Chinese is an ideographic language, which means its words are represented by characters or combinations of characters (pictures or ideographs) rather than phonetic letters.  Characters relate to either sound (how the word is pronounced) or meaning or both.

Spoken Chinese has two key dialects, dependent on location (not necessarily ‘country’) :  Mandarin or Cantonese.  There are also numerous dialects.  The spoken dialect is independent of the written form and the dialects can differ significantly in pronunciation and the number of tones.

Written Chinese takes two key forms, dependent on country: Simplified Chinese for Mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Traditional Chinese for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and other overseas Chinese communities.


Chinese Dialects

There are seven key Chinese dialects, of which Mandarin is the largest spoken language, but only two written scripts.

Below is a list of the key Chinese dialects.  There are several others, all spoken by less than 3 million people each, which are not listed here.

1. Mandarin 官话/官話 (also Northern 北方話/北方话): (c. 836 million speakers) 

This is the group of dialects spoken in northern and south-western China, and makes up the largest spoken language in China. Standard Chinese, called Putonghua or Guoyu in Chinese, which is often also translated as "Mandarin" or simply "Chinese", belongs to this group. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China, and one of the official languages of Singapore. Mandarin Chinese is also the official language of the Republic of China governing Taiwan, although there are minor differences in this standard from the form standardized in the PRC.[3]

2. Wu 吴语/吳語: (c. 77 million) 

Spoken in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and the municipality of Shanghai. Wu includes Shanghai dialect, sometimes taken as the representative of all Wu dialects. Wu's subgroups are extremely diverse, especially in the mountainous regions of Zhejiang and eastern Anhui. The group possibly comprises hundreds of distinct spoken forms which are not mutually intelligible. Wu is notable among Chinese dialects in having kept "voiced" (actually slack voiced) initials, such as /b̥/, /d̥/, /ɡ̊/, /z̥/, /v̥/, /d̥ʑ̊/, /ʑ̊/ etc.

3. Yue (Cantonese) 粤语/粵語: (c. 71 million) 

Spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, parts of Southeast Asia and by Overseas Chinese with an ancestry tracing back to the Guangdong region. The term "Cantonese" may cover all the Yue dialects, including Taishanese, or specifically the Canton dialect of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Not all varieties of Yue are mutually intelligible. Yue retains the full complement of Middle Chinese word-final consonants (p, t, k, m, n, ng), and has a well-developed inventory of tones.

4. The Min languages 闽语/閩語: (c. 60 million) 

Spoken in Fujian, Taiwan, parts of Southeast Asia particularly Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore, and among Overseas Chinese who trace their roots to Fujian and Taiwan, particularly prevalently in New York City in the United States. The largest Min language is Hokkien, which is spoken in Southern Fujian, Taiwan, and by many Chinese in Southeast Asia and includes the Taiwanese, and Amoy dialects amongst others. Min is the only branch of Chinese that cannot be directly derived from Middle Chinese. It is also the most diverse, divided into seven subgroups defined on the basis of relative mutual intelligibility: Min Nan (which includes Hokkien and Teochew), Min Dong (which includes the Fuzhou dialect), Min Bei, Min Zhong, Pu Xian, Qiong Wen, and Shao Jiang.

5. Xiang (Hunanese) 湘语/湘語:(c. 36 million) 

Spoken in Hunan. Xiang is usually divided into the "old" and "new" dialects, with the new dialects being significantly influenced by Mandarin.[citation needed]

6. Hakka 客家话/客家話: (c. 34 million) 

Spoken by the Hakka people, a cultural group of the Han Chinese, in several provinces across southern China, in Taiwan, and in parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore. The term "Hakka" itself translates as "guest families", and many Hakka people consider themselves to be descended from Song-era and later refugees from North China, although their genetic origin is still disputed. Hakka has kept many features of northern Middle Chinese that have been lost in the North. It also has a full complement of nasal endings, -m -n -ŋ and occlusive endings -p -t -k, maintaining the four categories of tonal types, with splitting in the ping and ru tones, giving six tones. Some dialects of Hakka have seven tones, due to splitting in the qu tone. One of the distinguishing features of Hakka phonology is that Middle Chinese voiced initials are transformed into Hakka voiceless aspirated initials. 

7. Gan 赣语/贛語: (c. 31 million) 

Spoken in Jiangxi. In the past, it was viewed as closely related to Hakka dialects, because of the way Middle Chinese voiced initials have become voiceless aspirated initials, as in Hakka, and were hence called by the umbrella term "Hakka-Gan dialects". 


Today there are two standard sets of Chinese characters: Simplified and Traditional 

Simplified Chinese Characters - General Information
Simplified Chinese Characters are one of two standard sets of Chinese characters of the contemporary Chinese written language. They are based mostly on popular cursive (caoshu) forms embodying graphic or phonetic simplifications of the "traditional" forms that were used in printed text for over a thousand years. The government of the People's Republic of China has promoted them for use in printing in an attempt to increase literacy. They are officially used in the People's Republic of China or Mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, and the United Nations.
  Traditional Chinese Characters - General Information
Traditional Chinese is currently used in the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong and Macau. Overseas Chinese communities generally use traditional characters, but simplified characters are often used among mainland Chinese immigrants.

Chinese people make a strong distinction between written language (文, Pinyin: wén) and spoken language (语/語 yǔ). English does not necessarily have this distinction. As a result the terms Zhongwen (中文) and Hanyu (汉语/漢語) in Chinese are both translated in English as "Chinese". 

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