Mandarin Chinese

Last updated
官话; 官話; Guānhuà
Guanhua swapped.svg
Guānhuà (Mandarin)
written in Chinese characters
(simplified Chinese on the left, traditional Chinese on the right)
RegionMost of Northern and Southwestern China (see also Standard Chinese)
Native speakers
920 million (2017) [1]
L2 speakers: 200 million (no date) [1]
Early forms
Standard forms
Standard Chinese
(Putonghua, Guoyu)
Wenfa Shouyu [2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 cmn
Glottolog mand1415 [3]
Linguasphere 79-AAA-b
Mandarin and Jin in China.png
Mandarin area in mainland China and Taiwan, with Jin (sometimes treated as a separate group) in light green
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Mandarin Chinese
Simplified Chinese 官话
Traditional Chinese 官話
Literal meaningOfficials' speech
Northern Chinese
Simplified Chinese 北方话
Traditional Chinese 北方話
Literal meaningNorthern speech

Mandarin ( /ˈmændərɪn/ ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ); simplified Chinese : 官话 ; traditional Chinese : 官話 ; pinyin :Guānhuà; literally: 'speech of officials') is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of Standard Chinese or Standard Mandarin. Because Mandarin originated in North China and most Mandarin dialects are found in the north, the group is sometimes referred to as the Northern dialects (北方话; běifānghuà). Many local Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, Mandarin is often placed first in lists of languages by number of native speakers (with nearly a billion).


Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, spoken by 70 percent of all Chinese speakers over a large geographical area, stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is generally attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas.

Most Mandarin varieties have four tones. The final stops of Middle Chinese have disappeared in most of these varieties, but some have merged them as a final glottal stop. Many Mandarin varieties, including the Beijing dialect, retain retroflex initial consonants, which have been lost in southern varieties of Chinese.

The capital has been within the Mandarin area for most of the last millennium, making these dialects very influential. Some form of Mandarin has served as a national lingua franca since the 14th century. In the early 20th century, a standard form based on the Beijing dialect, with elements from other Mandarin dialects, was adopted as the national language. Standard Chinese is the official language of the People's Republic of China [4] and Taiwan [5] and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is used as one of the working languages of the United Nations. [6] It is also one of the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities internationally and the most commonly taught Chinese variety.


The English word "mandarin" (from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri, from Sanskrit mantrin, meaning "minister or counsellor") originally meant an official of the Ming and Qing empires. [7] [8] [lower-alpha 1] Since their native varieties were often mutually unintelligible, these officials communicated using a Koiné language based on various northern varieties. When Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they called it "Mandarin", from its Chinese name Guānhuà (官话/官話) or "language of the officials". [10]

In everyday English, "Mandarin" refers to Standard Chinese, which is often called simply "Chinese". Standard Chinese is based on the particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing, with some lexical and syntactic influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the de facto official language of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It also functions as the language of instruction in Mainland China and in Taiwan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, under the name "Chinese". Chinese speakers refer to the modern standard language as

but not as Guānhuà. [11]

Linguists use the term "Mandarin" to refer to the diverse group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China, which Chinese linguists call Guānhuà. The alternative term Běifānghuà (北方话/北方話) or "Northern dialects", is used less and less among Chinese linguists. By extension, the term "Old Mandarin" or "Early Mandarin" is used by linguists to refer to the northern dialects recorded in materials from the Yuan dynasty.

Native speakers who are not academic linguists may not recognize that the variants they speak are classified in linguistics as members of "Mandarin" (or so-called "Northern dialects") in a broader sense. Within Chinese social or cultural discourse, there is not a common "Mandarin" identity based on language; rather, there are strong regional identities centred on individual dialects because of the wide geographical distribution and cultural diversity of their speakers. Speakers of forms of Mandarin other than the standard typically refer to the variety they speak by a geographic name—for example Sichuan dialect, Hebei dialect or Northeastern dialect, all being regarded as distinct from the standard language.


The hundreds of modern local varieties of Chinese developed from regional variants of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Traditionally, seven major groups of dialects have been recognized. Aside from Mandarin, the other six are Wu, Gan and Xiang in central China and Min, Hakka and Yue on the southeast coast. [12] The Language Atlas of China (1987) distinguishes three further groups: Jin (split from Mandarin), Huizhou in the Huizhou region of Anhui and Zhejiang and Pinghua in Guangxi and Yunnan. [13] [14]

Old Mandarin

A page of the Menggu Ziyun, covering the syllables tsim to lim Mengu Ziyun xia 24b.jpg
A page of the Menggu Ziyun , covering the syllables tsim to lim

After the fall of the Northern Song (959–1126) and during the reign of the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern China, a common speech developed based on the dialects of the North China Plain around the capital, a language referred to as Old Mandarin. New genres of vernacular literature were based on this language, including verse, drama and story forms, such as the qu and sanqu poetry. [15]

The rhyming conventions of the new verse were codified in a rime dictionary called the Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324). A radical departure from the rime table tradition that had evolved over the previous centuries, this dictionary contains a wealth of information on the phonology of Old Mandarin. Further sources are the 'Phags-pa script based on the Tibetan alphabet, which was used to write several of the languages of the Mongol empire, including Chinese and the Menggu Ziyun , a rime dictionary based on 'Phags-pa. The rime books differ in some details, but overall show many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin dialects, such as the reduction and disappearance of final plosives and the reorganization of the Middle Chinese tones. [16]

