Unlike English, the standard unit of pronunciation in Chinese is the syllable; there are 413 in common use, and these syllables combine to create thousands of words. Chinese words are made up of one, two or more characters, representing one, two or more syllables. Syllables are composed of an initial sound, a final sound and a tone. Initials are either consonants or vowels, and finals are vowels or vowels plus a nasal sound. The tone is superimposed over the syllable.
There are four pitched tones and a neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese. Tones are essential for creating meaning because there are so few syllabic possibilities – only 413 – while there are at least 12,000 possible syllables in English. There are far more homophones in Chinese than in most languages.
There are over 50,000 Chinese characters, but most dictionaries rarely list more than 20,000. Although educated Chinese speakers know 8,000 to 10,000 characters, a person can read 90 percent of a newspaper with a vocabulary of only 900 characters. It is possible to read 97 percent of everyday Chinese with 2,500 characters, and 99 percent of the written language with 3,500 characters.
The history of written Chinese is nearly 6,000 years old. This makes it the oldest language in the world. Over the years, it has undergone three major reformations. In the first, pictographs were developed to represent everyday objects during the Shang Dynasty, from 1766 BC to 1122 BC. The second took place during the Zhou and Han Dynasties, from 1406 BC – 220 AD, when characters became more complex and highly stylized.
The third reformation, initiated by Mao Zedong, sought to simplify many characters to increase literacy levels in the country. The simplification movement led to the modern-day division between the simplified and complicated sets of characters.