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Chinese written language

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Chinese written language employs the Han characters, or Hanzi (漢字 pinyin Hnz, Han4 zi4, which are named after the Han culture to whom it is largely attributed.) In Japan and Korea, Han characters were adopted and integrated into their languages and became Kanji and Hanja, respectively. Japan still uses Kanji as an integral part of its writing system; however, Korea's use of Hanja has diminished (indeed, it is not used at all in North Korea.)

The Chinese writing system is mostly logographic, i.e., each character expresses a monosyllabic word part, also known as a morpheme. This is helped by the fact that 90%+ of Chinese morphemes are monosyllabic. Multisyllabic words have a separate logogram for each syllable. Some, but not all, Han characters are ideographs, but most Han Chinese characters have forms that were based on their pronounciation rather than their meanings, so they do not directly express ideas.

Chinese characters appear to have originated in the Shang dynasty as pictograms depicting concrete objects. Over the course of the Zhou and Han dynasties, the characters became more and more stylistic. In addition, characters were added for words based on the sound of the word.

The relationship between Chinese spoken language and Chinese written language is complex. The numerous variations spoken by the Chinese have gone through centuries of evolution since at least the late-Han dynasty. However, written Chinese has much diverged less than spoken language, due to Chinese's logographic script. Until the 20th century, most formal written Chinese was done in classical Chinese, which was very different from the any of the spoken varieties of Chinese in much the same way that Classical Latin was different from modern Romance languages. A different set of characters which were closer to the spoken language was used to write informal work such as colloquial novels. After the May Fourth Movement, the formal standard for written Chinese has been Vernacular Chinese, whose grammar and vocabulary of which are similar but not identical to those of modern spoken Mandarin.

Chinese characters are understood as morphemes which are independent of phonetic change. Thus, although one is "yi" in Mandarin", "yat" in Cantonese and "tsit" in Hokkien, they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and hence still share an identical character: 一. Nevertheless, the dialects are not absolutely identical in orthography; the vocabularies used in the different dialects have diverged. In addition, while literary vocabulary is often shared among all dialects (at least in orthography; the readings are different), colloquial vocabularies are often different.

The complex interaction between Chinese written and spoken language can be illustrated with Cantonese. There are two standards used in writing Cantonese, formal written Cantonese and colloquial written Cantonese. Formal written Cantonese is very similar to written Mandarin and can be read by a Mandarin speaker without much difficulty. However, formal written Cantonese is rather different from spoken Cantonese. Colloquial written Cantonese is more similar to spoken Cantonese but is largely unreadable by an untrained Mandarin speaker.

Cantonese is unique among non-Mandarin dialects in having a widely used written standard. The other dialects do not have alternate written standards, but many have local characters or use characters which are archaic in bai hua.

As with other aspects of Chinese language, the distinction between different written standards is not sharp and there can be a socially accepted continuum between the written standards.

Chinese characters have also been adapted to write Japanese and Korean neither of which are linguistically related to Chinese. In order to do so, complicated adaptations have had to have been made in order to take into account radically different grammars.

Table of contents

Classification of writing styles

One can classify Chinese writings in four basic types:

  • bai hua (白話) (Vernacular Chinese)
  • wen yan (文言) (Classical Chinese)
  • "written colloquial Chinese"-In particular, written colloquial Cantonese.
Cantonese is unique in that is it has a commonly used written character system which is different from "bai hua" or "wen yan". Colloquial Chinese usually involves the use of "dialectal characters".

Character forms

There are currently two standards for printed Chinese characters. One is the Traditional system, used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Peoples's Republic of China and Singapore use the Simplified system, which uses simplified forms for some of the more complicated characters. In addition most Chinese use some personal simplications.

The Chinese characters are also used to write the Chinese numerals.

Transcription and Romanization

The official standard transcription of Putonghua into the Latin alphabet is Pinyin, though other systems are still sometimes used, such as the older Wade-Giles and the pedagogic Yale[?] system. Other Chinese languages are transliterated with more or less adhoc systems, sometimes without a clear standard, sometimes with several. A Romanized phonetic system called "Penkyamp" modeled on Pinyin is designed for the Cantonese Language and will serve as the standard for transliteration from this language to any Latin-based writing system.

See also

External link


  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)
  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686

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