From an official point of view, there are two versions of standardized Mandarin, since the Beijing government refers to that on the Mainland as Putonghua(普通話; simplified: 普通话; pinyin: pǔtōnghuà; "the common dialect"), whereas the Taipei government refers to their official language as Kuo-yü(國語; simplified: 国语; pinyin: guóyǔ; "the national language"). Officially, Putonghua includes pronunciations from a number of different regions, while Kuoyu is theoretically based on the Beijing sounds only. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of "school" Mandarin are often quite different from the Mandarin that is spoken in accordance with regional habits.
Among overseas Chinese communities, particularly in South East Asia, the language is known as huáyǔ (華語 simplified: 华语; "the Chinese language"). (Note that while the term Hànyǔ (漢語; simplified: 汉语), or "the Han Chinese language", is sometimes used to refer to just standard Mandarin, it is more precisely used to refer to all variants of Chinese, since they are, after all, all spoken by Han Chinese. Some speakers of Hakka, for example, will object that their own dialect should carry the name Hanyu, as its grammar is closer to that of ancient texts.)
By definition, the standard forms of Mandarin Chinese, Putonghua and Guoyu, use:
- The phonology or sound system of Beijing minus some pronounced regionalisms. On the other hand, it is a common impression that the sounds of Harbin and Changchun (both in northern Manchuria) may be equally or more similar to standard Mandarin pronunciation than the local dialect of Beijing.
- The vocabulary of Mandarin dialects in general. This means that all slang and other elements deemed "regionalisms" are excluded. On the other hand, the vocabulary of all Chinese dialects, especially in more technical fields like science, law, and government, are very similar (this can be compared to a similar profusion of Latin and Greek words in European languages). This means that much of the vocabulary of standardized Mandarin is shared with all varieties of Chinese.
- The grammar and usage of exemplary modern Chinese literature, such as the work of Lu Xun, which in turn is based loosely upon a mixture of northern (predominant), southern, and classical grammar and usage. This gives formal standard Mandarin structure a slightly different feel from that of street Beijingese.
Standard Mandarin and Beijingese
Although Beijing dialect is one of many forms of Chinese that linguists classify as Mandarin in the sense of being a northern dialect, it is not the case that the
official standardized Mandarin is the same as "Beijing dialect". It is true that the standard pronunciation and grammar of the language of instruction is based on the Beijing dialect, but "standard Mandarin" is a rather elusive concept since it is a set of "constructed" language standards imposed on people who are asked to give up their accustomed regional pronunciations. Over the vast area from Manchuria in the north-eastern part of China to Yunnan in the south-western part of China, the home language of most people is Mandarin (in the global sense), but these home languages all differ from the pronunciation, vocabulary, and sometimes even the grammar of the language of instruction.
Specifically as regards the language of the natives of Beijing, most speakers conform well to standard pronunciation of the initial retroflex sounds (zhi, chi, shi, ri), but they add a final "er" — commonly used as a diminutive — sound to vocabulary items that other speakers would leave unadorned (儿音; pinyin: éryīn). There are also many vocabulary items that have wide local currency but are hardly ever used outside of the Beijing area. On top of those differences, as with London and New York City, there is more than one local "accent" in Beijing.
At the same time, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard putonghua has a T-V distinction between the polite and informal versions of you, that comes from Beijing dialect. In addition there is a distinction between zamen (we not including the listener) and women (we including the listener). In practice, these distinctions are almost never used by most Chinese.
Main article: Mandarin variations
There are regional variations in Mandarin. This is manifested in two ways:
Dialects of Mandarin can be subdivided into eight categories: Beijing, Northeastern, Ji-Lu, Jiao-Liao, Zhongyuan, Lan-Yin, Southwestern, and Jianghuai. Jin is sometimes considered the ninth category of Mandarin (others separate it from Mandarin altogether).
- Various dialects of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar encountered as one moves from place to place. These regional differences are as pronounced as (or more so than) the regional versions of the English language found in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
- Standard Mandarin has been promoted very actively by the PRC, the ROC, and Singapore as a second language. As a result, native speakers of both Mandarin varieties and non-Mandarin Chinese varieties frequently flavor it with a strong infusion of the speech sounds of their native tongues.
In both Mainland China and Taiwan, Mandarin in predominantly Han Chinese areas is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Mandarin, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week in Taiwan starting in the mid-1990's.
However, the era of mass education in Mandarin has not erased these earlier regional differences. In the south, the interaction between Mandarin and local variations of Chinese has produced local versions of the "Northern" language that are rather different from that official standard Mandarin in both pronunciation and grammar.
Ever since the first Westerners entered China and attempted to learn Mandarin,
the need for some kind of phonetic transcription system to record the pronunciation of Chinese characters became apparent. Over the years, many such systems have been proposed. The first to be widely accepted was the Wade-Giles system, named after its 19th century inventors. This system is still in use today, though not in mainland China. It is now mostly encountered in older textbooks, histories, etc.
In the 20th century, Chinese linguists proposed various transcription systems, one of which even introduced a whole new syllabic alphabet: the Zhuyin system (Bopomofo). The most successful of these transcription systems was Hanyu Pinyin, which was accepted as the official transcription system for the Chinese language by the PRC in 1958 and later by the United Nations and other international organizations. During the 1950s, there were plans for Pinyin to supersede the Chinese characters. These plans, however, proved to be impractical due to the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language.
A variety of transcription systems are used on Taiwan. The ROC central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin in 2002, but has permitted local governments to override that decision in favor of their own preferred romanization systems. Zhuyin is used as the method for teaching pronunciation of characters and compounds in schools. Efforts to phase out this system in favor of pinyin have been stalled due to disagreements over which form of pinyin to use, and the massive effort needed to produce new educational materials and to completely retrain teachers.
Other less popular or outdated Romanizations include: