1. Q: How many languages does China have?
A: China has over 50 recognized minorities, most with their own language. The major languages besides Chinese include the following: Manchurian, Mongolian, Uyghur, Tibetan, Yi, Zhuang and a great number of minor languages concentrated in the southern provinces of China bordering Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
Within Chinese, several languages can be distinguished. Often these are confused with dialects, but these languages are not mutually intelligible and some differ more than the European languages that neighbor each other.
The languages that are related to each other and to Chinese within China are called Sinitic languages. "Sinitic" can also mean "of or relating to China." The Sinitic languages are related to various Tibetan and Burmese languages and together form a language family called Sino-Tibetan.
2. Q: What is the official language of China?
A: The Beijing Guanhua (Mandarin) dialect is the official language in China.
At the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, there was no single, national language in China nor an education system that could teach the proper sounds of any of the languages. There were archaic dictionaries and a literary Chinese over a thousand years old that little resembled the spoken vernacular. The new government decided a national language (Guoyu) must be established and so it was decided by a group of scholars in 1913 that Mandarin be made the standard. A set of phonetic symbols were created (zhuyin fuhao) and a dictionary created called Guoyin zidian (Dictionary of National Phonics). However, this dictionary did not resemble Mandarin as it was spoken because it retained pronunciations of the Ru-sheng characters, so it was a mix of northern pronunciation with the rhymes of the southern languages. Not a single person could speak the language set down in this dictionary except Yuen Ren Chao (Zhao Yuanren), a native Wu speaker but skilled linguist and phonetician who is famous for developing the tone contour system used by linguists and doing much of the early dialect fieldwork. He is the one who made a set of recordings of this dictionary for use in schools. Nobody really could learn from this dictionary, and it wasn't until 1932 that a dictionary based on the pronunciation and speech of Beijing came about. Now, in addition to the term "Guoyu" (which is the term now used in Taiwan), Putonghua or "universal language" has become the national term for the official language. This is usually called Huayu "Chinese language" by most overseas Chinese. Another term, zhongwen is used to refer to Chinese in a more literary sense.
It was originally thought in the early stages of developing Mandarin as the national standard that within 100 years, or by 2030, that the whole nation would be unified linguistically under Mandarin. Because of the sheer size of China and the number of various languages spoken there, teaching everybody Mandarin and making it the national standard has been a very long journey, and even now with less than 30 years to go, most of the languages and dialects are thriving. In many schools, classes are given in the local language and Mandarin is studied as the universal language (much like a foreign language class) to use for speaking with any non-locals.
3. Q: How many Sinitic languages are in China?
A: It is difficult to measure the differences between languages and dialects when the definitions are not clear. However, the Sinitic languages of China (which exclude other minority languages such as Tibetan, Uyghur, Manchu, etc.) can be grouped into several large groups. The northern language, Mandarin, is more or less uniform over most of the country, and within that region has two areas that may be considered slightly more unintelligible to the other Mandarin dialects: the Jin language of Shanxi province and Huainan of southern Anhui province. The other languages are located in Southeast China: Xiang in Hunan province, Gan in Jiangxi province, Wu mostly in Zhejiang province, Hakka--spread over several provinces, Yue mostly in Guangdong province, Pinghua an offshoot of Yue, and finally Min in Fujian, Taiwan, and Hainan provinces. Min can further be divided into a northern and southern language, and there are several more branches that can be distinguished. Min is thought to have branched off from Ancient Chinese at an earlier date than the other dialects, and thus has a greater amount of variation developed among them.
In all, this accounts for 11 languages:
N. Min, and
S. Min (Hokkien/Taiwanese).
4. Q: What is the definition of a language and dialect? What is the difference between Chinese dialects? What is the definition of Chinese dialects?
A: Languages evolve slowly over time. One or two small changes happen with each new generation of speakers of a language. During the course of a few hundred years, the same language may have evolved so much, it could become a completely different language. Or, a language that is spread out over a large area where travel between cities is difficult could cut a language up letting each area develop independently of each other. This is what happens when a language is spread out over many islands, such as in Indonesia or the Philippines. The result: hundreds of related languages have developed in these two countries. Or after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the distances between Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and Romania remained so great, the dialects developed into separate languages. At around the same time that happened, dialects had already appeared in China and they too have been developing, over a vast area of land, into their own languages for about two millennia now.
