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Mandarin (linguistics)

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Mandarin (北方话)
Note: The standardized varieties are called Putonghua 普通话 and Guoyu 國語, but are usually called Mandarin in English
Spoken in: China (the People's Republic of China>PRC and the ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Chinese communities around the world
Region: Most of northern and southwestern China; widely understood in the rest of China
Total speakers: 867.2 million
Ranking: 1 [1]
Official status
Official language of: PRC, ROC, Singapore
Regulated by: in the PRC: various agencies
in the ROC: Mandarin Promotion Council
in Singapore: Promote Mandarin Council/Speak Mandarin Campaign [1]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 zh
RFC 3066 zh-guoyu
ISO 639-2(B) chi
ISO 639-2(T) zho

Mandarin is the English term for several varieties of Chinese spoken language. Originally, it referred to the language of the "Mandarins", or officials in the Imperial Chinese court. By extension, it is now used to describe several related forms of Chinese speech.

In the narrow sense, Mandarin refers to two standardized forms of the Chinese spoken language, Putonghua and Guoyu. These are, respectively, the official languages of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC). Putonghua, but known instead as Huayu, is also one of four official languages in Singapore. In addition, Mandarin used in this sense can also refer to regional variations of the official spoken language influenced by localisms.

In the broad sense, Mandarin is used, primarily by linguists and by the rest of this article, to refer to a much larger entity: the variations of Chinese speech spoken as the home language in most of northern and southwestern China. These variations are known collectively by Chinese as Beifang-hua or northern speech. Taken in this sense, Mandarin has more speakers than any other language, and within it there is considerable variety with many versions mutually unintelligible. In addition, while these versions of Chinese are linguistically closely related to the official language (i.e. the narrow sense of Mandarin), most Chinese speaking these variations make a clear distinction between the local speech (e.g. Sichuanese) and the national language (Putonghua) and do not think of these forms as the same speech.

Like all other varieties of Chinese, there is plenty of dispute as to whether Mandarin (in the broad sense) is a language or a dialect. Please look here for the issues surrounding this dispute. To hear a comparison of the same thing said in both Mandarin and in Taiwanese (a type of Minnan Chinese), you may listen to this comparison.

In English, all of these forms of Chinese are known as Mandarin, which does cause some confusion. In practice, the two national standards, Guoyu and Putonghua, are almost identical. However, the national standard can be very different to the point of unintelligibility from a local speech which is also linguistically classified as Mandarin. In addition, since standard Mandarin is taught as a second language across all of China, it is also very common for two people who both believe themselves to be speaking standard Mandarin to require a translator. Nevertheless, efforts by the PRC, ROC, and Singapore to promote Putonghua and Guoyu as the standard tongue have greatly boosted the number of Mandarin speakers.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Standardized Mandarin
3 Variations
4 Transcription systems
5 Sounds
6 Grammar
7 Vocabulary
8 Adoption of foreign words
9 Mandarin Chinese and other dialects
10 External links


The present main divisions of the Chinese language developed out of Ancient Chinese and Middle Chinese.

Most Chinese living in a broad arc, from the north-east (Manchuria) to the south-west (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home language. The prevalence of linguistic homogeneity (i.e. Mandarin) throughout northern China is largely the result of geography, namely the plains of north China. By contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have promoted linguistic diversity. The presence of Mandarin in southwest China is largely due to a plague in the 12th century in Sichuan. This plague, which may have been related to the black death, depopulated the area, leading to later settlement from north China.

There is no clear dividing line where Middle Chinese ends and Mandarin begins; however, the Zhongyuan Yinyun, a rhyme book from the Yuan Dynasty, is widely regarded as an important milestone in the history of Mandarin. In this rhyme book we see many characteristic features of Mandarin, such as the reduction and disappearance of final stop consonants and the reorganization of the Middle Chinese tones.

Click here for uncropped version

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese living in southern China did not speak any Mandarin. However, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various Chinese dialects, Beijingese Mandarin became dominant at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音書院 Zhengyin Shuyuan) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard. But these attempts had little success.

