Though not the oldest language, either spoken or written (Sumerian commands both of those honors), the Chinese character, which originated as a form of hieroglyph in BCE ca.1000 – specifically, the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty Oracle-Bone inscriptions that were made on the large, flattish shoulder blades of animals and on the shells of tortoises – is among the world's oldest written languages.
It would seem that written language, which was predated by spoken language by a very large margin, arose during the agrarian phase of human development, i.e., following the strictly hunter-gatherer phase, and for this reason, written language arose in different cultures at different chronological periods, as witnessed by the fact that the Neolithic Age, or New Stone Age, occured in different geographical regions at different chronological periods.*(1, 2) (If, according to the prevailing current thinking, the Out of Africa hypothesis has merit, then humans spoke a highly complex language before they began to migrate out of Africa to the four corners of the earth.) >>Read More
Origins: From Pictographs And Ideographs To More Stylized Forms
The earliest Chinese written language was the pictographic characters that belong to the so-called Oracle-Bone script. By the time of the late Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty (in fact, during the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty period, or the second half, as it were, of the Han Dynasty), a comprehensive set of more stylized characters – officially called hanzi (han zi = "Han (Dynasty) writing") though more often referred to today as "traditional characters" – was developed by the lexicographer Xu Shen, who compiled the first Chinese dictionary, which included an analysis of the Chinese written character.*(3) Read More »
Spoken Chinese – Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Hakkanese, etc.
While spoken Chinese is a large family of regional, mutually unintelligible languages (aka fāngyán††, or "regional languages") all belonging to the Sino- Tibetan language family, within each separate language there may be numerous dialects which, in contrast, are mutually intelligible within the given language – and note that these individual languages may be spread across national borders, especially as regards Southeast Asia. †† The word fāngyán, here translated as "regional languages", literally means "spoken language". Read More »
Map of Mandarin Dialects in Mainland China
The Evolution Of The Chinese Script
The Chinese script has evolved dramatically over the years, as indicated in the introduction, from a simple, ideo- and pictographic script to a highly stylized script that eventually underwent a change from the perhaps overly complex – albeit very artistic – to the highly simplified before making the shift to a Latin-based (Romanized) script that would not only facilitate the Chinese government's efforts to eradicate illiteracy, but which would make the Chinese language much more accessible to a foreign audience, since the Romanized script made it possible to indicate pronunciation with the help of diacritical markings familiar to several Western languages. Read More »
HomophonesThere are some 1700 syllable-characters in Mandarin (and thus in baihua), while the English language, in contrast, has over 8000 possible unique syllables. How is it then that a language with only 1700 syllable-characters can express the same range of nuances as, say, the English language? The answer lies in the homophone, or the syllable-character that sounds the same but signifies very different things. This is most easily demonstrated in Pinyin (the transcription of the "phonemes" of Chinese languages (eg., baihua) into the Romanized/ Latinized alphabet... note that Chinese is not a true phonetic language, Read More »
Influences of Chinese Language
With the introduction of hanzi characters during the Han Dynasty – if not earlier – the Chinese language was written from right to left, and in columns, not in rows. Hanzi characters were designed to occupy an equal amount of two-dimensional space, regardless of their actual size. Thus hanzi characters were like blocks that were stacked one upon the other, with the initial character in each column located at the top of the column. Reading an ancient Chinese text thus consisted of reading first the righthandmost column from top to bottom, then the column immediately to the left of this from top to bottom, etc., etc. Read More »
Chinese Language Learning
With China's opening to the outside world under the astutute guidance of Deng Xiaoping and the country's subsequent emergence as an economic powerhouse, more and more people the world over have found a reason for wanting to learn the Chinese language. There is of course a growing international population of students of the Chinese language, many of whom spend time in the country studying at Chinese universities and practicing their Chinese on an appreciative indigenous audience. Read More »