During Qin and Han dynasty, most part of today's Hunan belonged to Changsha county or Changsha country. According to Yang Xiong's Fangyan, People in this region spoke Southern Chu language. Southern Chu language is considered the ancestor of Hunanese language today.
During Tang dynasty, a large-scale emigration took place. Plenty people emigranted from the north to the south. They brought Middle Chinese into Hunan. Today's Hunanese still keeps some of the Middle Chinese words, such as 嬉 (to have fun), 薅 (to weed), 行 (to walk). Rusheng vowels (入声韵) started weakening in Hunan in Middle Ages.
The late Yuan Dynasty peasant uprising caused a large mount of casualties in Hunan. During Ming Dynasty, a large-scale emigration from Jiangxi to Hunan took place. Gan, which was brought by settlers from Jiangxi, influenced Xiang language. The language in east Hunan differentiated into New Hunanese during that period.
In the mean time, Quanzhou (全州) was included into Guangxi province after the administrative division adjustment of Ming Dynasty. Some features of Xiang language at that time was kept in this region.
Take the character "床" (bed) for an example to show the characteristics of different dialects of Xiang.
Hunanese is spoken by over 36 million people in China, primarily in the most part of the Hunan province, in about 20 counties of Sichuan province, the four counties of Quánzhōu (全州), Guànyáng (灌陽), Zīyuán (資源) and Xīngān (興安) in northern Guangxi province, and parts of Guangdong province. It is abutted by Southwestern Mandarin speaking areas to the north and west, as well as by Gàn in the eastern parts of Hunan and Jiangxi. Hunanese is also in contact with the Tujia and Hmong languages in the northwest.
According to Bao & Chen (2007), five main dialect groups of Hunanese in Hunan Province have been identified. In "Language Atlas of China" (1987), Hunanese was divided into three main dialect groups. The chart below is on the basis of Bao & Chen's point of view.
^Original from the University of Michigan Digitized Sep 9, 2008Leo J. Moser (1985). The Chinese mosaic: the peoples and provinces of China (illustrated ed.). Westview Press. p. 113. ISBN0-86531-085-8. Retrieved February 29, 2012. "Instead of northern Chinese, the outreach dialect learned by the Wannan people was usually a prestigious dialect of Wu, such as that spoken in Hangzhou, Suzhou, or (later) Shanghai. Those Wannan who went north on business, however, did learn Mandarin. Historically speaking, the Wannan, Gan, and Xiang sublanguages appear to represent the remnants of a once much wider east-to-west linguistic belt that stretched along"