History of Chinese Language

The Sinitic languages are spoken by over 1,000 million people. The vast majority of these are in China (over 980 million) and Taiwan (19 million), but bstantial numbers are to be found throughout the whole of South-east Asia, especially in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.Imporiant Chinese- speaking communities are also found in many other parts of the world, especially in the USA.

The Languages of China

Because there has long been a single method for writing Chinese, and a common literary and cultural history, a tradition has grown up of referring to, the eight main varieties of speech in China as diaalects'. But in fact they are as different from each other (mainly in pronuncia~ion and vocabulary) as French or Spanish is from Italian, the dialects of the south-east being linguistically the furthest apart. The mutual unintelligibility of the varieties is the main ground for referring to them as separate languages. However, it must also be recognized that each variety consists of a large number of dialects, many of which may themselves be referred to as languages. The boundaries between one so-called language and the next are not always easyto define.

The Chinese refer to themselves and their language, in any of the forms below, as Han - a name which derives from the Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). Han Chinese is thus to be distinguished from the non-Han minority languages used in China. There are over 50 of these languages (such as Tibetan, Russian, Uighur, Kazakh, Mongolian, and Korean), spoken by around 6% of the population.

The Chinese Linguistic Revolution

The 20th-century movement for language reform in China has resulted in the most ambitious programme of language planning the world has ever seen. The programme has three aims: (i) to simplify the characters of classical written Chinese, by cutting down on their number, and reducing the number of strokes it takes to write a character; (ii) to provide a single means of spoken communication throughout the whole of China, by popularizing the Beijing-based variety, which has been chosen as a standard; (iii) to introduce a phonetic alphabet, which would gradually replace the Chinese characters in everyday use.

There have been moves to reform the language from as early as the 2nd century BC, but there has been nothing to equal the complexity of the present-day programme. in which frequent reference is made to the names of several different varieties of the Chinese language.

Wén-yán ('literary speech' or 'body of classical writing'). The cultivated literary language, recorded from around 1,500BC. and the traditional unifying medium for all varieties of Chinese. Its complex system of characters is explained on p. 200. It differs greatly from everyday speech, especially ln lts terse grammatical style and specialized literary vocabulary. It is now less widely used, because of the success of the current reform movement for written Chinese.

Bái-huà ('colloquial language'). A simplified, vernacular style of writing, introduced by the literary reformer Hu Shih in 1917, to make the language more widely known to the public, and to permit the expression of new ideas. A style of writing which reflected everyday speech had developed as early as the Sung dynasty (AD 9~0-lZ79), but had made little impact on the dominant Wén-yán. However, the (May Fourth Movement' (which originated in political demonstrations on 4 May 1919 after the Paris Peace Conference) adopted Hu Shi'h's ideas, and Bái-huà was recognized as the national language in 1922.

Pûtônghuà ('common language'). The variety chosen as a standard for the whole of China, and widely promulgated under this name after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. (In Taiwan, it goes under the name of guó yu , or 'national speech'; in the West. it is generally referred to simply as 'Mandarin'.) It embodies the pronunciation of Beijing; the grammar of the Mandarin dialects, and the vocabulary of colloquial Chinese literature. In 1956, it became the medium of instruction in all schools. and a policy of promoting its use began. It is now the most widely used form of spoken Ghinese, and is the normal written medium for almost all kinds of publication.

Pin yin ('phonetic spelling'). After several previous attempts to write Chinese using the letters of the roman alphabet, this 58-symbol writing system was finally adopted in 1958. Its main aims are to facilitate the spread of Pûtônghuà, and the learning of Chine'se characters. Pin-yin is now in widespread use. In the 1970s, for example, a new map of China was published using the alphabet, and a list of standard spellings for Chinese placename was compiled. New codes were devised for such diverse uses as telegraphy, flag signals, braille, and deaf finger-spelling.

The future of the reform programme is not entirely clear. It may be that pin-yin will ultimately supplant the general use of characters, or there may be a receaction to preserve the traditional written language. With Pûtônghuà, new varieties of regional pronunciation are certain to develop (for instance, Mao Zedong spoke it with a marked Hunan accent), which may lead to problems of intelligibility. And if Pûtônghuà is to succeed as a popular means of communication, it needs to anticipate the potential conflict with local regional dialects (for example, whether local words should be used). Much will depend on how flexibly the authorities interpret the notion of standard, and whether they are able to achieve a balance between the competing pressures of respecting popular usage (where there is a strong case for variety) and the need for national communication (which could lead to a form of centralized laying down of prescriptive linguistic rules).

Written by Paul Halsall
email: halsall@fordham.edu

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