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The many dialects of Chinese

There have always been many regional speeches in China. A Han Dynasty scholar, 扬雄 (53 BCE - 18 CE), first wrote a book about them. This book is 《方言》. And the term “方言” has been used to refer to the many varieties of Chinese ever since, and it is this word being translated into “dialect”, which is different from “accents”.


Love Actually, the 2003 romantic comedy, is the favourite Christmas movie in my family. The bar scene, as shown in the photo above, is particularly hilarious. We laugh every time when Colin who is from England woos three American beauties with his English accent and gets invited to stay at their home. 

Accents, a term we are quite familiar with, is when people from one region pronounce words differently from people living in another. 

As presented in Love Actually, accents are different between countries. Differences also exist within a country. For example, people from New York speak English differently from people in Georgia. 

Lucky for us, a bit of an accent won’t stop us from understanding or falling in love with each other. But it’s a different story when it comes to dialects. More on that later. 

In Mandarin, one of the many ways to demonstrate the differences between accents is tones, which change slightly from region to region. Another obvious one is whether or not a person can voice “shi” and “si” clearly. Usually people from the south can not.

The result is that every Chinese has an accent. It is impossible to speak Mandarin without an accent. Hardly anybody sound like CCTV newscasters, and some Chinese teachers, who have the perfect pronunciation. 

It is important to note because too many students spend too much time worrying about the four tones. They fear that they will never get all the tones right. 

I hope the fact that everyone has an accent can alleviate that fear. Given enough practice and the right methods, their pronunciation shouldn’t be any concerns. 

Besides, it is nice to have your own accents. If that is Colin’s secret to charm others, it can be yours too.

The many dialects of Chinese

Dialects are very different from accents.

While accent refers only to pronunciation, dialect refers to pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. For example, Beijinghua is not Putonghua. They are two dialects, but there is a version of Mandarin which has a Beijing accent.

The Chinese writing system does not represent accents well, as Chinese characters do not tell us how people speak in real life. The same word, such as 西红柿, can be expressed with different regional accents. 

But, Chinese characters are really good at recording different dialects. This article, Cantonese and Mandarin: the similarities and differences, gives some examples to show the differences in writing between Mandarin and Cantonese.

There are a lot of Chinese dialects, hundreds of them. Linguists generally accept that there are seven major modern Chinese dialect groups: Mandarin, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Kejia, Min and Yue. The primary divide is between Mandarin and all of the rest dialect groups, which are all southern dialects.

Comparing with other dialects, Mandarin is in the closest relation to the written form. Almost all spoken Mandarin can be written down. 

Most northern dialects belong to the Mandarin group because they are all quite similar to Mandarin. People from Heilongjiang, JiangXi, Henan, Anhui can understand each other with only minor difficulties. 

Southern Chinese dialects are very different from Mandarin, and are also very different from one another. Sometimes even neighbouring towns have their own dialects. Generally speaking, southern dialects retained more archaic words and pronunciations than northern dialects. 

I grew up in Hebei. That makes me a native Mandarin speaker. Later I moved to Fujian and Hong Kong. Both times, I had a hard time to understand the local dialects.

After years of learning, my Cantonese has reached to a conversational level, but my Hokkian, the oldest Chinese dialect, is only limited to a few words. Learn more about Hokkian and how it has branched out into more varieties overseas here: The oldest Chinese dialect, Hokkien.

Mandarin and Chinese

Now we can answer a question which is often asked by students: Are Mandarin and Chinese the same thing?

After reading this article, we know the answer is “No”.

Chinese is a language.

Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese, to be exact, one of the dialect groups of Chinese. The official language in China is called Standard Mandarin Chinese. 

That being said, I admit that many people, including myself, often use both words interchangeably. I also notice that many Hong Kong people use words for “Cantonese” and “Chinese” interchangeably. It looks like we are affected by our perspectives and upbringing. 

It is marvellous that China has so many dialects, which show us the depth of Chinese history and the variety of Chinese culture. Chinese people have always accepted these varieties of regional speeches, and there is even a word for it, 南腔北调. For people who enjoy a diversified diet of interactions and who like to explore different cultural identities, they will have the time of their lives in learning Chinese, in its most extensive sense.

April Zhang

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