written in Chinese characters
|Region||Most of northern and southwestern China
(see also Standard Chinese)
|Native speakers||955 million (2010)|
Jin (sometimes a separate group)
|Writing system||Traditional Chinese
Mainland Chinese Braille
Two-Cell Chinese Braille
Mandarin area, with Jin (sometimes treated as a separate group) in light green
Mandarin is one of five major regional languages of China. It spreads wider than any other regional language, from the whole northern part of China down to Yunnan Province in the southwest corner of China. In that big area there are many regional differences in vocabulary, so somebody who moves from Beijing to Yunnan could not understand people there who were speaking their own language, Yunnanhua. The problem is bigger than for a person in Great Britain or the United States to go to Australia. Therefore, starting in the 1920s, the Chinese government set up a national language based on the Beijing dialect and on the most widely understood words and pronunciations.
Mandarin is a standard language. It is nobody's native language, but a good average between various language forms and a common language everyone can understand and communicate with. Although it is based on the Beijing dialect, it is not the same as Beijing dialect.
In China, the language used in all schools is known as Standard Mandarin, Putonghua (普通话/普通話) meaning "common (spoken) language" or Hanyu (汉语/漢語) meaning "language of the Han“. In places such as Malaysia it is known as Huayu (华语/華語). In Taiwan it is known as Guoyu (国语/國語) meaning "national language." There are some minor differences in these standards.
Mandarin is spoken by over 800 million people around the world, more than any other language. Most people emigrating from the Greater China region now speak Mandarin, while in the past it used to be Cantonese or Taishanese, another local Chinese dialect.
Mandarin is written with Chinese characters called Hànzì (漢字 or 汉字) which literally means "Han characters". Each Hànzì has its own pronunciation and meaning. An ordinary dictionary will contain about 10,000 characters. Spoken Mandarin uses very many compound words, words that combine meanings the way English does in such terms as "machine gun," "fire truck," "playground," etc.
The Hanzi are ideograms: one character means one idea. The various concepts are derived from the ideograms by combining them. Mandarin can be also written phonetically (that is: written as it is spoken) with the Latin alphabet as you really cannot see the spelling from Hanzi characters. That is called transliteration. The most popular transliteration system is called Pinyin.
Some Chinese characters were originally fairly concrete pictures of the things they represent. As time went on, people chose to write simpler versions that are easier to write but do not look so much like the real thing, just as we sometimes draw stick men rather than drawing people with real-looking bodies, arms, legs, etc. Here are some examples:
Most characters, however, are made by combining pictures, using one to give a general meaning, and the other to represent a sound. For instance, "媽 mā" (mom) is made by adding 女 (nǚ, human female) to 馬 (mǎ, horse). The "ma" part is only there to represent the sound.
In most dialects of ancient Chinese, one character is generally enough for one word, but spoken Mandarin uses mostly compounds like "媽媽 māma," which is just "mama,"
Other examples show different ways of combining components:
- 火車 huǒ chē (lit. fire vehicle) locomotive, train
- 大人 dà rén (lit. big person) adult
- 打開 dǎ kāi (lit. strike open) open up (door, window, envelope, etc.)
Just as the English used in Great Britain favors "petrol" but the English used in the United States almost always uses "gasoline," different regional languages in China may use different compound words to name the same thing.
In Spoken Mandarin, most words are character compounds because over time Mandarin lost many sounds that existed in earlier forms of Chinese. Due to the loss of sounds, many Chinese words ended up becoming homophones, thus more characters were added to words to tell them apart. For example, the Chinese title of the poem Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den 施氏食狮史 is pronounced "Shī Shì Shí Shī Shǐ", and every character in the poem is pronounced with the same syllable, but with different tones. In older forms of Chinese, one could have been to tell apart the different characters making up the title, as they could have sounded noticeably different from each other.
Thus, one-character words in Classical Chinese like
became the Mandarin compound words
to clearly distinguish such words from their homophones, otherwise the already mentioned characters could be mistaken for similar sounding characters like
thus making spoken language difficult to understand without the compound words.
Difference between Mandarin (Beijing Accent) and Beijing Dialect
Mandarin is defined and designed based on Beijing accent. In China, there are over 600,000 dialects and more accents although they all use Chinese language and characters, but their pronunciation and some expressions are totally different. China must find a standard pronunciation to make all people to understand and communicate. Beijing has been the capital city of China for more than 1,000 years, so China defined Beijing Accent as standard mandarin.
Beijing also has some local dialects that are not included by mandarin or standard Chinese language yet. But different from the other dialects, Beijing is capital city, political, economic, culture and education center of China, more and more new Beijing dialects have been or will be accepted as mandarin or standard Chinese language. (But, the other dialects, such as Shanghainese, Cantonese, Hakka etc., have few opportunities to be included into Mandarin or standard Chinese language or be accepted by the whole of China.)
The following samples are some Beijing dialects which are not accepted as standard mandarin yet by now. 倍儿: bèi'ér means 'very much'; 拌蒜: bànsuàn means 'stagger'; 不吝: bùlìn means 'do not worry about'; 撮: cuò means 'eat'; 出溜: chūliū means 'slip'; 大老爷儿们儿: dàlǎoyémen means 'men, males';
The following samples are some Beijing dialects which have been already accepted as mandarin in recent years. 二把刀: èrbǎdāo means 'not very skillful'; 哥们儿: gēmenr means 'good male friends'; 抠门儿: kōumén means 'parsimony'; 打小儿: dǎxiǎo'ér means 'since childhood'
- 你好 nǐ hǎo － hello
- 你好吗？nǐ hǎo ma?－ How are you?
- 我 wǒ－ me, I
- 你 nǐ － you
- 您 nín － you (Used only when out of respect)
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Mandarin Chinese Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.