As the lunar new year approaches, Chinese speakers worldwide prepare their homes for festivities and wrap up their new year shopping. On New Year’s Eve, spring couplets are hung around door frames, a Chinese tradition that poeticizes the aspiration for the year to come.
The year 2022 marks the year of the tiger; the third year of the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle. Those born in the year of the tiger are said to be powerful individuals with authoritative qualities; they are brave, self-assured, and competitive.
Celebrations stretch from bustling cities such as Beijing and Hong Kong to small villages in rural and mountainous regions of China. Fireworks sprinkle the skies above both mainland China and the eastern island of Taiwan. In the United States, those who cannot visit home perhaps utilize technologies like Zoom to reunite with their families for the Spring Festival.
As one envisions these traditions, language must not be left out. As preparations are made for an arriving spring, what language is spoken? Well, Chinese of course. One might even be so inclined to narrow it down to Mandarin or Cantonese.
In actuality, the earlier term “Chinese speaker” is one of ambiguity. We can deduce that statistically speaking, the language is most likely Mandarin, the most spoken language in the world, with nearly one billion speakers. However, when working with Chinese speakers and adapting content for translation, it is better not to leave such decisions to an educated guess.
Linguistically speaking, Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family; geographically, these languages stretch from Northeast India, Burma, Bangladesh, and Northern Thailand, across most of China; They then stretch to the Korean border and down into Taiwan and Hainan Island.
This language family consists of the Sinitic languages (for political reasons these are known as the Chinese “dialects”) and the Tibeto-Burman languages. The term Sinitic indicates the linguistic perspective that Chinese “dialects” are distinct languages that are often mutually unintelligible when spoken. Of the Sinitic languages, Mandarin is most widely spoken, having been established as the official language of China in the 1930s and since this decision there has been a push to standardize Mandarin in Chinese speaking communities. Other Sinitic languages include Jin, Wu, Hui, Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka, Yue (Cantonese), and Ping. There are many linguistic differences among these languages. These include number of tones and the phonemic inventory (type of sounds the language contains).
Refer to table 1 to compare Mandarin to Cantonese. While identical in written form, Cantonse has a slight difference when used verbally. The character 是 is changed to 係 when used in speech. The two sentences not only attach different strings of sounds to each character, but also utilize different tones. Mandarin uses four tones to distinguish between different meanings. In contrast, Cantonese utilizes nine. While Pinyin is now incorporated into the teaching of Mandarin, most Cantonese speakers do not learn through a roman letter system.
Some regions like the Northwest are of great linguistic interest, given that the geography leads to language admixture and replacement, and sometimes leads languages to extinction. Mountain ranges and rivers can divide and isolate areas; a language spoken in a quiet mountain town will evolve quite differently than that spoken in a large city, like Beijing. Chinese spoken in the city has evolved and will continue to evolve at its own pace and via its own path. It is continuously changing and becoming more complex due to its exposure to people of different origins including their linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. However, most Chinese speaking communities are already unified though a common simplified script.
The written Chinese script unites the speakers of different Sinitic languages, in most regions. There are also two distinct Chinese writing systems used today: traditional and simplified. Today, traditional characters continue to be used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, as well as Chinese communities outside of China (such as the United States). Simplified characters are used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia.
The history of the normalization of Chinese characters is a fascinating concept linguistically, politically, and culturally. Although there were previous efforts to simplify the language, it was under the leadership of revolutionary communist leader and founder of the People’s Republic of China, former president Mao Zedong, that the language was majorly changed.
Throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, efforts to simplify more Chinese characters never came to fruition. It wasn’t until after World War II and the Civil War in China that simplifying the Chinese writing system became a priority for the Chinese Government. In 1954 the Committee for Chinese Language Reform (later renamed the National Language Commission) began to oversee the normalization of Chinese characters.
By 1964 the “Complete List of Simplified Characters” was originally published, then republished in 1986. This contains a total of 2,235 simplified characters. Following over half a century, Chinese was simplified throughout mainland China. Today normalized Chinese characters are divided into two categories: inherited characters and simplified characters. Inherited characters being those accepted before the 20th century and simplified being those characters replaced by simple forms.
A major part of the simplification process is owed to the invention of pinyin. Zhou Youguang was a part of the team that invented pinyin, a system that turns Chinese characters into words using letters from the Roman alphabet. The invention not only was essential to increase literacy rates in China, but also to adapt to an ever-changing society, making inventions like the typewriter and fax machine, as well as inventions of the late 20th and early 21st century like the laptop and smartphone accessible for the writing system.
When the Communist Party took over in China in 1949, Zhou decided to return home and was persuaded to join the committee responsible for normalizing characters. The simplification of Chinese became a priority in order to spread communist propaganda throughout China; the invention of pinyin from 26 letters aided the Chinese government in their mission to indoctrinate China through raised literacy rates. Before Zhou began his work, 85% of Chinese people could not read or write. As of 2018, 96.8% of people in China are literate. See table 1 for simplified, traditional, and pinyin comparison.
Ultimately, having a better understanding of Sinitic languages, their linguistic history and evolutions, the geographic borders, and the political history tied to both simplified and traditional Chinese will aid any company when assessing their translation needs. As we head into 2022, the year of the water tiger, an element marking agility and eloquence in our lives, we hope to provide knowledge that leads to more efficient translation processes. This is predicted to be a year that generally will build strength and restore energy after a draining 2021.
Happy New Year!
Lunar New Year: https://thewoksoflife.com/chinese-year-of-the-tiger/
Sinitic Languages: https://studycli.org/learn-chinese/languages-in-china/
Chinese simplification: https://www.thinkchina.sg/how-tree-chinese-writing-united-dialects-culture-and-people-through-millennia