What comes to mind when you think of Chinese? Time and time again I’ve heard people saying things like “it’s a picture for every word”, and many a language’s version of “it’s all Greek to me” points to Chinese instead. It’s always this exotic, unknown tongue in a faraway land. In the first article in my new Bel Canton section, I’ll start with the mother of Cantonese – Chinese, breaking it down to you how it’s actually composed, and showing you why it isn’t as mystic as it appears to be.
But before I talk about the structure of Chinese languages, I’d like to briefly describe the structure of the Chinese language family so as to clear up some ambiguities concerning what I’ll be discussing.
The Chinese language family
You won’t believe how many times I’ve had this conversation, but the linguistic status of Chinese languages are pretty much still undefined, especially among Chinese-speaking communities themsleves. The confusion usually comes from the unity in writing: despite the many tongues existing in China, everyone writes the same way, with (mostly) the same set of characters, and can understand one another through the script, even if they don’t share the same speech. This has a long history: for a long time China has used classical Chinese as the written standard, from which the spoken languages deviate, pretty much like Latin and the Romance languages. It isn’t until a century ago that they decided to reform the written standard according to Mandarin, the language of government at the time. Hence to this day, the other spoken languages are still labeled dialects (方言). That’s putting aside the political subtext which clearly influences this choice of terminology, since dialects are subordinate to a language, but this is not the right place for that. Nevertheless, it is indeed said that it’s the “square characters” – our logograms, as opposed to alphabet – that has given us mutual intelligibility in writing and thus engendered a tendency towards unification throughout Chinese history.