In Middle Chinese, initial stops and affricates showed a three-way contrast between tenuis, voiceless aspirated and voiced consonants. There were four tones, with the fourth or "entering tone", a checked tone comprising syllables ending in plosives (-p, -t or -k). Syllables with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch and by the late Tang dynasty, each of the tones had split into two registers conditioned by the initials. When voicing was lost in all languages except the Wu subfamily, this distinction became phonemic and the system of initials and tones was rearranged differently in each of the major groups. [17]

The Zhongyuan Yinyun shows the typical Mandarin four-tone system resulting from a split of the "even" tone and loss of the entering tone, with its syllables distributed across the other tones (though their different origin is marked in the dictionary). Similarly, voiced plosives and affricates have become voiceless aspirates in the "even" tone and voiceless non-aspirates in others, another distinctive Mandarin development. However, the language still retained a final -m, which has merged with -n in modern dialects and initial voiced fricatives. It also retained the distinction between velars and alveolar sibilants in palatal environments, which later merged in most Mandarin dialects to yield a palatal series (rendered j-, q- and x- in pinyin). [18]

The flourishing vernacular literature of the period also shows distinctively Mandarin vocabulary and syntax, though some, such as the third-person pronoun (他), can be traced back to the Tang dynasty. [19]

Vernacular literature

Until the early 20th century, formal writing and even much poetry and fiction was done in Literary Chinese, which was modeled on the classics of the Warring States period and the Han dynasty. Over time, the various spoken varieties diverged greatly from Literary Chinese, which was learned and composed as a special language. Preserved from the sound changes that affected the various spoken varieties, its economy of expression was greatly valued. For example, (, "wing") is unambiguous in written Chinese, but has over 75 homophones in Standard Chinese.

The literary language was less appropriate for recording materials that were meant to be reproduced in oral presentations, materials such as plays and grist for the professional story-teller's mill. From at least the Yuan dynasty, plays that recounted the subversive tales of China's Robin Hoods to the Ming dynasty novels such as Water Margin , on down to the Qing dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber and beyond, there developed a literature in written vernacular Chinese (白话/白話, báihuà). In many cases, this written language reflected Mandarin varieties and since pronunciation differences were not conveyed in this written form, this tradition had a unifying force across all the Mandarin-speaking regions and beyond. [20]

Hu Shih, a pivotal figure of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote an influential and perceptive study of this literary tradition, entitled Báihuà Wénxuéshǐ ("A History of Vernacular Literature").

Koiné of the Late Empire

Zhongguo Guanhua (Zhong Guo Guan Hua ), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela ("Middle Kingdom's Common Speech"), used on the frontispiece of an early Chinese grammar published by Etienne Fourmont (with Arcadio Huang) in 1742 Fourmont-Zhongguo-Guanhua.png
Zhongguo Guanhua (中國官話), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela ("Middle Kingdom's Common Speech"), used on the frontispiece of an early Chinese grammar published by Étienne Fourmont (with Arcadio Huang) in 1742
The Chinese have different languages in different provinces, to such an extent that they cannot understand each other.... [They] also have another language which is like a universal and common language; this is the official language of the mandarins and of the court; it is among them like Latin among ourselves.... Two of our fathers [Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci] have been learning this mandarin language... Alessandro Valignano,Historia del principio y progresso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales (1542–1564) [22]

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in many parts of South China spoke only their local variety. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà. Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined. [11]

Officials varied widely in their pronunciation; in 1728, the Yongzheng Emperor, unable to understand the accents of officials from Guangdong and Fujian, issued a decree requiring the governors of those provinces to provide for the teaching of proper pronunciation. Although the resulting Academies for Correct Pronunciation (正音書院; Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) were short-lived, the decree did spawn a number of textbooks that give some insight into the ideal pronunciation. Common features included:

As the last two of these features indicate, this language was a koiné based on dialects spoken in the Nanjing area, though not identical to any single dialect. [24] This form remained prestigious long after the capital moved to Beijing in 1421, though the speech of the new capital emerged as a rival standard. As late as 1815, Robert Morrison based the first English–Chinese dictionary on this koiné as the standard of the time, though he conceded that the Beijing dialect was gaining in influence. [25] By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court. [26]

Standard Chinese

In the early years of the Republic of China, intellectuals of the New Culture Movement, such as Hu Shih and Chen Duxiu, successfully campaigned for the replacement of Literary Chinese as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern dialects. A parallel priority was the definition of a standard national language (simplified Chinese :国语; traditional Chinese :國語; pinyin :Guóyǔ; Wade–Giles :Kuo²-yü³). After much dispute between proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The People's Republic, founded in 1949, retained this standard, calling it pǔtōnghuà (simplified Chinese :普通话; traditional Chinese :普通話; literally: 'common speech'). [27] Some 54% of speakers of Mandarin varieties could understand the standard language in the early 1950s, rising to 91% in 1984. Nationally, the proportion understanding the standard rose from 41% to 90% over the same period. [28]

The national language is now used in education, the media and formal occasions in both Mainland China and Taiwan but not in Hong Kong and Macau. This standard can now be spoken intelligibly by most younger people in Mainland China and Taiwan with various regional accents. In Hong Kong and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the sole language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life remains the local Cantonese. Mandarin is now common and taught in many schools [29] but still has yet to gain traction with the local population. In Mandarin-speaking areas such as Sichuan and Chongqing, the local dialect is the native tongue of most of the population.[ clarification needed ] The era of mass education in Standard Chinese has not erased these regional differences, and people may be either diglossic or speak the standard language with a notable accent.

From an official point of view, the mainland Chinese and the Taiwanese governments maintain their own forms of the standard under different names. Technically, both Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ base their phonology on the Beijing accent, though Pǔtōnghuà also takes some elements from other sources. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of "school-standard" Chinese are often quite different from the Mandarin varieties that are spoken in accordance with regional habits, and neither is wholly identical to the Beijing dialect. Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ also have some differences from the Beijing dialect in vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics.

