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Very basic novice questions


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I am simply researching Chinese, and it may help to begin at the beginning. Now I understand that Chinese is actually at least 8 different languages with Northern Mandarin being the main one. I've been trying to piece together the number and names of the languages by reading forum posts, they seem to have different names for the same languages. Plus I'm not clear which are languages and which are dialects. What would be the official languages and their names be of the at least 8 languages? Sorry if my questions are too general for this forum.

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There is no real difference between a "language" and a "dialect", so it is impossible to count how many there are of each. Speak variants that are very far apart are usually called "languages" and variants that are close are usually called "dialects", but it is mostly haphazard. Most people, even native speakers, claim that Norwegian and Swedish are different languages, but it is much easier for a Norwegian to understand Swedish than it is for someone from Beijing to understand someone speaking Cantonese, and yet Mandarin and Cantonese are often considered "dialects". You can check for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identification_of_the_varieties_of_Chinese for more info about this.

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On the 8-hour trip to my hometown Chaozhou in the '80s, I counted at least 5 different dialects. When the bus climbed over two hills and stuck in the middle of a marketplace, the language that the hawker and customers were yelling was completely different from the one that I had heard 90 minutes ago.

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Ncao: There are 7 Putonghua (Mandarin), Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Min, Wu, Xiang and Yue (Cantones)but with hundreds of different dialects and subdialects.

That's right but if you consider Jin as another, separate dialect, you get 8 Chinese dialects. Jin is very close to Mandarin and linguists haven't decided whether it should be part of Mandarin dialects or a separate group.


Mandarin has the largest number of subdialects spread over a large area, some of them not so mutually intelligible because of pronunciation. Speakers of Sichuanhua or Yunnanhua (South-West) will probably deny that they belong to the Mandarin group.

The broader group of Mandarin dialects consists of diverse related dialects, some less mutually intelligible than others. It is a grouping defined and used mainly by linguists, and is not commonly used outside of academic circles as a self-description. Instead, when asked to describe the spoken form they are using, Chinese speaking a form of Mandarin will describe the variant that they are speaking, for example Sichuan dialect or Northeast China dialect, and consider it distinct from "[standard] Mandarin"; they may not recognize that it is in fact classified by linguists as a form of "Mandarin" in a broader sense. Nor is there a common "Mandarin" identity based on language; instead, there are strong regional identities centered around individual Mandarin dialects, due to the wide geographical distribution of its speakers.



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Now I understand that Chinese is actually at least 8 different languages with Northern Mandarin being the main one.

Maybe multiply by 100 and it would be closer to the real number.

There are 11 languages with at least a thousand dialects and sub-dialects. Explore this site.

There is no real difference between a "language" and a "dialect", so it is impossible to count how many there are of each.

There is. If A and B are mutually intelligible, they are dialects. If they are unintelligible, they are separate languages. So by this definition, British and American English are dialects, but Mandarin and Cantonese are languages. The word "dialect" used should more accurately be known as "topolect(方言)". So linguists classified the topolects into different Chinese language families with their own dialects and sub-dialects.:mrgreen:

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Amego, the definition you mention is not very good. I have a German friend who admitted to me that Dutch was more understandable for her than Schweizerdeutsch. Does that make Dutch a dialect of German (or the other way around) and Schweizerdeutsch a language?

The fangyan of the eastern part of Holland are close to German. So are those German dialects or Dutch?

Sichuanese and Yunnanese, I believe those are mutually pretty hard to understand. So they are both languages, although others say they both are Mandarin dialects?

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