This situation changed with the creation (in both the PRC and the ROC) of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in Mainland China and in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.


The English term comes from the Portuguese mandarim (from Malay menteri class="external">[1 from Sanskrit mantrin-, meaning minister; in Chinese 满大人); it is a translation of the Chinese term Guānhuà (官話; simplified: 官话), which literally means the language of the mandarins (imperial magistrates). The term Guānhuà is often considered archaic by Chinese speakers of today, though it is used sometimes by linguists as a collective term to refer to all varieties and dialects of Mandarin, not just Putonghua and Guoyu. Another term commonly used to refer to all varieties of Mandarin is Běifānghuà (北方話 simplified: 北方话), or the dialect(s) of the North.

Standardized Mandarin

From an official point of view, there are two versions of standardized Mandarin, since the Beijing government refers to that on the Mainland as Putonghua(普通話; simplified: 普通话; pinyin: pǔtōnghuà; "the common dialect"), whereas the Taipei government refers to their official language as Kuo-yü(國語; simplified: 国语; pinyin: guóyǔ; "the national language"). Officially, Putonghua includes pronunciations from a number of different regions, while Kuoyu is theoretically based on the Beijing sounds only. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of "school" Mandarin are often quite different from the Mandarin that is spoken in accordance with regional habits.

Among overseas Chinese communities, particularly in South East Asia, the language is known as huáyǔ (華語 simplified: 华语; "the Chinese language"). (Note that while the term Hànyǔ (漢語; simplified: 汉语), or "the Han Chinese language", is sometimes used to refer to just standard Mandarin, it is more precisely used to refer to all variants of Chinese, since they are, after all, all spoken by Han Chinese. Some speakers of Hakka, for example, will object that their own dialect should carry the name Hanyu, as its grammar is closer to that of ancient texts.)

By definition, the standard forms of Mandarin Chinese, Putonghua and Guoyu, use:

Standard Mandarin and Beijingese

Although Beijing dialect is one of many forms of Chinese that linguists classify as Mandarin in the sense of being a northern dialect, it is not the case that the official standardized Mandarin is the same as "Beijing dialect". It is true that the standard pronunciation and grammar of the language of instruction is based on the Beijing dialect, but "standard Mandarin" is a rather elusive concept since it is a set of "constructed" language standards imposed on people who are asked to give up their accustomed regional pronunciations. Over the vast area from Manchuria in the north-eastern part of China to Yunnan in the south-western part of China, the home language of most people is Mandarin (in the global sense), but these home languages all differ from the pronunciation, vocabulary, and sometimes even the grammar of the language of instruction.

Specifically as regards the language of the natives of Beijing, most speakers conform well to standard pronunciation of the initial retroflex sounds (zhi, chi, shi, ri), but they add a final "er" — commonly used as a diminutive — sound to vocabulary items that other speakers would leave unadorned (儿音; pinyin: éryīn). There are also many vocabulary items that have wide local currency but are hardly ever used outside of the Beijing area. On top of those differences, as with London and New York City, there is more than one local "accent" in Beijing.

At the same time, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard putonghua has a T-V distinction between the polite and informal versions of you, that comes from Beijing dialect. In addition there is a distinction between "zánmen" (we including the listener) and "wŏmen" (we not including the listener). In practice, these distinctions are almost never used by most Chinese.


Main article: Mandarin variations

There are regional variations in Mandarin. This is manifested in two ways:

  1. Various dialects of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar encountered as one moves from place to place. These regional differences are as pronounced as (or more so than) the regional versions of the English language found in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
  2. Standard Mandarin has been promoted very actively by the PRC, the ROC, and Singapore as a second language. As a result, native speakers of both Mandarin varieties and non-Mandarin Chinese varieties frequently flavor it with a strong infusion of the speech sounds of their native tongues.

