Languages of China
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The Languages of China are the languages that are spoken by China's 56 recognized ethnic groups. The predominant language in China, which is divided into dialects, is known as Hanyu (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ). and its study is considered a distinct academic discipline in China. Hanyu, or Han language, spans eight primary dialects, is diverse morphologically and phonetically, and the dialects may be mutually unintelligible to each other. The languages most studied and supported by the state include Chinese or Han language, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang. China has 292 living languages according to Ethnologue.
Standard Chinese (known in China as Putonghua), a form of the Mandarin dialect, is the official national spoken language for the mainland. Several other autonomous regions have additional official languages. Language laws of China do not apply to either Hong Kong or Macau and hence have different official languages (Cantonese) than the mainland. For example, Tibetan has official status within the Tibet Autonomous Region and Mongolian has official status within Inner Mongolia.
There are large economic, social, and practical incentives to be functional in Putonghua, a standardised form of the Mandarin group of dialects which is based in Beijing and spoken with varying degrees of dialectical influences across the northern and southwestern China. Putonghua serves as a lingua franca within the Mandarin-speaking region, and to a lesser extent across the various other language groups in mainland China.
The spoken languages of nationalities that are a part of the People's Republic of China belong to at least nine families:
- The Sino-Tibetan family: 19 official ethnicities (including the Han and Tibetans)
- The Tai–Kadai family: several languages spoken by the Zhuang, the Bouyei, the Dai people, the Dong people, and the Hlai (Li people). 9 official ethnicities. Considered a branch of Sino-Tibetan in China.
- The Hmong–Mien family: 3 official ethnicities
- The Austroasiatic family: 4 official ethnicities (the De'ang, Blang, Gin (Vietnamese), and Wa)
- The Altaic sprachbund or family: 18 official ethnicities
- The Indo-European family: 2 official ethnicities (the Russians and Tajiks (actually Pamiri people). There is also a heavily Persian-influenced Äynu language spoken by the Äynu people in southwestern Xinjiang who are officially considered Uyghurs.
- The Austronesian family: 1 official ethnicity (the Gaoshan, who speak many languages of the Formosan branch), 1 unofficial (the Utsuls, who speak the Tsat language but are considered Hui.)
Below are lists of ethnic groups in China by linguistic classification. Ethnicities not on the official PRC list of 56 ethnic groups are italicized. Respective Pinyin transliterations and simplified Chinese characters are also given.
- Bai, Bái, 白 (Sinitic?)
- Tujia, Tǔjiā, 土家 (Qiangic?)
- Jingpho–Nungish–Luish (?)
(Possibly the ancient Bǎiyuè 百越)
- Gelao, Gēlǎo, 仡佬
- Hlai/Li, Lí, 黎
- Standard Zhuang, Zhuàng, 壮 ; Traditional Chinese:壯
- Bouyei, Bùyī, 布依
- Dai, Dǎi, 傣
- Salar, Sǎlá, 撒拉
- Mongolian, Měnggǔ, 蒙古
- Oirat, wèilātè, 衛拉特
- Torgut Oirat, tǔěrhùtè, 土爾扈特
- Buryat, bùlǐyàtè, 布里亞特
- Daur, Dáwò'ěr, 达斡尔
- Khitan, Qìdān, 契丹 (extinct)
(Possibly the ancient Bǎipú 百濮)
(Possibly the ancient Bǎiyuè 百越)
- Vietnamese/Kinh, Jīng, 京
- Russian, Éluósī, 俄罗斯 ; Traditional Chinese: 俄羅斯
- Tocharian, tǔhuǒluó, 吐火羅 (extinct)
- Saka, sāi, 塞 (extinct)
- Pamiri, (mislabelled as "Tajik", Tǎjíkè, 塔吉克)
- Portuguese (spoken in Macau)
- English (spoken in Hong Kong)
The following languages traditionally had written forms that do not involve Chinese characters (hanzi):
- The Dai – Dai language
- The Hui – Chinese language – Xiaoerjing
- The Kazakhs – Kazakh language – Arabic script
- The Koreans – Korean language – Chosŏn'gŭl
- The Kyrgyz – Kyrgyz language – Arabic script
- The Manchus – Manchu language – Manchu alphabet
- The Mongolians – Mongolian language – Mongolian alphabet
- The Naxi – Dongba script/Geba script
- The Sui – Sui language – Sui script
- The Tibetans – Tibetan language – Tibetan script
- The Uyghurs – Uyghur language – Arabic script
- The Xibe – Xibe language – Manchu alphabet
- The Yi – Yi language – Yi syllabary
Some formerly have used Chinese characters
- The Jurchens (Manchu ancestors) – Jurchen language – Jurchen script
- The Koreans – Korean language – Hanja
- The Khitans (Mongolic people) – Khitan language – Khitan script
- The Tanguts (Sino-Tibetan people) – Tangut language – Tangut script
- The Zhuang (Tai people) – Zhuang languages – Sawndip
During Qing dynasty, palaces, temples, and coins have sometimes been inscribed in four scripts:
During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the official writing system was:
Chinese banknotes contain several scripts in addition to Chinese script. These are:
Ten nationalities who never had a written system have, under the PRC's encouragement, developed phonetic alphabets. According to a government white paper published in early 2005, "by the end of 2003, 22 ethnic minorities in China used 28 written languages."
Chinese language policy in mainland China is heavily influenced by Soviet nationalities policy and officially encourages the development of standard spoken and written languages for each of the nationalities of China. However, in this schema, Han Chinese are considered a single nationality, and official policy of the People's Republic of China (PRC) treats the different varieties of the Chinese spoken language differently from the different national languages despite the fact that they are more different from each other than, for example, the Romance languages of Europe. While official policies in mainland China encourage the development and use of different orthographies for the national languages and their use in educational and academic settings, realistically speaking it would seem that, as elsewhere in the world, the outlook for minority languages perceived as inferior is grim. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile argue that social pressures and political efforts result in a policy of sinicization and feels that Beijing should promote the Tibetan language more. Because many languages exist in China, they also have problem regarding diglossia. Recently, in terms of Fishman’s typology of the relationships between bilingualism and diglossia and his taxonomy of diglossia (Fishman 1978,1980) in China : more and more minority communities have been evolving from “diglossia without bilingualism” to “bilingualism without diglossia”. This could be an implication of mainland China’s power expanding.
Study of foreign languages
It is also considered increasingly prestigious and useful to have some ability in English, which is a required subject for persons attending university. During the 1950s and 1960s, Russian had some social status among elites in mainland China as the international language of socialism. Japanese is the second most-studied foreign language in China. However, languages other than English are now considered as "minor languages" (小语种 ; Traditional Chinese:小語種 xiǎo yǔzhǒng) and are only really studied at university level apart from some special schools which are called Foreign Language Schools in some well-developed cities.
The Economist, issue April 12, 2006, reported that up to one fifth of the population is learning English. Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister, estimated that the total English-speaking population in China will outnumber the native speakers in the rest of the world in two decades.
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