As the world’s oldest surviving civilization, China has very few remnants of its past compared to Europe or India, for example. Throughout the ages, the waves of change have tried to break through all things ancient. However, one thing it could not manage to break was the Chinese language. But having said that, we need to consider how the Chinese language has evolved over the years.
With around 873 million native speakers and 178 million second-language speakers, the Chinese language is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Significantly outweighing the 510 million English speakers across the world, Chinese can be broken down into around 13 regional dialects, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Min, and Wu.
In this post, we take a look at some of the hottest topics around the evolution of the Chinese language and its long history!
Is the Chinese language evolving?
The evolution of the Chinese language is anticipated to take place in China, where new languages have evolved. This evolution will add new language concepts and grammatical structures to the classic Chinese writing system as well as its dialects.
Understanding the history of classical Chinese
Written classical Chinese is the world’s oldest language and dates back at least 6,000 years. Researchers found Chinese inscriptions inside turtle shells that date back to the Shang dynasty of 1766-1123 BC. Although the spoken dialects of classical Chinese have been altered by the effects of revolutions and political changes throughout the ages, written Chinese has mainly remained the same and is also universal across all traditional Chinese dialects.
Different Mandarin dialects
Spoken Chinese, however, has a complex evolution story. Until the mid-20th century, most southern Chinese people only spoke their native local dialects. During the Qing dynasty, Nanjing Mandarin became the dominant dialect before it was replaced by Beijing Mandarin.
Once the elementary school education system committed to teaching Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin), Mandarin was adopted as the de facto language by almost all people living in Mainland China and Taiwan. Standard Mandarin is China’s national language and is used much like traditional Chinese, but there is no one true writing system that is used across all geographical locations.
Japanese influence on Chinese Dialects
In Hong Kong, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Macau, Cantonese was still widely spoken before the mid-20th century. Due to historic trade with foreign merchants, the Chinese language also adopted a variety of Japanese words. These words were adopted into Chinese dialects and are referred to sinification or sinofication. With sinofication, foreign loan words are adopted as Chinese words and incorporated into the different local dialects.
How the modern world is changing the Chinese language and Chinese characters
The Chinese language is continually changing and evolving with time and geographical differences among the language’s biggest influencers. The biggest influencers of change, however, are societal standards, politics, and cultural views.
Advancements in technology are creating a digital society, and the rise in the use of digital devices has increased globalization, which also increased the exposure and exchange of languages.
Time itself has also affected and altered the Chinese language. As the world modernized, new words and concepts emerged, and the existing Chinese characters were incapable of portraying these new words and ideas. By adopting a more phonetic writing system, the Chinese are trying to close this gap using the Pinyin writing system. Pinyin might be a modern written Chinese language, but it encompasses all modern Chinese dialects and offers a way for Chinese people to express themselves where classical Chinese would have otherwise failed.
In the past, the Chinese scripts have limited the Chinese from fully expressing themselves. It has also complicated Chinese translation since the character system is so complex, and you must know between 2000 and 3000 characters to translate the written language. However, today, the younger generation across mainland China chooses to use Roman writing systems for the sense of freedom they offer. Globalization, therefore, endangers written Chinese, which may or may not have political implications.
Are we witnessing a revolution of Chinese written language and spoken Chinese dialects?
The 20th-century movement for language reform in China is creating significant shifts in the linguistic world of the Chinese language. The program aims to simplify classic Chinese characters, provide a single means of spoken communication throughout China, and introduce a phonetic alphabet that will eventually replace Chinese characters for everyday use. This program has been implemented as a means to help overcome a language barrier as old as time itself; however, it might still take decades to take full effect.
There are various dialects of Mandarin spoken throughout China, and geography has always been a major factor in the proliferation of the Chinese language. Many non-Chinese-speaking people are often stunned to find out just how widely spoken the Mandarin language is.
Regardless of how ancient the Chinese language might be, it has been through many processes of transformation throughout the ages, and it will likely face many more changes in the future. What these changes will mean for the language as a whole remains to be seen, but we are anticipating positive changes that will not only promote the language, but also preserve its ancient roots.