In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Variation in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Mandarin (Guanhua)
  • Pidgins and Contact Varieties
  • Linguistic Changes in the 20th Century

Chinese Studies Language Variation in China
Henning Klöter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0047


“Chinese” is a vague term. When referring to a language variety, it may refer to the modern standard language, a regional variety, a premodern stage of the language, or the jargon of teenagers in a suburb of Shanghai. From a linguistic perspective, these are all distinct entities that require different analytical approaches. Strictly speaking, a variationist approach to language is interested in the social meanings of linguistic difference. This bibliography, however, pursues a much broader approach by identifying fields in the nexus of Chinese studies and linguistics that are generally concerned with or contribute to an understanding of language diversity in historical or contemporary perspectives. From a historical or diachronic perspective, it distinguishes the development of the spoken language from the linguistic conventions of the written texts of the Chinese classics and other premodern sources. These two fields are not completely separable, since reconstructions of premodern language stages like Old or Middle Chinese rely on written sources. An indispensable source for the reconstruction of Old Chinese, for example, is the Book of Songs (Shijing). Although based on written sources, research in this area aims at drawing conclusions about the features of a spoken Chinese language at a certain time in history. Another stream of research takes a synchronic perspective by establishing conceptual boundaries across China’s regional language diversity. Regional languages are often referred to as “dialects,” or fangyan 方言 in Chinese. The equation of dialect and fangyan (lit. “regional speech”) is controversial, since the English term implies mutual intelligibility whereas Chinese fangyan like Cantonese and Shanghainese are to a great extent mutually unintelligible. The synchronic study of language variation in China is therefore not merely stocktaking of what is spoken where, but also a study of the principles, ideas, and methods of categorization. Diachronic and synchronic approaches are often perceived as separate fields of inquiry. It must be emphasized, however, that both perspectives are inseparable when it comes to an understanding of the concepts that have been applied in language classification schemes. How Chinese varieties have changed historically and how historical changes are manifest today is not only a language-internal issue but must been seen in connection with various nonlinguistic factors such as migration, trade, urbanization, social stratification, etc. Nonlinguistic factors not only shape language itself; they also play an important role when it comes to the evaluative perception of language variation, for example in terms of elegant versus crude usage. Demographic, cultural, historical, and social factors are therefore crucial when it comes to an understanding of language variation in its sociolinguistic dimensions.

General Overviews

There is no general introduction to China’s languages written from a variationist perspective. Important aspects relevant to the topic are treated in introductions or edited volumes devoted to Chinese languages in general. Two modern classics, Norman 1988 and Ramsey 1987, offer a wealth of information on China’s linguistic diversity, both in its historical depth and present-day breadth. Although partly outdated, they are excellent textbooks for general and specialized undergraduate and graduate courses in Chinese linguistics. Kane 2006 is a more recent publication that also touches on various aspects related to language variation. Chappell 2001 is a collection of thirteen state-of-the-field articles on diachronic and synchronic variety written by leading Chinese and Western experts in the field. Although much less coherent as a whole, Wang 1991 and Huang and Li 1996 offer some important contributions relating to synchronic and diachronic variation. The first chapter of DeFrancis 1984 compares Chinese and English terminology pertaining to diachronic variation. It offers straightforward arguments against the still common practice to translate the Chinese term fangyan as “dialect.” Pursuing a sociolinguistic approach, Part 1 of Chen 1999 provides concise and clear explanations of phenomena related to linguistic variation in China, such as varying norms of the standard language, socio-functional differentiation of standard languages and dialects, and dialect contact.

  • Chappell, Hilary. Sinitic Grammar: Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Diachronic studies treating historical phonology and morphosyntax; contains articles about Xiang, Yue, and Southern Min dialects. A paperback edition appeared under the title Chinese Grammar in 2004.

  • Chen, Ping. Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164375

    The first part approaches the historical development of Chinese and language diversity from a sociolinguistic angle. Language change is placed in the context of cultural changes and political decision making. Clearly written and therefore eminently fit for use in undergraduate and graduate courses.

  • DeFrancis, John. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1984.

    The first chapter (“Rethinking ‘The Chinese Language’”) is a concise and very accessible introduction to China’s linguistic diversity and a critical evaluation of pertinent Chinese and English terminology.

  • Huang, C.-T. James, and Y.-H. Audrey Li, eds. New Horizons in Chinese Linguistics. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-1608-1

    Contains chapters on tonal geometry, tonal evolution, Chinese historical syntax, dialect history, linguistic diversity and language relationships, and dialect mutual intelligibility.

  • Kane, Daniel. The Chinese Language: Its History and Current Usage. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2006.

    A generally readable introduction with chapters on historical language stages, dialects, Chinese in its social contexts, and loanwords.

  • Norman, Jerry. Chinese. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    As a general introduction, this title is still unrivaled with regard to his broad treatment of various branches of Chinese linguistics. One-half of the book is devoted to historical phonology, Classical Chinese, and Chinese dialects.

  • Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    Ramsey’s clear, accessible style makes this introduction very suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses on language variation in China. The second part of a book is a useful overview of China’s minority languages.

  • Wang, William S.-Y., ed. Languages and Dialects of China. Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series 3. Berkeley: Project on Linguistic Analysis, University of California, 1991.

    Has various contributions on Chinese dialects. Mandarin, Wu, Yue. and Min are singled out as major linguistic groups; rather diverse in terms of methodological approaches.

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