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Is Chinese A Language
Is Chinese A Language

Is Chinese a language? 5 aggressive reasons

Is Chinese a language? Some linguists say yes, especially the Chinese linguists. In that system, Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. belong to the category dialects. However, there are many western linguists who believe it’s a language group. And in their system, Mandarin, Cantonese, and others are languages themselves.

If you are only interested in a straight answer, I will tell you here at the very beginning: Linguists haven’t agreed on this. And in my opinion, as a linguist and a sinologist, it is and should be a language, as long as English or German counts as a language. If you want to call it a language group, you should do so with English, Spanish, and German as well. I agree with the idea of seeing Chinese as a language group, you just need to stay consistent.

In fact, this issue is extremely complicated. This is why you need to take some time if you want to know the real answer to this question.

And even if you don’t agree 100% with my article, or, you don’t have enough time to read the entire article, I have one request: Stop saying Mandarin or Cantonese. Instead, use Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, as you would do with English (American English e.g.) or German (Swiss German e.g.). As long as you don’t use sentences such as “I’m learning Austrian”, you shouldn’t do the same with Cantonese Chinese. As a linguist and a sinologist, it’s a phenomenon that has been bothering me for quite some time.

Let me explain why.

Why I need to talk about Is Chinese a language.

When I first dealt with this issue, I didn’t hear it in a form as a question. Neither was it because I’m Chinese, so he thought I’d know more. On the contrary, it was more of a telling (teaching) me this as a fact. “Chinese is not a language.” He told me, some German guy that I randomly met, “Mandarin is, like Cantonese. But Chinese isn’t.” He read it somewhere, he told me. That was a shock, to be honest. And I tried to explain to him that this is not a fact, it’s just an opinion. But of course, that conversation ended with a typical “agree to disagree” kind of a situation.

That was my first experience with this question. It was almost 15 years ago. Although I have finished my study in between and had much more experience with this issue, I still couldn’t handle it well. For some time I became so emotional about this that I stopped discussing and swallowed my opinion. Until 5 years ago, when my German platform for Chinese learning went so well that people constantly asked this question. “Is Chinese a language? I heard it’s not.” – They were genuinely interested. And they deserve an answer.

So I decided I couldn’t run away from it anymore. I could no longer ignore the fact that almost no Chinese has ever had any say about this question. It’s the western linguists who build a “common sense” about it for the rest of the world and influence ALL people. I’m writing this to offer a second voice about the Chinese language, in this western dominated language world. As a Chinese, but also, as a sinologist.

Some basic rules about this article:

I want this article to be easy to prove and look up, hence, I decided to use resources that are accessible to everyone. So I have no linguist quotes and references here where you need to go to a library to look up. Also, I will avoid using any technical terms.

Another point I’d like to bring is that I don’t use the argument “because some authorities said so”. Linguists, just like mathematicians, use basic formulas as well. So instead of saying, “Noam Chomsky said Chinese was a language”, or “Wikipedia said … “, I will discuss with the logic: “What makes a language a language”, “how it works with other languages”, etc. and then test the case with Chinese.

Now the last rule is that I need to inform you thoroughly about the question. Before I start to discuss what a language is, I will start explaining the conflict first. The question Is Chinese a language mainly involves Chinese, Mandarin, and Cantonese. I didn’t find any questions in the form of “Is Shanghainese a language”.

Is Chinese a language: Difference between Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese

Let me first start with the conflict in this situation. Instead of explaining why they believe Chinese is not a language, most bloggers state it as a fact. I remember one of them wrote something like this:

Some people ask me if I learned Chinese. This irked me because I wasn’t learning Chinese; I was learning Mandarin.

Some blogger

It didn’t tell why he/she had this opinion but simply used it as a fact. And while keep digging, I found many arguments around the burning question: “Is Chinese a language?” based in two terms: “Mandarin” or “Cantonese”. There I found the first hint: Most people compare Chinese with Cantonese, while they mean Mandarin. And there I understand the “irking” because it is wrong to compare Chinese with Cantonese, or Chinese with Mandarin.

Chinese, Mandarin, and Cantonese, what are they?

