Chinese Languages
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Chinese Languages

The Sinitic languages,[a] often synonymous with "Chinese languages", constitute the major branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is frequently proposed that there is a primary split between the Sinitic languages and the rest of the family (the Tibeto-Burman languages), but this view is rejected by an increasing number of researchers.[4] The Bai languages, whose classification is difficult, may be an offshoot of Old Chinese and thus Sinitic;[5] otherwise Sinitic is defined only by the many varieties of Chinese, and usage of the term "Sinitic" may reflect the linguistic view that Chinese constitutes a family of distinct languages, rather than variants of a single language.[b]


The estimated number of speakers of the larger branches of the Sinitic languages, derived from statistics or estimates (2020) and rounded:[7][8][9]

Branch Native speakers
Mandarin 918,000,000
Yue 84,900,000
Wu 81,700,000
Min 74,200,000
Hakka 48,200,000
Jin 47,000,000
Xiang 37,300,000
Gan 22,100,000
Huizhou 4,600,000
Pinghua 2,000,000
other ?
Total 1,300,000,000


L1 speakers of Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages according to the Ethnologue

Dialectologist Jerry Norman estimated that there are hundreds of mutually unintelligible Sinitic languages.[10] They form a dialect continuum in which differences generally become more pronounced as distances increase, though there are also some sharp boundaries.[11]

There are additional, unclassified varieties, including:

Internal classification

The traditional, dialectological classification of Chinese languages is based on the evolution of the sound categories of Middle Chinese. Little comparative work has been done (the usual way of reconstructing the relationships between languages), and little is known about mutual intelligibility. Even within the dialectological classification, details are disputed, such as the establishment in the 1980s of three new top-level groups: Huizhou, Jin and Pinghua, despite the fact that Pinghua is itself a pair of languages and Huizhou may be half a dozen.[12][13]

Like Bai, the Min languages are commonly thought to have split off directly from Old Chinese.[14] The evidence for this split is that all Sinitic languages apart from the Min group can be fit into the structure of the Qieyun, a 7th-century rime dictionary.[15] However, this view is not universally accepted.

Relationships between groups

Jerry Norman classified the traditional seven dialect groups into three larger groups: Northern (Mandarin), Central (Wu, Gan, and Xiang) and Southern (Hakka, Yue, and Min). He argued that the Southern Group is derived from a standard used in the Yangtze valley during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), which he called Old Southern Chinese, while the Central group was transitional between the Northern and Southern groups.[16] Some dialect boundaries, such as between Wu and Min, are particularly abrupt, while others, such as between Mandarin and Xiang or between Min and Hakka, are much less clearly defined.[11]

Scholars account for the transitional nature of the central varieties in terms of wave models. Iwata argues that innovations have been transmitted from the north across the Huai River to the Lower Yangtze Mandarin area and from there southeast to the Wu area and westwards along the Yangtze River valley and thence to southwestern areas, leaving the hills of the southeast largely untouched.[17]

A quantitative study

A 2007 study compared fifteen major urban dialects on the objective criteria of lexical similarity and regularity of sound correspondences, and subjective criteria of intelligibility and similarity. Most of these criteria show a top-level split with Northern, New Xiang, and Gan in one group and Min (samples at Fuzhou, Xiamen, Chaozhou), Hakka, and Yue in the other group. The exception was phonological regularity, where the one Gan dialect (Nanchang Gan) was in the Southern group and very close to Meixian Hakka, and the deepest phonological difference was between Wenzhounese (the southernmost Wu dialect) and all other dialects.[18]

The study did not find clear splits within the Northern and Central areas:[18]

  • Changsha (New Xiang) was always within the Mandarin group. No Old Xiang dialect was in the sample.
  • Taiyuan (Jin or Shanxi) and Hankou (Wuhan, Hubei) were subjectively perceived as relatively different from other Northern dialects but were very close in mutual intelligibility. Objectively, Taiyuan had substantial phonological divergence but little lexical divergence.
  • Chengdu (Sichuan) was somewhat divergent lexically but very little on the other measures.

