Alternative name(s): chinois (fr), Chinees (nl), kinesiska (sv)

Language family: Sino-Tibetan

Language Group: Chinese

Geographical use: China, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, on Mauritius, in North Korea, Singapore and Taiwan

Information: Spoken Chinees has a lot of dialects, that have a common writing. Still the different dialect speakers do not understand one another. That is why these dialects are considered to be separate languages. The differences between the dialects can be compared to the differences in vocabulary and pronunciation between the Romance languages. The most frequent dialect is Mandarin. The standard pronunciation is the language of Beijing. Mandarin is also the basis for the script and the official spoken language, Putonghua. In order to simplify all this, we usually speak about the Chinese language.

The modern Chinese dialects, existing since the 11th century, developed from Old Chinese (8th to 3rd century BC). Although all words were monosyllable, Old Chinese knew declensions. The next linguistic period is the Middle Chinese one (to about the 11th century). By that time the rich Old Chinese sound system had been greatly simplified. The Old Chinese vowels like p, ph, b, bh (where h denotes aspiration), had been converted in to p, ph, bh in Middle Chinese. The current Mandarin only knows p and ph (spelled b and p).

A Mandarin syllable consists of at least a so-called end element, a vowel (a, e) or half vowel (i, u) or a combination of these (diphthong or tryphthong). The vowel has a stable, falling or raising tone and sometimes also a final consonant (n, ng or r). In Old Chinese there was also an additional p, t, k, b, d, g or m. The end element can be preceded by an initial consonant, but never by a series of consonants. E.g. the Old Chinese words klam and glam have now both become lan. Due to all these changes, Mandarin now only has 1,300 different syllables. This results in a great deal of homonyms. To prevent chaos, compound words have been created. E.g. the word shi both means poem and teacher. Poem has become shi-ge (poem-song) and teacher shi-zhang (teacher-parent). Although a modern Chinese dictionary contains more compound words than individual words, each part of a compound word still makes sense.

As Chinese does not have declensions, the word order is even more important than in English. In general we can state that the Chinese word order corresponds to the English word order: subject-verb-object. Still, there are quite some differences: in English the subject is the one performing the action, but in Chinese it usually is a words about which a comment follows. An example: Nei-ke shu yezi hen da literally means that tree, leaves very big, what of course means: that tree has big leaves.

Time is not expressed in Chinese either. And as Chinese does not have subordinate clauses, sentences can become very complicated: Jianle shu jiu mai de neige ren literally means Seen book immediately buy is that man; what translates into: That man who buys every book he sees.

For written Chinese I refer to the part on scripts in this publication.