Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. Since estimates of the current population of China are only approximate, figures for the number of speakers of Chinese must likewise be approximate. An educated guess would be about 1.1 billion in the People's Republic of China, to which must be added another 20 million on Taiwan, 5 million in Hong Kong, 4 million in Malaysia, l¾ million in Singapore, one million in Vietnam, and lesser numbers in other countries including the United States. Thus Chinese has more than twice the number of speakers of English, though of course it lacks the universality of English and is spoken by few people not of Chinese origin. Chinese has been an official language of the United Nations since the founding of the organization in 1945.
Though Chinese has many dialects, Mandarin, based on the pronunciation of Peking, is considered the standard and is spoken by about two-thirds of the population. The other major dialects are (I) Wu, spoken by about 50 million people in the Shanghai area and in Chekiang Province to the south; (2) Cantonese, spoken by about 45 million people in the extreme southern provinces of Kwangtung and Kwangsi; (3) Fukienese, or Min, spoken by about 45 million people, and generally subdivided into Northern Fukienese, or Foochow (15 million speakers), of northern Fukien, and Southern Fukienese, or Amoy (30 million speakers), of southern Fukien, Amoy Island, and Taiwan; (4) Hakka, with 20 million speakers in northeastern Kwang-tung and southern Kiangsi provinces; (5) Ilsiang, with 15 million speakers in Hunan Province. In addition the Fukienese dialects are widely spoken in Malaysia and Singapore, while Cantonese is also spoken in Hong Kong and on the Southeast Asia mainland. Nearly all Chinese in the United States speak Cantonese.
Chinese, like the other languages of the Sino-Tibetan family, is a tonal language, meaning that different tones, or intonations, dis-tinguish words that otherwise are pronounced identically. The four Chinese tones are (I) high level; (2) high rising; (3) low rising; (4) high falling to low. It is not unusual for a syllable to be pronounced in each of the four tones, each yielding a word with a completely different meaning. For example, the word ma in tone one means "mother," while ma2 means "hemp," ma3 means ''horse," and ma4 means "to curse." In fact each tone usually offers a large number of homonyms. Yi in tone one can mean, among other things, "one," "clothes," "doctor," and "to cure"; yi2 "aunt," "doubt, ""suitable," and "to shift"; yi3 "already," "because of," and "by"; yi4 "easy," "strange," "benefit," and the number "100 million."
Chinese is written with thousands of distinctive characters called ideographs which have no relation to the sound of a word. In a large dictionary there are 40-50,000 characters, while the telegraphic code book contains nearly 10,000. A Chinese child learns about 2,000 characters by the time he is ten, but it takes two or three times as many to be able to read a newspaper or novel. One kind of Chinese type-writer has 5,400 characters. The number of strokes required to draw a Chinese character can be as high as 33.
The earliest Chinese characters were pictographs, such as a crescent for the moon, or a circle with a dot in the center to represent the sun. Gradually these gave way to nonpictorial ideographs which, in addition to standing for tangible objects, also represented abstract concepts. Today two characterssometimes the same, sometimes differentoften stand side by side to form a third. Thus two "tree" characters mean "forest," while "sun" + "moon" = "bright" and "woman" + "child" = "good." Sometimes the two characters are superimposed upon each other, their relative position giving a clue as to the meaning of the newly formed character. Thus when the character for "sun" is placed above the character for "tree" the new character means "high" or "bright," but when it is placed below, the new character means "hidden" or "dark." No matter how many single characters are combined into one, the resulting character always has the same square appearance and is the same size as any other character.
The majority of Chinese characters, however, consist of two elements a signific, which indicates the meaning of a word, and a phonetic, which indicates the sound. The significs, or radicals, number 214 in Chinese, and indicate the class of objects to which the word belongs. For example, all words relating to wood, such as "tree" and "table," contain the "wood" radical. The phonetic consists of the character for a word whose meaning is totally unrelated to the word in question, but whose pronunciation happens to be the same. Thus the character for "ocean" consists of the signific "water" plus the phonetic "sheep," the word for "sheep" being pronounced the same as the word for "ocean." In some cases the phonetic stands alone, as in the case of the character for "dustpan" which also stands for the Chinese possessive pronoun, since the word for the pronoun is the same as the word for "dustpan."
Despite their staggering complexity, the Chinese characters do have ihe advantage of making written communication possible between people speaking mutually unintelligible dialects and languages. A given word may be quite different in Mandarin and Cantonese, but it would be written identically in the two dialects. Since the Chinese characters are also used in Japanese, each language, when written, is partially intelligible to a speaker of the other, despite the fact that the two spoken languages are totally dissimilar.
Numerous attempts have been made over tbe years to simplify the Chinese system of writing. In 1955 the Chinese People's Republic initiated a plan to simplify more than 1,700 characters, this number to be increased gradually so that over half of the most commonly used symbols would eventually be simplified. But the ultimate hope for easy readability of Chinese would appear to be an alphabetic script. In 1958 a new Chinese alphabet based on the Roman script was introduced, but thus far it appears to have made little headway.
English words of Chinese origin include tea, typhoon, sampan, kaolin, kumquat, kowtow, and shanghai.