Dialects of Mandarin can be subdivided into eight categories: Beijing, Northeastern, Ji-Lu, Jiao-Liao, Zhongyuan, Lan-Yin, Southwestern, and Jianghuai. Jin is sometimes considered the ninth category of Mandarin (others separate it from Mandarin altogether).

In both Mainland China and Taiwan, Mandarin in predominantly Han Chinese areas is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Mandarin, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week in Taiwan starting in the mid-1990's.

However, the era of mass education in Mandarin has not erased these earlier regional differences. In the south, the interaction between Mandarin and local variations of Chinese has produced local versions of the "Northern" language that are rather different from that official standard Mandarin in both pronunciation and grammar.

Transcription systems

Ever since the first Westerners entered China and attempted to learn Mandarin, the need for some kind of phonetic transcription system to record the pronunciation of Chinese characters became apparent. Over the years, many such systems have been proposed. The first to be widely accepted was the Wade-Giles system, named after its 19th century inventors. This system is still in use today, though not in mainland China. It is now mostly encountered in older textbooks, histories, etc.

In the 20th century, Chinese linguists proposed various transcription systems, one of which even introduced a whole new syllabic alphabet: the Zhuyin system (Bopomofo). The most successful of these transcription systems was Hanyu Pinyin, which was accepted as the official transcription system for the Chinese language by the PRC in 1958 and later by the United Nations and other international organizations. During the 1950s, there were plans for Pinyin to supersede the Chinese characters. These plans, however, proved to be impractical due to the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language.

A variety of transcription systems are used on Taiwan. The ROC central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin in 2002, but has permitted local governments to override that decision in favor of their own preferred romanization systems. Zhuyin is used as the method for teaching pronunciation of characters and compounds in schools. Efforts to phase out this system in favor of pinyin have been stalled due to disagreements over which form of pinyin to use, and the massive effort needed to produce new educational materials and to completely retrain teachers.

Other less popular or outdated Romanizations include:


The following describes the sounds of standardized Mandarin, or Putonghua/Guoyu.


The following is the onset (initial consonant) inventory of standard Mandarin (Putonghua and Guoyu) as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet:

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Retroflex Alveolo-palatal Velar
Plosive p t k
Nasal m n
Fricative f s ʂ ɕ x
Affricate ts tsʰ tʂʰ tɕʰ
Lateral approximant l
Approximant w ɻ j ʁ

Corresponding chart in:

For more complete information, showing how initials and finals interact. see this Zhuyin-IPA chart. The vowel sounds in that chart have been verified against the official IPA: site.

/j/ and /w/ appear when a rhyme starting with a close vowel, like /i/ or /u/, begins a syllable with no other onset. Some linguists analyze a /ʁ/ when an open vowel like /a/ begins a syllable.

The alveolo-palatal consonants j q x are in complementary distribution (see Minimal pair) with the alveolar consonants z c s, retroflex consonants zh ch sh and velar consonants g k h. As a result, some linguists prefer to classify j q x as allophones of one of the three other sets.


Rhymes are combinations of medial (-i-, -u-, -y-), vowel, and final consonant.

Full rhyme table of Putonghua/Guoyu in IPA:

i u y
ɤ   uo 1  
ɤʊ iɤʊ    
an iɛn uan yɛn
ən in uən yn
ɑŋ iɑŋ uɑŋ  
ɤŋ iɤŋ    
    ʊŋ yʊŋ

1 Both pinyin and zhuyin have an additional "o", used after "b p m f", which is distinguished from "uo", used after everything else. "o" is generally put into the first column instead of the third. However, in Beijing pronunciation, these are identical.
2 Another way to represent the four rhymes of this line and the line above is (with the two lines spliced together): "ɯʌ iɛ uɔ yœ". This is much more symmetrical and also reflects Beijing pronunciation.

