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Sinitic Languages

The Sinitic languages, also called 'Chinese Languages', form a top-level constituent of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Sinitic, together with the Tibeto-Burmese languages and Karen constitute the Sino-Tibetan language family.

The Sinitic languages are spoken by the majority ethnic group of China and Taiwan, the Han people. The number of speakers comes up to approximately one billion people.

The Sintic languages are often called 'dialects'. This is not correct since they differ amongst each other in many respects quite considerably and are mutually unintelligible. The most important differences occur in phonology and vocabulary.

The Sinitic languages are subdivided the Northern Sinitic languages, also called Mandarin, in the north, the west and the center of China and the Southern Sinitic languages in the southeast: Wu, Min, Gan, Hakka, Yüe and Xian Chinese. The Northern Sinitic languages are more similar to each other than the Southern Sinitic languages.

Characteristics of the Mandarin varieties are: the absence of the voiced stops /b, d, g/ and the absence of syllable-final consonants. They have a relatively simple tone system (4 tones: high level, high rising, low falling-rising, high falling) and few tone sandhi rules.

The linguistic history of Sinitic is subdivided into three stages: 1) Old Sinitic/Chinese (900 - 400 BCE), 2) Middle Sinitic/Chinese (400 BCE - 907 CE) and 3) Modern Sinitic/Chinese (900 CE -).

The classical literary language is called Wen-yan. The modern spoken standard of Chinese, which is based on the Beijing dialect, is called Putong-hua.

The first written documents of the Sinitic languages date back to the late Shang dynasty (14th-11th century BCE). These documents mainly consist of short inscribtions on oracle bones and bronze vessels.

Chinese characters are logograms, i.e. every single character represents a word. There are several types of logographs in the Chinese script: pictographs, ideographs, compound ideographs, loan characters and phonetic compounds. The major part of the approximately 40.000 Chinese characters are phonetic compounds.

Due to the logographic character of the Chinese script, speakers of all spoken Sinitic languages can read Chinese texts.

A Romanisatiation for system for Chinese called Pinyin has been developed in the 1950s. Though there are other Romanisation models, as well, Pinyin is the most widespread.

Sinitic languages are tonal languages, i.e. tonal contrasts distinguish lexical meaning and/or grammatical categories. Tones are for the most part lexical in the Sinitic languages - i.e. tone distinguishes the meaning of words -, in some Sinitic languages tone can also convey grammatical meaning, i.e. it distinguishes grammatical categories within the same word.

Every stressed syllable carries a distinctive tone.

Putong-hua, the spoken standard based on the Beijing dialect, has 4 tones, Yüe has 6 tones like the Middle Chinese historical stage.

Maximum syllable structure in the Sinitic languages is consonant-semivowel-vowel-semivowel-consonant.

Mandarin dialects are stress timed, i.e. intervals between major stressed syllables have the same duration. The Yue dialects are syllable timed, viz. the articulation of every syllable takes the same amount of time.

The Sinitic languages are isolating languages, viz. words in this type of language usually consist of a single morpheme. There are various degrees of isolation: Yüe, for instance, is more isolating than Mandarin.

Sinitic words are often mono-syllabic, but the modern languages use word composition to a greater extent than Old and Middle Chinese did. The modern languages use suffixes.

Suffixes mostly occur as noun suffixes that create various kinds of nouns from simple bases (concrete nouns, abstract nouns, diminutives etc.).

Particles placed after nouns like postpositions indicate relations of space and time.

In older historical stages of the Sinitic languages, the personal pronoun was inflected.

Verbal particles indicate mood and aspect of the respective verb.

Person is expressed by pronouns, not by the verb itself.

Words can shift word category without changing their form. Adjectives can act as verbs.

A typological feature, which Sinitic shares with other languages of the area - for instance Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese and Hmong-Mien -, is the use of serial verb constructions. Serial verb constructions are a variety of complex predicates. They consist of a chain of verbs adjoined without any connective marking, which have the same subject and the same grammatical categories. Serial verb constructions in Sinitic languages can indicate subordinate relationship, for instance a final clause.

Nouns by themselves have collective meaning, they are countable only in connection with nominal classifiers, also called measure words. This is a typological contrast to European languages where numerals can count nouns directly, i.e. with out a classifier or measure word. Other languges of the area, e.g. Japanese, Korean and Thai, also use measure words when counting nouns. Measure words often sub-divide nouns into specific classes and can therefore be labelled as classifiers

The Sinitic languages do not have a definite article.

The Sinitic languages are pro-drop languages: It is characterised by the frequent occurance of zero pronouns, i.e. pronouns without overt realisation.

The order of constituents in simple transitive sentences is strictly SVO.

Loanwords from Indo-European and Austro-Asiatic (Muong-Vietnamese and Mon-Khmer) occur already in the Old Chinese historical stage.

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