Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, with more than 1 billion speaking the language. It originates from the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Chinese language has influenced many languages.
Chinese is a group of languages known as a language family. People who speak different languages within this group generally cannot understand what the other is saying due to differing pronunciations and vocabulary. In some languages, however, there may be a number of mutually used terms. Chinese is considered a macrolanguage, meaning it contains several dialects that are dissimilar.
There are seven traditionally recognized language groups in Chinese: Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Min, Ziang, Hakka and Gan. Several dialects may be spoken within each group.
Old (or Archaic) Chinese was spoken from approximately the 11th century BC (during the Shang Dynasty) to the 9th century AD (the Former Han Dynasty). Inscriptions on bronze artifacts and poetry from 1200 BC survive today. Old Chinese was mostly written on bamboo, wood strips and silk.
Old Chinese was monosyllabic, but had some inflection with changes in pitch or tone of voice. There were six tones in Old Chinese. It is believed Old Chinese had 3,000 to 4,000 words and consonant clusters. Most of the words were proper nouns.
Old Chinese became known as Classical Chinese as Confucius and other authors of classical works wrote in the language of the time. Thus, Old Chinese has endured through the centuries as Classical Chinese.
Middle (or Ancient) Chinese is considered the period between the 6th century and 10th century AD. This was the language of the Southern, Northern, Sui, Tang and Song dynasties. Middle Chinese divided into Early Middle Chinese and Later Middle Chinese in the middle of the Tang Dynasty.
Chinese is written using logographic characters, which makes it difficult to reconstruct the speech sounds and rules of pronunciation during this period. It is known through written materials, such as rhyming tables and dictionaries, that Middle Chinese simplified Old Chinese by removing some of the consonant sounds.
Chinese was the Lingua franca in East Asia until the 19th century and, until the 18th century, over fifty percent of the world's books were printed in the Chinese language.
Modern Chinese is from the 11th century AD to present. Nanjing Mandarin spread through northern China with greater ease than the south because of its northern plains during the Ming Dynasty. In the South, many people continued to speak their local dialect.
The Qing Empire finally had success in establishing Beijing Mandarin as the official imperial court language rather than Nanjing Mandarin in the late 1800's. This did not affect the population who continued to speak their dialects.
A mandatory educational system teaching Standard Mandarin (based on Beijing Mandarin) was implemented in the 1950's. Now it is spoken by approximately 830 million people, which accounts for the majority of Chinese speakers.
Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People's Republic of China, Republic of China and one of the official languages of the United Nations.