The term Chinese covers both Mandarin, as well as Cantonese, and 6 other variants. Each represents one spoken form of the Chinese language. All of them use the same Chinese writing systems. I will leave the part simplified and traditional Chinese aside to avoid confusion here first. I will talk about it later. So to this point, I think we can all agree: Chinese is the umbrella term. Now we only need to find out if Chinese is a language or a language group.

While many believe Mandarin and Cantonese are all languages, I want to first put my opinion on it: Is Chinese a language? My answer is yes. While the base of Mandarin is the Beijing dialect, Mandarin itself is the official spoken language. “I’m learning Chinese” is definitely the right expression. And if you want to emphasize you are speaking the official oral Chinese, you can say: I’m learning Mandarin Chinese. Or, if you are not, I’m learning Cantonese Chinese, or I’m learning Shanghainese Chinese.

Avoid using Mandarin or Cantonese without the Chinese behind it. Just like you do with American English or British English.

Still, this is my opinion: Cantonese, among others, is only one dialect. I know, I know. Now it’s Hong Kongers’ turn to be irked. But please be patient. That’s why I mentioned colonialism here. Because it is the main reason why Cantonese is the only “language” that comes into question. No one has ever asked anything about Shanghainese or Hunanese. They are not even a thing.

And now I will prove my opinion, of course. In the sections appearing later, I will examine the most representative dialects in China. At this point, however, it’s time that we finally get into the key to the discussion.

What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? – Why is Chinese a language

In order to answer the question Is Chinese a language, we need to understand what makes something a language. Let me put the mainstream opinion here first because this could be too long if we get to the division of linguists. Whoever is interested in this topic, can find more complicated versions on Wikipedia:

The only difference between a language and a dialect lies in its way of writing. If it has its own way of writing, it’s no longer a dialect, but a language. If the way of writing is the same, then all oral forms are “only” dialects. And most linguists, despite lots of disagreement with the nuisances about it, commonly agree to this general idea.

With this logic, e2language (choice of google for “dialect or language”) even went this far: They defined that “Italian, French and Spanish were once dialects of Latin, but over centuries have evolved into their own languages.” I share a similar opinion. This also supports my opinion why is Chinese a language.

And by the way, I found another sentence that is simple and sweet to end this question: “A language is a dialect with army and navy.” But of course, this will raise another question: Are American English and British English two different languages? Which will be the next topic.

Is American English a language? Some common ground for why is Chinese a language.

Let’s first use the formula: The way of writing.

Does American English have their own way of writing? Despite some differences in vocabulary, it apparently does not. So the result should be: American English is just a dialect.

And Wikipedia on issue dialect or language confirms this idea. There they introduced the term Standard dialect, where they explained American English as a standard dialect.

A standard dialect is a dialect that is supported by institutions. …for example, Standard American English, Standard British English, Standard Canadian English, Standard Indian English, Standard Australian English, and Standard Philippine English may all be said to be standard dialects of the English language.

A nonstandard dialect … has a complete grammar and vocabulary, but is usually not the beneficiary of institutional support. Examples of a nonstandard English dialect are Southern American English, Western Australian English, New York English, New England English, Mid-Atlantic American or Philadelphia / Baltimore English, Scouse, Brummie, Cockney, and Tyke.

Standard and non-standard dialect, Wikipedia

So this first answers the question clearly: No, American English is not a language, but a standard dialect, although the US has its own army and navy.

But why is it relevant to “Is Chinese a language”? I will get there. Please bear with me.

Is German a language? How about Austrian German, Swiss German, and Bavarian German? – Why is Chinese a language

In fact, German is a perfect example to compare with. Because German has a specific term that is almost identical in Chinese. The official German language is not only German but High German (Hochdeutsch). They call Mandarin Chinese Hochchinesisch (High Chinese), just as they treat their own language, something I truly appreciate.

If you google “putonghua” in Germany, the results show “Hochchinesisch” on google

This is why I prefer the expression “Standard Chinese” in English, just like German with “Hochchinesisch”. This also gives some indication on the dispute “is Chinese a language.”

