There are three tones (high, mid, low) in syllables ending in-p,-t, and-k; six tones occur in other types of syllables (mid level, low level, high falling, low falling, high rising, low rising). Two tones are used to modify the meaning of words (high level , and low-to-high rising *), as inyintobacco fromyinsmoke, andnöy*daughter fromnöywoman. Some special grammatical words also have the tone . There is no neutral tone and little tonal sandhi (modification).
TheChinese writingsystem is non-alphabetic. It applies a specific character to write each meaningful syllable or each nonmeaningful syllabic that is part of a polysyllabic word.
Pinyin is used in the following discussion of Modern Standard Chinese grammar.
The sound system of Chinese is marked by its use oftones to indicate differences of meaning between words or syllables that are otherwise identical in sound (i.e., have the same consonants and vowels). Modern Standard Chinese has four tones, while the more archaic Cantonese language uses at least six tones, as did Ancient Chinese. Chinese words often have only one syllable, although modern Chinese makes greater use ofcompoundsthan did the earlier language. In Chinesecompoundwords, few prefixes or infixes occur, but there are a great number of suffixes. Few words end in aconsonant, except in such archaic dialects as Cantonese. A Chinese word is invariable in form (i.e., it has noinflectionalmarkers or markers to indicate parts of speech) and, within the range allowed by itsintrinsicmeaning, can serve as any part of speech. Because there is no word inflection in the language, there is a fixed word order. Person and number are expressed in the pronoun rather than in the verb. Chinese has no definite article (i.e., no word meaning the), although the word meaning one and the demonstrative adjective are sometimes used as articles in the language today. Adjectives, which are probably of verbal origin, are not inflected for degree of comparison and may be used as adverbs without any change of form.
Middle Archaic Chinese is the language of some of the earliest writings of theConfucianschool. Important linguistic changes that had occurred between the Early and Middle phases became still more pronounced inLate Archaic, the language of the two major Confucian and Daoist writers,Mencius(Mengzi) andZhuangzi, as well as of other important philosophers. The grammar by then had become more explicit in the writing system, with a number of well-defined grammatical particles, and it can also be assumed that the use of grammatical affixes had similarly declined. The process used in verb formation and verb inflection that later appeared as tonal differences may at this stage have beenmanifestedas final consonants or as suprasegmental features, such as different types of laryngeal phonation. The word classes included nouns, verbs, and pronouns (each with several subclasses), and particles. The use of a consistent system of grammatical particles to form noun modifiers, verb modifiers, and several types of embedded sentences (i.e., sentences that are made to become parts of another independent sentence) became blurred in Han Chinese and was gone from written Chinese until the emergence of post-Classical Chinese. In Modern Standard Chinese the subordinating particledecombines the functions of several Late Archaic Chinese particles, and the verb particleleand the homophonous sentence particlelehave taken over for other Late Archaic forms.
Verbs and nouns are written by what are or were formerly pictures, often consisting of several elements (e.g., the character for to love depicts a woman and a child; the character for beautiful is a picture of a man with a huge headdress with rams horns on top). The exact meaning of the word is rarely deducible from even a clearly recognizable picture, because theconnotationsare either too broad or too narrow for the words precise meaning. For example, the picture relationship of mother to child includes more facets than love, a concept that, of course, is not restricted to the mother-child relation, and a man adorned with rams horns undoubtedly had other functions than that of being handsome to look at, whereas the concept beautiful is applicable also to men in other situations, as well as to women. Abstract nouns are indicated by means of concrete associations. The character for peace, tranquility consists of a somewhat stylized form of the elements roof, heart, and (wine) cup. Abstract symbols have been used to indicate numbers and local relationships.
The spoken varieties of Chinese are mutually unintelligible to their respective speakers. They differ from each other to about the same extent as the modernRomance languages. Most of the differences among them occur in pronunciation and vocabulary; there are few grammatical differences. These languages includeMandarinin the northern, central, and western parts of China;Wu; Northern and SouthernMinGan(Kan);Hakka(Kejia); andXiang; andCantonese(Yue) in the southeastern part of the country.
