The Chinese language is the most widespread of the Sino-Tibetan languages, native to Southeast Asia. Although often casually referred to as a single language, it is in reality a collection of dialect groups which are all descended from the historical Middle Chinese language. There are commonly thought to be anywhere from seven to thirteen major dialect branches of Chinese, which are for the most part not mutually understandable. These include: Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Min, Gan, Hakka and Xiang. It is therefore not unusual for mainlanders to be able to speak other dialects in addition to their own, as well as Standard Chinese (a form of Mandarin). Together, the different branches of Chinese account for almost 1.2 billion speakers, or sixteen percent of the world.
The Chinese language is an analytic language, which means that verbs are not conjugated to show tense or mood. Instead, word order and small helping words called “particles” are used to indicate this. Chinese is also fully tonal, meaning that not just every word, but every syllable of every word must be spoken at a specific pitch; this is intended to distinguish between words that are pronounced the same way but have different meanings. There are four basic tones, which require the speaker to alter the pitch of their voice according to a specific pattern, or to maintain an even level.
Chinese can be written a number of ways. The oldest method uses Traditional Chinese Characters, which are based on a script developed in ancient China by priests and functionaries. These characters are still used in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. In the 1950s, the Government of the People’s Republic of China issued a revised set of characters that were designed to be easier to learn. These “Simplified Chinese Characters” are for the most part based on their Traditional Chinese counterparts, but with a number of systematic alterations. These characters have since been officially adopted by the Chinese government, and have gradually replaced the Traditional characters on the mainland. There is also a way to write Chinese using the Latin alphabet. Known as Pinyin, this method is specific to the Mandarin pronunciation and is used for teaching Standard Chinese, as well as for inputting Chinese characters using a Western keyboard.
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