The written forms of Standard Chinese are also essentially equivalent, although simplified characters are used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia, while people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan generally use traditional characters.

Geographic distribution

Distribution of the eight subgroups of Mandarin plus Jin Chinese, which many linguists include as part of Mandarin, according to the Language Atlas of China (1987) Mandarin subgroups and Jin group.png
Distribution of the eight subgroups of Mandarin plus Jin Chinese, which many linguists include as part of Mandarin, according to the Language Atlas of China (1987)

Most Han Chinese living in northern and southwestern China are native speakers of a dialect of Mandarin. The North China Plain provided few barriers to migration, leading to relative linguistic homogeneity over a wide area in northern China. In contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have spawned the other six major groups of Chinese varieties, with great internal diversity, particularly in Fujian. [31] [32]

However, the varieties of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, [33] and many Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible. [lower-alpha 2]

Most of northeastern China, except for Liaoning, did not receive significant settlements by Han Chinese until the 18th century, [39] and as a result the Northeastern Mandarin dialects spoken there differ little from the Beijing dialect. [40] The Manchu people of the area now speak these dialects exclusively; their native language is only maintained in northwestern Xinjiang, where Xibe, a modern dialect, is spoken. [41]

The frontier areas of Northwest China were colonized by speakers of Mandarin dialects at the same time, and the dialects in those areas similarly closely resemble their relatives in the core Mandarin area. [40] The Southwest was settled early, but the population fell dramatically for obscure reasons in the 13th century, and did not recover until the 17th century. [40] The dialects in this area are now relatively uniform. [42] However, long-established cities even very close to Beijing, such as Tianjin, Baoding, Shenyang, and Dalian, have markedly different dialects.

Unlike their compatriots on the southeast coast, few Mandarin speakers engaged in overseas emigration until the late 20th century, but there are now significant communities of them in cities across the world. [42]


The classification of Chinese dialects evolved during the 20th century, and many points remain unsettled. Early classifications tended to follow provincial boundaries or major geographical features. [43]

In 1936, Wang Li produced the first classification based on phonetic criteria, principally the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials. His Mandarin group included dialects of northern and southwestern China, as well as those of Hunan and northern Jiangxi. [44] Li Fang-Kuei's classification of 1937 distinguished the latter two groups as Xiang and Gan, while splitting the remaining Mandarin dialects between Northern, Lower Yangtze and Southwestern Mandarin groups. [45]

The widely accepted seven-group classification of Yuan Jiahua in 1960 kept Xiang and Gan separate, with Mandarin divided into Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern and Jiang–Huai (Lower Yangtze) subgroups. [46] [47] Of Yuan's four Mandarin subgroups, the Northwestern dialects are the most diverse, particularly in the province of Shanxi. [42] The linguist Li Rong proposed that the northwestern dialects of Shanxi and neighbouring areas that retain a final glottal stop in the Middle Chinese entering tone (plosive-final) category should constitute a separate top-level group called Jin. [48] He used this classification in the Language Atlas of China (1987). [13] Many other linguists continue to include these dialects in the Mandarin group, pointing out that the Lower Yangtze dialects also retain the glottal stop. [49] [50]

The southern boundary of the Mandarin area, with the central Wu, Gan and Xiang groups, is weakly defined due to centuries of diffusion of northern features. Many border varieties have a mixture of features that make them difficult to classify. The boundary between Southwestern Mandarin and Xiang is particularly weak, [51] and in many early classifications the two were not separated. [52] Zhou Zhenhe and You Rujie include the New Xiang dialects within Southwestern Mandarin, treating only the more conservative Old Xiang dialects as a separate group. [53] The Huizhou dialects have features of both Mandarin and Wu, and have been assigned to one or other of these groups or treated as separate by various authors. Li Rong and the Language Atlas of China treated it as a separate top-level group, but this remains controversial. [54] [55]

The Language Atlas of China calls the remainder of Mandarin a "supergroup", divided into eight dialect groups distinguished by their treatment of the Middle Chinese entering tone (see Tones below): [56] [lower-alpha 3]

The Atlas also includes several unclassified Mandarin dialects spoken in scattered pockets across southeastern China, such as Nanping in Fujian and Dongfang on Hainan. [68] Another Mandarin variety of uncertain classification is apparently Gyami, recorded in the 19th century in the Tibetan foothills, who the Chinese apparently did not recognize as Chinese. [69]


A syllable consists maximally of an initial consonant, a medial glide, a vowel, a coda, and tone. In the traditional analysis, the medial, vowel and coda are combined as a final. [70] Not all combinations occur. For example, Standard Chinese (based on the Beijing dialect) has about 1,200 distinct syllables. [71]

Phonological features that are generally shared by the Mandarin dialects include:


The maximal inventory of initials of a Mandarin dialect is as follows, with bracketed pinyin spellings given for those present in the standard language: [72]

Labial Apical Retroflex Palatal Velar
Stops /p/b/t/d/k/g
Nasals /m/m/n/n/ŋ/   
Affricates /t͡s/z/ʈ͡ʂ/zh/t͡ɕ/j
Fricatives /f/f/s/s/ʂ/sh/ɕ/x/x/h
Sonorants /w/   /l/l/ɻ ~ ʐ/r/j/   


Most Mandarin dialects have three medial glides, /j/, /w/ and /ɥ/ (spelled i, u and ü in pinyin), though their incidence varies. The medial /w/, is lost after apical initials in several areas. [73] Thus Southwestern Mandarin has /tei/ "correct" where the standard language has dui/twei/. Southwestern Mandarin also has /kai kʰai xai/ in some words where the standard has jie qie xie/tɕjɛ tɕʰjɛ ɕjɛ/. This is a stereotypical feature of southwestern Mandarin, since it is so easily noticeable. E.g. hai "shoe" for standard xie, gai "street" for standard jie.

