History of the Chinese Language

Chinese, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, is divided into various languages and dialects spoken by over a billion people. It’s thought that a common language existed 4,000 years ago. Then, invasions out of the north and geographic isolation gave rise to regional language variations. Researchers are unclear what earlier forms of Chinese looked like since by the time of the Han Dynasty reforms, no unified language was in existence. Even after the end of the dynasty, Chinese continued to evolve as renewed influence from the north produced changes in structure and sound.

By the 10th century, a standard language was widespread, at least for local civil servants and officials. Today’s Mandarin Chinese, the country’s official language, is a standardized artificial creation: the pronunciation of the Peking dialect with vocabulary from northern dialects and the grammatical structure of Baihua, the written version of the everyday language.

Written Chinese

Although there are many Chinese languages, only two written forms evolved. The oldest preserved written texts are around 3,000 years old. This classic Chinese, called Wenyan, is a form that has since become widely disconnected from the spoken language. The other written form, known as Baihua, more closely reflects spoken Chinese but was long viewed as vulgar.

The arrival of Buddhism in China stimulated the spread of this version, since it necessitated a translation of Indian traditions and knowledge. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that intellectuals began to support the use of Baihua in everyday life.

As a rule, Chinese characters are partly phonetic and partly semantic, accounting for the tone marks. New characters continue to be added –to describe a new scientific discovery, for example. Everyday living requires the use of between 2,000 and 3,000 characters, while around 4,000 are needed to read a newspaper.

Trade contacts, as well as early tourism, created a need for transcription systems that reflect Chinese pronunciation. One of the best known of these, the Wade-Giles system, originated in the 19th century and is still in use today. Linguists in the 20th century developed various alternatives, the most widely accepted being the Pinyin system.

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Mariana Mellor
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