Mandarin Chinese

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官話 / 官话
Guanhua swapped.svg
Guānhuà ('Mandarin')
written in Chinese characters
(simplified left, traditional 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
Wenfa Shouyu [2]
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 cmn
Glottolog mand1415
Linguasphere 79-AAA-b
Mandarin and Jin in China.png
Mandarin area in China as of 1987, including Sichuanese, Lower Yangtze and (in light green) Jin, which are arguably separate languages
Mandarin sphere.svg
Countries where Mandarin is spoken as L1 or L2
  Majority native language
  Statutory or de facto national working language
  More than 1,000,000 speakers
  More than 500,000 speakers
  More than 100,000 speakers
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Mandarin Chinese is not listed in the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. It is classified as being safe from endangerment. Lang Status 99-NI.png
Mandarin Chinese is not listed in the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. It is classified as being safe from endangerment.


The English word "mandarin" (from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri, from Sanskrit mantrī, 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 Mandarin Chinese is based on Beijing dialect, with some lexical and syntactic influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC), as well as one of the four official languages of Singapore, and a high-prestige minority language [11] in Malaysia. It also functions as the language of instruction in Mainland China and 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. [3]

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 the Sichuan dialect and the Hebei dialect or Northeastern dialect, all being regarded as distinct from the standard language, with which they may not share much mutual intelligibility.


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 form of 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 (白話/白话, 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,I:28 (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. [3]

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:

  • loss of the Middle Chinese voiced initials except for v-
  • merger of -m finals with -n
  • the characteristic Mandarin four-tone system in open syllables, but retaining a final glottal stop in "entering tone" syllables
  • retention of the distinction between palatalized velars and dental affricates, the source of the spellings "Peking" and "Tientsin" for modern "Beijing" and "Tianjin". [23]

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 Mandarin Chinese

The variant of Mandarin as spoken by educated classes in Beijing was made the official language of China by the Qing dynasty in the early 1900s and the successive Republican government. 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 (traditional Chinese :國語; simplified Chinese :国语; 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; lit. '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]

This standard language is now used in education, the media, and formal occasions in both Mainland China and Taiwan, as well as among the Chinese community of Singapore. However in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world, namely Hong Kong and Macau, the standard form of Chinese used in education, the media, formal speech, and everyday life remains the local Cantonese because of their colonial and linguistic history. While Standard Mandarin is now the medium of instruction in schools throughout China, it still has yet to gain traction as a common language among the local population in areas where Mandarin dialects are not native. [29] In these regions, people may be either diglossic or speak the standard language with a notable accent. However since the 21st century, there has been an effort of mass education in Standard Mandarin Chinese and discouragement of local language usage by the Chinese government in order to erase these regional differences. [30]

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 and Singapore, while traditional characters remain in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Overseas communities also tend to use traditional Chinese characters, although younger generations in Malaysia increasingly use simplified characters due to influence from Singapore and mainland China. [31]

Geographic distribution

Mainland China

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. [32] [33]

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, [34] and many Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible. [lower-alpha 2]

Most of northeast China, except for Liaoning, did not receive significant settlements by Han Chinese until the 18th century, [40] and as a result the Northeastern Mandarin dialects spoken there differ little from the Beijing dialect. [41] 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. [42]

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. [41] 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. [41] The dialects in this area are now relatively uniform. [43] However, long-established cities even very close to Beijing, such as Tianjin, Baoding, Shenyang, and Dalian, have markedly different dialects.

While Standard Mandarin was adopted as China's official language in the early 1900s, local languages continued to be dominant in their respective regions until the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 and its promotion of this standard variant. [44] Starting in the Cultural Revolution and intensifying afterwards, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has adopted a language policy that pushes for the usage of Standard Mandarin at the expense of other Chinese varieties, including the prohibition of their use in most public settings. [45] [ page needed ] As a result, Mandarin is now widespread throughout the country, including in regions where the language is not native.

