Chinese Language

Written by Sally Guo Updated Apr. 2, 2021

Though not the oldest language, either spoken or written (Sumerian commands both of those honors), the Chinese character, which originated as a form of a hieroglyph in BCE ca.1000 – specifically, the Shang Dynasty (BCE 1700-1027) 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.

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.

Read more on the Origins of the Chinese language

Spoken Chinese – Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Hakkanese, etc.

While spoken Chinese is a large family of regional, mutually unintelligible languages (aka regional languages) all belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Within each separate language, there may be numerous dialects. Note that these individual languages may be spread across national borders, especially as regards Southeast Asia.

Read more on Chinese Dialects

Evolution Of The Chinese Script

From a simple, ideo-, and pictographic script to a highly stylized script, Chinese script has evolved dramatically over the years. Eventually, it 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.

It could help the Chinese government's efforts to eradicate illiteracy. And also make the Chinese language much more accessible to a foreign audience.

Since the Romanized script made it possible to say pronunciation with the help of diacritical markings familiar to several Western languages.

Read more on the evolution of the Chinese script


There are some 1700 syllable characters in Chinese. In contrast, English 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 English?

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 into the Romanized-Latinized alphabet.

Read more on Chinese Homophones

Influences of Chinese Language

With the introduction of Chinese characters during the Han Dynasty, 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, Chinese 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 righthand most column from top to bottom, then the column immediately to the left of this from top to bottom.

Read more on the influence of the Chinese language

Chinese Language Learning

With China's opening to the outside world and the subsequent emergence as an economic powerhouse, more and more foreigners are learning 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 on Chinese language learning

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