Though English also has some dialects that many couldn’t understand, the mainstream English is quite homogenous and understandable to English native speakers. However, German could be quite surprising. In fact, as soon as one leaves the main Hochdeutsch speaking areas, the dialects become quite challenging. This starts with Swabian, Bavarian German, and goes to Austrian and Swiss German. TV shows from Germany usually use subtitles, when they show material from Switzerland, a large part of Austria, or when these dialects are involved.

Are Swabian, Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss German different languages?

All of them share a similar characteristic: They sound different. In fact, they sound so different, especially Swiss German, that it’s impossible to understand their German if you haven’t spent enough time there. Now let me use the formula again:

Do they share the same way of writing?

Yes. Any (German-speaking) Swiss or Austrian will not need to learn written German when they visit Germany because they use the same way of writing and vice versa. In Switzerland, they even prefer the term Schriftdeutsch (written German) instead of Hochdeutsch (High German).

And Wikipedia confirms this fact. First, Wikipedia refers to Swiss and Austrian German to the expression vernaculars (Mundarten). In a more specific term Schreibweise (way of writing) of Swiss German, Wikipedia explains explicitly:

All vernaculars or dialects in the German-speaking area have one thing in common: There is no standardized spelling for them. It is the same with the Swiss German dialect forms.

Wikipedia on Schreibweise in Swiss German

Unfortunately, there is no English version on Wikipedia. So you will have to use google translate for that.

This applies also to Austrian, Bavarian, and Swabian German. So this answers the question perfectly: Yes, Swabian, Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss German all belong to the German language. And German is a language, not a language group.

At the same time, this also proves the point: If the way of writing is the same, then the oral forms are dialects. Together, they all build one language. For the same reason why is Chinese a language.

Does Cantonese has its own way of writing? – Why is Chinese a language

The answer could be complicated, as well, because there are two ways of writing in Chinese: Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Many people presume Cantonese uses traditional Chinese while Mandarin uses the simplified. However, this is untrue.

What does Canton stand for?

Though being its official language of Hong Kong, Cantonese does not mean Hong-Kongnese, it originates from Canton. And Canton stands for Guangzhou, a big city close to Hong Kong. Guangzhou got the name Canton because the Portuguese called it so, even before the British came. It is also the capital of the province Guangdong, where Hong Kong used to belong.

Cantonese is the dialect people speak in Guangzhou. In fact, the entire Guangdong province speaks Cantonese. So Cantonese is actually Guangzhounese if we take it accurately with the Mandarin system.

Some regions where people speak Chinese use simplified Chinese. This includes Mainland China, but also countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. The reason for that is the simplified Chinese has fewer strikes and is easier to remember and use. Some other regions, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau use Traditional Chinese.

What does Cantonese use for its way of writing?

The entire province of Guangdong speaks Cantonese and uses Simplified Chinese as its way of writing like the rest of Mainland China. Hongkong, however, uses Traditional Chinese as its way of writing. So Cantonese uses both Traditional, as well as Simplified Chinese. Simplified Chinese.

So the answer to the question becomes clearer: No, Cantonese uses the same way of writing as the rest: Some of them use Traditional Chinese, some Simplified Chinese. Like the rest of the Chinese-speaking world. This also supports my opinion on why is Chinese a language.

Is there anything else (language or dialect) rather than Mandarin and Cantonese? – Why is Chinese a language

The answer to this question is shorter: Definitely. The Chinese language owns many, many local dialects. Though we still need to discuss if all these “dialects” are in fact languages, there are many comparable ones like Cantonese.

In the Chinese version of this Wikipedia article, it calls these variants “dialects” (汉语方言). Meanwhile, the English version calls them languages. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that there are 8 different groups that are comparable to Cantonese. And if you happen to speak both English and Chinese, you will be surprised that Wikipedia shows two different maps when explaining these 8 varieties.

The Chinese version of the 8 main Chinese dialects on Wikipedia.
The English version of the 8 main Chinese dialects (languages) on Wikipedia

The English version does not even cover the entire Chinese map. It leaves the impression that only people living in this part of China speak Chinese, which would be untrue.

Do these dialects/languages have their own way of writing? – Why is Chinese a language

This time, the answer is much easier: No, they don’t. This is extremely comparable to German. In Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland, many people write in their own dialect: They write among each other exactly as they speak. But this does not qualify as a general recognized written language. This is because there is no common sense built around it.