Mandarin dialects typically have relatively few vowels. Syllabic fricatives, as in standard zi and zhi, are common in Mandarin dialects, though they also occur elsewhere. [75] The Middle Chinese off-glides /j/ and /w/ are generally preserved in Mandarin dialects, yielding several diphthongs and triphthongs in contrast to the larger sets of monophthongs common in other dialect groups (and some widely scattered Mandarin dialects). [75]

The Middle Chinese coda /m/ was still present in Old Mandarin, but has merged with /n/ in the modern dialects. [73] In some areas (especially the southwest) final /ŋ/ has also merged with /n/. This is especially prevalent in the rhyme pairs -en/-eng/ən əŋ/ and -in/-ing/in iŋ/. As a result, jīn "gold" and jīng "capital" merge in those dialects.

The Middle Chinese final stops have undergone a variety of developments in different Mandarin dialects (see Tones below). In Lower Yangtze dialects and some north-western dialects they have merged as a final glottal stop. In other dialects they have been lost, with varying effects on the vowel. [73] As a result, Beijing Mandarin and Northeastern Mandarin underwent more vowel mergers than many other varieties of Mandarin. For example:

Beijing, Harbin
(Central Plains)
(Lower Yangtze)
Middle Chinese
guesttɕʰie [lower-alpha 4] kʰeikʰeikʰekʰəʔkʰɰak

R-coloring, a characteristic feature of Mandarin, works quite differently in the southwest. Whereas Beijing dialect generally removes only a final /j/ or /n/ when adding the rhotic final -r/ɻ/, in the southwest the -r replaces nearly the entire rhyme.


First tone (Mandarin).png
Second tone (Mandarin).png
Third tone (Mandarin).png
Fourth tone (Mandarin).png
The four main tones of Standard Mandarin, pronounced with the syllable ma.

In general, no two Mandarin-speaking areas have exactly the same set of tone values, but most Mandarin-speaking areas have very similar tone distribution. For example, the dialects of Jinan, Chengdu, Xi'an and so on all have four tones that correspond quite well to the Beijing dialect tones of [˥] (55), [˧˥] (35), [˨˩˦] (214), and [˥˩] (51). The exception to this rule lies in the distribution of syllables formerly ending in a stop consonant, which are treated differently in different dialects of Mandarin. [76]

Middle Chinese stops and affricates had a three-way distinction between tenuis, voiceless aspirate and voiced (or breathy voiced) consonants. In Mandarin dialects the voicing is generally lost, yielding voiceless aspirates in syllables with a Middle Chinese level tone and non-aspirates in other syllables. [42] Of the four tones of Middle Chinese, the level, rising and departing tones have also developed into four modern tones in a uniform way across Mandarin dialects; the Middle Chinese level tone has split into two registers, conditioned on voicing of the Middle Chinese initial, while rising tone syllables with voiced obstruent initials have shifted to the departing tone. [77] The following examples from the standard language illustrate the regular development common to Mandarin dialects (recall that pinyin d denotes a non-aspirate /t/, while t denotes an aspirate /tʰ/):

Reflexes of Middle Chinese initials and tones in modern Mandarin
Middle Chinese tone"level tone"
(píng 平)
"rising tone"
(shǎng 上)
"departing tone"
( 去)
Middle Chinesetantʰanlandantantʰanlandantantʰanlandan
Standard Chinesedāntānlántándǎntǎnlǎndàndàntànlàndàn
Modern Mandarin tone1 (yīn píng)2 (yáng píng)3 (shǎng)4 ()

In traditional Chinese phonology, syllables that ended in a stop in Middle Chinese (i.e. /p/, /t/ or /k/) were considered to belong to a special category known as the "entering tone". These final stops have disappeared in most Mandarin dialects, with the syllables distributed over the other four modern tones in different ways in the various Mandarin subgroups.

In the Beijing dialect that underlies the standard language, syllables beginning with original voiceless consonants were redistributed across the four tones in a completely random pattern. [78] For example, the three characters , all tsjek in Middle Chinese (William H. Baxter's transcription), are now pronounced , and respectively. Older dictionaries such as Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary mark characters whose pronunciation formerly ended with a stop with a superscript 5; however, this tone number is more commonly used for syllables that always have a neutral tone (see below).

In Lower Yangtze dialects, a minority of Southwestern dialects (e.g. Minjiang) and Jin Chinese (sometimes considered non-Mandarin), former final stops were not deleted entirely, but were reduced to a glottal stop /ʔ/. [78] (This includes the dialect of Nanjing on which the Postal Romanization was based; it transcribes the glottal stop as a trailing h.) This development is shared with Wu Chinese and is thought to represent the pronunciation of Old Mandarin. In line with traditional Chinese phonology, dialects such as Lower Yangtze and Minjiang are thus said to have five tones instead of four. However, modern linguistics considers these syllables as having no phonemic tone at all.

