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Mandarin is made up of a group of connected varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. As most Mandarin dialectic is found in the north, the group who speak it is often referred to, especially among Chinese speakers, as the “northern dialect”. When the group is taken as one language, often done in academia, it has more native speakers at nearly a billion than any other modern language.
A southwestern-dialect speaker and a northeastern-dialect speaker may have trouble communicating except through standard language, mostly because of the variances in tone. Nonetheless, this variance within the language is less obvious than the much greater differences found between other varieties of Chinese; this is thought to be down to a recent spread of Mandarin across China, combined with a greater ease of communication and travel compared to the mountainous south of China.
For the majority of Chinese history, the capital city has been in the Mandarin area, making it very influential. Since the 14th century, at least some form of Mandarin has been the national lingua franca. In the early part of the 20th century, a standard form based on the dialect of Beijing, with elements from other dialects was accepted as the national language. Standard Chinese, which has also been referred to as “Mandarin”, Pǔtōnghuà or Guóyǔ, is the official language of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, and one of four official languages used in Singapore. It is also one of the most used types of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities globally.
“Mandarin” is an English word, derived from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri, and from Sanskrit mantrin with a meaning of counsellor or minister, originally meant an official of the empire. As their dialects were varied and frequently mutually unintelligible, these officials conversed using a koiné based on some northern dialects. After Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they named it Mandarin, from its Chinese name Guānhuà, meaning the “language of the officials”.
In everyday English, stating Mandarin will refer to Standard Chinese, which is often just called “Chinese”. Standard Chinese has its origins in the particular dialect spoken in the capital of Beijing, with some syntactic and lexical influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official language of the PRC and the ROC/Taiwan. It is also in use as the language of instruction in the PRC and in Taiwan. Mandarin is one of the six languages used officially in the United Nations, where it is called “Chinese”. Modern day speakers refer to the modern standard language as Pǔtōnghuà, meaning on the mainland, Guóyǔ, in Taiwan or Huáyǔ, in Singapore and Malaysia, but not as Guānhuà.
This text uses the term “Mandarin” in the way that is used by linguists, alluding to the diverse group of dialects spoken in southwestern and northern China, which native linguists call Guānhuà. The alternative term Běifānghuà, meaning Northern dialect, is used increasingly less among Chinese linguists. By extension of this, the term “Old Mandarin” is used when referring to northern dialects recorded in texts from the Yuan dynasty.
Natives who are not linguists may not recognize that the different languages they speak are classed in linguistics as members of the Mandarin language in a broader sense. Within Chinese cultural or social discourse, there is not a common Mandarin identity that is based on language alone; rather, there are strong regional identities centred around the individual dialects because of the cultural diversity and geographical distribution of their speakers. Speakers of other forms of Mandarin different than the standard will typically refer to the variety they speak by a geographic name—for example Hebei dialect, Sichuan dialect, or Northeastern dialect, all regarded as distinctive from the standard language.
As with all of the other varieties of the language, there is noteworthy dispute as to whether Mandarin is a dialect or a language.
Most Han Chinese living in south-western and northern China have become through history native speakers of a dialect of Mandarin. The North China Plain meant few barriers to migration, leading to comparative linguistic homogeneity over a widespread area in the northern part of China. In contrast, the rivers and mountains of southern China have produced the other six groups of Chinese dialects.
Despite this, the varieties cover a massive area containing around a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced variations regionally in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, and many varieties of Mandarin are not mutually intelligible.
Most of the northeastern area of China, except for Liaoning, didn’t receive major settlements by Han Chinese until the 18th century, resulting in the Northeastern Mandarin dialects being spoken there differ little from the type spoken in Beijing Mandarin. The Manchu people who inhabit this province now speak these dialects exclusively. The frontier areas of Southwest and Northwest China were colonized by Mandarin speakers, and the dialects in those provinces also closely resemble their relations in the core Mandarin area. Despite this, long-established large cities that are very close to Beijing, such as Baoding, Tianjin, Shenyang, and Dalian, have distinctly different dialects.