Chinese (Mandarin) Language

Mandarin (traditional Chinese: 官話; simplified Chinese: 官话; pinyin: Guānhuà; literally “speech of officials”), or Beifanghua (simplified Chinese: 北方话; traditional Chinese: 北方話; pinyin: Běifānghuà; literally “Northern Dialect(s)”), is a category of related Chinese dialects spoken across most of northern and south-western China. When taken as a separate language, as is often done in academic literature, the Mandarin dialects have more speakers than any other language.

In English, Mandarin can refer to either of two distinct concepts:

  • to Standard Chinese or Standard Mandarin (Putonghua/Guoyu/Huayu/Hanyu), which is based on the particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing. Standard Mandarin functions as the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China, the official language of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and one of the four official languages of Singapore. ‘Chinese’ — in practice Standard Mandarin — is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
  • to all of the Mandarin dialects spoken in northern and south-western China. This group of dialects is the focus of this article.

In everyday use, Mandarin refers usually to just Standard Mandarin (Putonghua/Guoyu). In its broader sense, Mandarin is a diverse group of related dialects, some less mutually intelligible than others. It is a grouping defined and used mainly by linguists, and is not commonly used outside of academic circles as a self-description. Instead, when asked to describe the spoken form they are using, Chinese speaking a form of non-Standard Mandarin will describe the variant that they are speaking, for example Sichuan dialect or Northeast China dialect, and consider it distinct from ‘Standard Mandarin’ (putonghua); they may not recognize that it is in fact classified by linguists as a form of ‘Mandarin’ in a broader sense. Nor is there a common ‘Mandarin’ identity based on language; rather, there are strong regional identities centred on individual dialects, because of the wide geographical distribution and cultural diversity of its speakers. Moreover, it is of note that despite its wide use in the Occident, most native Mandarin speakers are reluctant to recognize the term ‘Mandarin’, since the word does not reflect any Chinese origin. Instead, they would rather call the language simply ‘standard Chinese’.

Like all other varieties of Chinese, there is significant dispute as to whether Mandarin is a language or a dialect. See Identification of the varieties of Chinese for more on this issue.

Official Language of: China

Total number of speakers: 870 – 1050 million

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