In English, Mandarin can refer to either of two distinct concepts:
In everyday use, Mandarin refers usually to just Standard Mandarin (Putonghua/Guoyu). In its broader sense, Mandarin is a diverse group of related dialects, some less mutually intelligible than others. It is a grouping defined and used mainly by linguists, and is not commonly used outside of academic circles as a self-description. Instead, when asked to describe the spoken form they are using, Chinese speaking a form of non-Standard Mandarin will describe the variant that they are speaking, for example Southwestern Mandarin or Northeastern Mandarin, and consider it distinct from ‘Standard Mandarin’ (putonghua); they may not recognize that it is in fact classified by linguists as a form of ‘Mandarin’ in a broader sense. Nor is there a common ‘Mandarin’ identity based on language; rather, there are strong regional identities centred on individual dialects, because of the wide geographical distribution and cultural diversity of its speakers.
Most Chinese living in northern and south-western China are native speakers of a dialect of Mandarin. The prevalence of this linguistic homogeneity in northern China is largely the result of geography: much of northern China is covered by plains and is flat. In contrast to this, the mountains and rivers of southern China have promoted linguistic diversity.
Chronologically, there is no clear line to mark where Middle Chinese ends and Mandarin begins; however, the Zhōngyuán Yīnyùn (中原音韵), a rhyme book from the Yuan Dynasty, is widely regarded as a milestone in the history of Mandarin. In this rhyme book we see many characteristic features of Mandarin, such as the reduction and disappearance of final stop consonants and the reorganization of the Middle Chinese tones.
Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in southern China spoke only their local language. Beijing Mandarin became dominant during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing period, and from the 17th century onward, the empire established orthoepy academies in an attempt to make local pronunciations conform to the Beijing standard. These attempts, however, had little success.
This situation changed with the widespread introduction of Standard Mandarin as the national language, to be used in education, the media, and formal situations in both the PRC and the ROC (but not in Hong Kong). As a result, Standard Mandarin can now be spoken intelligibly as a second language by most younger people in Mainland China and Taiwan, with various regional accents. In Hong Kong and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life remains the local Cantonese, although Standard Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.
From an official point of view, there are two versions of Standard Mandarin, since the Beijing government refers to that on the Mainland as Putonghua, whereas the Taiwanese government refers to their official language as Kuo-yü (Guoyu in pinyin).
Technically, both Putonghua and Guoyu base their phonology on the Beijing accent, though Putonghua also takes some elements from other sources. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of ‘school’ Standard Mandarin are often quite different from the Mandarin dialects that are spoken in accordance with regional habits, and neither is wholly identical to the Beijing dialect. Putonghua and Guoyu also differ from the Beijing dialect in vocabulary, grammar, and usage.
It is important to note that the terms ‘Putonghua (The Common Language)’ and ‘Guoyu’ refer to speech, and hence the difference in the use of simplified characters and traditional characters is not usually considered to be a difference between these two concepts.
There are regional variations in Mandarin. This is manifested in two ways:
Dialects of Mandarin can be subdivided into eight categories: Beijing Mandarin, Northeastern Mandarin, Ji Lu Mandarin, Jiao Liao Mandarin, Zhongyuan Mandarin, Lan Yin Mandarin, Southwestern Mandarin, and Jianghuai Mandarin. Jin is sometimes considered the ninth category of Mandarin. (Others separate it from Mandarin altogether.)
Syllables consist maximally of an initial consonant, a glide, a vowel, a final, and tone. Not every syllable that is possible according to this rule actually exists in Mandarin, as there are rules prohibiting certain phonemes from appearing with others, and in practice there are only a few hundred distinct syllables.
Phonological features that are generally shared by the Mandarin dialects include:
The singular pronouns in Mandarin are wǒ (我) ‘I’, nǐ (你) ‘you’, nín (您) ‘you (formal)’, and tā (他/她/它) ‘he/she/it’, with -men (们/們) added for the plural. Further, there is a distinction between the plural first-person pronoun zánmen (咱们/咱們), which is inclusive of the listener, and wǒmen (我们/我們), which may be exclusive of the listener. Dialects of Mandarin agree with each other quite consistently on these pronouns, but not with other varieties of Chinese (e.g., Shanghainese has 侬 non ‘you’ and 伊 yi ‘he/she’).
Other morphemes that Mandarin dialects tend to share are aspect and mood particles, such as -le (了), -zhe (着), and -guo (过/過). Other Chinese varieties tend to use different words in some of these contexts (e.g., Cantonese 咗 and 緊). Because of contact with Mongolian and Manchurian peoples, Mandarin has some loanwords from Tungusic languages not present in other varieties of Chinese, such as hútong (胡同) ‘alley.’ Southern Chinese varieties have borrowed from Tai, Austro-Asiatic, and Austronesian languages.
The writing system for almost all the varieties of Chinese is based on a set of written symbols that has been passed down with little change for more than two thousand years. Each of these varieties of Chinese has developed some new words during this time, words for which there are no matching characters in the original set. While it is of course possible to invent new characters (as was done to represent many elements in the periodic table), a more common course of development has been to borrow old characters that have fallen into disuse on the basis of their pronunciations. Chinese Characters are traditionally read from Left to Right.
In the original set of characters and definitions (containing more than 40,000 items) there were the demonstrative pronouns ‘this’ (此, cǐ) and ‘that’ (彼, bǐ). But these terms were rare in spoken Mandarin, where ‘zhè’ and ‘nà’ (or regional variants of them) were used instead. There are no components in the original set that have those meanings associated with those pronunciations, so a word pronounced ‘zhè’ (这／這) was borrowed to write ‘this,’ and a word pronounced ‘nà’ (那) was borrowed to write ‘that.’ Originally, 這 meant ‘to go forward to meet someone’, and 那 was the name of a country (and later became a rare surname).
As with other varieties of Chinese, the government of the People's Republic of China (as well as some other governments and institutions) has put a set of simplified forms into operation. Under this system, the forms of the words ‘here’ (zhèlǐ) and ‘there’ (nàlǐ) changed from 這裡 and 那裡 to 这里 and 那里. (See Simplified Chinese for more.)
For writing formal histories, for writing government documents, and even for writing poetry and fiction, the written language was adequate and economical of both printing resources and the human effort of writing things down. But to record materials that were meant to be reproduced in oral presentations, materials such as plays and grist for the professional story-teller's mill, the classical written language was not appropriate. Even written records of the words of a famous teacher like Zhu Xi (朱熹；1130-1200) tend strongly to reflect his spoken language. From at least the Yuan dynasty, plays that recounted the subversive tales of China's Robin Hoods to the Ming dynasty novels, such as Shuihu Zhuan (《水浒传》; Outlaws of the marsh), on down to the Qing dynasty novel Honglou Meng (《红楼梦》; usually translated as ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’) and beyond, there developed a vernacular Chinese literature (白话文学; báihuà wénxué). In many cases this written language reflected the Mandarin spoken language, and, since pronunciation differences were not conveyed in this written form, this tradition had a unifying force across all the Mandarin speaking regions and beyond.
A pivotal character during the first half of the twentieth century, Hu Shi（胡适）, wrote an influential and perceptive study of this literary tradition, entitled Báihuà Wénxuéshǐ (A history of vernacular literature).