Same chart, but with -r added (and the corresponding sound changes that take place):

əɻ iəɻ yəɻ
ɑɻ iɑɻ uɑɻ  
ɤɻ   uoɻ  
  iɛɻ   yɛɻ
ɑɻ   uɑɻ  
əɻ   uəɻ  
aʊɻ iaʊɻ    
ɤʊɻ iɤʊɻ    
ɑɻ iɑɻ uɑɻ yɑɻ
əɻ iəɻ uəɻ yəɻ
ɑ̃ɻ iɑ̃ɻ uɑ̃ɻ  
ɤ̃ɻ iɤ̃ɻ    
    ʊ̃ɻ yʊ̃ɻ

Corresponding chart in:


  Front Central Back
Close • y • u
Close-mid ɤ • o̜
Open-mid ɛ • ʌ •


Mandarin, like all Chinese dialects, is a tonal language. This means that tone, just like consonants and vowels, are used to distinguish words for each other. The following are the 4 tones of Putonghua/Guoyu:

Tone Name Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu
Tone Contour 55 35 214 51
Tone 1 2 3 4

  1. First tone, or high-level tone (阴平 yin1 ping2, literal meaning: yin-level):
    a steady high tone, as if it were being sung instead of spoken.
  2. Second tone, or rising tone (阳平 yang2 ping2, literal meaning: yang-level), or linguistically, high-rising:
    is a sound that rises from mid-level tone to high (e.g., What?!)
  3. Third tone (low tone, or low-falling-raising, 上声 shang4 sheng1, literal meaning: "up tone"):
    has a mid-low to low descent, in some contexts then followed by a rising pitch. It is similar to saying "w-e-l-l" thoughtfully or as if inviting an answer.
  4. Fourth tone, falling tone (去声 qu4 sheng1, literal meaning: "away tone"), or high-falling:
    features a sharp downward accent ("dipping") from high to low, and is a shorter tone, similar to curt commands. (e.g., Stop!)

Other pitch shapes sometimes called tones: Most romanizations represent the tones as diacritics on the vowels (e.g., Pinyin, MPS II and Tongyong Pinyin). Zhuyin uses diacritics as well. Others, like Wade-Giles, uses superscript number at the end of each syllable. Representation of Chinese tone marks/numbers is rarely practised outside of textbooks. Gwoyeu Romatzyh is a rare example where tones are not represented as special symbols, but as true alphabet letters (hence creating a very complex orthography).

To listen to the tones, see (click on the blue-red yin yang symbol).

Pronunciation also varies with context according to the rules of tone sandhi. The most prominent phenomenon of this kind is when there are two third tones in immediate sequence, in which case the first of them changes to a second tone. If there are three third tones in series, the first may or may not be converted to a second tone, depending on the preference of the speaker and the dialect area.

Relationship between Middle Chinese and modern tones:

V- = unvoiced initial consonant
L = sonorant initial consonant
V+ = voiced initial consonant (not sonorant)

Middle Chinese Tone Ping Shang Qu Ru
Middle Chinese Initial V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+
Putonghua Tone name Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu redistributed
with no pattern
to Qu to Yang Ping
Putonghua Tone contour 55 35 214 51 to 51 to 35

Accents in learning foreign languages

The set of syllables in Chinese is very small, since each syllable has to be constructed after the pattern: "optional initial consonant followed by vowel followed by optional nasal". Not every syllable that is possible according to this rule is actually used, and in practice there are only a few hundred syllables. For example, Mandarin totally lacks the ending 'm' sound. People with a heavy Mandarin accent would often read 'time' as 'tie-mm'.


See: Chinese grammar


There are many more words in Mandarin with more than one syllable compared to other varieties of Chinese. This is because Mandarin has undergone many more sound changes than southern varieties of Chinese, and needed to deal with many more homophones — usually by forming new words via compounding. This creates words with more than one syllable. (In contrast, Ancient Chinese had almost no words at all with more than one syllable.)

The pronouns in Mandarin are wǒ (我) "I", nǐ (你) "you", and tā (他/她) "he/she", with -men (们) added for the plural. Dialects of Mandarin agree with each other quite consistently on this, but not with other varieties of Chinese. (e.g. Wu has 侬 "you".)

