In our new series this year, Language of the Month, we are looking at twelve of the world’s nearly 6000 fascinating languages, one in each month. Join us on this trip around the globe and discover facts, trivia and insider information about some awesome languages!
中国话 (zhōngguó huà)
Language family: Sino-Tibetan
Number of speakers: 960 million native speakers
Writing system: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese
Official language in: China, Singapore, Taiwan
HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
As you might already know from our other blog posts, “Which Chinese do I need?” and “What’s the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese writing forms?”, the Chinese language is not actually one language but a collection of several varieties, dialects and writing systems. However, when someone says “Chinese”, chances are they most probably think of “Standard Chinese”, rather than other varieties of the language. Standard Chinese is the official language in China, Singapore and Taiwan and it is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin.
The origins of the language go back to the 13th century BCE to the Shang Dynasty when, as a response to the mutually unintelligible emerging local languages, officials decided to promote one standard variety which was based on the Nanjing dialect. Alessandro Valignano, an Italian missionary in the 16th century likened this official language to Latin in the sense that it was the universal lingua franca that connected people who spoke different local variants. This, however, still wasn’t the Standard Chinese we know today. The Beijing dialect only gained prominence in the mid-19th century, and even in the 1950s only about half of the population actually spoke this language. Nowadays local varieties are still used, especially by the older demographic groups, although amongst youngsters they are spoken less and less as the new generation favours the standard language.
As for the writing system, historically the more complex “traditional” characters were used in writing and this set of characters is still used in many countries, including Taiwan. Since the middle of the 20th century, the use of the so-called “simplified” characters was encouraged in the People’s Republic of China and later, in the ‘70s in Singapore, too.
The word “Mandarin” has a very interesting history, too! And it has nothing to do with the duck or the citrus fruit. The English term comes from the Portuguese word mandarim, which is a borrowed Malay word that had its roots in the Sanskrit mantri, meaning counsellor or minister. Coincidentally, it’s also related to the Sanskrit mantra. (Isn’t etymology just fascinating?!) In the 16th century, visiting Portuguese merchants would use the word – incidentally mispronouncing it – when they wanted to talk business with a higher official.
Hello! 你好 (nǐ hǎo)
My name is… 我叫 … (wǒ jiào …)
Yes 是 (shì)
No 不是 (bú shì)
Please 麻烦你 (máfán nǐ)
Thank you 谢谢 (xièxie)
WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
As one of our Mandarin translators, Cheng explains, “it’s a tonal language in which each Chinese character is pronounced with one of the 5 distinctive tones.” A good example that demonstrates these tones is Cheng’s favourite phrase, “妈妈骂马吗?”, pronounced as “māma mà mǎ ma?”. This phrase is a rather useful one for situations when the family pony misbehaves as it means “is mother telling off the horse?”.
The tonal Chinese language has a special place in our Chinese to English translators’ hearts. In Edward’s opinion, “Chinese is the most beautiful, lyrical language. Its emphasis on tones brings a music to its spoken expression that can be both bewildering and fascinating to those who do not know it. The sheer artistry of its written form, and the nuances that any one particular character can have contained within its calligraphic expression speaks of a higher philosophical approach to the human conundrum of how to vocalise ideas and build mutually advantageous social structures.”
When asked about the most prominent difference between Chinese and English, he also mentions tones: “Many people would say the monosyllabic nature of each character (word) [is the biggest difference], although of course Chinese can use compound characters to create words and proverbs, too. In my opinion, and from experience of those learning it, the greatest difference is not in the striving to find the expression of ideas in spoken and written form, but rather in the use of the tones (four in Mandarin, with a ‘dropped’ tone). Arguably, English is more monotonal (not monotonous).”
With regards to the writing system, Cheng tells us that “the written form of Chinese is quite different from English in that a Chinese character or word consists of a combination of different strokes rather than letters from the alphabet.” While in English (and other languages that use the Latin alphabet), characters denote phonemes, in Chinese this is not the case. Chinese characters are so-called logograms which were originally based on ideas rather than sounds. There are some simpler and some more complicated characters with several strokes, often “built up” from other characters. The one which is said to have the most strokes has 43 in the simplified writing system (57 in a traditional one!) and it’s used for a specific type of noodles. Wouldn’t want to work as a waiter taking an order for those!
Here is some more food for thought from Edward: “Chinese proverbs (often based on a four-character framework) say so much, especially when looking at how each of the characters separately contributes to a layering of meaning.” One of his favourites is 一笑解千愁 (yī xiào jiě qiān chóu) or “one smile solves a thousand worries”. He also loves Chinese poetry, “for its succinct and poignant nature”. As he tells me, “the most famous Chinese poem is often quoted by Chinese friends when they are far from home. It is by Li Bai (Li Bo) and is called ‘Quiet Night Thoughts’.”
床前明月光, 疑是地上霜, 举头望明月, 低头思故乡
(Translation: The bright moon shines before my bed so that it looks like frost upon the ground; raising my head, I gaze at the bright moon; lowering my head, I think of my old home.)
So, whether you’re near to home or far, may the moon shine brightly upon you!
If you have any questions about Chinese or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01223 356 733.