In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociolinguistic Aspects of the Chinese Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overview

Chinese Studies Sociolinguistic Aspects of the Chinese Language
Benjamin Tsou
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0159


Like many dynamic systems, language undergoes change over time. For Chinese, the changes have come about in different ways, which could qualitatively affect the system underlying the language, and appropriate new classes or entities have to be recognized and given new labels or names. They could involve neologism, or there could be, for example, the emergence of tones in the archaic Chinese language (or more recently in the non-Sinitic Huihui language of Hainan Island), or development toward disyllabicity, or attrition of tones in the Dungan language, which is found in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and which has its origin in Shaanxi Province, China. The changes could give rise to new subsystems or even new alternate parallel systems (e.g., sub-dialects, pidgins and creoles, new languages, and new scripts). The impetus for such changes can be due to internal dynamics, or may have external origin as a result of contact. Very often the mutual influence of these linguistic traits can also constitute a major cause for change. These linguistic sub-varieties may not have equal status within a given social environment (e.g., social registers: local languages versus national language). One or more varieties may have greater significance within the usually stratified system (e.g., official language, high language, standard language). These developments may run their course naturally or may be managed (i.e., through language planning and policy) for a variety of reasons, and with different kinds of results (e.g., language reform, language maintenance, language endangerment, language revival). China’s territorial outreach has been at times wider than it is in the early 21st century. Many peoples speaking different languages from diverse cultures have come into intimate contact with the Chinese. The Chinese writing system was the dominant one in East Asia, where it had served as the model for the development of writing systems of other languages. Moreover, Chinese speakers have established speech communities outside China, long before the commonly known recent diaspora. Closer to home, there have been colossal concomitant political and social changes going back more than a hundred years and even more so since the 1950s. All these are an integral backdrop for studying various sociolinguistic aspects of the Chinese language, and would necessarily, if not preferably, encompass other disciplines, ranging from sociology and anthropology to cognition, and from geography to history.

General Overview

The Chinese language has the most speakers in the world. Even some of its dialects (Mandarin 官話, Wu 吳語 [e.g., Shanghainese], Cantonese 粵語) are among the top twenty-five languages spoken in the world. Kurpaska 2010 provides a bird’s eye view and also questions why some major dialects are not classified as languages (see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Chinese Studies “The Chinese Diaspora”). While most of the speakers are concentrated in mainland Asia, they are also found in far-flung speech communities in many parts of the world (see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Chinese Studies “Language Variation in China”). Luo 1989 provides a concise and insightful view of language, culture, and society in China. Chao 1976 is a collection of papers on language and society in China that offers penetrating insights on many relevant issues. There have been extensive interactions between the Chinese language and others both within China and outside. Written by a leading scholar on non-Han languages in China, Ma 1992 offers useful references on various studies, mostly from an anthropological perspective, while Dai 1994 offers useful background information on minority languages in China, mostly from a sociolinguistic perspective. Tsou and You 2001 presents wide-ranging issues relevant to Chinese language and society. Cao and Zhao 2008 provides a collection of isoglossic maps on the distribution of a large sample of Chinese linguistic features. Globally, Chinese also has the longest continuous written tradition, spanning more than 3,000 years of written records (see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Chinese Studies “The Chinese Script”). It uses a unique morpho-syllabic writing system where a simple graphic symbol generally represents a single syllable and a morpheme or meaningful word. All these features contribute to many interesting macro and micro issues relating to the society and culture of its speakers and can shed light on the Chinese civilization, as an example of human civilization in general. There can be several major sociolinguistic aspects: (1) Chinese language in contact; (2) Chinese language in context; (3) causality of linguistic divergence and convergence in China; and (4) language management of the Chinese language on the Chinese mainland, Asia as a whole, and elsewhere. While each of these topics could constitute a special focus of study, an adequate understanding of the Chinese language requires reasonable coverage of these topics through an interdisciplinary perspective. Li and Li 2013–2015 provides an overview of research carried out mostly by Chinese scholars from mainland China.

  • Cao Zhiyun 曹志耘 and Zhao Rixin 赵日新, eds. Hanyu fangyan ditu ji (汉语方言地图集). Beijing: Shangwu yinshu guan, 2008.

    English title: Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects. A companion to the Language Atlas of China, this collection of 510 isoglossic maps, including 205 featuring phonetic features, 203 featuring lexicon, and 102 featuring grammar, is a notable advancement when compared to the extensive tables provided by earlier works.

  • Chao, Yuen Ren. Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics: Essays by Yuen Ren Chao. Language Science and National Development. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976.

    A collection of articles on a wide range of topics related to Chinese language and society from an author whose scholarship in this area is underappreciated.

  • Dai Qingxia 戴庆厦. Yuyan he minzu (语言和民族). Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue chubanshe, 1994.

    English title: Language and Ethnicity. A collection of articles of a prominent scholar on the relation between language and ethnicity. Discusses methodology on analyzing ethnic characteristics from linguistic perspectives (e.g., kinship terms, lexical borrowing). Based on fieldwork data, it covers investigation on issues such as bilingualism and orthographies of minority languages.

  • Kurpaska, Maria. Chinese Language(s): A Look through the Prism of The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter Mouton, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110219159

    On the basis of the analysis of The Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects and the Language Atlas of China, it attempts to describe the complex linguistic situation in China and questions the justification of the definition of so-called “dialects.” Provides analysis of language policy of dialects compared to the promotion of Putonghua.

  • Li Yuming and Li Wei, eds. Language Policies and Practices in China [LPPC]: The Language Situation in China. Vols. 1–3. Hawthorne, NY: De Gruyter Mouton USA, 2013–2015.

    This series is the first English version of the official annual report of language situations in China. The Chinese version was first published in 2006. Comprising two volumes per year, Volume 1 attempts a comprehensive coverage of language life in China, and Volume 2 contains large-scale quantitative data of the Chinese characters, words, symbols, and pronunciation in use in newspaper, radio, television, and Internet (news) mostly in mainland China.

  • Luo Changpei 羅常培. Yuyan yu wenhua (語言與文化). Beijing: Yuwen chubanshe, 1989.

    English title: Language and Culture. Originally published in 1950. An introductory and insightful analysis with ample examples of the relationship between language on the one hand and geology, anthroponymy, and anthropology on the other through investigation of etymology and of developments in toponymic evolution from a broad perspective.

  • Ma Xueliang 馬學良. Ma xueliang minzu yanjiu wenji (馬學良民族硏究文集). Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 1992.

    English title: Collection of Works of Ma Xueliang on Ethnicity. A collection of selected works on Chinese minority languages with special focus on the Yi language in remote Yunnan Province (including phonology, syntax, nomenclature, and classical literature of the Yi language). Includes a bibliography of studies by prominent and pioneering scholars on the various languages.

  • Tsou, Benjamin K. (Zou Jiayan) 鄒嘉彥, and You Rujie 游汝杰. Hanyu yu huaren shehui (漢語與華人社會). Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2001.

    English title: Chinese Language and Society. Approaches the Chinese language from diverse linguistic perspectives, including geographical, historical, and sociological considerations, and offers some theoretical frameworks to approach the data-rich situations.

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