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There is no one language called Chinese; it encompasses all languages from the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. About 1.2 billion people are estimated to speak the language all over the world. Of these, Mandarin has the largest number of native speakers with their numbers ranging around 960 million. There are 7 to 13 languages belonging to this group of languages. All of them are significantly different from each other. The speakers of one language belonging to the Sino-Tibetan group may not understand another speaker from another language of this group. The other main languages of this group are Wu with 80 million speakers, Min with an estimated 70 million speakers and Yue with approximately 60 million native speakers. Since the languages are so dissimilar, the written version of Chinese is employed to aid the speakers in communicating with each other.
According to scholars, Chinese is thought to be the oldest written language in the world since the earliest inscriptions were found over 3000 years ago. The language is quite different from other languages in that it has no alphabet as such and, instead, characters are used to pen it. A unique step was taken in 1919 when A Dictionary of National Pronunciation came into being. This dictionary presented a hybrid pronunciation of words culled from various languages and were not like those form any existing Chinese dialect. This was expected to unify all Chinese dialect speakers under a single umbrella.
Over the decades, these dictionaries were modified and added to by academics in the languages. However, eventually the Standard Chinese dialect spoken in the Beijing area was considered the foundation for the language that would be common for all Chinese dialect speakers, thus unifying them linguistically. It is, at present, the official language of China and Taiwan and one of the official languages of Singapore as well. The other important language from this group is Cantonese which is the official state language of Hong Kong and Macau. It is one of the six official languages of United Nations too.
The language is a tonal one with four tones, 24 consonants, and 6 vowels and diphthongs. The writing pattern has been in existence for millennia with very little changes. The characters were earlier read from top to bottom and right to left but presently they are read from left to right for the most part. The system comprises logograms that express a sound instead of a concept. They are similar to the ancient Japanese kanji system as well as the Egyptian hieroglyphics in that sense.