The Sinitic languages distinguish nouns and verbs with some overlapping, as doSino-Tibetan languagesin general. There are noun suffixes that form different kinds of nouns (concrete nouns, diminutives, abstract nouns, and so on), particles placed after nouns indicating relationships in time and space, and verb particles for modes and aspects. Adjectives act as one of several kinds of verbs. Verbs can occur in a series (concatenation) with irreversible order (e.g., the verbs take and come placed next to one another denote the concept bring). Nouns arecollectivein nature, and onlyclassifiers can be counted and referred to singly. Specific particles are used to indicate the relationship ofnominals(e.g., nouns and noun phrases) to verbs, such as transitive verbobject, agentpassive verb; in some of the languages this system forms a sentence construction called ergative, in which all nominals are marked for their function and the verb stays unchanged. Final sentence particles convey a variety of meanings (defining either the whole sentence or the predicate) that indicate question, command, surprise, or new situation. The general word order of subjectverbobject and complement and modifiermodified is the same in all the languages, but the use of the preposed particles and verbs in a series varies considerably. Grammatical elements of equal or closely related values in various languages are very often not related in sounds.
At the same time thespoken languagechanged continually, as did the conventions for pronouncing the written characters. Soon Classical Chinese made little sense when read aloud. It depended heavily on fixed word order and on rhythmical and parallel passages. It has sometimes been denied the status of a real language, but it was certainly one of the most successful means ofcommunicationin human history. It was the medium in which the poetsLi Bai(701762) andDu Fu(712770) and the prose writerHan Yu(768824) created some of the greatest masterpieces of all times and was the language of Neo-Confucianist philosophy (especially ofZhu Xi), which was to influence the West deeply. Classical Chinese was also the language in which the Italian Jesuit missionaryMatteo Ricci(15521610) wrote in his attempt to convert the Chinese empire to Christianity.
Fuzhouis the most important language of the Northern branch of Min. The very extensive sandhi affects not only tones but also consonants and vowels, so that the phoneticmanifestationof a syllable depends entirely on interaction with the surroundings. There are three initial labial sounds (p,ph,m), five dental sounds (t,th,s,l,n), three palatal sounds (tś,tśh,), and five velars (k,kh,h,ʔ, andŋ). Syllables can end in-k,-ŋ,ʔ(glottal stop), a semivowel, or a vowel. The tones fall into two classes: a comparatively high classcomprisinghigh, mid, high falling, and high rising (only in sandhi forms) and a rather low one, comprising low rising and low rising-falling (circumflex). Certain vowels and diphthongs occur only with the high class, others occur only with the low class, and the vowelaoccurs with both classes. Sandhi rules can cause tone to change from low class to high class, in which case the vowel also changes.
There are more than 2,200 different syllables in Standard Cantonese, or almost twice as many as in Modern Standard Chinese. The word classes are the same as in Modern Standard Chinese. The grammatical words, although phonetically unrelated, generally have the same semantic value (e.g., the subordinating and nominalizing particlekɛ, Modern Standard Chinesede; monot, Modern Standard Chinesebu; the verbal particle for completed action and the sentence particle for new situation, bothlein Modern Standard Chinese, are Standard Cantonesetsɔandlɔ, respectively). A classifier preceding a noun in subject position (before the verb) functions as a definite article (e.g.,tsek snthe boat).
Han Chinese developed more polysyllabic words and more specific verbal and nominal (noun) categories of words. Most traces of verb formation and verb conjugation began to disappear. An independent Southern tradition (on the Yangtze River), simultaneous with Late Archaic Chinese, developed a special style, used in the poetryChuci(Elegies of Chu), which was the main source for the refinedfu(prose poetry). Late Han Chinese developed into Classical Chinese, which as a writtenidiomunderwent few changes during the long span of time it was used. It was an artificial construct, which for different styles and occasions borrowed freely and heavily from any period of pre-Classical Chinese but in numerous cases without real understanding for the meaning and function of the words borrowed.
The history of the Chinese language can be divided into three periods, pre-Classical (c.1500bcc.ad200), Classical (c.200c.1920), and post-Classical Chinese (with important forerunners as far back as the Tang dynasty).
In the early 1900s a program for the unification of the national language, which is based on Mandarin, was launched; this resulted inModern Standard 1956 a new system of romanization calledPinyin, based on the pronunciation of the characters in the Beijingdialect, was adopted as an educational instrument to help in the spread of the modern standard language. Modified in 1958, the system was formally prescribed (1979) for use in all diplomatic documents and foreign-language publications in English-speaking countries.
