How unique are the different dialects of Chinese?

March 12, 2010 | Posted by Chris

Generally speaking, the different dialects of Chinese are mutually unintelligible. If someone from China's far south met with someone from Beijing, and each spoke only one's native dialect, they would not be able to to understand each other. It's comparable to English and Spanish speakers: it would not be long before communication is reduced to hand gestures. To get around this, they speak Mandarin.

Traditionally, Chinese characters served to bridge this language barrier. Chinese characters are imbued with consistent meaning, even if their pronunciation varies greatly from dialect to dialect. So, even if individuals were unable to communicate with the spoken word, they would always be able to communicate by writing, a phenomenon that no doubt encouraged the development of the common Chinese cultural identity that exists today.

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