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Chinese is a language (or language family) that forms part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. According to Guinness World Records 2006, Chinese, with 915 million speakers in the Mandarin dialect alone, is the most commonly spoken language in the world, outnumbering English speakers by 561 million. China is the most populous nation in the world, and about one-fifth of the people in the world speak some form of Chinese as their native language. In general, all varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic. However, Chinese is also distinguished for a high level of internal diversity. Regional variation between different variants/dialects is comparable in many respects to the Romance language family; many variants of spoken Chinese are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible. There are between six and twelve main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most populous by far is Mandarin (c. 800 million), followed by Wu (c. 90 million), and Cantonese (Yue; c. 70 million). The identification of the varieties of Chinese as "languages" or "dialects" is a controversial issue. If Chinese is classified as a single language rather than a group of languages, it has the largest number of speakers in the world; if not then speakers of English as a first and second language number more, though Mandarin still holds the title for most native speakers.
The standardized form of spoken Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, a member of the Mandarin group; it is described in the article "Standard Mandarin". Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore (together with English, Malay, and Tamil). Chinese–de facto, Standard Mandarin–is one of the six official languages of the United Nations (alongside English, Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish). Spoken in the form of Standard Cantonese, Chinese is one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and of Macau (together with Portuguese).
Vernacular Chinese, which is most closely based on the Mandarin group, is the standardized written language used by speakers of all Chinese spoken variants. Some other variants, including Cantonese and Minnan, have also developed written forms that correspond more closely to the spoken form of those variants, though these are used predominantly in informal contexts.
GrammarIn general, all spoken varieties of Chinese are isolating languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology (changes in the form of the word through inflection). Because they are isolating languages, they make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood.
Chinese features Subject Verb Object word order, and like many other languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic-comment construction to form sentences. Even though Chinese has no grammatical gender, it has an extensive system of measure words, another trait shared with neighbouring (but not related) languages like Japanese and Korean. See Chinese measure words for an extensive coverage of this subject.
Other notable grammatical features common to all the spoken varieties of Chinese include the use of serial verb construction, pronoun dropping (and the related subject dropping), and the use of aspect rather than tense.
Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess various differences. See Chinese grammar for the grammar of Standard Mandarin (the standardized Chinese spoken language), and the articles on other varieties of Chinese for their respective grammars.
HistoryMost linguists classify all of the variations of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, analogous to Proto-Indo-European, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relations between Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages are an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is very good documentation that allows us to reconstruct the ancient sounds of Chinese, there is no written documentation of the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and Chinese. In addition, many of the languages that would allow us to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly documented or understood.
Chinese language history