China’s Linguistic Diversity

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The linguistic situation in China is very complex. There are literally hundreds of different Chinese dialects spoken across China. Linguists have long debated what we call these linguistic variations, dialects or languages. In the West, we typically use this definition for dialects—

mutually intelligible varieties of the same language

This definition works nicely for most Western languages. For example, British English and American English are largely mutually intelligible. But this definition doesn’t work for China because many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible. And using the term languages as in different languages doesn’t work that well either because there is a standard written form, and there is cultural unity that usually does not exist across languages, such as Spanish and English in the United States. The Chinese term is 方言 fāngyán literally meaning “region language” or as one linguist called them “regionalects.” That English term didn’t really take. Those who argue for calling them different languages (i.e. Mandarin and Cantonese) use the intelligibility test. Those who argue for using the term dialect fall back on the cultural unity and literacy issue. We often use the term dialect simply because it is convenient, even if it doesn’t completely align with the Western definition of the term. I’ll use dialect in this post to refer to the different varieties of Chinese. In China there are 7 main dialect groups. They are:

Dialect                    % of speakers                    Region spoken

Mandarin                   71.5%                                  Northern & Southwestern China

Wu                             8.5%                                    Shanghai, central coastal areas

Gan                            2.4%                                    Jiangxi Province

Xiang                         4.8%                                    Hunan Province

Kejia (Hakka)           3.7%                                   Scattered throughout the South and Taiwan

Yue (Cantonese)      5.0%                                    Guangdong, Hong Kong, overseas

Min                           4.1%                                     Fujian, SE coastal areas, Taiwan

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Mandarin dialects are the most widely spoken by a large margin. But what makes the linguistic situation more complicated is that there are sub-dialects within these groups that are not mutually intelligible. When I was in graduate school taking a seminar in Chinese sociolinguistics, we listened to tapes of speakers of a Mandarin dialect just 150 km north of Beijing, and we could understand very little. There are Cantonese dialects that vary from village to village, some so much so that they are not comprehensible to each other. One more thing to keep in mind. Perhaps you’re thinking, “well only 5% of the population speak Cantonese.” Do the math. 5% of 1.3 billion is a staggering amount. In fact, there are as many Cantonese speakers in Southern China as French speakers in France. To help my students understand what I’m talking about I like to play them some audio samples of people speaking different Chinese dialects. In each of the audio files below, the speaker will say the following, at least how they would say the same thing in their dialect.

1. Shéi a? Wǒ shì Lǎo Sān

(Who is it? I’m Lao San)

2. Lǎo Sì ne? Tā Zhèng gēn yígè péngyǒu shuō zhe huà ne.

(What about Lao Si? He’s talking with a friend right now).

3. Tā hái méi shuō wán ma?

(Has he finished speaking?)

4. Hái méi ne. Dàyuè zài yǒu yì huǎr jiù shuō wán le.

(Not yet. (He’ll) probably be done talking in a moment).

1. Běijīng Dialect (Northern Mandarin)

2. Xī’ān Dialect (Central Mandarin Sub-group; Shaanxi Province)

3. Hángzhōu Dialect (Wu Group; Zhejiang Province)

4. Chángshā Dialect (Xiang Group; Hunan Province)

5. Méixiàn Dialect (Hakka Group; Guangdong Province)

6. Cantonese—guǎngdōnghuà (Yue Group; Guangdong Province)

A final note: In China there are 55 Nationally recognized minority groups that speak non-Chinese languages. These groups include, Tibetans, Mongolians, Uigurs, Kazaks, Miao (Hmong), Zhuang, Yi, Bai, Koreans, and many others. In most cases their languages are not even linguistically related to Chinese. These ethnic minority groups make about 7% of China’s population.

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