Modern Standard Chinese has a threefold origin: the written post-Classical language, the spoken standard of Imperial times (Mandarin), and the vernacular language of Beijing. Theseidiomswere clearly related originally, and combining them for the purpose of creating a practical national language was a task that largely solved itself once the signal had been given. The term National Language (guoyu) had been borrowed from Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century, and, from 1915, various committees considered the practicalimplicationsof promoting it. The deciding event was the action of theMay Fourth Movementof 1919; at the instigation of the liberalsavantHu Shi, Classical Chinese (also known aswenyan) was rejected as the standard written language. (Hu Shi also led the vernacular literature movement of 1917; his program for literary reform appeared on Jan. 1, 1917.) The new written idiom has gained ground faster in literature than inscience, but there can be no doubt that the days of Classical Chinese as a living medium are numbered. After the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, some government regulation was applied successfully, and the tremendous task of making Modern Standard Chinese understood throughout China was effectively undertaken. In what must have been the largest-scale linguistic plan in history, untold millions of Chinese, whose mother tongues were divergent Mandarin or non-Mandarin languages or non-Chinese languages, learned to speak and understand the National Language, or Putonghua, a name it is now commonly called; with this effort, literacy was imparted to great numbers of people in all age groups.
There are four tones: (1) high level, (2) high risingcrescendo, (3) low falling diminuendo with glottal friction (with an extra rise from low to high when final), and (4) falling diminuendo. Unstressed syllables have a neutral tone, which depends on its surroundings for pitch. Tones in sequences of syllables that belong together lexically and syntactically (sandhi groups) may undergo changes known as tonal sandhi, the most important of which causes a third tone before another third tone to be pronounced as a second tone. The tones influence some vowels (notablyeando), which are pronounced more open in third and fourth tones than in first and second tones.
The Pinyin system indicates unaspirated stops and affricates by means of traditionally voiced consonants (e.g.,b,d) and aspirated consonants by voiceless sounds (e.g.,p,t). The semivowels arey,yu, andwinitially;i,, andumedially; andiandu(oaftera) finally. Final retroflexris writtenr. The tones are indicated by accent markers, 1 = , 2 = , 3 = , 4 = (e.g.,m,m,m,m= Wade-Gilesma1,ma2,ma3,ma4).
Of the different Hakka dialects, Hakka of Meizhou (formerly Meixian) inGuangdongis best known. It has the same initial consonants, final consonants, and syllabic nasals as Standard Cantonese; the vowels are similar to those of Modern Standard Chinese. Medial and final semivowels areyandw. There are two tones in syllables with final stops, four in the other syllabic types.
All modern Sinitic languagesi.e., the Chinese dialectsshare a number of important typological features. They have a maximum syllabic structure of the type consonantsemivowelvowelsemivowelconsonant. Some languages lack one set of semivowels, and, in some, gemination (doubling) or clustering of vowels occurs. The languages also employ a system of tones (pitch and contour), with or withoutconcomitantglottal features, and occasionally stress. For the most part, tones are lexical (i.e., they distinguish otherwise similar words); in some languages tones also carry grammatical meaning. Nontonal grammatical units (i.e., affixes) may be smaller than syllables, but usually the meaningful units consist of one or more syllables. Words can consist of one syllable, of two or more syllables each carrying an element of meaning, or of two or more syllables that individually carry no meaning. For example, Modern Standard Chinesetiansky, heaven, day is a one-syllable word;ritousun is composed ofrisun, day, a word element that cannot occur alone as a word, and the noun suffixtou; andhudiebutterfly consists of two syllables, each having no meaning in itself (this is a rare type of word formation). The Southern languages have more monosyllabic words and word elements than the Northern ones.
The Sinitic languages fall into a Northern and a Southern group. The Northern languages (Mandarin dialects) are more similar to each other than are the Southern (Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Yue, Min).
