The Chinese language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. More than 1.3 billion of people speak Chinese with the majority of the Chinese speaking population concentrated only in a small number of countries: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The written Chinese language characters are not just pictographs (which make up less than 5%), but they are highly stylised and carry much abstract meaning. The total number of the characters is not known accurately, 50,000+ is a good approximation.
A character can stand alone as a word or a couple of characters can be put together to form a word, resulting in a very large Chinese vocabulary. But the Chinese speaker’s life is easier than people might think — knowledge of about 3,000 Chinese characters is good enough for everyday use!
Old and New
The Chinese language is one of the oldest languages which are still in use today and also one of the fastest developing languages in the world.
The origin of Chinese writing known to us today, dates back to the Shang (商) Dynasty (1200-1045 B.C.). By then the script was already well developed with principles which have continued to characterise the writing system to the present day.
The current shapes of the Chinese Traditional characters first appeared during the Han (汉) Dynasty (206 B.C. â€“ A.D. 220), and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.
Early in the 1950s of the last century in Mainland China, a new set of Chinese characters was created by simplifying the Traditional characters which were thought too complicated for people to learn. The new set of the characters or the Chinese Simplified character set then started being used in Mainland China as the official form of the written Chinese although there have been publications using the Traditional characters. People may be surprised by the fact that most Chinese actually use such a new language.
What might surprise people more is, that the Chinese language is also one of the languages most influenced by the development of science and technology, particularly in the 21st century. New terms and expressions are created frequently by young people who are enthusiastic about the Internet, then accepted by other people including even those who do not like these new ideas.
Simple and Complicated
Chinese grammar is very simple. All words in Chinese have only one grammatical form, there are no masculine or feminine genders, no single nor plural forms of nouns, conjugations of verbs, etc. Functions such as number in nouns or tense in verbs are expressed with assistance of word order or other words.
There are some simple but good ideas in the Chinese language. For example, there are groups of unique words in Chinese which clearly indicate relationships among family members and are mostly one-character words. Here are some examples:
兄 — elder brother
弟 — younger brother
姐 — elder sister
妹 — younger sister
伯 — father’s elder brother
叔 — father’s younger brother
舅 — mother’s brother
There are also some complicated but not-so-good ideas in the Chinese language. For example, Chinese nouns require words of measurement (or counters or classifiers) to go with them in order to be counted even when a noun is in singular form!. This habitual collocation in Chinese really makes life complicated even for native Chinese speakers, but you cannot get rid of or go around it. For example, in English you say “a horse” and that is perfect, but in Chinese you have to put a word of measurement in between “a” and “horse” to make the expression meaningful. Thus, “a horse” is “一匹马”. The “一” means “a” or “one”, “匹” is the word of measurement for horses and few other animals, and “马” means “horse(s)”. If you want to say “a cow” in Chinese, you can not just simply insert the same word “匹” in between “一” (“a”) and “牛” (“cow”). You have to use another word of measurement “头” for a cow, so you have to say “一头牛”. And so on and so forth.
Mandarin and Cantonese
In some cases people are confused by two pairs of terms: Mandarin (普通话) vs. Cantonese
(广东话), and Chinese Simplified (中文简体) vs. Chinese Traditional (中文繁体).
As said above, Chinese Simplified and Chinese Traditional refer to two forms of the written language. None of them can be called “standard” Chinese. Before 1949 there was only one set of the characters, i.e. Chinese Traditional. The government in Mainland China then thought that the written language was too complicated and a lot of people had difficulties using it. The government therefore simplified the written characters to some extent and this new version has been working well in Mainland China and Singapore. However, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan still prefer using the Traditional characters.
Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the many Chinese spoken dialects. Unlike Cantonese and the other dialects which are “natural” dialects, Mandarin is an “artificial” dialect. In the past, although there was just one writing system in the Chinese language, people spoke their own dialects which were so different that verbal communication was not always accurate and effective. A so-called standard spoken Chinese (普通话) or Mandarin, as people in other countries refer to it, was derived from Beijing (Peking) dialect (北京话) and other dialects in the northeast region of China (that is where the term “Mandarin” is from). This was then promoted by the authorities to improve the verbal communication. Practice of Mandarin over the last 80 years has shown that this effort is successful. Mandarin is now spoken by most Chinese in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. A lot of people in Canton Province of China speak both Cantonese and Mandarin. A growing number of people in Hong Kong and Macau speak Mandarin.
Using terms of Mandarin and Cantonese for the different written forms of Chinese is not correct. You should say “Chinese Simplified” or “Chinese Traditional” when you refer to the written language.
In the Chinese translation profession, translators do understand what you mean when you indicate that the translation should be in Cantonese although the term is not accurate.
A lot of people in Mainland China also like to use the Traditional Chinese characters as they think those characters are more beautiful than their counterparts in Chinese Simplified. They use the same font as people in Hong Kong. Some people in Taiwan use a slightly different font of Traditional Chinese script (but the differences are negligible).
If you want to get your documents translated into Chinese, it is always a good idea to let us know which region your target audience is in or from.
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Note: The Chinese characters used in this article are from the Chinese Simplified set.