Tidbits on the Chinese Language
No.1: The Diversity of the Chinese Language
Do you sometimes think that you will be able to get by somehow even if you visit China because you know how to read kanji? Because Japanese people learn kanji and classical Chinese in school, they tend to think that they know a little about the Chinese language, but the truth is, there is a lot that we do not really know. This new series will offer bits of information on Chinese that should prove useful to know.
A Myriad of Spoken Chinese
China is a vast country with the world’s largest population of 1.3 billion people. Furthermore, the Chinese people are not limited to those living in the mainland—there are also the overseas Chinese scattered around the world.
The language that they speak is of a great variety. In fact, there are so many dialects (Putonghua (standard Mandarin)*1, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Chaozhou, etc.) that communication in ‘Chinese’ can prove difficult even among the Chinese. If this is hard for you to imagine, think of Europe and of how different the languages like Spanish, French and Italian are. However, because they are all spoken in one country – China, that is – even linguists and politicians do not come to agreement on whether these variants of Chinese are different languages all together or are Chinese dialects, advocating their assertions depending on their position or interests.
Then what about written Chinese?
As you know, everything is written in kanji in Chinese. If there are so many Chinese ‘dialects,’ does that mean that there are many different kinds of written Chinese?
It is possible to write these ‘dialects’ using Kanji. However, it is sufficient to simply use the kanji used in standard Mandarin (the Chinese learned under the Chinese educational system). The train station names written in Chinese that we often see in urban Japanese cities are examples of this.
Many Spoken Variations But Only One Written Language*2
This reminds me that there was a time long ago in Europe when Latin was used for writing regardless of the language spoken in the country. Maybe the situation in China can be said to be something similar to that.
<To be continued>
*1 Putonghua or standard Mandarin is the official language of China. The Beijing dialect refers to the Chinese spoken in the Beijing district. *2 There are two types of written Chinese—simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. This will require a bit of explaining, so I will tell you more at another time.
Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department