The Chinese Dialects

Introduction to the Chinese dialects

The Chinese language group

The Chinese languages are the languages of the Han people, the major ethnic group of China. They are spoken by over one billion people. Approximately 95 percent of the Chinese population speaks Chinese, as opposed to the non-Chinese languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Lolo, Miao, and Tai spoken by minorities. The vast majority of the Chinese-speaking population is in China (over 980 million), Hong Kong, and Taiwan (19 million), but substantial numbers are also found throughout the whole of southeast Asia, especially in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Important Chinese-speaking communities are also found in many other parts of the world, especially in Europe, North and South America, and the Hawaiian Islands.


Chinese, together with Tibetan and Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese) and the many tribal languages of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the family of Sino-Tibetan languages. Besides a core vocabulary and sounds, Chinese and most related languages share features that distinguish them from most Western languages: they are monosyllabic in origin, have little inflection, and are tonal. In order to indicate differences in meaning between words similar in sound, tone languages assign to words a distinctive relative pitch-high or low-or a distinctive pitch contour-level, rising, or falling.ljkll;lkjl

Language versus dialect

Spoken Chinese comprises many regional variants, generally referred to as dialects. However, the mutual unintelligibility of the subvarieties is the main ground for classifying them as separate languages or dialect groups. Each dialect group consists of a large number of dialects, many of which may themselves be referred to as languages. The boundaries between one so-called language and the next are not always easy to define. Because each dialect group preserves different features of Middle Chinese (dating back to early or even pre-T'ang times), they have proven to be valuable research tools in the phonological reconstruction of Middle and even to some extent its ancestor, Old Chinese. Most Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects, which are largely mutually intelligible..

Group members

Chinese has seven major language groups of which the Mandarin language group forms the largest group. The Mandarin group consists of a wide range of dialects in the northern, central, and western regions. The Cantonese dialects are spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, parts of Hainan, Macau, and in many overseas settlements. The Hakka (Kejia) languages are spoken in Guangdong, southwestern Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hainan, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, many overseas Chinese communities, and in pockets throughout Southeast Asia. Most of the inhabitants of the south central region, in Hunan use the Xiang dialects, also known as Hunanese. The Min dialects are spoken in most of Fujian, large areas of Taiwan and Hainan, parts of Eastern Guangdong and the Leizhou Bandao Peninsula, and in areas of Southeast Asia. Most of the people living in Jiangxi, eastern part of Hunan, and the southeastern corner of Hubei use the Gan dialects. The majority of the inhabitants of Zhejiang, as well as people living in southern areas of Jiangsu and Anhui, speak the Wu dialects. The Wu dialects share marginal mutual intelligibility with the Mandarin and Gan dialects.

Character Mandarin Cantonese Hakka Min Old Chinese
ji1 (yī) jat7 (jat1) jit7 ʦit⁷ (chit8) 'jit75
ɚ⁵ (èr) ji6 (ji6) ngi5 ʣi⁶ (ji7) ngij / ʒɿ⁵
san1 (sān) ʃa:m¹ (saam1) sam1 sam¹ (saN1) sa^m
niau³ (niǎo) niu⁴ (niu5) tiau1 niau³ (chiau2) tíau³
fei1 () fei1 () pui1 hui1 () pj+j