This language policy has proven to be largely successful, with over 80% of the Chinese population being able to speak Standard Mandarin as of 2020. [46] Nevertheless, despite active discouragement by the CCP, local Chinese and other ethnic languages continue to be the primary medium of communication in daily life in a handful of regions, most notably Guangdong (where Cantonese predominates) and Tibet. [47] [48] Elsewhere in China, Standard Mandarin has heavily influenced local languages through diglossia or in some cases, replaced them entirely (especially among younger generations in urban areas). [49] The Chinese government's current goal is to have 85% of China speak Standard Mandarin by 2025 and for virtually the entire country to speak the language by 2035. [50]

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. [43]


Standard Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan. The Taiwanese standard of Mandarin differs very little from that of mainland China, with differences largely in some technical vocabulary developed from the 1950s onwards. [51]

Mandarin started to become widely spoken in Taiwan following the Kuomintang's relocation and influx of refugees from the mainland at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. At the time Taiwanese Hokkien, and to a lesser extent Hakka, were the Chinese languages used among the local Han Chinese population, while the Formosan languages were natively spoken by many Aboriginal populations. These languages were heavily discouraged from use throughout the martial law period from 1949 to 1987, resulting in Mandarin replacing Taiwanese as the lingua franca. [52] Starting in the 2000s, the Taiwanese government has made efforts to recognize these local languages and they are now present in public spheres such as media and education, although Mandarin remains the common language. [53]

While the spoken standard of Taiwanese Mandarin is nearly identical to that of mainland China, the colloquial form has been heavily influenced by other local languages, especially Taiwanese. Notable differences include: the merger of retroflex sounds (zh, ch, sh, r) with the alveolar series (z, c, s), frequent mergers of the "neutral tone" with a word's original tone, and absence of erhua. [54] Code-switching between Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien is common, as the majority of the population continues to also speak the latter as a native language. [55]

Southeast Asia


Mandarin is one of the four official languages of Singapore along with English, Malay, and Tamil. Historically, it was seldom used by the Chinese Singaporean community, which primarily spoke the Southern Chinese languages of Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, or Hakka. [56] The launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979 by the government prioritized the language over traditional vernaculars in an attempt to create a common ethnic language and foster closer connections to China. [57] This has led to a significant increase and presence of Mandarin usage in the country, coupled with a strong decline in usage of other Chinese variants.

Standard Singaporean Mandarin is nearly identical to the standards of China and Taiwan, with minor vocabulary differences. It is the Mandarin variant used in education, media, and official settings. Meanwhile, a colloquial form called Singdarin is used in informal daily life and is heavily influenced in terms of both grammar and vocabulary by local languages such as Cantonese, Hokkien, and Malay. Instances of code-switching with English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay, or a combination of any of these is also common.


In Malaysia, Mandarin has been adopted by local Chinese-language schools as the medium of instruction with the standard based on that of Singapore. However, it is not as widespread in daily life among the Malaysian Chinese community, as Hokkien speakers continue to form a plurality among the ethnic Chinese population and Cantonese serves as the common language (especially in commerce and local media). [58] An exception is in the state of Johor, where Mandarin is increasingly used alongside Cantonese as a lingua franca in part due to Singaporean influence. [59] As in Singapore, the local colloquial variant of Mandarin exhibits influences from Cantonese and Malay.


In northern Myanmar, a Southwestern Mandarin variant close to the Yunnanese dialect is spoken by local Chinese and other ethnic groups. In some rebel group-controlled regions, Mandarin also serves as the lingua franca. [60]


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)

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. [62]

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. [63] 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. [64]

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. [65] [66] Of Yuan's four Mandarin subgroups, the Northwestern dialects are the most diverse, particularly in the province of Shanxi. [43] 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. [67] 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. [68] [69]

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, [70] and in many early classifications the two were not separated. [71] 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. [72] 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. [73] [74]

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): [75] [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. [87] 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. [88]


Mandarin Chinese
Simplified Chinese 官话
Traditional Chinese 官話
Literal meaningOfficials' speech

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. [89] Not all combinations occur. For example, Standard Chinese (based on the Beijing dialect) has about 1,200 distinct syllables. [90]

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: [91]

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/w/l/l/ɻ ~ ʐ/r/j/y


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. [92] 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. [94] 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). [94]

The Middle Chinese coda /m/ was still present in Old Mandarin, but has merged with /n/ in the modern dialects. [92] 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. [92] 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. [95]

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. [43] 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. [96] 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 Chinesedāntānlántándǎntǎnlǎndàntànlàndàn
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. [97] 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/. [97] (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 [98]
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: [99]

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)˦ (44)
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. [97]


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 bāor (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"). [100]

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, [101] Austroasiatic, [102] and Austronesian languages.

