Where is Mandarin Spoken?

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When it comes to the Chinese language, there are many people that make the mistake of assuming this is just a single language. It is quite the opposite because there are quite a few languages, which even though similar, have some key differentiating features. And even though many consider them difficult, you could potentially learn them by using an online tool like Live Lingua.

One of those languages (or better yet, a group of languages), is Mandarin Chinese. The group consists of a few related Sinitic languages, and broadly spoken, it is used across southwestern and northern China. The group itself is also known as the Northern dialects, mostly because Mandarin has its origins in North china and because most of the dialects are found in the north.

Copyright: Unsplash | CC0 Public Domain

Now, once you figure this out, there’s an obvious question to be asked – where is Mandarin spoken? We’ll get to this in a moment, but we’ll kick things off with a bit of history on the language before we get to its geographical distribution. 

A Bit of History

The name of the language, the English word “mandarin”, initially meant an official of the Qing and Ming empires. However, these officials communicated using a koine language, mostly because they had native varieties that were unintelligible, mutually. That language was based on various northern varieties. When this language was learned by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, they gave it the name “Mandarin”, after the Chinese name “Guānhuà”, which stands for “language of the officials”.

The language that was referred to as Old Mandarin was developed after the fall of the Northern Song, and during the reign of the Yuan and Jin dynasties. This was developed based on the North China Plain dialects, around the capital. There were also new genres of vernacular literature, which were mostly based on this language.

And until the mid-20th century, most of the Chinese people who lived in South China only spoke their local variety. It was only then that the aforementioned officials started carrying out administration duties in the koine language, which later on resulted in the Mandarin language.

The Geographic Distribution

When you’re talking about Mandarin in general, most Han Chinese that live in the northern and southwestern areas of China natively speak a dialect of Mandarin. To contrast this, southern China’s mountains and rivers are the results of the other six major groups of language, and there’s great internal diversity.

But even despite this, Mandarin is the official language of China (and Taiwan). It is spoken by around 70 percent of all Chinese speakers, and with an estimated 1,299 million speakers, it’s the world’s most common language. About 15% of the entire population of the world are native speakers of Mandarin. Just as a comparison, Spanish is second, with around 442 million speakers – about a third of Mandarin.

Copyright: Unsplash | CC0 Public Domain

Let’s discuss geography. All the varieties of Mandarin in total cover an area that has around a billion people. But Mandarin comes with many variations in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, which leads to some varieties not being mutually intelligible.

When it comes to northeastern China, most of it, with the exception of Liaoning, speaks Northeastern Mandarin which is a dialect that doesn’t differ too much from the Beijing dialect. The area’s Manchu people only speak these dialects exclusively, even though they do have their native language.

Northwest China has frontier areas which were all colonized by people who spoke Mandarin dialects at the same time. This resulted in those dialects resembling the ones in the core Mandarin area quite a bit. Even though the Southwest was settled rather early, the population fell quite a bit, not recovering until the 17th century, which leads to mostly uniform dialects in the area. But to contrast this, there are long-established cities that are pretty close to Beijing, such as Baoding and Tianjin, that have significantly different dialects.

Aside from Northeastern Mandarin with around 98 million speakers, and Beijing Mandarin with around 27 million speakers, there are a few other dialects groups that along with these two, create the Mandarin “supergroup” of dialects:

  • Jiaoliao Mandarin
  • Jilu Mandarin
  • Southwestern Mandarin
  • Central Plains Mandarin
  • Lower Yangtze Mandarin
  • Lanyin Mandarin

All of these dialects are spoken in various areas of China. They differentiate by how they treat the Middle Chinese entering tone, and most of them have four tones. There’s no denying that most of these varieties don’t use the final stops of Middle Chinese, while others have merged them as a final glottal stop.

As the world’s most commonly spoken language, there are a lot of reasons why you’d want to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese. And even though it might seem difficult at first, dedication is definitely key here!  

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