A Brief History of the Chinese Language

learning chinese language

It should not come as a surprise that the Chinese language is the most widely spoken language across the world. Of course, China is the most populous country in the world and this explains the high number of Chinese speakers. Furthermore, the growth of China as a leader in world business and trade has led to the spread of Chinese language to other continents.

The common belief among many people is that Mandarin Chinese will someday surpass English as the most popular language in the world. Mandarin is now one of the six official languages of the UN, hailing from a country where it is just one of the almost thirty dialects spoken.

Chinese is a language with origins dating back several centuries. This article attempts to trace the roots of this ancient language up to where it is at present.

Origins

Scholars consider Chinese as a family of languages instead of a single language. Mandarin Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family and is the most popular and widespread one. The evolution of Mandarin Chinese to what we hear today is quite complex and is classified into 3 divisions or stages:

  • Old Chinese
  • Classical Chinese
  • Contemporary Chinese (Mandarin)

Old Chinese

It was spoken between the 11th and 7th centuries B.C during the Zhou Dynasty. It featured inflections as well as a rich sound system. In terms of writing, the earliest inscriptions were witnessed on oracular bones and tortoise shells during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). Bear in mind that the written characters in Shang Dynasty were polyvalent, basing their meaning on the location and function in communication. The truth is that we don’t witness a great deal of Old Chinese in the modern Chinese language or Singapore’s Mandarin courses.

Classical Chinese

It was based on dialects quite similar to the language currently spoken by native speakers in Northern China. It was perhaps derived from the Buddhist storytelling tradition, with tales appearing in translations during the Sui, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties.

It bears an almost identical relationship to contemporary Mandarin that classical Greek does to Modern Greek, Latin to Italian, and Sanskrit to Hindi.

The written language became more complex, with scholars employing the use of similar signs for contrasting words with the same meanings or sound, formulating a written language that emulates the modern version taught in Mandarin classes in Singapore.

Modern Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of modern China.

The Mandarin dialect is distinct for its use of 4 tones that serve to distinguish between words that feature identical arrangement of consonants and vowels, and thus sound the same. Mandarin speakers can tell between such words through the application of level, falling, rising, and high-rising tones, thus avoiding averting confusion when conversing.

This may be rather challenging for non-native speakers, particularly those whose native language isn’t a tonal one. However, this is an important part of learning Mandarin language and should be mastered.

Mandarin is written based on a system of written symbols that have been adopted from past generations. This single written script also acts as the basis for the majority of other Chinese written dialects and Chinese lessons for kids today.

It was not until the formulation of the People’s Republic of China that a mass program was introduced to make sure the citizens spoke one official language. This is when Mandarin was officially ratified and adopted.

In closing, it’s quite notable how China has, within a couple of decades, been able to accomplish the objectives of having the majority of her citizens learn and speak Mandarin. Nevertheless, other Chinese dialects continue to exist and flourish in China, such as Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien.

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