There are also many Chinese words which come 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 are 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. [103]

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:










我 给 你 一本 书

wǒ gěi nǐ yìběn shū

I give you {one-CLF} book

In southern dialects, as well as many southwestern and Lower Yangtze dialects, the objects occur in the reverse order. [104] [105]

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. [106]

The subordinative particle de (的) is characteristic of Mandarin dialects. [107] 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. [108]

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 has the same function, 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 for human nouns, 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老頭[老头]、老闆[老板]、老師[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. [35]
    • "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." [36]
    • "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." [37]
    • "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." [38]
    • "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)." [39]
  3. Speaker numbers are rounded to the nearest million from figures in the revised edition of the Language Atlas of China. [76]
  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

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Chinese is a group of languages that form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages family, spoken by the ethnic Han Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in Greater China. About 1.3 billion people speak a variety of Chinese as their first language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Standard Chinese</span> Standard form of Chinese and the official language of China

Standard Chinese —in linguistics Standard Northern Mandarin or Standard Beijing Mandarin, in common speech simply Mandarin, better qualified as Standard Mandarin, Modern Standard Mandarin or Standard Mandarin Chinese—is a modern standardized form of Mandarin Chinese that was first developed during the Republican Era (1912‒1949). It is designated as the official language of mainland China and a major language in the United Nations, Singapore, and Taiwan. It is largely based on the Beijing dialect. Standard Chinese is a pluricentric language with local standards in mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore that mainly differ in their lexicon. Hong Kong written Chinese, used for formal written communication in Hong Kong and Macau, is a form of Standard Chinese that is read aloud with the Cantonese reading of characters.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hakka Chinese</span> Primary branch of Chinese originating in Southern China

Hakka form a language group of varieties of Chinese, spoken natively by the Hakka people throughout Southern China and Taiwan and throughout the diaspora areas of East Asia, Southeast Asia and in overseas Chinese communities around the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yue Chinese</span> Primary branch of Chinese spoken in southern China

Yue is a group of similar Sinitic languages spoken in Southern China, particularly in Liangguang.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Min Chinese</span> 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 one another nor with any other variety of Chinese.

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Chinese, also known as Sinitic, is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family consisting of hundreds of local varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible. Variation is particularly strong in the more mountainous southeast of mainland China. The varieties are typically classified into several groups: Mandarin, Wu, Min, Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Yue, though some varieties remain unclassified. These groups are neither clades nor individual languages defined by mutual intelligibility, but reflect common phonological developments from Middle Chinese.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jin Chinese</span> Branch of Chinese spoken in parts of northern China

Jin is a proposed group of varieties of Chinese spoken by roughly 63 million people in northern China, including most of Shanxi province, 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 include it within Mandarin, but others set it apart as a closely related, but separate sister-group.

The Sinitic languages (漢語族/汉语族), often synonymous with "Chinese languages", are a group of East Asian analytic languages that 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. This view is rejected by a number of researchers but has found phylogenetic support among others. The Greater Bai languages, whose classification is difficult, may be an offshoot of Old Chinese and thus Sinitic; otherwise Sinitic is defined only by the many varieties of Chinese unified by a common writing system, and usage of the term "Sinitic" may reflect the linguistic view that Chinese constitutes a family of distinct languages, rather than variants of a single language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sichuanese dialects</span> Branch of the Mandarin Chinese language family

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Southwestern Mandarin, also known as Upper Yangtze Mandarin, is a Mandarin Chinese language spoken in much of Southwest 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Northeastern Mandarin</span> Variety of Mandarin, spoken in Northeast China

Northeastern Mandarin is the subgroup of Mandarin varieties spoken in Northeast China with the exception of the Liaodong Peninsula and few enclaves along Amur and Ussuri rivers. 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.

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

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Northern Min</span> Chinese language

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

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lower Yangtze Mandarin</span> 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.

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

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mandarin (late imperial lingua franca)</span> Spoken Chinese language of administration 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. The southern variant spoken around Nanjing was prevalent in the late Ming era, although later on a form based on the Beijing dialect took the stage by the mid-19th century and developed into Standard Chinese in the 20th century. In some 19th-century works, it was called the court dialect.



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Works cited

Further reading

Historical Western language texts