Different dialects in China

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Different dialects in China

In a country as a big and diverse of China, there’s lots of…well…everything. While in countries like the UK, for example, you can travel 50 miles down the road and hear a completely different accent (think Manchester – Liverpool – Birmingham – London), in China the neighbouring city might not just have a different accent to you, but a fundamentally different dialect.

So, allow us to introduce to you the idea of fāng yán (方言), the Chinese word for ‘dialect’. You can think of dialects not just as differences in terms of pronunciation of a word, but – at least on a spoken level (the character set is the same) – often as fundamentally different languages in their own right. While officially there are 7 fāng yán, in reality most Chinese people would refer to the language that their local town/city speaks also as a fāng yán.

With 5,000 years of history, you might reasonably wonder how in ancient times people from different places possibly communicated with each other. Well, as we point out above, Chinese characters (hàn​zì/汉字), have broadly remained the same. Evolution/changes in characters have generally stayed constant across China, giving all Chinese people a platform that’s mutually intelligible regardless of where they’re from and what fāng yán they speak.

But a country needs to *speak* the same language, right? Especially if – like China in the 20th & 21st century – you want to drive massive social and economic change. Well, when thinking about exactly this question, in 1932 the National Language Unification Commission decided on the Beijing dialect and in 1949 the People’s Republic retained this standard, calling it pǔ tōng huà (普通话), which us westerners now refer to as ‘Mandarin’.

 

Remember we told you Chinese is a very logical language? Well, pǔ tōng huà literally means ‘common speech’ (pǔ tōng = ‘common’, huà = speak/speech). Makes sense, right?

 

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