Is Chinese A Language?

Chinese is a part of a family of languages called Sino-Tibetan. Membership in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages has been a subject of debate for many years. “Sino” is a reference to the many differing dialects noted in the Chinese language. “Tibetan” refers to the geographical regions where these dialects are spoken. While most Sino-Tibetan languages are found in the Chinese mainland and in Tibet, significant numbers of people who speak these languages are spread out throughout Asia; Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. Smaller cliques of people can be found in various Chinese speaking communities throughout the world. Sino-Tibetan languages are divided into two classifications: the Sinitic family and Tibeto-Burman.

A genetic relationship between the languages was proposed in the early 19th century and is now widely accepted. Piecing them together into a coherent script has proved all but impossible. In 1935, Alfred Kroeber from Cambridge University started the Sino-Tibetan Philology Project. Under the supervision of Robert Shafer until 1938, then taken over by Paul Benedict, 30 staff members, not educated in linguistics, collaborated over the available documentation of the Sino-Tibetan languages. The result of their work comprised of a 15 volume manuscript entitled Sino-Tibetan Linguistics. The work was never published. Instead their work supplied Shafer with information wherein he published a five volume series called Introduction to Sino-Tibetan, and later Benedict’s work Sino-Tibetan, a Conspectus.

There are over 400 languages included in the Sinitic family, one of the most common being called the Tibeto-Burman family. These languages are spoken by around 3 million people in parts of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and China. Another group in this area includes the Naga, Kuki, and Chin languages in Burma and India. Even within this single classification, different languages illustrate differences and similarities in language styles.

Burmese is a mother tongue in Burma spoken by over 25 million people, and several million more use it as a secondary language. Written Burmese records have been preserved since the 11th century, but earlier records written about Buddhist religious subjects have been found as early as the 8th century. The alphabet and pronunciation pulled from these records are still in use today even though significant differences exist between the written word and speech in the Tibetan languages.

The official language of business in China is a spoken dialect called Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin is often referred to as a single language in academics. Mandarin is divided into both northern and southern dialects, but altogether, is the primary language of over one billion people. Someone from northeastern China and southwestern China often have difficulty communicating unless they use Mandarin as a standard language to break the barriers. Mandarin is referred to as “Standard Chinese”. This “Standard Chinese”, or simply, “Chinese”, is specifically based on the dialect spoken in Beijing, the capital city of China. It is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and one of the four official languages of Singapore. Mandarin is also the most common dialect among the pockets of international communities.