Adjectives can be defined as qualitative verbs (haoto be good) or stative verbs (bingto be sick). There are equational sentences with the word order subjectpredicatee.g.,wo shi Beijing renI am a Beijing-person (i.e., a native of Beijing)and narrative sentences with the word order subject (or topic)verbobject (or complement)e.g.,wo chifanI eat rice,wo zhu zai BeijingI live in Beijing. The preposed object takes the particleba(wo da taI beat him,wo ba ta dale yidunI gave him a beating), and the agent of a passive construction takesbei(wo bei ta dale yidunI was given a beating by him).
The pronunciation of Modern Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, which is of the Northern, or Mandarin, type. It employs about 1,300 different syllables. There are 22 initial consonants, including stops (made with momentary, complete closure in the vocal tract), affricates (beginning as stops but ending with incomplete closure), aspirated consonants, nasals, fricatives, liquid sounds (l,r), and aglottal stop. The medial semivowels arey(i),ɥ(), andw(u). In final position, the following occur: nasal consonants,ṛ(retroflex r), the semivowelsyandw, and the combinationsŋr(nasalization plusr) andwr(rounding plusr). There are nine vowel sounds, including three varieties ofi(retroflex, apical, and palatal). Several vowels combine into clusters.
The most important Min language isAmoy(Xiamen) from the Southern branch of Min. The initial consonants are the same as in Standard Cantonese with the addition of two voiced stops (bandd) and one voiced affricate (dz), developed from original nasals. There are two semivowels (y,w), six vowels and several vowel clusters, plus the syllabic nasal soundsmandŋfunctioning as vowels, the same finals as in Standard Cantonese, and, in addition, a glottal stop (ʔ) and a meaning-bearing feature of nasalization, as well as a combination of the last two features. There are two tones in syllables ending in astop, five in other syllables. Tonal sandhi operates in many combinations.
By permission of the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library
Oracle bone inscriptions from the village of Xiaotun, Henan province, China; Shang dynasty, 14th or 12th century
Some scholars divide the history of the Chinese languages intoProto-Sinitic(Proto-Chinese; until 500bc),Archaic (Old) Chinese(8th to 3rd centurybc),Ancient (Middle) Chinese(throughad907), and Modern Chinese (fromc.the 10th century to modern times). The Proto-Sinitic period is the period of the most ancient inscriptions and poetry; most loanwords in Chinese were borrowed after that period. The works ofConfuciusandMenciusmark the beginning of theArchaicChinese period. Modern knowledge of the sounds of Chinese during the Ancient Chinese period is derived from a pronouncing dictionary of the language of the Ancient period published inad601 by the scholar Lu Fayan and also from the works of the scholar-officialSima Guang, published in the 11th century.
Manyalternativeinterpretations of the distinctive sounds of Chinese have been proposed; the interaction of consonants, vowels, semivowels, and tones sets Modern Standard Chinese apart from many other Sinitic languages and dialects and gives it a unique character among the major languages of the world. The two most widely used transcription systems (romanizations) areWade-Giles(first propounded bySir Thomas Francis Wadein 1859 and later modified byHerbert A. Giles) and the official Chinese transcription system today, known as thepinyin zimu(phonetic spelling) or simply Pinyin (adopted in 1958). For a comparison of these romanization equivalents,seethe table. In Wade-Giles,aspirationis marked by (p,t, and so on). The semivowels arey,y, andwin initial position;i,, anduin medial; andiandu(butoaftera) in final position. Final retroflexris writtenrh. The tones are indicated by raised figures after the syllables (1,2,3,4).
Sinitic languages, commonly known as the Chinese dialects, are spoken in China and on the island of Taiwan and by important minorities in all the countries of Southeast Asia (by a majority only in Singapore). In addition, Sinitic languages are spoken by Chinese
The pre-Classical period is further divided intoOracular Chinese(Shang dynasty[18th12th centuriesbc]), Archaic Chinese (Zhou and Qindynasties[1046207bc]), and Han Chinese (Handynasty[206bcad220]).
