By Pat Welsh, contributor

This language corner is a new series designed for people who are interested in learning Mandarin.  In China it is called “Putonghua” (The “common language”) of China.  Before the 1950s, the terms “Kuoyü” and “Guanhua” were used to identify this national language.  

Since the early 19th century Chinese has been classified as one of the many Sino-Tibetan languages.  My own experience tells me that that this is really a catch-all grouping.  Tibetan, Burmese and related minority languages are nothing at all like any Chinese dialect.  Not only are there vast vocabulary differences, there are also significant differences in sentence structure and grammar. 

Before I delve further into the language itself, perhaps a little introduction to China’s overall language situation is in order.  In 1970 I began to earn a Master’s degree in Oriental Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.  My first class was Readings in Chinese Political Writings.  I arrived early to the classroom and greeted my professor Chichou Huang, who was unknown to me.  I greeted him with the word “Zao” thinking that it meant “Good Morning.”  He winced and invited me to take a seat.  I was a little perplexed.  What I did not realize was that in Beijing Mandarin, my version of the word “zao” sounded much like the Beijing version of the F-word.  The tones between the Beijing and Chngqing subdialects were very different.


When class started, he asked me to read aloud the first few lines of the days’ reading selection.  After reading it, Huang asked me where I learned my Mandarin.  I mentioned the people who taught me and Huang then asked me if they came from Sichuan Province.  I replied that they did and Huang then cut me off and said I will have to learn the Beijing tones and pronunciation.  He was mercilessly correcting me that year and I became very grateful to him later when I began to use Beijing Mandarin in China.

Today’s dialects differ from one another in three ways.  One difference lies in pronunciation.  Thus the same word meaning “to have” or “there is” is “yŏu” (rhymes with ‘row’) in Beijing, “oo” in Xiamen and “yáuh” (“yáuh” almost rhymes with English ‘how?’) in Hong Kong or Guangzhou.  Secondly, the dialects often differ in the choice of many common words.  Thus, the word for “What?” is “shénme” in Beijing, “saa-tz” in Shanghai and “Mut-yeh” in Guangzhou.  Thirdly, the dialects differ among themselves in a few grammatical constructions.  The expression for “I am taller than he.” is “Wŏ bĭ tā gāo.” (I – compare – he- tall.) in Beijing but in Guangzhou the order changes to “Ngóh gòu-gwo kéuih.” (I - tall-exceed he.)  This last difference is perhaps the least important as there is a relative uniformity in grammar among the dialects.

To make this point clearer, take for example the simple question “What is this?”  Here I have chosen the most popular examples.  Note that I have heard variations from what I am offering here.  For non-Mandarin dialects, I am not indicating tones as space is too limited to explain them.  A final “q” at the end of a syllable indicates glottal stop and, by coincidence, the short and clipped “entering tone” not heard in Standard Mandarin. 

In Beijing one might hear: “Zhè shì shénme?”  (Djùh shìr shúhm-muh?)  (Mandarin dialect)

In Shanghai one might hear:  Dih-guh z saah-dz?   (Wu dialect)

In Fuzhou one might hear: “Zi-zieq sei  shieh-noq?  (Northern Min dialect)

In Xiamen or Taipei one would hear:  Djit-ey shee sheem-mee?  (Southern Min dialect)

In Changsha one would hear: “Gkou-gkou sz  mo-tsz?   (Xiang dialect)

In Nanchang one would hear: “Gkaw-gkaw sz sheet-lee?   (Gan dialect)

In Meixian one would hear: “Gkeh-gkeh heh maak-gkeh?  (Hakka dialect)

In Guangzhou one would hear:  “Nee-gaw haai mut-yeh?  (Cantonese dialect)

Complicating this is the simple fact that one does not have to go very far from these towns to hear subdialects, many of which are different enough to require interpreters.  This is especially true in the southeastern provinces of China.  For example, in Guangdong province north of Hong Kong I realized that the Cantonese of Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong and Macau follows pretty close to textbook Cantonese; but on a trip from Canton to Hong Kong in 1980, not only did I hear significant variations of Cantonese, but I also encountered a weird Southern Min dialect in the Lungdu region and a few Hakka farming villages north of Hong Kong.  In 1967, I even encountered a Hakka farming village in the New Territories of Hong Kong near the Shenzhen River and a Southern Min dialect used by some of the boat people.

