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Origin of the Chinese Language

Where is Mandarin Chinese from?

A Very Ancient Languagechinese man burning incense

Trying to understand the origin of the Chinese language is trying to understand the history of an entire group of dialects and languages, and one that spans for thousands of years! The Chinese language is as old as China itself and belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, which includes the modern Chinese language, as well as Tibetan, Himalayan and Burmese.

4000 Years Old!

Linguists can trace Chinese back 4,000 years! Examples of an ancient form of Chinese writing, Jia-gu Wen, have been found etched on shells and bones dating to around 1500 B.C. These ancient inscriptions, which are known as "oracle bones", were used for record keeping during the Shang Dynasty.

mandarin symbol for chineseChinese Characters

From these early inscriptions, we can see the predecessors of written Chinese, which is a system of iconographs (pictures) known as characters. Within modern Chinese language, one character represents one word or idea, and there are thousands of characters to learn to become literate in the Chinese language. The ancient oracle bones give a revealing clue about how the Chinese language and its writing system have evolved over thousands of years.

Old Chinese

Starting in the 1100s B.C., during the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese language became more standardized, as several texts were written in the language, including the famous philosophical work, the I Ching. This marks the first of three periods in the history of the language: Old Chinese, or Archaic Chinese.

Middle Chinesechinese god statue

At the beginning of the Sui Dynasty, in 601 A.D., the Qieyun Rime Dictionary was written, marking the beginning of a new period in the language's history: Middle Chinese. During this period, which lasted through the Song Dynasty in the 1000s A.D., the Chinese language became much more sophisticated and its forms of documentation went from rudimentary carvings on bones and bronze pieces to tables, scrolls and books.

Many Dialects

China was a huge country, though, and as time went on, Chinese language began to splinter into smaller dialects that reflected the local accents and vocabulary. While many of these dialects were mutually intelligible, meaning that they could be understood between speakers, some skewed so far from the ancient language as to almost become separate languages, and this distinction of dialects remains today.

Modern Mandarin and Cantonesegold chinese character symbol on red door

Starting from the 19th century, the Chinese language could now be broken down into two distinct languages: Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as numerous dialects. These two main strains of the language shared a writing system, but little other similarities and have today become the main languages of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as several other places around the world with heavy Chinese populations.

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