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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mandarin and Other Chinese dialects

There are a lot of Chinese dialects, probably 250. Among them, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien are the most popular judged by the number of people who speak it. Mandarin was made official and dubbed as putonghua (the common language). All Chinese students study through putonghua at school.

There are reasons why Mandarin was chosen to be the official language, but not other dialects. One is that Mandarin is in the closest relation to the written form. Almost all spoken Mandarin can be written down. But it's not the same goes to other dialects.

The second reason is that most Northern dialects are quite similar and sounds very close to Mandarin. People from Beijing, Heilongjing, Tianjin, JiangXi, Jiejiang, Henan understand each other, with only minor difficulties. But Southern Chinese dialects are so different that sometimes even neighboring towns will have their own distinguistive dialects. That made pushing Mandarin through the country a lot easier than pushing any other dialects.

Since I have been learning Cantonese for a while now, I noticed that some old words and sentence patterns are still in use in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin. Cantonese is full of slang while Mandarin has no equivalence.

Some people say that Southern Chinese were refugees from the Central part of China, escaping persecution and war. And Cantonese and Hokkien are related. Hokkien is a more ancient dialect than Cantonese.

Had it not been the commonality of the written Han Chinese language, Chinese dialects would have diverged even more, like in Europe. Thousands of years ago, when Europe was still divided among state cities and tribes, if war had broken out among them and someone had united all tribes, we would not have had the need to face so many different languages now!