Reflexes of the Middle Chinese entering tone in Mandarin dialects [79]
subgroupMiddle Chinese initial
voicelessvoiced sonorant voiced obstruent
Central Plains1
Lower Yangtzemarked with final glottal stop ()

Although the system of tones is common across Mandarin dialects, their realization as tone contours varies widely: [80]

Phonetic realization of Mandarin tones in principal dialects
Tone name1 (yīn píng)2 (yáng píng)3 (shǎng)4 ()marked with
glottal stop ()
Beijing Beijing ˥ (55)˧˥ (35)˨˩˦ (214)˥˩ (51)
Northeastern Harbin ˦ (44)˨˦ (24)˨˩˧ (213)˥˨ (52)
Jiao–Liao Yantai ˧˩ (31)(˥ (55))˨˩˦ (214)˥ (55)
Ji–Lu Tianjin ˨˩ (21)˧˥ (35)˩˩˧ (113)˥˧ (53)
Shijiazhuang ˨˧ (23)˥˧ (53)˥ (55)˧˩ (31)
Central Plains Zhengzhou ˨˦ (24)˦˨ (42)˥˧ (53)˧˩˨ (312)
Luoyang ˧˦ (34)˦˨ (42)˥˦ (54)˧˩ (31)
Xi'an ˨˩ (21)˨˦ (24)˥˧ (53)˦ (44)
Tianshui ˩˧ (13)˥˧ (53)˨˦ (24)
Lan–Yin Lanzhou ˧˩ (31)˥˧ (53)˧ (33)˨˦ (24)
Yinchuan ˦ (44)˥˧ (53)˩˧ (13)
Southwestern Chengdu ˦ (44)˨˩ (21)˥˧ (53)˨˩˧ (213)
Xichang ˧ (33)˥˨ (52)˦˥ (45)˨˩˧ (213)˧˩ʔ (31)
Kunming ˦ (44)˧˩ (31)˥˧ (53)˨˩˨ (212)
Wuhan ˥ (55)˨˩˧ (213)˦˨ (42)˧˥ (35)
Liuzhou ˦ (44)˧˩ (31)˥˧ (53)˨˦ (24)
Lower Yangtze Yangzhou ˧˩ (31)˧˥ (35)˦˨ (42)˥ (55)˥ʔ (5)
Nantong ˨˩ (21)˧˥ (35)˥ (55)˦˨ (42), ˨˩˧ (213)*˦ʔ (4), ˥ʔ (5)*

* Dialects in and around the Nantong area typically have many more than 4 tones, due to influence from the neighbouring Wu dialects.

Mandarin dialects frequently employ neutral tones in the second syllables of words, creating syllables whose tone contour is so short and light that it is difficult or impossible to discriminate. These atonal syllables also occur in non-Mandarin dialects, but in many southern dialects the tones of all syllables are made clear. [78]


There are more polysyllabic words in Mandarin than in all other major varieties of Chinese except Shanghainese [ citation needed ]. This is partly because Mandarin has undergone many more sound changes than have southern varieties of Chinese, and has needed to deal with many more homophones. New words have been formed by adding affixes such as lao- (), -zi (), -(e)r (/), and -tou (/), or by compounding, e.g. by combining two words of similar meaning as in cōngmáng (匆忙), made from elements meaning "hurried" and "busy". A distinctive feature of southwestern Mandarin is its frequent use of noun reduplication, which is hardly used in Beijing. In Sichuan, one hears bāobāo (包包) "handbag" where Beijing uses bāo'r (包儿). There are also a small number of words that have been polysyllabic since Old Chinese, such as húdié ( 蝴蝶 ) "butterfly".

The singular pronouns in Mandarin are ( ) "I", ( or ) "you", nín ( ) "you (formal)", and ( , or / ) "he/she/it", with -men ( /) added for the plural. Further, there is a distinction between the plural first-person pronoun zánmen ( 咱们 /咱們), which is inclusive of the listener, and wǒmen ( 我们 /我們), which may be exclusive of the listener. Dialects of Mandarin agree with each other quite consistently on these pronouns. While the first and second person singular pronouns are cognate with forms in other varieties of Chinese, the rest of the pronominal system is a Mandarin innovation (e.g., Shanghainese has non / "you" and yi "he/she"). [81]

Because of contact with Mongolian and Manchurian peoples, Mandarin (especially the Northeastern varieties) has some loanwords from these languages not present in other varieties of Chinese, such as hútòng (胡同) "alley". Southern Chinese varieties have borrowed from Tai, [82] Austroasiatic, [83] and Austronesian languages.

There are also many Chinese words came from foreign languages such as gāo'ěrfū (高尔夫) from golf; bǐjīní (比基尼) from bikini; hànbǎo bāo (汉堡包) from hamburger.

In general, the greatest variation occurs in slang, in kinship terms, in names for common crops and domesticated animals, for common verbs and adjectives, and other such everyday terms. The least variation occurs in "formal" vocabulary—terms dealing with science, law, or government.


Chinese varieties of all periods have traditionally been considered prime examples of analytic languages, relying on word order and particles instead of inflection or affixes to provide grammatical information such as person, number, tense, mood, or case. Although modern varieties, including the Mandarin dialects, use a small number of particles in a similar fashion to suffixes, they are still strongly analytic. [84]

The basic word order of subject–verb–object is common across Chinese dialects, but there are variations in the order of the two objects of ditransitive sentences. In northern dialects the indirect object precedes the direct object (as in English), for example in the Standard Chinese sentence:

一本书 。
Igiveyoua (one)book.

