How different are Chinese dialects, on average, relative to the differences between European languages?

Are the dialects spoken in Western and Eastern China as different as, say, Russian and Polish, or Italian and Spanish?

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    Although the comparative study of dialects may be on-topic for Linguistics, this question has a very broad nature and so it could better fit at Chinese Language; see also questions of a specific tag Apr 1, 2018 at 23:49
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    You may want to start here: Chinese, AKA Sinitic, is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family consisting of hundreds of local language varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The differences are similar to those within the Romance languages, with variation particularly strong in the more rugged southeast. These varieties, often called "dialects", have been classified into seven to ten groups, the largest being Mandarin (e.g. Beijing dialect), Wu (e.g. Shanghainese), Min (e.g. Taiwanese Hokkien), and Yue (e.g. Cantonese) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_Chinese
    – iacobo
    Apr 2, 2018 at 11:54

1 Answer 1


Your question is an interesting one, in general how to compare the comparisons of languages and more specifically about the Chinese family.

The usual qualitative measure of difference is mutual intelligibility; but quantitative measures of this are hard to come by except by a large collection of anecdotes or great linguistic experience. That is to say there is not enough electronic material in all these varieties to do a computer comparison.

Also, labels like Mandarin, Cantonese, etc, are complicated by politics, history, culture, and translation, and may force thresholds that are in reality vague or not even there.

Most of the details of your question are answered by the wikipedia page on the varieties of Chinese languages

For most of the following there are many details left out, so consider this a broad idea with lots of small exceptions.

There are seven primary dialects of Chinese: Mandarin, Wu (Shanghainese), Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka, and Yue (Cantonese). These dialects are all mutually unintelligible.

map of Chinese varieties

Within each of these dialects, there is a continuum of intelligibility, but from the extremes may not be intelligible (the wiki page gives many examples of unintelligibility within a dialect).

To say the differences are as much as the differences within say Romance is difficult. But it is often repeated that the Chinese varieties are as far apart as the Romance languages. What I think that means is that if you know one of the Chinese varieties, learning any of the other varieties is just as easy as say a French person learning Italian.

Some notes about your question:

  • The writing set is the same for the great majority of the Chinese Languages. There might be some very minimal moving around of characters to reflect syntax change and a some different choice of characters to show some change in vocabulary, but writing is mostly understandable by everyone, no matter what the writer actually thinks they're speaking. That is to say that, someone from Beijing can easily read a newspaper articles written by Cantonese speakers, much more easily than say a French person could understand a Romanian newspaper.
  • the state language of PRC is Mandarin, so everybody in school learns it, even though the local business and home language is primarily something else. So non-native-Han speakers are usually bilingual.
  • the greatest change over direction is from north and west to south-east, not east to west. The western part of PRC (Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Tibet) was colonized by Han Chinese and ethnic Han there speak Mandarin (the non-Han locals speak mostly Turkic or Tibetan). That is, someone from Chengdu and someone from Harbin can more easily understand each other, but neither could follow at all a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong. The Cantonese speaker could probably understand both of them though because of Mandarin taught in school.

To summarize, Chinese languages are very loosely related like Romance, for example Mandarin and Cantonese are like Italian and French, and even within Mandarin/Italian there are large differences between varieties (like Hebei vs Sichuan and Tuscan (standard) vs Sicilian). Don't take the analogy too far!

  • The Harbin/Chengdu point is probably not true (see the slide on the link, or the transcription + translation below). Apr 3, 2018 at 9:20
  • @WavesWashSands Good point. I am aware of Mair's position and it fills out a lot of the nuance of the oversimplified black and white I give. It's hard to differentiate between intelligibility between two monolingual speakers of two varieties and that between speakers who have different cultural experience with the other. To take that into account I would say that Heilongjiang (Harbin) and Sichuanese (of Chengdu) are asymmetrically partially intelligible. And to address the OP, that might be like the difference between Sicilian and Italian.
    – Mitch
    Apr 3, 2018 at 12:48
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    The writing is the same and everyone can understand it only because what is written is a form of Mandarin and everyone learns to read it as its own thing. Maybe it's slightly easier than learning to read other romance languages because you don't have a phonetic writing system to confuse you with false friends etc, but it's not like written Mandarin can be magically read out aloud as Cantonese etc. Writing the other dialects/languages is shunned, but there's no reason at all that they couldn't be written, and there have been movements to write them over the years with varying levels of success.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 3, 2018 at 14:49
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    @curiousdannii LanguageLog on Chinese topolects in writing (a topolect being a regional variety). The examples given, if analogized to English writing, : eg writing 'should of' instead of should have, would be called 'mistakes' or 'eggcorns'.
    – Mitch
    Apr 4, 2018 at 2:21
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    @Mitch Apparently Beijing Mandarin speakers can undersatnd ~62% of Chengdu dialect: openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/28176/… Apr 27, 2018 at 12:23

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