The most common suffixes that indicate nouns are-zi(as infangzihouse), and-tou(as inmutouwood). A set of postposed noun particles express space and time relationships (-liinside,-houafter). An example of a verbal affix is-jianinkanjiansee andtingjianhear. Important verb particles are-le(completed action),-guo(past action), and-zhe(action in progress). The directional verbal particles-laitoward speaker and-quaway from speaker and some verbal suffixes can be combined with the potential particlesdecan andbucannote.g.,na chulaitake out,na bu chulaicannot take out;tingjianhear,ting de jiancan hear. The particledeindicates subordination and also givesnominalvalue to forms for other parts of speech (e.g.,woI,wodemine,wo de shumy book,laito come,lai de rena person who comes). The most important sentence particle isle, indicating new situation (e.g.,xiayu lenow it is raining,bu lai lenow there is no longer any chance that he will be coming).Geis the most common noun classifier (ione,yi ge renone person); others aresuo(yi suo fangzione house) andben(liang ben shutwo books).
The most important representative of theYue languagesis Standard Cantonese of Canton,Hong Kong, andMacau. It has fewer initial consonants than Modern Standard Chinese (p,t,ts,kand the corresponding aspirated soundsph,th,tsh,kh;m,n,ŋ;f,s,h;l,y), only one medial semivowel (w), more vowels than Modern Standard Chinese, six final consonants (p,t,k,m,n,ŋ), and two final semivowels (yandw). The nasalsmandŋoccur as syllables without a vowel.
Suzhou vernacular is usually quoted as representative of theWu languages. It is rich in initial consonants, with a contrast of voiced and voiceless stops as well as palatalized and nonpalatalized dental affricates, making 26 consonants in all. (Palatalized sounds are formed from nonpalatal sounds by simultaneous movement of the tongue toward the hard palate. Dental affricates are sounds produced with the tongue tip at first touching the teeth and then drawing slightly away to allow air to pass through, producing a hissing sound.) Medial semivowels are as in Modern Standard Chinese. In addition, there are also 10 vowels and 4 syllabic consonants (l,m,n,ŋ);-nand-ŋoccur in final position, as do the glottal stop and nasalization.
Post-Classical Chinese, based on dialects very similar to the language now spoken in North China, probably owes its origin to theBuddhiststorytelling tradition; the tales appeared in translations from Sanskrit during the Tang dynasty (618907). During theSong dynasty(9601279) this vernacular language was used by both Buddhists and Confucianists for polemic writings; it also appeared inindigenousChinese novels based on popular storytelling. During and after theYuan dynasty(12061368) the vernacular was used also in the theatre.
, principal language group of eastern Asia, belonging to theSino-Tibetan language family. Chinese exists in a number of varieties that are popularly calleddialectsbut that are usually classified as separate languages by scholars. More people speak a variety of Chinese as a native language than any other language in the world, and Modern Standard Chinese is one of the six official languages of theUnited Nations.
Related words with similar pronunciations were usually written by one and the same character (the character for to love, to consider someone good is a derivative of a similarly written word to be good). This gave rise to the most important invention in the development of the Chinese scriptthat of writing a word by means of another one with the same or similar pronunciation. A picture of a carpenters square was primarily used for writing work, craftsman; to work and was pronouncedkuŋ; secondarily it was used to writekuŋ-(the hyphen stands for an element that was perhapss) to present,guŋred,kuŋrainbow, andkruŋriver. During theArchaic periodthis practice was developed to such a degree that too many words came to be written as one and the same character. In imitation of the characters that already consisted of several components an element wa
The Xiang languages, spoken only inHunan, are divided intoNew Xiang, which is under heavy influence from Mandarin and includes the language of the capital Changsha, andOld Xiang, more similar to the Wu languages, as spoken for instance in Shuangfeng. Old Xiang has 28 initial consonants, the highest number for any major Sinitic language, and 11 vowels, plus the syllabic consonantsmandn. It also uses five tones, final-nand-ŋ, and nasalization, but no final stops.
