A Glimpse into the History of the Chinese Language

The history of the Chinese language dates all the way back to 6,000 years ago, making the Chinese language the world’s oldest written language. How did the ancient Chinese language come into being, evolve, and develop into the modern Chinese we hear and see today? This article will give you a glimpse into the origin and development of the Chinese language.

The Origin of the Chinese Language

Just like many other languages, Chinese also has its origin and history. As one of the oldest written languages in the world, the Chinese language has seen various changes throughout its history in its multiple incarnations. Many modern Chinese characters frequently seen today have taken form in the past few centuries.  

According to language experts, Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, which comprises languages descending from Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST). When reconstructing the proto-language of the Sino-Tibetan language family (PST), there has been active research and controversy over the relationship between the Chinese language and other Sino-Tibetan languages, such as the Tibetan language, Bai, Burmese, Yi, Karen, Naga, and Tangut. You can read more about the languages spoken in China for more comprehensive information if you’re interested in this topic.

We will probably never find out at which point the Chinese language started to diverge from the rest of the Sino-Tibetan languages with no written documentation for research. But one of the most extraordinary things about the Chinese language is that its pictographic writing system has transcended 6,000 years to this date and is the only one still in use. 

How Old is the Chinese Language?

Ancient Chinese languages have come a long way since their invention. The Chinese language has consistently existed for six thousand years to reach where it stands now. It’s practically impossible for a language to remain unchanged for that period. So yes. The Chinese language, both the spoken language and the written scripts, did take its course and evolve over time. The history of the Chinese language can be divided into four stages: 

How were the Chinese characters invented?

It’s incredible just to imagine the Chinese characters used by people thousands of years ago are still in use today. There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters in a Chinese dictionary. But you only need to master 2,000 of them to read a newspaper. 

However, the intriguing question is, how did Chinese characters appear in the first place? 

According to a widely-spread legend, Chinese characters were invented by the legendary figure Cangjie (倉頡), who was said to serve as an official historian of the Yellow Emperor and was in charge of creating Chinese characters for writing. Cangjie is characterized by his four eyes.

Given that he’s more of a legend than a historical figure, it’s outrageous to consider him the sole inventor of the Chinese characters. But sadly, we may never know the true origin of Chinese characters because it happened too far away in time with no written documentation.

Portrait of Cangjie

Evolution of different versions of Chinese character

Archaic Chinese, or the Old Chinese language, is intrinsically related to all the Chinese dialects still spoken today. However, the earliest Chinese writing scripts (Oracle bone script 甲骨文) found were divinatory inscriptions engraved into oracle bones and tortoise shells in the Shang dynasty.

Later in the Zhou dynasty, Chinese writing (in the form of Bronze script 金文) descended from the Shang dynasty was found on the bronze artifacts, documenting the Shijing (the Classic of Poetry), the Shujing (the Classic of History), and the Yijing (the Classic of Changes). In the western Zhou dynasty, a more standardized, Large Seal script (大篆), began to take shape.

Then in the Qin dynasty, Small Seal script (小篆) was created to formalize the character system based on its predecessor Large Seal script. It was an attempt of Qin Shihuang to unify China. In later dynasties, Chinese writing successively developed into Clerical script (隸書), Standard script (楷書), Running script (行書), Draft script(草書), and Simplified script(簡體字), all of which had evolved based on the finalized design of the Small Seal script(小篆).

The comparison chart below will help you better understand how the Chinese characters transform into what we see today. As the script developed, there were fewer strokes in general, and the pictograph became more structured and diamond-shaped.

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What language did ancient people in China speak?

Language is constantly changing: pronunciation, tones, vocabulary, and even grammar. Surprisingly, ancient Chinese languages sound nothing like the Mandarin we hear today. 

Cantonese is the closest to the ancient China’s language among the contemporary Chinese languages. Although Mandarin holds the status of modern China’s official language, it didn’t develop into what we heard today until the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century.

Cantonese appeared much earlier, during the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD. In those long periods of war, many northern Chinese fled south, carrying the old Chinese language with them and settling in southeastern China. In the next 2,000 years, northern China has seen multiple changes in the reign of different dynasties, with its lingua franca being heavily influenced by that of other ethnic groups in the neighboring areas, such as Mongolia and Manchuria. While in the south, where the ancient northern Chinese settled, wars and turmoil were less common, allowing the ancient Chinese to remain intact and retain the original characteristics. That’s why Cantonese is more similar to ancient Chinese in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. 

If you are interested in learning more about the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, you can read more in our blog. For more information, you may also check out our simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese pages. 

To Wrap Up

The history of the Chinese language is a crucial part of the brilliant Chinese civilization. History does repeat itself. China has been the world’s largest economy many times throughout its long history, and its inexorable rise to superpower is another proof of the Asian giant’s restoration to the dominant position economically, militarily, politically, and culturally, posing its influence on the rest of the world. 

If you’re looking to expand your business in China and need help with translation, Wordspath is ready to be of service. We are a professional language service company based in southern China specializing in translation and localization from and into Chinese languages and dialects. But if you need language services in non-Chinese languages, we also support 150 other languages. Contact our expert for more information.

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