The Differences Between Chinese and Japanese Languages
To the untrained ear, Chinese and Japanese languages might sound somewhat similar, but the truth is that these two Asian languages are very different. The written languages do share similar characteristics because they are both based on Chinese characters. These are called hanzi in Chinese and kanji in Japanese. Characters are often called the Chinese and Japanese alphabets. However, unlike the English alphabet, hanzi and kanji represent entire concepts or words.
Japan originally used hanzi to write Japanese before adapting them into modern kanji. Interestingly, written Chinese later adopted some kanji characters. Now, the writing systems of the Chinese and Japanese languages have about half of these characters in common. Similarities in writing Chinese and Japanese languages don’t constitute the total of language overlap. For example, both languages largely eschew the use of plural nouns, and nouns and adjectives are typically genderless.
Despite these minor similarities, however, Chinese and Japanese languages differ considerably. How can you tell them apart?
Chinese Culture and Tone
Tone, or the pitch of a syllable, is incredibly important when speaking Chinese. This is different from intonation, which simply refers to vocal fluctuations when speaking. You use intonation in English when your voice rises at the end of a sentence to indicate a question. In Chinese, many words might sound the same to outsiders, but the tone conveys a very specific meaning. The difference between praise and insult could be as simple as a slight tonal shift. For example, the word “ma” could mean mother or horse (among other words), depending on tone. You definitely don’t want to confuse the two when addressing someone’s mother! In other words, it’s crucial to use the right tone when speaking Chinese. If you don’t, you could create unintentional confusion, offense, or humor.
The Japanese language is very different. Some words have specific intonation patterns, but different tones do not generally change the meaning of syllables. This makes pronunciation much easier and decreases the risk of misunderstanding. While Japanese does not have tones, it does have a system called keigo incorporated into its grammatical structure. Keigo has to do with the level of politeness one must use when speaking with others. This speaking system is based on the societal hierarchy in Japanese culture. Japanese verbs have many different forms, such as polite, humble, and honorific. The proper form will differ when you’re speaking with a friend, a colleague, a professional superior, or a client. Pronouns like “I” and “you” will also vary, depending on how polite or humble the speaker wants to seem.
Dialects in Chinese and Japanese Languages
Most languages have a variety of dialects that vary from one country to the next. For example, British, American, and Australian English are very different. Dialects can also vary within a country, such as the Queen’s English versus Cockney. These dialects are punctuated by differences in accent, slang, and cultural semantics.
Chinese and Japanese languages are no different. It’s possible that there are significantly more dialects found within these two languages than most others. Consider, for example, that there are 20 predominantly Spanish-speaking countries in the world, but only about 10 major Spanish dialects.
Modern Chinese has seven overarching dialect groups, including:
In fact, there are actually hundreds of recognised dialects. These dialects and accents can make it difficult for speakers to understand each other. In general, however, Mandarin stands apart from the others. This is because it is the largest dialect and has the most similarities with the written language.
Japanese has four main dialect groups, including:
However, these categories can be broken down into roughly 47 different dialects. These dialects are essentially associated with the prefectures of Japan.
Chinese and Japanese Writing Systems
Tonal Chinese might seem to be more difficult than Japanese when it comes to speaking. However, Japanese is arguably more difficult to write. In general, written Chinese consists of the Mandarin dialect as represented by hanzi. A simplified version of writing characters was introduced in the late 1940s to increase literacy, but it’s still called hanzi.
There are over 50,000 hanzi characters, but in Chinese, most of them have only one pronunciation. With that being said, most educated readers will learn fewer than 10,000 characters. The average adult only uses about 3,000 hanzi for everyday reading, such as perusing a newspaper. In contrast, there are actually three Japanese writing systems: kanji, katakana, and hiragana.
Kanji are based on traditional hanzi. They have meanings, and the meaning of a kanji is often the same as or similar to the Chinese meaning. Unlike hanzi, however, most kanji have multiple pronunciations. Kanji’s pronunciation depends on a few factors. For example, the pronunciation might differ when it is used as a verb versus as a noun.
Katakana and hiragana (also called kana) do not have meanings. Instead, each kana represents a certain sound, such as “ka” or “tsu.” Katakana are frequently used for onomatopoeia or foreign words. Hiragana are most often used for verb endings or for Japanese words that do not have a corresponding kanji.
Expert Translation for Dozens of Languages
With so many dialects, tonal variations, alphabets, and characters, translating Chinese and Japanese languages requires a high level of expertise. With over 5,000 qualified, professional, native translators, Renaissance Translations is more than capable of meeting your translation needs. Contact us today to discuss your Chinese and Japanese translations!