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Adventures in the vast and wide world of Chinese dialects

Adventures in the vast and wide world of Chinese dialects

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There are a bazillion of Chinese dialectal varieties (or 方言 – fāng yán) spoken in mainland China and beyond. And yet, when asked about what language people communicate with in this staggeringly populated country, most people will unashamedly exclaim “It’s Chinese, duh!”. Then, there’s the category of people who at least know to distinguish between Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese. Nevertheless, the whole story is far more complicated than that.

So, how many varieties of spoken Chinese are there in reality and which are the primary ones? To answer this complicated question, it’s important to first set the scene by taking into account what a dialect even is (spoiler alert: there’s a different interpretation to the concept than you might like to think). Let’s explore the intricacies and wonders of the language of Chinese!

What do we even mean by dialect in the Chinese context?

When talking about dialects in the context of the Chinese language, the conversation doesn’t revolve around slight differences in accent or vocabulary – instead, the differences between the various Chinese dialects go far deeper than that. To illustrate, let’s compare British dialects with Chinese ones.
If you’ve listened to a bunch of regional English dialects from countries such as Britain, then you certainly recognize how different each dialect sounds from the other. Sometimes, their speakers might struggle to fully grasp each other due to the strange contrast in pronunciation. But generally, conversing between themselves comes easy still.
In Chinese, however, not so much. The differences between the numerous Chinese dialects are so striking that it’s near impossible for speakers of, say, Cantonese and Mandarin to hold a conversion and actually understand what the other’s saying. Plus, it’s not only the pronunciation that’s is different – the vocabulary and syntax are often notably distinct as well, only widening the comprehension gap.

How many varieties of Chinese are there?

There’s a great number of Chinese dialects, although the matter is debatable and the clear answer remains highly unknown. In the 1987 Language Atlas of China, there were 141 of them listed in total. Although they can be differentiated both in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary (and less so in syntax), only 42 of which have their own dedicated dictionaries in the Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects.
You can find our list of the most major Chinese dialects (or dialect groups) below:

Adventures in the vast and wide world of Chinese dialects

1. Mandarin

Mandarin (普通话 – pǔ tōng huà) is the native language of over 70% of China’s gigantic population, amounting to a total of 920 million native speakers. Given the vastness of this dialect’s variations (with a potential number of 93 Mandarin dialect variants), the language can be broken into 4 major groups: Southwest, Southern, North-western and Northern Mandarin. Outside of Chinese territory, Mandarin is spoken most widely in Singapore and Taiwan.

Fun fact: When compared to some other Chinese dialects, Mandarin has a relatively homogeneous pronunciation across the different regions in which it’s spoken. While there are some regional variations in pronunciation indeed, they are generally less pronounced compared to some other dialects, such as Cantonese or Min.

2. Yue

Yue (粤语 – yuè yǔ), or Cantonese, is used by 70 million people, mainly in the Guangdong province, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau. These are some 20 million more Yue speakers outside of these areas. Although non-Chinese people frequently recognize Cantonese as a form of Chinese, few people actually known it for its alternative Yue name.

Fun fact: Cantonese preserves more features of Ancient Chinese than do the other major Chinese languages. Most of the final consonants remain the same from the ancient language, and the dialect preserves the ancient number of 6 tones, which is in contrast to the 4 tones found in Mandarin.

3. Wu

Wu (吴语 – wú yǔ), also known as “Shanghai dialect” or “Shanghainese”, is spoken by 80 million people in various major cities of East China, such as Shanghai, Suzhou, Ningbo and Hangzhou. Wu speakers make up 20% of China’s population.
Fun fact: Wu is believed to be the most ancient Chinese language in existence, which likely began diverging from Middle Chinese around the 6th century AD.

4. Xiang

Xiang (湘语 – xiāng yǔ), or “Hunanese”, has 43.5 million speakers, most of which reside within the provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Guangxi, Guizhou, Guangdong, Jiangxi and Sichuan. Xiang can be divided between New Xiang and Old Xiang, spoken by around 20 and 12 million speakers respectively.
Fun fact: Xiang is distinguished for its rich tonal system that’s made up of 7 to 8 tones, depending on the dialect variant. By contrast, the average dialect of Chinese features 4 to 6 tones. These tonal variations give Xiang a more unique sound compared to other Chinese dialects.

5. Gan

Gan (赣语 – gàn yǔ) is another major dialect spoken by around 48 million people in the Jiangxi province and some neighbouring areas in China. This variant sounds by far the closest to Mandarin Chinese than any other dialect from this list.
Fun fact: There is a traditional form of Chinese opera, known as “Gan opera”, in which performers use the Gan dialect to sing in a fast-paced and energetic style. This form of opera singing has been alive and well for over 400 years, and various performances take place in Jiangxi today.

6. Min

The Min dialect (闽语 – mǐn yǔ) is spoken by about 30 million people, mainly in the Fujian province and parts of Southeast Asia, such as Taiwan and Malaysia. Hokkien is another frequently used alternative for Min.
Fun fact: Although not of Mandarin-level status, Min is perhaps the largest and most diverse of all the Chinese dialect groups, comprised of around 50 different dialect variations.

7. Hakka

Hakka (客家 – kè jiā) is a Chinese dialect of 48 million speakers and the official language of Taiwan. The largest number of Hakka speakers, however, are concentrated in eastern and northern Guangdong. Sadly, Hakka users are reaching an unprecedented low and the language has neared endangered status.
Fun fact: The name Hakka translates directly to “guest people”, which is thought to have derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Mandarin word “kejia”. The word’s meaning reflects the history of the Hakka people, who migrated from the north to the south of China during the fall of the Nan Song dynasty in the 1270s.

Need Chinese translation?

As you can tell, navigating the Chinese dialects plain is like trying to find your way outside an endless maze. Chinese dialects aren’t mutually exclusive – two dialects can sound so vastly different from each other, akin to how two languages such as Spanish and French would differ.
Are you in need for Chinese native translators? At Pangea Global, we’re fully equipped to navigate the language’s complexities and bring the highest quality Chinese translation to the table.
Whether you need translation, localization, copywriting, voice-over or other language-related services, request your quote for free using our form.
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