From the 1st centuryad, Chinas contacts with India, especially through the adoption of Buddhism, led to Chinese borrowing fromIndo-Aryan (Indic) languages, but, very early, native Chinese equivalents were invented. Sinitic languages have been remarkably resistant to direct borrowing of foreign words. In modern times this has led to an enormous increase in Chinese vocabulary without a corresponding increase in basic meaningful syllables. For instance,tielurailroad is based on the same concept expressed in the Frenchchemin de fer, usingtieiron andluroad; likewise,dianhuatelephone is a compound ofdianlightning, electricity andhuaspeech. A number of such words were coined first inJapaneseby means of Chinese elements and then borrowed back into Chinese. The reason that China has avoided the incorporation of foreign words is first and foremost a phonetic one; such words fit very badly into theChinesepattern of pronunciation. A contributing factor has been theChinese script, which is ill-adapted to the process of phonetic loans. In creating new words for new ideas, the characters have sometimes been determined first and forms have arisen that cannot be spoken withoutambiguity(sulfur and lutecium coalesced asliu, nitrogen and tantalum asdan). It is characteristic of Modern Standard Chinese that the language from which it most freely borrows is one from its own past: Classical Chinese. In recent years it has borrowed from Southern Sinitic languages under the influence of statesmen and revolutionaries (Chiang Kai-shekwas originally a Wu speaker andMao Zedonga Xiang speaker). Influence from English and Russian (inword formationand syntax) has been increasingly felt.
Old Chinese vocabulary already contained manywordsnot generally occurring in the other Sino-Tibetan languages. The words for honey and lion, and probably also horse, dog, and goose, are connected with Indo-European and were acquired through trade and early contacts. (The nearest knownIndo-European languageswereTocharianand Sogdian, a middle Iranian language.) A number of words haveAustroasiaticcognates and point to early contacts with the ancestral language ofMuong-VietnameseandMon-Khmere.g., the name of theYangtze River,*kruŋ, is still the word for riverCantonesekɔŋ, Modern Standard Chinesejiang, pronouncedkroŋandkloŋin some modernMon-Khmer languages. Words for tiger, ivory, and crossbow are also Austroasiatic. The names of the key terms of theChinese calendar(the branches) have this same non-Chinese origin. It has been suggested that a great many cultural words that are shared by Chinese andTaiare Chinese loanwords from Tai. Clearly, the Chinese received many aspects ofcultureand many concepts from the Austroasiatic and Austro-Tai peoples whom they gradually conquered and absorbed or expelled.
When the Chinese script first appeared, as used for writing Oracular Chinese (fromc.1500bc), it must already have undergone considerable development. Although many of the characters can be recognized as originally depicting some object, many are no longer recognizable. The characters did not indicate the object in a primitive nonlinguistic way but only represented a specific word of the Chinese language (e.g., a picture of the phallic altar to the earth is used only to write the wordearth). It is therefore misleading to characterize the Chinese script as pictographic or ideographic; nor is it truly syllabic, for syllables that sound alike but have different meanings are written differently.Logographic(i.e., marked by a letter, symbol, or sign used to represent an entire word) is the term that best describes the nature of the Chinese writing system.
Oracular Chinese is known only from rather brief oracle inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells. Archaic Chinese falls into Early, Middle (c.800c.400bc), and Late Archaic.Early Archaic is represented by bronze inscriptions, parts of theShujing(Classic of History), and parts of theShijing(Classic of Poetry). From this period on, many important features of the pronunciation of the Chinese characters have been reconstructed. The grammar depended to a certain extent on unwritten affixes. The writing system kept apart forms with or without medial consonants, which in some cases were meaningful infixes. Early Archaic Chinese possessed a third-person personal pronoun in three cases (nominative and genitivegyəg, accusativetyəg, and another special genitivekywat, used only with concepts intimately connected with the owner). No other kind of written Chinese until the post-Classical period possessed a nominative of the third-person pronoun, but the old form survived in Cantonese (khöy) and is probably also found in Tai (Modern Thaikhăw).
TheShanghaidialect belongs to Wu. The use of only two tones or registers (high and low) is prevalent; these are related in an automatic way to the initial consonant type (voiceless and voiced).
All the Chinese languages share a common literary language (wenyan), written in characters and based on a common body of literature. This literary language has no single standard of pronunciation; a speaker of a language reads texts according to the rules of pronunciation of his own language. Before 1917 thewenyanwas used for almost all writing; since that date it has become increasingly acceptable to write in thevernacularstyle (baihua) instead, and the old literary language is dying out in the daily life of modernChina. (Its use continues in certain literary and scholarly circles.)
A surprisingly low number of the possible combinations of all the consonantal, vocalic, and tonal sounds are utilized. The vowelsiandand the semivowelsyandɥnever occur after velar sounds (e.g.,k) and occur only after the palatalizedaffricateand sibilant sounds (e.g.,tś), which in turn occur with no other vowels and semivowels.