About 1.3 billion people (one-fifth of the world) speak some form of Chinese, making it the language with the most native speakers. The Chinese language, spoken in the form of Standard Mandarin, is the official language in the largest part of mainland China and Taiwan, one of the four in Singapore, and an official idiom of the United Nations. In the form of Standard Cantonese (66 million speakers), Chinese is spoken in GuangDong province and is one of the two official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and Macau (together with Portuguese).
The terms and concepts used by Chinese to think about language are different from those used in the West, partly because of the unifying effects of the Chinese characters used in writing, and also due to differences in the political and social development of China in comparison with Europe, for example.
Whereas after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fragmented into small nation-states, whose identities were often defined by the language, China was able to preserve cultural and political unity through the same period. It maintained a common written standard throughout its entire history, despite the fact that its actual diversity in spoken language has always been comparable to Europe.
As a result, Chinese make a sharp distinction between written language ("wen") and spoken language ("yu"). The concept of a unified combination of both written and spoken forms of language is much less strong in Chinese than in the West.
The written Chinese language consists of about 40,000 characters, which can have as many as 30 strokes, while all varieties of spoken Chinese are tonal. This means that each syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. For example Mandarin has 4 tones and Cantonese has between 6 and 9. Most linguists classify all of the variations of spoken Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan family and believe that there was an original language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, similar to Proto Indo-European, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended.
The relations between Chinese and the other Sino-Tibetan languages are still unclear and is an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that there is no written documentation concerning the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and Chinese. In addition, many of the languages that would allow the reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly documented or understood.
Reprinted from www.todaytranslations.com