And this is exactly the reason why linguists can’t agree with each other. There are also linguists in German who believe Bavarian German should be a language of its own. Hence, in my opinion, these two possibilities work. But you will need to apply the same standard here. If Cantonese is a language itself, Bavarian German should be as well.

Was Cantonese the official language in Hong Kong during the colony times?

No, it never was.

In 1842, the British Empire took Hong Kong as its colony and made English its official language. Ever since then, English has always been the only official language. The (British) government used English for all purposes: Judicial, legislative, or administrative documents. Meanwhile, the folks used Chinese. In the 1960s, a Chinese movement (not Cantonese movement) began to appear in Hong Kong. This was a social movement in Hong Kong’s academic circles to strive for the status of Chinese as an official language.

In 1974, the government passed legislation that traditional Chinese and English enjoyed the same legal status. However, for official and legal documents, English remains the single official language. While some of them had Chinese translations, it’s mandatory to note that only the English versions shall prevail. This indicates that Chinese is only used “for public reference only” in official institutions and legal systems. Since 1987, the government passed new legislation that all laws must be enacted and promulgated in Chinese and English. Is Chinese a language there? At least at that time, it was.

Is Chinese a language? Who gets to decide and what’s my answer?

Seeing Chinese as a language group is a western thing. Wikipedia takes mostly the theory from Jerry Norman, an American sinologist. And this is no coincidence: Western linguists dominate the opinions on the Chinese language outside of China. In their opinion, the Chinese language group consists of different spoken local dialects, all of which, however, more or less, share the same written form.

Chinese linguists, however, see it differently. In their system, the Chinese language shares one way of writing and countless way of pronouncing. Hence, the pronounced parts consist of spoken Chinese. And together with the written part, they build the Chinese language together.

I think I made it quite clear that my answer to “Is Chinese a language” is a clear yes, and I don’t see it as a language group. However, I don’t find it absurd to see Chinese as a language group. The only thing I insist would be: If a linguist sees Chinese as a language group, he/she should be consistent with this theory. In this case, many parts of the UK, the United States, as well as most parts of South Germany, have their own languages as well.

In that system, people should indicate:

“I’m learning American.”
“I speak German and Bavarian.”
“I speak Texan.”

Is Chinese a language? Yes, if English counts as a language.

Is Chinese a language group? Yes, only if English also counts as a language group.

Who gets to decide? At the moment, it doesn’t seem like the Chinese could decide this themselves. The non-native-speaking western linguists see it differently than the native speaking Chinese linguists, about the Chinese language.

Why many answers to “Is Chinese a language” reflect a colonial way of thinking

The only reason why people don’t call Canton by its official name “Guangzhou”, but Canton, is only because it’s more convenient. Similarly to the name Peking, as for Beijing. Although China has its official names, in alphabets, for all these cities, many countries and people still use the same terms as in colonial times.

And if we are all being honest, it’s not only because it’s convenient, but because they can.
The mountain “Qomolangma” in Tibetan is 珠穆朗玛 in Chinese. In China, they took their pronunciation, in Pinyin, it’s written as “Zhumulangma”. The west called it “Mount Everest” and it stays till today.

I know this article sounds a bit angry. I didn’t like the tone, either, and have changed it several times. But I decided I had to stand to my point even though this could make me seem like a victim. Because what I said is true.

Learn more about Chinese.

Let me know what you think. Do you speak a language that has many dialects? Do you believe Bavarian German should be a language of its own? Write something in the comment section!


Written by
Chi Zhang

A sinologist, anglicist, linguist, and a tech lover who lives in Berlin. Was once a manager, producer, school opener, language teacher, SEO agency owner, and marketing director.
She could be angry sometimes, especially about racism, but overall, she's a friendly person who's famous for her loud laughter.
Here's the place for her to express a new voice in the language world, a world dominated by the west.

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Who wrote this?

Chi Zhang

A sinologist, anglicist, linguist, and a tech lover who lives in Berlin. Was once a manager, producer, school opener, language teacher, SEO agency owner, and marketing director.
She could be angry sometimes, especially about racism, but overall, she's a friendly person who's famous for her loud laughter.
Here's the place for her to express a new voice in the language world, a world dominated by the west.