The two Wu dialects occupied an intermediate position, closer to the Northern/New Xiang/Gan group in lexical similarity and strongly closer in subjective intelligibility but closer to Min/Hakka/Yue in phonological regularity and subjective similarity, except that Wenzhou was farthest from all other dialects in phonological regularity. The two Wu dialects were close to each other in lexical similarity and subjective similarity but not in mutual intelligibility, where Suzhou was actually closer to Northern/Xiang/Gan than to Wenzhou.[18]

In the Southern subgroup, Hakka and Yue grouped closely together on the three lexical and subjective measures but not in phonological regularity. The Min dialects showed high divergence, with Min Fuzhou (Eastern Min) grouped only weakly with the Southern Min dialects of Xiamen and Chaozhou on the two objective criteria and was actually slightly closer to Hakka and Yue on the subjective criteria.[18]

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ From Late Latin Sinae, "the Chinese", probably from Arabic n ('China'), from the Chinese dynastic name Qín. (OED). In 1982, Paul K. Benedict proposed a subgroup of Sino-Tibetan called "Sinitic" comprising Bai and Chinese.[1] The precise affiliation of Bai remains uncertain[2] and the term "Sinitic" is usually used as a synonym for Chinese, especially when viewed as a language family rather than as a language.[3]
  2. ^ See, for example, Enfield (2003:69) and Hannas (1997). The Chinese terms often translated as 'language' and 'dialect' don't correspond well to those translations. These are y?yán, corresponding to macrolanguage or language cluster, that is used for Chinese itself; f?ngyáng, which separates mutually unintelligible languages within a y?yán; and t?y? or t?huà, which corresponds better to the linguistic use of 'dialect'.[6]



  1. ^ Wang (2005), p. 107.
  2. ^ Wang (2005), p. 122.
  3. ^ Mair (1991), p. 3.
  4. ^ van Driem (2001), p. 351.
  5. ^ van Driem (2001:403) states "Bái ... may form a constituent of Sinitic, albeit one heavily influenced by Lolo-Burmese."
  6. ^ Bradley (2012), p. 1.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Norman (2003), p. 72.
  11. ^ a b Norman (1988), pp. 189-190.
  12. ^ Kurpaska (2010), pp. 41-53, 55-56.
  13. ^ Yan (2006), pp. 9-18, 61-69, 222.
  14. ^ Mei (1970), p. ?.
  15. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), p. 3.
  16. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 182-183.
  17. ^ Iwata (2010), pp. 102-108.
  18. ^ a b c d Tang & Van Heuven (2007), p. 1025.

Works cited

  • Bradley, David (2012), "Languages and Language Families in China", in Rint Sybesma (ed.), Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics., Brill
  • van Driem, George (2001), Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region, Brill, ISBN 90-04-10390-2
  • Enfield, N. J. (2003), Linguistics Epidemiology: Semantics and Language Contact in Mainland Southeast Asia, Psychology Press, ISBN 0415297435
  • Hannas, W. (1997), Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 082481892X
  • Kurpaska, Maria (2010), Chinese Language(s): A Look Through the Prism of "The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects", Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 978-3-11-021914-2
  • Mei, Tsu-lin (1970), "Tones and prosody in Middle Chinese and the origin of the rising tone", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 30: 86-110, doi:10.2307/2718766, JSTOR 2718766
  • Norman, Jerry (2003), "The Chinese dialects: Phonology", in Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.), The Sino-Tibetan languages, Routledge, pp. 72-83, ISBN 978-0-7007-1129-1
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1984), Middle Chinese: A study in Historical Phonology, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, ISBN 978-0-7748-0192-8
  • Thurgood, Graham (2003), "The subgroup of the Tibeto-Burman languages: The interaction between language contact, change, and inheritance", in Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.), The Sino-Tibetan languages, Routledge, pp. 3-21, ISBN 978-0-7007-1129-1
  • Yan, Margaret Mian (2006), Introduction to Chinese Dialectology, LINCOM Europa, ISBN 978-3-89586-629-6

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