The History and Origins of the Chinese Language

The Chinese language is actually a branch of languages that belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family. These languages are usually referred to as dialects, however, they are mutually unintelligible and speakers of each one can rarely understand and communicate with each other while speaking them. Modern Chinese is one of the six official languages in the UN since more people in the world speak a variety of Chinese as their native language than any other language in the world.

History of the Chinese Languages

The Chinese Languages are divided into 4 groups:

  • Proto-Sinitic until 6th BC
  • Archaic (Old) Chinese 8th to 3rd century BC
  • Ancient (Middle) Chinese through AD 907
  • Modern Chinese from the 10th century to modern times

Spoken and Written Language

The differences between the spoken varieties of the Chinese languages can be found in pronunciation and vocabulary, with few grammatical differences. These dialects or languages are:

  • Mandarin in the northern, central, and western parts of China
  • Wu in the Northern and Southern parts of China
  • Min in the Northern and Southern parts of China
  • Gan in the Northern and Southern parts of China
  • Hakka in the Northern and Southern parts of China
  • Xiang in the Northern and Southern parts of China
  • Cantonese (Yue) in the southeastern part of the country.

When it comes to the written language, there are scripts testifying that Chinese is the oldest written language in the world with around 6000 years of history. The language uses single distinctive symbols, or characters, to represent each word of the vocabulary. The major part of the script is written according to versions of spoken sounds that have meaning. Large Chinese dictionaries contain about 40,000 characters, and for one to be able to read a newspaper and live a daily life in China, must be familiar with 2,000 to 3,000. The written language can be further subdivided into three forms: simplified, traditional, and informal slang or phonetic. Primarily Chinese people use the simplified characters with fewer pen-strokes that existed for hundreds of years but became officially acceptable in formal writing after the founding of the People’s Republic of China during the 1950’s, in an attempt to improve literacy among Chinese in China. Over time the written system has been modified, however, the principles of writing together with its characters and symbols have remained more or less the same.

An interesting fact about the written language is that it is a universal form of communication between people of many Chinese dialects. As we previously mentioned, dialects are hard (if not impossible) to understand among themselves when speaking, however, they can understand themselves when writing. The transcribed form of the Chinese language using a roman spelling is called “pin-yin” and it was developed in 1892 in order to make the Chinese language more understandable to the western world.

The online slangs are on the rise and the Chinese are particularly creative when it comes to using the Roman script. For instance, in Chinese three is “san”, so “3Q” sounds like the English “thank you”; eight is “ba” so “88” is used as it sounds like the English ‘bye-bye’.

ULS Services in Chinese

At United Language Services we work with a wide array of certified professional translators and interpreters that have mastered the Chinese language in all its forms. So if you need translation, interpretation, localization, or transcription of the language, please do not hesitate to contact us.