Guest Author - Inci Yilmazli
What do you think when you see Chinese characters on a painting, or a book, or some decorative objects? Are you attracted to the mysterious characters or do you feel confused? Either way, they get our attention. You may not understand what it means but that doesn't stop you from looking and observing them. It's a whole different world. That's how I thought and still think. The characters always attracted me with their mysteriously artistic ways. That was the reason for me to start learning Chinese.
Chinese is spoken by more than 1 billion people in and around China. 1 in every 5 people in the world speaks Chinese. It has many dialects, thatís why Chinese is suggested as a language family rather than a language. Having hundreds or thousands of different dialects tells us about the cultural diversity in China. There are 12 basic dialects and the most common ones are Mandarin, Cantonese (Guangdong), and Fujian (Hokkien). The most common one among these is Mandarin, however, Cantonese is spoken widely among the immigrant community. The reason for that is the immigrants are mostly from southern China.
Despite all these differences, the written language, Chinese characters (漢字-Hanzi) are almost the same. Chinese characters are not used for vocals, they are stemmed from a kind of pictograph. Thatís why they can be pronounced differently in different dialects but the meaning doesnít change. This can be explained by the example of traffic signs. For instance, the STOP sign is pronounced different in different countries but the meaning is always the same. Thatís how the communication is easy between the Chinese who speak hundreds of different dialects. Japanese and Koreans, who speak completely different languages than Chinese in terms of syntax, were able to read the documents such as Budist scripts in Chinese, after they learned the basic gramer rules. Thatís how the Chinese characters are the milestones of cultural exchange in the FarEast.
The use of simplified characters started in China after 1956. On the contrary, traditional characters are still being used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. The most common dialect is Mandarin or Beifanghua (北方話-Běifānghuŗen). All the dialects spoken in North China are categorized as Mandarin. However, with a narrow definition, Mandarin refers to the Standard Chinese (普通话,Putonghua/国语,Guo) in China and Taiwan.
The biggest difference between the dialects is the tones of the words and sounds. Mandarin has four tones. These tones are very important as they change the meaning of the words. The same word, with a different tone can have a totally different meaning. Sometimes it is not enough to know the meaning of the word only, but also the context that itís used in must be known.
Chinese characters may make you think again whether you want to learn Chinese or not but once you start learning the characters and their stories behind, you will get carried away and find yourself in a different world.