Chinese Language History
With 1.3 billion speakers, the Chinese language is the most spoken language globally. It’s also one of the oldest languages, with written Chinese dating back 6,000 years. Several regional dialects of spoken Chinese have also emerged, but people predominantly speak Mandarin in China. Mandarin Chinese is also one of the six official languages of the UN, and the Chinese language has official status in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Native Chinese speakers continue spreading the Chinese language worldwide through travel, international education, technology, and migration. Today, there are large numbers of Chinese speakers in Southeast Asia and the US. Because of the popularity of Mandarin in China and globally, it is also becoming a common second-learned language. In fact, more than 100 million students are learning the Chinese language worldwide. With around 6,000 years of history, it is easy to see people’s fascination with the Chinese language. From the first evidence of the pictorial Chinese written language to the prominence of Chinese Mandarin as a global language, it has a rich history. The Chinese written language in particular has deep ties with Chinese culture. Its intricate symbols are timeless and are still seen when writing Mandarin in China today. According to predictions, Chinese Mandarin will maintain its prominent position in the future. It will continue to be the most spoken native language, with a predicted increase of 27% in the number of speakers by 2050. The need to translate Mandarin Chinese is undoubtedly growing, too. But for now, let’s look at the history of the Chinese language and how it gained this prominent world status.
Chinese language scholars classify all variations of spoken Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan family. These scholars believe that the origin of Chinese goes back to an original language called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, but there is a lack of evidence to prove these claims. It is unclear where the Chinese language split from this language group to become its own language.
Nevertheless, it is known that the Old Chinese language dates back to 1700 B.C., with characters from the Chinese written language inscribed in tortoise shells and bones. This language was used throughout the Shang and Zhou dynasties. It then evolved into Middle Chinese (Ancient Chinese), the language used during the Sui dynasty, Tang dynasty, and Song dynasty. China covers a vast language area, so many Chinese dialects emerged.
The two main dialects today are Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese. People in the Guangdong province in China primarily speak Cantonese. Standard Cantonese is also one of the official languages of Hong Kong and Macau. Elsewhere in China, Mandarin is used. It is also the official language of most of mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Modern Standard Chinese (MSC) is the official version of the Chinese language used today. It was first developed in the 1900s to serve as the lingua franca for China. The use of the language in different provinces in Chinese history had resulted in many mutually unintelligible dialects, so a standardised version was needed to unify the country.
Beijing Mandarin Chinese formed the basis for MSC, thus Modern Chinese and is colloquially referred to as “Mandarin” in China. It uses 22 consonants and nine vowel sounds, many of which combine to form clusters. Overall, there are around 1,300 different syllables in this version of the language. The Chinese language was also selected as one of the official languages of the UN.
Unfortunately, comprehension of the language was poor; only 11% of people in non-Mandarin areas understood the modern Chinese language. To aid with literacy, a new form of the Chinese written language that uses simplified characters was established in 1949: Simplified Chinese. And the efforts worked! By 2020, over 80% of the Chinese population could speak Modern Standard Chinese.
The Chinese written language emerged approximately 6,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest written languages worldwide. Unlike most languages, the Chinese language does not use an alphabet; each character represents a word or morpheme. These characters are known as Hanzi (漢字). They’re used by nearly a ¼ of the world’s population and are an integral part of Chinese culture.
The first Chinese characters were based on pictograms and ideographs. Original character elements were combined with phonetic features to compose many new characters in the Chinese language. Today, there are about 56,000 characters, of which around 3,000 are in everyday use. With so many characters, it can be challenging to translate Mandarin Chinese or learn it as a second language.
As Chinese characters are singular and roughly square in shape, Traditional Chinese text was written vertically. This is still seen in some regions, such as Taiwan. However, it is now more common to see left-to-right formatting in areas that use Simplified Chinese – a simplified version of the script that uses characters with fewer strokes. Nevertheless, you will still see some Mandarin in China written vertically in some places, such as on signs or the spines of books.
The Chinese language is the most spoken native language globally, with more than 1.3 billion speakers. This is due to China’s significant population, of which 92% speak the language. It is also a primary language in Taiwan (87.5%), Hong Kong (94.8%), Macao (92.0%), and Singapore (50.8%). Additionally, there are over 8 million Chinese speakers in Thailand, 3 million in the United States, and 2.5 million in Malaysia.
The spread of the Chinese language across the globe is primarily due to immigration. Many Chinese people fled the country in the 19th century to escape extreme poverty and moved to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. Many also immigrated to the US for the same reason – they wanted more financial stability and the betterment of the next generation.
The most common version of the language is Mandarin Chinese. Around 955 million people speak Mandarin in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Cantonese is the other primary spoken dialect, with 70 million speakers. There are also around 70 million speakers of Wu Chinese and Min Chinese, while Gan, Jin, Hakka, and Xiang are lesser-known regional variants. All dialects use the same Chinese written language.
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Our experts can provide professional Chinese language translations for various industries, such as marketing, finance, engineering, tourism, and more. We also offer a wide range of language services aside from translation – whether you need a video transcription in the Chinese written language or proofreading of Chinese text, our team can help.