In southern dialects, as well as many southwestern and Lower Yangtze dialects, the objects occur in the reverse order. [85] [86]

Most varieties of Chinese use post-verbal particles to indicate aspect, but the particles used vary. Most Mandarin dialects use the particle -le (了) to indicate the perfective aspect and -zhe (着/著) for the progressive aspect. Other Chinese varieties tend to use different particles, e.g. Cantonese zo2 咗 and gan2 紧/緊 respectively. The experiential aspect particle -guo (过/過) is used more widely, except in Southern Min. [87]

The subordinative particle de (的) is characteristic of Mandarin dialects. [88] Some southern dialects, and a few Lower Yangtze dialects, preserve an older pattern of subordination without a marking particle, while in others a classifier fulfils the role of the Mandarin particle. [89]

Especially in conversational Chinese, sentence-final particles alter the inherent meaning of a sentence. Like much vocabulary, particles can vary a great deal with regards to the locale. For example, the particle ma (嘛), which is used in most northern dialects to denote obviousness or contention, is replaced by yo (哟) in southern usage.

Some characters in Mandarin can be combined with others to indicate a particular meaning just like prefix and suffix in English. For example, the suffix -er which means the person who is doing the action, e.g. teacher, person who teaches. In Mandarin the character 師 functions the same thing, it is combined with 教, which means teach, to form the word teacher.

List of several common Chinese prefixes and suffixes:

AffixPronunciationMeaningExampleMeaning of Example
-們[们]menplural, same as -s, -es學生們 [学生们]、朋友們 [朋友们]students, friends
可-same as -able可信、可笑、可靠trusty, laughable, reliable
重-chóngsame as re-(again)重做、重建、重新redo, rebuild, renew
第-same as -th, -st, -nd第二、第一second, first
老-lǎoold, or show respect to a certain type of person老头;老板、老师old man; boss, teacher
-化huàsame as -ize, -en公式化、制度化、強化officialize, systemize, strengthen
-家jiāsame as -er or expert作家、科學家[科学家]、藝術家[艺术家]writer, scientist, artist
-性xìngsame as -ness,_ -ability可靠性、實用性[实用性]、可理解性reliability, usability, understandability
-鬼guǐusually used in a disparaging way similar to –aholic煙鬼、酒鬼、胆小鬼smoker, alcoholic, coward
-匠jiànga technician in a certain field花匠、油漆匠、木匠gardener, painter, carpenter
-迷an enthusiast戲迷[戏迷]、球迷、歌迷theater fan, sports fan, groupie of a musician
-師 [师]shīsuffix for occupations教師[教师]、厨師[厨师]、律師[律师]teacher, cook/chef, lawyer

See also


  1. A folk etymology deriving the name from Mǎn dà rén (满大人; 滿大人; 'Manchu big man') is without foundation. [9]
  2. For example:
    • In the early 1950s, only 54% of people in the Mandarin-speaking area could understand Standard Chinese, which was based on the Beijing dialect. [34]
    • "Hence we see that even Mandarin includes within it an unspecified number of languages, very few of which have ever been reduced to writing, that are mutually unintelligible." [35]
    • "the common term assigned by linguists to this group of languages implies a certain homogeneity which is more likely to be related to the sociopolitical context than to linguistic reality, since most of those varieties are not mutually intelligible." [36]
    • "A speaker of only standard Mandarin might take a week or two to comprehend even simple Kunminghua with ease—and then only if willing to learn it." [37]
    • "without prior exposure, speakers of different Mandarin dialects often have considerable difficulty understanding each other's local vernacular even if they come from the same province, provided that two or more distinct groups of Mandarin are spoken therein. In some cases, mutual intelligibility is not guaranteed even if the Mandarin dialects concerned belong to the same group and are spoken within the same province. As reported by a native speaker of the Zhenjiang dialect (a Jianghuai (Lower Yangtze) Mandarin dialect spoken in the Jiangsu province), it is impossible for her to understand the Nantong dialect (another Jianghuai Mandarin dialect spoken around 140 kilometers away in the same province)." [38]
  3. Speaker numbers are rounded to the nearest million from figures in the revised edition of the Language Atlas of China. [57]
  4. The development is purely due to the preservation of an early glide which later became /j/ and triggered patalization, and does not indicate the absence of a vowel merger.

Related Research Articles

Chinese language Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages

Chinese forms the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages. Chinese languages are spoken by the ethnic Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.2 billion people speak some form of Chinese as their first language.

Standard Chinese, also known as Modern Standard Mandarin, Standard Mandarin, Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese (MSMC), or simply Mandarin, is a standard variety of Chinese that is one of the official languages of China. Its pronunciation is based on the Beijing dialect, its vocabulary on the Mandarin dialects, and its grammar is based on written vernacular Chinese. The similar Taiwanese Mandarin is a national language of Taiwan. Standard Singaporean Mandarin is one of the four official languages of Singapore.

Yue Chinese Primary branch of Chinese spoken in southern China

Yue or Yueh is a group of similar Sinitic languages spoken in southern China, particularly the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, which are collectively known as Liangguang.

Min Chinese primary branch of Chinese spoken in southern China and Taiwan

Min is a broad group of Sinitic languages spoken by about 30 million people in Fujian province as well as by the descendants of Min speaking colonists on Leizhou peninsula and Hainan, or assimilated natives of Chaoshan, parts of Zhongshan, three counties in southern Wenzhou, Zhoushan archipelago, and Taiwan. The name is derived from the Min River in Fujian, which is also the abbreviated name of Fujian Province. Min varieties are not mutually intelligible with each other or with any other variety of Chinese.

Varieties of Chinese Family of local language varieties

Chinese, also known as Sinitic, is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family consisting of hundreds of local language varieties that are not mutually intelligible. The differences are greater than within the Romance languages, with variation particularly strong in the more mountainous southeast. The varieties are typically classified into several groups: Mandarin, Wu, Min, Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Yue, though some varieties remain unclassified. Some authors further divide Mandarin, Yue and especially Min. These groups are neither clades nor individual languages defined by mutual intelligibility, but reflect common phonological developments from Middle Chinese.

