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Chinese language facts

  • All Chinese dialects share one writing system of about 40.000 symbols which are 'universally' comprehensible. Spoken Chinese varieties often are mutually incomprehensible.

  • Mandarin is the most widely spoken form of Chinese. It is official language in People's Republic China, Hong Kong (which is now once more part of the PRC) and Taiwan.
    Other important dialect groups are Wu, Xiang, Cantonese, Min, Hakka and Gan.
    Due to historic reasons, most Chinese-speaking people in the United States speak Cantonese.

  • Written Chinese was developed about 4000 years ago. It consists of more than 40.000 logographic symbols, meaning that a symbol represents one syllable or concept rather than a sound as does the phonetic system. Chinese writing has influenced many languages of East Asia, including Japanese. It has remained immensely stable over the millennia. Only recently has the PRC attempted to simplify it and to institute a romanized version called Pinyin, representing the sounds.

    To be considered a literate one needs to study at least 3000 symbols!

  • Originally, Chinese has written from right to left in vertical columns. Taiwan has retained this vertical writing, but in the PRC the writing was changed to rows from left to right as in European languages.

Some characteristics of Chinese language

  • Chinese is a tonal language
    The meaning of a word changes according to its tone. There are 4 tones in Mandarin Chinese: flat, rising, falling then rising and falling. Other dialects feature up to 9 different tones.

  • All words have only one grammatical form only
    There is no grammatical distinction between singular or plural, no declination of verbs according to tense, mood and aspect.
    The distinction between singular or plural is accomplished by sentence structure. Tenses are indicated by adverbs of time ('yesterday', 'later') or particles.
    Sounds great? Well, 2 different types of aspects which are unlike anything in any European language give information as to the relevancy of an occurrence and a complex system of suffixes to distinguish the direction, possibility, and success of an action help complicate this apparently easy grammar…

  • Questions are formed by usage of particles, the word order (mostly Subject, Verb, Object) remains unchanged

  • Formal/informal address
    Second person nín is used instead of general n§ to show deference. Various terms, too, help express deference and are used when speaking to an older or especially respected person.
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