shanghai dialect or a Cantonese dialect,” says Fei.

Spoken Chinese and written Chinese

In Mandarin, tone is the variation of pitch in one’s voice. Most Chinese words are a single syllable, which doesn’t allow for enough words. With so many things that need to be said and so few sounds to say them, variation of pitch is used to convey different things. Four standard pitches are used: high flat, rising, down and up, and falling. One wrong pitch will completely change the meaning of the intended word or phrase.

“When you hear Chinese people talk, it’s loud and almost-singing. English intonation is calm, in Chinese, it’s up and down,” notes Fei.

One of the unique beauties of the Chinese language is the writing system. In English, one can often spell a word based on how it sounds. In contrast, Chinese characters are like logos, having a connection to the meaning of the word instead of its pronunciation. For instance, the word for moon is a drawing of a crescent () and a mountain is a drawing of three hills ().

“Once you understand the logic behind the writing system, it’s easier to learn,” reassures Fei.

The culture behind the Chinese language is incredibly deep and the history that comes attached is fascinating and lengthy. As Fei points out, learning a new language, especially a non-European one, always opens doors to different cultures, different values, and new points of view.