Mandarin, Standard Chinese & Hakka

The Chinese language is currently broadly classified into seven groups. Academics will argue into eternity over the classification and further subdivisions, so hopefully they're not reading this. They are listed here in order from greatest to fewest number of speakers:

  1. Mandarin (including Standard Chinese) c. 850 million
  2. Wu (including Shanghainese) c. 77 million
  3. Yue (including Cantonese) c. 62 million
  4. Min (including Hokkien) c. 60 million
  5. Xiang c. 36 million
  6. Hakka c. 30million
  7. Gan c. 22 million

Mandarin, with by far the greatest number of speakers, is a variety of Chinese that is spoken across vast swathes of Northern and South-Western China. Mandarin is subdivided according to region, for example, a person from Northeastern China speaks 'East North language' 東北話 : 东北话 Dōngběihuà, and a Beijinger speaks 北京話 : 北京话 Běijīnghuà.

Standard Chinese 普通話 : 普通话 Pǔtōnghuà is a standardized language based on the Mandarin variety of Chinese and used as the official language in China. My cousin's daughter, a Moiyan-Hakka-native, is taught both Standard Chinese and English in school. Confusion arises because in the English-speaking world, we often use the name 'Mandarin' as a synonym for 'Standard Chinese'. 

Our language, Hakka, is (generally) not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. This is because the languages of China have developed 'unevenly' from ancient times. Some Chinese languages, like Hakka, retain many features of Middle Chinese; features which have been lost in the newer, more 'evolved' languages like today's Mandarin. 

Do different Chinese languages use the same characters?

For the most part, yes. Chinese people from different areas of China will read and understand the same written Chinese characters, but pronounce them differently, depending on where the person is from. 

Chinese 'Symbols'.JPG
So the Mandarin-speaker, Hakka-speaker and Cantonese-speaker will all understand the above characters to mean 'sun, star, heart', but will pronounce them as:
  • Mandarin: "rì, xīng, xīn"
  • Hakka: "ngid(5), sên(1), xim(1)"
  • Cantonese: "yad(6) xing(1), sam(1)"

There are, however, some instances where the words used vary between different varieties of Chinese. For example:

  • wǒ ngo(1) is the character normally used to refer to oneself in Mandarin, whereas in Hakka, you would more often hear 𠊎 ái : ngai(2). Note that this last character does not render properly on some computers. It seems to be such an old, rarely-used character that the programming has not been updated for it!
  • Where the Mandarin-speaker would use the characters 洗澡 xǐzǎo : sê(3) cau(4) to denote washing oneself, the Hakka-speaker will more likely say 洗身 xǐ shēnsê(3) sen(1).
  • The Mandarin-speaker talks about 'today', 今天 jīntiān : gim(1) tiên(1), where in Hakka we would say 今晡日 jīn bū rì : gim(1) bu(1) ngid(5).

There are many more examples, but these may well start dying out as the younger generation becomes gradually more influenced by Mandarin.