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A Social View on the Chinese Language

Jerome L. Packard

A Social View on the Chinese Language is intended to be a general linguistic introduction to the Chinese language for the general reader and can be used in beginning-level Chinese linguistics courses. It is different from other Chinese linguistics surveys because, in addition to the usual areas of interest (such as the Chinese dialects, the history of the language, the characters and the grammar), it offers a view into linguistic phenomena that are also related to human behavior and society, such as how Chinese children and US college students learn Chinese, how the brain processes Chinese, the genetic origins of Chinese, language disorders and language loss in Chinese, differences in Chinese language use in different social groups, studies of Chinese reading and psycholinguistic aspects of Chinese language use.
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3 Chinese Regionalects



Chinese Regionalects

Now that we have seen that Proto-Chinese is likely to have been spoken along the Yellow River around 4,000 BCE, the next question is how the regionalects came to be spoken in their present locations, and why they have the linguistic form that they have—a form that is different from, yet clearly related to, the Proto-Chinese that is the ancestor language of all present-day Chinese regionalects.

Chinese is generally considered to have eight regionalects (Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue, Gan, Xiang, Jin and Kejia), with all of them (except for Mandarin and Jin) located in southeastern China. These regionalects may be divided into three groups1: northern (Mandarin and Jin), southern (Hakka, Yue and Min, that is, those located on the southern bank of the Yangtze (Changjiang 长江) river and along its southern tributaries) and central (Wu, Gan and Xiang).

The central and southern regionalects came to be spoken in their present locations in southeast China following migrations from the north by groups who were originally speakers of Proto-Chinese. These groups are believed to have diverged from Old Chinese in the 1st millennium CE,2 migrating to the southeast along three primary routes: (a) an eastern route by sea and along the narrow coastal plain, (b) a central route along the Gan 赣 River watershed, and (c) a western route along the Xiang 湘 River watershed.3

There are three factors that explain why those central and southern regionalect groups in...

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