Wu Chinese primary branch of Chinese spoken in eastern China

Wu is a group of linguistically similar and historically related Sinitic languages spoken primarily in Shanghai, Zhejiang province, the southern half of Jiangsu province and bordering areas.

Jin Chinese Branch of Chinese spoken in parts of northern China

Jin is a group of Chinese dialects or languages spoken by roughly 63 million people in northern China. Its geographical distribution covers most of Shanxi province except for the lower Fen River valley, much of central Inner Mongolia and adjoining areas in Hebei, Henan, and Shaanxi provinces. The status of Jin is disputed among linguists; some prefer to classify it as a dialect of Mandarin, but others set it apart as a closely related, but separate sister-language to Mandarin.

Xiang Chinese primary branch of Chinese spoken in southern China

Xiang or Hsiang, also known as Hunanese, is a group of linguistically similar and historically related Sinitic languages, spoken mainly in Hunan province but also in northern Guangxi and parts of neighboring Guizhou and Hubei provinces. Scholars divided Xiang into five subgroups, Chang-Yi, Lou-Shao, Hengzhou, Chen-Xu and Yong-Quan. Among those, Lou-shao, also known as Old Xiang, still exhibits the three-way distinction of Middle Chinese obstruents, preserving the voiced stops, fricatives, and affricates. Xiang has also been heavily influenced by Mandarin, which adjoins three of the four sides of the Xiang speaking territory, and Gan in Jiangxi Province, from where a large population immigrated to Hunan during the Ming Dynasty.

Pinghua Two varieties of Chinese spoken mostly by the Zhuang people of southern China

Pinghua is a pair of Sinitic languages spoken mainly in parts of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with some speakers in Hunan province. Pinghua is a trade language in some areas of Guangxi, where it is spoken as a second language by speakers of Zhuang languages. Some speakers of Pinghua are officially classified as Zhuang, and many are genetically distinct from most other Han Chinese. The northern subgroup of Pinghua is centered on Guilin and the southern subgroup around Nanning. Southern Pinghua has several notable features such as having four distinct checked tones, and using various loanwords from the Zhuang languages, such as the final particle wei for imperative sentences.

The Sinitic languages, often synonymous with the Chinese languages, constitute the major branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is frequently proposed that there is a primary split between the Sinitic languages and the rest of the family, but this view is rejected by an increasing number of researchers. The Bai languages, whose classification is difficult, may be an offshoot of Old Chinese and thus be Sinitic; otherwise Sinitic is defined by the many varieties of Chinese and usage of the term "Sinitic" may reflect the linguistic view that Chinese constitutes a family of hundreds of distinct languages, rather than dialects of a single language.

Sichuanese dialects Branch of the Mandarin Chinese language family

Sichuanese or Szechwanese (simplified Chinese: 四川话; traditional Chinese: 四川話; Sichuanese Pinyin: Si4cuan1hua4; pinyin: Sìchuānhuà; Wade–Giles: Szŭ4-ch'uan1-hua4), also called Sichuanese/Szechwanese Mandarin (simplified Chinese: 四川官话; traditional Chinese: 四川官話; pinyin: Sìchuān Guānhuà) is a branch of Southwestern Mandarin spoken mainly in Sichuan and Chongqing, which was part of Sichuan Province until 1997, and the adjacent regions of their neighboring provinces, such as Hubei, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan and Shaanxi. Although "Sichuanese" is often synonymous with the Chengdu-Chongqing dialect, there is still a great amount of diversity among the Sichuanese dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible with each other. In addition, because Sichuanese is the lingua franca in Sichuan, Chongqing and part of Tibet, it is also used by many Tibetan, Yi, Qiang and other ethnic minority groups as a second language.

Southwestern Mandarin a primary branch of Mandarin Chinese

Southwestern Mandarin, also known as Upper Yangtze Mandarin, is a Mandarin Chinese language spoken in much of central and southwestern China, including in Sichuan, Yunnan, Chongqing, Guizhou, most parts of Hubei, the northwestern part of Hunan, the northern part of Guangxi, and some southern parts of Shaanxi and Gansu. Southwest Mandarin is about 50% mutually intelligible with Standard Chinese.

Northeastern Mandarin A dialect of Mandarin spoken in Northeastern China

Northeastern Mandarin is the subgroup of Mandarin varieties spoken in Northeast China with the exception of the Liaodong Peninsula. The classification of Northeastern Mandarin as a separate dialect group from Beijing Mandarin was first proposed by Li Rong, author of the Language Atlas of China, in 1989. However, many researchers do not accept the distinction.

Changsha dialect is a dialect of New Xiang Chinese. It is spoken predominantly in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. It is not mutually intelligible with Standard Mandarin, the official language of China.

Old Mandarin or Early Mandarin was the speech of northern China during the Jin and Yuan dynasties. New genres of vernacular literature were based on this language, including verse, drama and story forms, such as the qu and sanqu.

Northern Min Chinese language

Northern Min, is a group of mutually intelligible Min varieties spoken in Nanping prefecture of northwestern Fujian.

Lower Yangtze Mandarin Dialect of Mandarin

Lower Yangtze Mandarin is one of the most divergent and least mutually-intelligible of the Mandarin languages, as it neighbours the Wu, Hui, and Gan groups of Sinitic languages. It is also known as Jiang–Huai Mandarin, named after the Yangtze (Jiang) and Huai Rivers. Lower Yangtze is distinguished from most other Mandarin varieties by the retention of a final glottal stop in words that ended in a stop consonant in Middle Chinese.

