China is home to countless accents and dialects, making communication difficult. In fact, there is no one “Chinese” language. Rather there is a collection of dialects unified by a single writing system that are considered to be Chinese.
Standard Mandarin, also known as Putonghua (which means “common speech), is China’s official language. It is the language of education, government and law and almost all foreigners that study Chinese will learn this dialect.
Though everyone learns Putonghua in school, some people in rural areas cannot speak it very well. Older people might not have had the opportunity to study in it school and also might not speak it very well. Almost all Chinese, however, can understand Putonghua, even if they can only respond in their own dialect. The Putonghua spoken on Taiwan is slightly different than that of the mainland and is called guoyu, meaning “national language.”
History of Putonghua
Putonghua is not the first standardized Chinese language but it is probably the first to be widespread among common people. Even those standardized forms probably had wide variations from region to region. The only true standardized form of communication throughout most of Chinese language was the written language (called Classical Chinese), which was the same everywhere.
The forerunner of Putonghua was guanhua, the language spoken by imperial court officials in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Originally guanhua was a modified version of Nanjing imperial court officials, but as power shifted to Beijing, the Nanjing version died out gradually and guanhua came to resemble a modified version of the Beijing dialect. This dialect was made the official national language in 1909.
After 1912 the Republic of China was established and further progress was made in reforming the national language. At first reformers sought to add various elements of other regional dialects into the standard language but it was decided that this was too cumbersome, and the country’s official language continued to rely heavily on the Beijing dialect. When the People’s Republic of China came to power in 1949 it continued to use the modified-Beijing dialect as the national language and named it Putonghua.
Characteristics of Putonghua
In English, sometimes the words Putonghua and Mandarin are used interchangeably. However, Mandarin is a broad dialect that incorporates many regional differences throughout various parts of China, and two Mandarin speakers from different areas might have difficulty communicating with one another. Putonghua, on the other hand, is a standardized, modified version of the Beijing dialect, which is the type of Mandarin spoken around the capital.
Like all Chinese dialects, Putonghua is a tonal language. Putonghua has four distinct tones (in addition to a fifth, soft or silent tone), and the tone of a word changes its meaning and corresponding Chinese character.
Most words are made up of two parts of pronunciation: an initial and a final. For example, a word might have an initial sound of ch- and a final sound of –ang, creating the word chang. There are a limited number of initials and finals and each word corresponds with one (or sometimes more) Chinese characters.
While each word has a meaning, in normal speech many words are made up of two words put together to form a two-syllable word. For example, the word huo alone means fire and the word che means a vehicle that has wheels. In normal speech you can combine these two one-syllable words together to form the word huoche, which is the Chinese word for “train.”
Putonghua has several sounds that do not exist in English and these need special practice to pronounce correctly.
Though most people throughout China can speak Putonghua, many people have regional accents as a result of their own dialect. This can make communication difficult for non-native speakers that are quite comfortable with one type of accent (or a neutral accent) but completely unfamiliar with another.
Romanization is the process of using the Roman alphabet (which most European languages use) to write a language that uses a different writing system, such as Chinese. Various Romanization methods have been used throughout China’s contact with speakers of European-speakers, but the mainland’s official Romanization method is pinyin.
Taiwan and Hong Kong sometimes use different Romanization methods. In addition, pinyin is designed for Putonghua and isn’t appropriate for some other dialects. Other dialects have their own Romanization systems.