Facts Sheets of Major World Languages Mandarin

About the major world language Mandarin, history, number and location of speaker, samples, trivia, words used in English, and more.



Sample of Language: Shijieshang meiyou buneng kefu de kunnan. ("There is no difficulty in the world that cannot be overcome.")

How Many Speakers: 1 Billion

Where Spoken: Mainland China and Taiwan

History: Mandarin is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. One of the world's oldest tongues, it did not become China's official language until 1644, with the Manchu overthrow of the Ming dynasty. The new rulers, a non-Chinese race, spoke many dialects among themselves, so they selected Peking Mandarin to be the unifying political language. Although not intended to be the speech of the people as a whole, it spread, and after the start of the Chinese Republic in 1912, it was chosen as the national language. It was later designated by the U.N. as one of its original official languages.

Mandarin is written with thousands of distinctive characters, which bear no relation to the sound of a word. The early Chinese characters were pictographs, such as a crescent for the moon, or a dotted circle for the sun. Gradually, these gave way to nonpictorial ideograph, which could also represent abstract concepts. Characters can combine into new meanings. Two trees means "forest"; sun and moon form "bright"; mouth plus bird signifies "song." Traditionally written top to bottom, right to left, Chinese is now more commonly written as English is written. The ancient Mandarin script, wenyan, is readable in all Chinese languages, but with different pronunciations, just as symbols such as "8" or "H2O" are comprehensible in all European languages. However, nowadays most written Mandarin is in baihua, which is almost the same as spoken Mandarin. To facilitate learning, the Chinese Communists have simplified hundreds of old characters. Pinyin, a phonetic system based on Roman letters, has been introduced, but has not caught on for general use.

Under Mao Tse-tung, many new socialist terms were introduced. For instance, the derogatory word kuli (origin of the English word coolie) was replaced by the more egalitarian gongren, "work person." With Mandarin as the standard, within a few generations the dialects will theoretically disappear, and all Chinese will speak the same language. The sheer numerical importance-one quarter of the human race-plus China's current accessibility, is making Mandarin a more and more popular language to study among Americans.

Oddities: The word Mandarin is not Chinese, but a Sanskrit-Portuguese combination meaning "commanders." A total of 420 syllables contain every word in Mandarin. Each syllable has an average of 10 different meanings; i has 69, shi, 59. Mandarin has four tones, which sound like English intonations. The first is like singing, "Mi, mi, mi"; the second is like asking, "Huh?"; the third might indicate understanding in a conversation: "Ye-ah-"; the fourth could be a command: "Don't!" Tones convey different meanings to the same word. Ju can mean "pig," "bamboo," "god," or "remember," depending on the tone. Some dialects have nine tones.

There is no person, gender, tense, or voice. "He," "she" and "it" are all ta. "Yes" and "no" are conveyed by several phrases meaning "It is (not)" or "You are right (wrong)." Opposites spoken together define a quality: long-short = "length"; big-small = "size"; up-down or left-right = "approximately"; buy-sell indicates "business."

In a large dictionary, there are 40,000 to 50,000 compound characters. The telegraphic code book contains 10,000. A Chinese child learns about 200 by the time he is 10, but it takes two or three times that many to read a newspaper or a novel. The number of strokes required to draw a Chinese character can be as high as 33. The characters for woman and child combine to form "good," but two women together indicate "quarrel," and three women, "gossip." In all of China, there are fewer than 400 different family names.

Words Now Used in English: tea, typhoon, sampan, shanghai, shantung, kowtow, chow, chow mein, kung fu, Mah-Jongg, Ping-Pong.

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