In addition, there is zánmen (咱们), used to refer to a "we" that includes the listener, and nín (您), a deferential way of saying "you".

Other vocabulary that Mandarin dialects generally tend to share are aspect and mood particles, such as -le (了), -zhe (着), and -guo (过). Other Chinese varieties tend to use different words in some of these contexts (e.g. Cantonese's 咗 and 紧).

Due to its relative proximity with Central Asia, Mandarin has some loanwords from Altaic languages, for example, hútong (胡同) "alley". Southern Chinese tends to have more borrowings from Tai or Austronesian languages.

Adoption of foreign words

Since Chinese has so few syllables, Mandarin speakers typically experience great difficulty in pronouncing words from languages rich in consonant clusters, e.g. most European languages. Additionally, syllables that do not conform to the Mandarin pattern cannot be directly transcribed into Chinese characters. There is an official system for approximating foreign words using Chinese characters, but this sometimes yields strange results and is mainly used for rendering foreign names.

For example, the word "telephone" was loaned as "delüfeng" in the 1920s, but later it was changed to "dianhua" (电话 "electric speech"). On the other hand, the word for "microphone" remains "maikefeng" (although 话筒 "speech tube" is gradually replacing the purely phonetic rendering). Because of the close relationship between written Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji, Mandarin borrowed many Japanese words that had originally been derived from European words in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Because of these transcription difficulties, it is more common to coin new words in Mandarin than to borrow foreign words directly. These new words are usually polysyllabic. Often one syllable conveys the word's "subject". (This is similar to the way in which many individual Chinese characters are composed.)

Since this way of incorporating foreign words is very cumbersome, the Chinese tend to invent their own words for technical innovations (the word for "train" (火車), e.g., means "fire vehicle"); so the international set of technical expressions deriving from Latin and Greek is not found in Mandarin.

Characters which are used exclusively in the transcription of foreign words are present (though not prominently so) in Chinese; many of these characters date back to Middle Chinese wherein they were used to translate Sanskrit phonemes.

Mandarin Chinese and other dialects

Geographical distribution of Mandarin and other Chinese languagesEnlarge

Geographical distribution of Mandarin and other Chinese languages

To the dismay of non-Mandarin speakers, the predominant role of Mandarin has led to the misidentification of Mandarin as the only "Chinese language". Although both Mainland China and Taiwan use Mandarin as the official language and promote its nationwide use, there is no official interest or intent in either location to have Mandarin replace local dialect, and as a practical matter, Mandarin is still far from supplanting the local dialects that are in daily use in many locations, particularly in the southern provinces of Mainland China or on Taiwan itself. Speaking only Mandarin in these areas is widely regarded as a significant social handicap; many Chinese language speakers there, particularly the older people, do not speak Mandarin very well or at all.

In the predominantly Han areas in Mainland China, the interaction between Mandarin and the local Chinese dialects has generally not been controversial. Although the use of Mandarin is encouraged as the common working language, the People's Republic of China has attempted to be sensitive to the status of local dialects and has not discouraged their use.

Mandarin, however, is used very commonly for logistical reasons in that it is often the only means of communications between people from different areas. In many parts of southern China, the linguistic diversity is so large that even people from neighboring cities find it difficult to talk to each other in the local form of Chinese, thereby requiring the use of a lingua franca such as Mandarin. Curiously the use of Mandarin in the 20th century has supplanted the use of pidgin English which was used as a common language in some parts of southern China in the 18th and 19th century.

In Taiwan, the relationship between Mandarin and local dialects, particularly Taiwanese has been more heated. Until the 1980s the government attempted to discourage the use of Taiwanese, even portraying it as inferior. This produced a backlash in the 1990s. Although some more extreme supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be opposed to Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese, efforts to replace Mandarin either with Taiwanese or with a multi-lingual standard have remained stalled.

See also:

External links