Written Chinese is mainly composed of ideographs. They express a meaning. Written Chinese, however, tends to be uniform in vocabulary and structure, regardless of the dialect of the speaker. On the other hand, when compared to actual spoken dialects, Chinese characters have seen far less changes than the spoken language.
When spoken word for word from the written language in Cantonese, Chinese sounds overly formal and distant. As a result, the necessity of having a written script which matched the spoken language became more important as time went on. Written Chinese is the same regardless of the dialect spoken. The only difference is that in Mainland China a simplified writing system is used, whereas in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other overseas regions the traditional script is used.
Written Chinese, though, is not phonetic, and many new students to the language will frequently feel like they are surrounded by incomprehensible, inaccessible material. Written Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, but has been heavily influenced by other varieties of Northern Mandarin. Putonghua is the official form taught in schools.
Characters are the equivalent of a word in the romantic languages. Because the Chinese language is not phonetic but rather pictorial, every word is represented by one character. Characters which are used nearly exclusively in the transcription of foreign words are present in Chinese, and many of these characters date back to Middle Chinese where they were used to translate Sanskrit phonemes. For example, Classical Chinese words for “this” and “you” are never used in their original senses (except in a limited number of idiomatic expressions), and more often used to transcribe the sounds /s/ and /l/ in foreign words.
Chinese characters share many components in common and each character has a prominent unit called the radical. In traditional dictionaries, you can look up a character by first finding its radical and then counting the remaining number of strokes needed to write the character. Nevertheless, this method tends to yield somewhat strange results if you aren’t careful.
Spoken Chinese is a tonal language related to Tibetan and Burmese, but genetically unrelated to other neighboring languages, such as Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese. However, these languages were strongly influenced by Chinese in the course of their histories, linguistically and also extra-linguistically. Spoken Chinese evolved for centuries while written Chinese changed much less. Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was carried out in Classical Chinese, which was drastically different from any spoken form of Chinese, whereas Chinese in the past 50 years has conformed to the spoken form significantly. Spoken variants other than Standard Mandarin are usually not written, except for Standard Cantonese which is sometimes used in informal contexts.
Spoken Chinese is divided into several varieties of Chinese, with 1.2 billion speakers all using one of these varieties, or dialects. A really qualified translator must be familiar with all the peculiarities of the language to be able to present them in his Chinese translations. Spoken Chinese comprises many regional and mutually unintelligible variants. In the West, many people are similarly familiar with the fact that the Romance languages all derive from Latin and so have many underlying features in common while being mutually unintelligible.
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