Nanjing dialect, also known as Nankinese, or Nanjing Mandarin, is a dialect spoken in Nanjing, China. It is part of the Jianghuai group of Chinese varieties.

Mandarin (late imperial lingua franca) Common spoken language of administration of the Chinese empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties

Mandarin was the common spoken language of administration of the Chinese empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It arose as a practical measure, to circumvent the mutual unintelligibility of the varieties of Chinese spoken in different parts of China. Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined. The language was a koiné based on Mandarin dialects, initially those spoken around Nanjing but later switching to Beijing, and developed into Standard Chinese in the 20th century. In some 19th-century works it was called the court dialect.


  1. 1 2 Mandarin at Ethnologue (22nd ed., 2019)
  2. 台灣手語簡介 (Taiwan) (2009)
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Mandarin Chinese". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. "Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (Order of the President No.37)". Chinese Government. 31 October 2000. Retrieved 28 March 2017. For purposes of this Law, the standard spoken and written Chinese language means Putonghua (a common speech with pronunciation based on the Beijing dialect) and the standardized Chinese characters.
  5. "ROC Vital Information". Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). 31 December 2014. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
  6. 《人民日报》评论员文章:说普通话 用规范字. (in Chinese). Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  7. China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Mathew Ricci.
  8. "mandarin", Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1 (6th ed.). Oxford University Press. 2007. ISBN   978-0-19-920687-2.
  9. Razfar & Rumenapp (2013), p. 293.
  10. Coblin (2000), p. 537.
  11. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 136.
  12. Norman (1988), p. 181.
  13. 1 2 Wurm et al. (1987).
  14. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56.
  15. Norman (1988), pp. 48–49.
  16. Norman (1988), pp. 49–51.
  17. Norman (1988), pp. 34–36, 52–54.
  18. Norman (1988), pp. 49–50.
  19. Norman (1988), pp. 111–132.
  20. Ramsey (1987), p. 10.
  21. Fourmont, Etienne (1742). Linguae Sinarum Mandarinicae hieroglyphicae grammatica duplex, latinè, & cum characteribus Sinensium.
  22. Coblin (2000), p. 539.
  23. Kaske (2008), pp. 48–52.
  24. Coblin (2003), p. 353.
  25. Morrison, Robert (1815). A dictionary of the Chinese language: in three parts, Volume 1. P.P. Thoms. p. x. OCLC   680482801.
  26. Coblin (2000), pp. 540–541.
  27. Ramsey (1987), pp. 3–15.
  28. Chen (1999), pp. 27–28.
  29. Zhang & Yang (2004).
  30. Wurm et al. (1987), Map A2.
  31. Norman (1988), pp. 183–190.
  32. Ramsey (1987), p. 22.
  33. Szeto, Ansaldo & Matthews (2018).
  34. Chen (1999), p. 27.
  35. Mair (1991), p. 18.
  36. 1 2 Escure (1997), p. 144.
  37. 1 2 Blum (2001), p. 27.
  38. Szeto, Ansaldo & Matthews (2018), pp. 241–242.
  39. Richards (2003), pp. 138–139.
  40. 1 2 3 Ramsey (1987), p. 21.
  41. Ramsey (1987), pp. 215–216.
  42. 1 2 3 4 Norman (1988), p. 191.
  43. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 36–41.
  44. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–42.
  45. Kurpaska (2010), p. 49.
  46. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 53–54.
  47. Norman (1988), pp. 181, 191.
  48. Yan (2006), p. 61.
  49. Ting (1991), p. 190.
  50. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 55–56, 74–75.
  51. Norman (1988), p. 190.
  52. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41–46.
  53. Kurpaska (2010), p. 55.
  54. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 75–76.
  55. Yan (2006), pp. 222–223.
  56. Kurpaska (2010), p. 75.
  57. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2012), p. 3.
  58. Wurm et al. (1987), Map B1.
  59. Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B2, B5.
  60. 张世方 (2010). 北京官话语音研究. 北京语言大学出版社. p. 45. ISBN   9787561927755.
  61. Wurm et al. (1987), Map B2.
  62. Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B1, B3.
  63. Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B3, B4, B5.
  64. Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer (1977–78), p. 351.
  65. Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B4, B5.
  66. Wurm et al. (1987), Map B3.
  67. Wurm et al. (1987), Maps B4, B6.
  68. Kurpaska (2010), pp. 67–68.
  69. Mair (1990), pp. 5–6.
  70. Norman (1988), pp. 138–139.
  71. Ramsey (1987), p. 41.
  72. Norman (1988), pp. 139–141, 192–193.
  73. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Norman (1988), p. 193.
  74. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 192.
  75. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 194.
  76. Norman (1988), pp. 194–196.
  77. Norman (1988), pp. 194–195.
  78. 1 2 3 Norman (1988), p. 195.
  79. Li Rong's 1985 article on Mandarin classification, quoted in Yan (2006) , p. 61 and Kurpaska (2010) , p. 89.
  80. Norman (1988), pp. 195–196.
  81. Norman (1988), pp. 182, 195–196.
  82. Ramsey (1987), pp. 36–38.
  83. Norman, Jerry; Mei, Tsu-lin (1976). "The Austroasiatics in ancient South China: some lexical evidence". Monumenta Serica. 32: 274–301.
  84. Norman (1988), p. 10.
  85. Norman (1988), p. 162.
  86. Yue (2003), pp. 105–106.
  87. Yue (2003), pp. 90–93.
  88. Norman (1988), p. 196.
  89. Yue (2003), pp. 113–115.
Works cited

Further reading

Historical Western language texts