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Chinas southwest language

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© Lonely Planet Publications
501

Language
CONTENTS
The Spoken Language
The Written Language
Grammar
Mandarin
Pinyin
Pronunciation
Gestures
Phrasebooks
Accommodation
Conversation & Essentials
Directions
Health
Language Difficulties
Numbers
Paperwork
Question Words
Shopping & Services
Time & Dates
Transport

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THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE
Dialects

Discounting ethnic minority languages,
China has eight principal dialect groups.
The predominant dialect in the Southwest
is Sichuanese, though the differences from
Putonghua are as much a reflection of regional accent as significant differences in
vocabulary. Deng Xiaoping gave most of his
speeches in a thick Sichuanese accent.
Changes are slight but enough to throw you
off course; hùzhào (passport) is pronounced
‘fuzhao’, méi yǒu (no; don’t have) becomes
‘mo de’.
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong,
Macau, Guangdong and parts of Guangxi.

THE WRITTEN LANGUAGE
Chinese is often referred to as a language of
pictographs. Many of the basic Chinese
characters are in fact highly stylised pictures of what they represent, but most
(around 90%) are compounds of a ‘meaning’ element and a ‘sound’ element.
So just how many Chinese characters are
there? It’s possible to verify the existence of
some 56,000 characters, but the vast majority of these are archaic. It is commonly felt
that a well-educated, contemporary Chinese
person might know and use between 6000
and 8000 characters. To read a Chinese
newspaper you will need to know 2000 to
3000 characters, but 1200 to 1500 would be
enough to get the gist.
Writing systems usually alter people’s
perception of a language, and this is certainly true of Chinese. Each Chinese character represents a spoken syllable, leading
many people to declare that Chinese is a
‘monosyllabic language’. Actually, it’s more
a case of having a monosyllabic writing system. While the building block of the Chinese language is indeed the monosyllabic
Chinese character, Chinese words are usually a combination of two or more characters. You could think of Chinese words as
being compounds. The Chinese word for
‘east’ is composed of a single character
(dōng), but must be combined with the
character for ‘west’ (xī) to form the word
for ‘thing’ (dōngxi). English has many compound words too, examples being ‘whitewash’ and ‘backslide’.
Theoretically, all Chinese dialects share
the same written system. In practice, Cantonese adds about 3000 specialise...
501
CONTENTS
LANGUAGE
Language
It differs from Mandarin as much as French
differs from Spanish. Speakers of both dia-
lects can read Chinese characters, but a
Cantonese speaker will pronounce words
very differently. Cantonese also has a more
complex tone system than Mandarin, boast-
ing at least seven tones compared with
Mandarin’s four.
THE WRITTEN LANGUAGE
Chinese is often referred to as a language of
pictographs. Many of the basic Chinese
characters are in fact highly stylised pic-
tures of what they represent, but most
(around 90%) are compounds of a ‘mean-
ing’ element and a ‘sound’ element.
So just how many Chinese characters are
there? It’s possible to verify the existence of
some 56,000 characters, but the vast major-
ity of these are archaic. It is commonly felt
that a well-educated, contemporary Chinese
person might know and use between 6000
and 8000 characters. To read a Chinese
newspaper you will need to know 2000 to
3000 characters, but 1200 to 1500 would be
enough to get the gist.
Writing systems usually alter people’s
perception of a language, and this is cer-
tainly true of Chinese. Each Chinese char-
acter represents a spoken syllable, leading
many people to declare that Chinese is a
‘monosyllabic language’. Actually, it’s more
a case of having a monosyllabic writing sys-
tem. While the building block of the Chi-
nese language is indeed the monosyllabic
Chinese character, Chinese words are usu-
ally a combination of two or more charac-
ters. You could think of Chinese words as
being compounds. The Chinese word for
‘east’ is composed of a single character
(dōng), but must be combined with the
character for ‘west’ (xī) to form the word
for ‘thing’ (dōngxi). English has many com-
pound words too, examples being ‘white-
wash’ and ‘backslide’.
Theoretically, all Chinese dialects share
the same written system. In practice, Can-
tonese adds about 3000 specialised charac-
ters of its own and many of the dialects
don’t have a written form at all.
The official language of the PRC is the dia-
lect spoken in Běijīng. It is usually referred
to in the west as ‘Mandarin’, but the Chi-
nese call it Putonghua (common speech).
Putonghua is referred to in the Southwest
as hànyŭ (the Han language), but most of
the region’s minorities speak their own lan-
guage and understand Chinese only as a
second or even third language.
THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE
Dialects
Discounting ethnic minority languages,
China has eight principal dialect groups.
The predominant dialect in the Southwest
is Sichuanese, though the differences from
Putonghua are as much a reflection of re-
gional accent as significant differences in
vocabulary. Deng Xiaoping gave most of his
speeches in a thick Sichuanese accent.
Changes are slight but enough to throw you
off course; hùzhào (passport) is pronounced
‘fuzhao’, méi yǒu (no; don’t have) becomes
‘mo de’.
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong,
Macau, Guangdong and parts of Guangxi.
The Spoken Language 501
The Written Language 501
Grammar 502
Mandarin 502
Pinyin 502
Pronunciation 503
Gestures 503
Phrasebooks 503
Accommodation 503
Conversation & Essentials 504
Directions 505
Health 505
Language Difficulties 506
Numbers 506
Paperwork 506
Question Words 506
Shopping & Services 507
Time & Dates 508
Transport 508
© Lonely Planet Publications
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