Chinese is made up of various groups of related languages, which all form the Sino-Tibetan language family. Almost 1.2 billion people, equivalent to 16% of the world’s population, speak some form of Chinese as their first language.There are about 7 to 13 main Chinese groups of languages that vary according to the classification scheme. Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken variation of the Chinese language spoken by about 848 million people, followed by Wu spoken by almost 80 million people.
Mandarin is China’s most widely spoken language, used by over 848 million people all over the world including significant populations in Taiwan and Singapore. Mandarin has four major variants and holds ancient Chinese consonants. Yue or Yueh (Cantonese) is spoken in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. The speakers of Cantonese are the most conservative regarding preservation of final consonants and tonal categories. Wu is a romantic Chinese dialect with over seven variations within its speakers. The language is soft and light with a good flow. People from Shanghai have spoken Wu for over 2,500 years. Min or Miin is spoken by over 70 million people and has different sub-dialects. Southern Min (Minnan) is spoken in Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, Zhejiang, and in Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Northern Min is spoken in Northern Fujian and Wuyishan, Jianyang, and Songxi regions. In Northern Min dialects, some initials are softened compared to the other Min dialects. Eastern Min (Min Dong) is spoken in Fuzhou, the capital and largest city of Fujian while Central Min (Min Zhong) is spoken in Sanming, hilly areas of Fujian and Sha County. Lastly, Pu-Xiang Min (Xinghua or Hingwa) is a branch of Min spoken as a mother tongue in Putian City and Xianyou County.
The Jin dialect is spoken by close to 45 million people and has many similarities to Mandarin. The Hakka, meaning guest families, is a major dialect that retains nasal and stops endings of ancient Chinese language. Hakka phonetics is close to those of the Sinitic Gan language which is spoken in Jiangxi province and its surroundings. Xiang, also known as Hsiang or Hunanese, has five sub-dialects. Xiang people have played revolutionary roles in China such as the Chinese Communist Revolution. Mao Zedong was Xiang speaker. Lastly, the Huizhou, also known as Hui, is a group high internal variation of sub-dialects that may not properly communicate with each other. Most Hui is, therefore, multilingual to understand each other. Hui does not have syllable codas and nasals.
Chinese Language Variations By Area Where They Are Spoken
Mandarin is widely spoken in the Northern and southwestern parts of China, while the Wu, Gan, and Xiang are used in the Central parts of China. The Hakka, Yue, and Min inhabit the southern China. Jin is used in northern China provinces of Shanxi, Fen River Hebei, and Henan while Huizhou is spoken in Huizhou County and Southern Anhui. The Hakka live in parts of Guangdong, Fujian, southern China and parts of Taiwan and South East Asia. Gan, on the other side, is spoken in Jiangxi province. Different Min dialects are spread over South Eastern China and neighboring countries. Xiang is dominant in Hunan and Northern Guangxi.
Differences Between Chinese Dialects
There are major differences with Chinese dialects that non-Chinese speakers may not realize. The Southern Min, for instance, is not intelligible with the Eastern Min, Pu-Xian Min, Hakka, and Mandarin despite sharing historical backgrounds. Hakka dialect is also not comprehensible to the Yue, Wu, Southern Min, and Mandarin while Pu-Xiang vowels differ significantly from Southern Min. Southern Chinese dialects have fewer consonants compared to the central and northern dialects because the southern Chinese have preserved final consonants for centuries while the others evolved. Northern dialects, on the other hand, have fewer distinctions on phonetics than the south. A common trend within Chinese dialects shows that difference in speech becomes more pronounced with the increase in the distance.
Similarities Between Chinese Dialects
Despite the variations, boundaries, and historical differences between the different Chinese dialects, there are few similarities within particular dialects. The Wu, Min, Xiang, and Mandarin sub-dialects have glottal stops when speaking while the Wu and Min have retained most features of ancient Chinese. The Hakka and Gan (Hakka-Gan) dialects closely relate and can communicate with minimum difficulties because they preserved Middle Chinese voiced initials that have disappeared in the other dialects. The Mandarin and Wu remain the most spoken Chinese dialects outside China. Pu-Xiang phonology is also almost like that of Southern Min dialect.
Chinese people form the highest number of people by race globally. Variations in Chinese dialects represent the diversity not known by many people outside China. Historical and physical separation has led to the evolution of these dialects with each influencing and getting influenced by other boundary languages.