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The Chinese Alphabet

The Chinese language is written using characters, called h?nzi, composed of twelve basic strokes. Each character represents one word and can include up to 64 strokes. Strokes are always drawn in the same direction.

Characters originally represented people, animals and objects. These characters were written on oracle bones, which were cattle scapulae and turtle shells. These oracle bones were used during the Shang dynasty by diviners to answer important questions regarding warfare, hunting and ceremonial activities. It is believed Chinese writing originated in approximately 1500 BC and has no predecessor.

The characters evolved into symbols that no longer resembled pictures. The vast majority gradually became composed of phonetic components that indicated meaning and pronunciation, with the emphasis on the pronunciation element. Generally, the core of a character is a singular vowel or group of two vowels.

Until the early 1900's, Classical Chinese, a system in effect for centuries, was used for writing. It was largely supplanted by a new version of written Chinese, "b?ihu?", which was devised in the 1920's. Classical Chinese is still used to a small degree.

Chinese is a tonal language. Tones can range from three to 10, dependent on the dialect spoken. Standard Mandarin Chinese has four tones: high, rising, dipping and falling. There is also a neutral tone, which is flat without emphasis. Tonal marks are placed above the vowels. Tone is crucial to correct interpretation of a character because the meaning of many words can only be distinguished by voice pitch.

Chinese characters are written in vertical columns that travel right to left with no spaces. Each character has an equal amount of space in which to be written. Longer characters may not take up more room than small characters.

Chinese has changed from a monosyllabic language to two and three syllables. Chinese is an analytic language. There are no tenses, voices, numbers and very few articles in Chinese. On a few articles exist. Gender has only recently been introduced. A Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure is used.

Chinese has a large number of words borrowed from other languages. Characters that have similar sound values are assigned to these words.

Two writing systems, the traditional and the simplified Chinese character, are in use today. Simplified Chinese character system was implemented to assist with literacy. Four major scripts used since Emperor Shi Huangdi abolished regional scripts between 221 and 210 BC are the Seal, Regular Brush, Running and Grass.

A person needs to know up to 3,000 characters to read a newspaper. Functional literacy is considered at 2,000 characters. An educated person understands between 6,000 and 7,000 characters. Classical Chinese, literature and technical material usually requires knowledge of 6,000 characters. The Cihai, an encyclopedic dictionary, lists 19,485 characters, which lead to 122,836 definitions. Approximately one-half of those characters are in archaic form and not commonly used. Dictionaries list characters in order of the number of strokes they contain.

Transliteration of Chinese characters was established by the Wade-Giles phonetic spelling system in 1892. A further phonetic Romanization in 1958, "Pinyin", is used worldwide currently to provide transliteration.