So how do we distinguish a dialect from a language? A separate dialect is a form of speech different than your own that you can still understand (intelligibility) and the speaker of that dialect can still understand you (mutual intelligibility), though sometimes with difficulty, or you may not recognize the use of some words. Dialects often appear humorous or fun, because you can still understand, but it just sounds funny. After some exposure, most people can imitate the speech of a different dialect without difficulty. Most recognizable in dialects is an intonation different than your own speech and the use of different vowel shapes in addition to some different vocabulary. But what makes a dialect not a language is that the grammar and syntax are pretty much the same. This is apparent between the main American and British dialects of English.
A separate language is a form of speech different than your own that you cannot understand. Not only is the intonation different, but the use of different vowels and consonants together with different use of vocabulary, grammar and syntax make it very difficult to understand. If the language is closely related to your own language, you may be able to recognize some words and may feel a little comfortable with grammatical patterns. But your overall comprehension would remain quite low. Languages differ from each other in a myriad of ways, some only by a little, and others by a lot. This is why it's difficult to draw lines between what is a dialect and what is a language.
All of the Chinese languages use the same vocabulary and roots, more or less. They have a unified syllable and tonal structure as well. And all of these languages originate in one country: China.
Traditionally, languages have been identified with countries and nations, and dialects with local varieties. Although Denmark and Norway are separate countries, speakers of Danish and Norwegian can still understand each other. What makes them languages and not dialects? Will Serbo-Croatian remain as one language (even though it has two writing systems) or will its dialects develop into several different languages soon? Now the language is spread over Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia (Yugoslavia), so will these be considered separate languages? Mandarin Chinese in Beijing and Mandarin Chinese in Taipei have different writing too, but these will remain as just dialects of the same language. Taking into consideration that Chinese dialects were in fact just dialects more than a thousand years ago, the Chinese term" 方言 "dialect" has remained until today. The word "方言" could arguably have a different meaning than its English counterpart "dialect". Where we can argue that many of the speech samples found in China are not dialects but rather languages, a Chinese can still indefinitely refer to them as 方言 because this means only "speech of some place." So, because of the wider semantic use of "方言," and its narrow translation into English, the problem of calling Chinese languages as dialects will remain as indefinitely as the term 方言 is used.
But the facts are clear: so much deviation has happened over time that we can now recognize these major dialects as separate languages. We can identify different phonologies, different vocabulary, different grammar, different syntax, and tonal developments.
5. Q: How many Chinese dialects are there? What is the number of dialects?
A: To date, approximately 1500 dialects have been recorded. There are tens of thousands of villages in China however, and not every single one of them has a distinct dialect. We can group villages, cities, or even counties together as belonging to a single dialect. But if every minute detail is considered as a separate dialect, then it is nearly impossible to create an exact count. Since people living in the same region speaking dialects of the same language can more or less understand each other, it is safe to say that each of the Chinese languages have only a few dialects.
Mandarin can be divided into seven main dialect areas: Central Plateau (Zhongyuan), Beijing, Southwestern, Northeastern, Jiaoliao, Jilu, and Lanyin. Jin is concentrated within the northern Mandarin speaking area and has eight dialect divisions. Huainan is nestled between Mandarin, Wu and Gan speaking areas and has five dialect divisions. Wu, located on the eastern coast, with six main dialects, with the majority of the people speaking varieties of Taihu. Xiang and Gan each have several dialect divisions. Min, spoken along the east coast, can be further divided into sub-languages, each with their own dialects, the main languages being Northern and Southern Min.
Hakka and Cantonese each have several dialect divisions with Pinghua (Cantonese) recognized by some as a separate language.
If we just count the main dialect divisions in the classification of each language group, we can say the following:
Mandarin: 7 dialects, 42 subdialects
Jin: 8 dialects
Huainan: 5 dialects
Wu: 6 dialects, 13 subdialects
Xiang: 3 dialects
Gan: 11 dialects
Min: 2 languages, 6 dialects, 9 subdialects
Hakka: 8 dialects
Cantonese: 8 dialects
Pinghua: 2 dialects
Total: 11 languages, 64 dialects, 64 subdialects (of just some of the dialects)