To enable people from the various provinces to speak with one another, a common language was needed.  Before 1950 the vast body of Chinese literature was in Wenli, sometimes referred to as Wenyuan,  These are terms for a literary language that has little resemblance to the way people have been speaking for many centuries in any part of China.  It is dialect-neutral because each dialect has its own pronunciation for each Chinese character.  Until the 1920s, all serious writing had to be written in this obscure literary language.  I will add here that several popular romance and adventure novels had been written in the vernacular during the previous four centuries but they were not considered as serious writings until the 1920s.

In 1917 the scholar Hu Shih began a literary revolution referred to as the Vernacular Literature Movement.  Initially the writings advocating this movement were in Wenli but later the writings of this movement were in a more colloquial Mandarin.  

After the 1911 Revolution, a society was established for unifying the pronunciation under the Ministry of Education.  This effort was later reorganized under the Ministry as the Committee on the Unification of the National Language.  Some dialects such as that of Nanjing Mandarin and Cantonese were also considered, but in 1919 a semi-formal version of a northeastern Mandarin subdialect was chosen to be the common language for all to learn.  In 1932 changes tightened the use of the Beijing dialect as the basis of the National Language. 

One word of caution is in order: If you have a Mandarin speaker, you may hear differences from what I am offering.  This is especially true if your speaker was not raised in Beijing.  Where differences arise, follow your speaker's recommendation.  Depending upon their education, some Mandarin speakers will pronounce words differently.  There is a “western Mandarin” that includes the dialect of Xian.  There is also a south and southwestern Mandarin and a southeastern Mandarin that includes the Mandarin spoken in such places as Hofei, Nanjing and Yangzhou.  Nowadays southeastern Mandarin has been called Jianghuai Mandarin.  There are significant differences among these southeastern dialects.  The national language that I offer is based on the northeast Mandarin of Beijing.

This National Language was promoted throughout the country and used in all school textbooks.  In 1958 China authorized the use of Latin (Roman) letters for teaching Mandarin in schools.  Its one weakness has been that tonal differences are usually not indicated except in some dictionaries.  This has been a problem since one does not have to go very far from Beijing to hear significant tonal changes in the pronunciation of the characters along with some consonant and vowel differences.

Today, most textbooks have adopted Roman letters to represent Chinese consonants and vowels.  The purpose of this system was to enable the non-Beijing area Chinese population to learn how to speak Putonghua Mandarin and communicate more easily with each other.  It was not designed for foreigners trying to speak Chinese.

I will be using this system while acknowledging that some of the letters will confuse foreigners trying to learn the language.  I will address this confusion in my next offering as I explain the sounds of the language.  

My planned curriculum from my third article will be one of offering mini-lessons centered upon meeting the needs of the learners in specific social situations.  One lesson will be on greetings, goodbyes, please, thank you and a few short phrases.  Another lesson will deal with asking and identifying oneself and others.  Other lessons will deal with asking and telling what something is,  describing things and people and with asking and telling where something is.  

From here you can get an idea of how I will go about these offerings.  I will try to avoid complicated grammatical explanations.  The best way to master the grammar is by seeing examples of the rules in pattern practice exercises.  

Since I cannot offer a disk for hearing these sounds, I will also offer the simplified Chinese characters involved so that you can use Google Translate to hear a Chinese voice.  This is not perfect but it is better than nothing.  (Simply use my spellings of the Chinese words - minus the tone signs over the vowels - and choose the Chinese character that I have offered in my offering when they appear.)


About Pat Welsh

In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs.  He uses Beijing Mandarin most frequently when meeting with senior Chinese government officials when conducting business in China.

For 17 years, Welsh taught Chinese, German and Spanish in two local high schools.  Now fully retired, he currently resides in Georgia where he used to lecture on China to a number of classes at Dunwoody High School.



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