How different are Mandarin and Taiwanese

Simplified
and traditional
Chinese
compared

You may be wondering what form of Chinese to use when localizing your website. Or maybe you are just interested in Chinese. This post by Philip Philipsen, Senior Project Manager at LanguageWire, addresses both of these issues.

In the past, people used to say, "That seems Spanish to me" when something seemed incomprehensible.
Today one could justifiably dare to reinterpret the old adage: "That seems Chinese to me". Because it's complicated. So let's take a closer look at the various forms of written Chinese. I deliberately say “written” because there are numerous variants of spoken Chinese that are a chapter of their own.

The most important finding: The country or region of your target group determines which version of the written Chinese language you need.

Chinese written language

In simple terms, the written Chinese language records the sounds of standard Chinese. This is commonly known as Mandarin Chinese. It is the official form of Chinese spoken in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and is also known there as Putonghua or “common language”.

However, Chinese is not only spoken in China. It is also an official language in Singapore and Taiwan. It is one of four official languages ​​in Singapore. The Taiwanese refer to Mandarin as guóyŭ or “national language” in order to clarify certain local differences in the formulation.

So far so good. Many rightly find it confusing that there are several written forms of standard Chinese. Here, too, the key word is “standard” - because the spoken language is by and large identical, despite the different terms used in the language industry.

There are three forms of standard written Chinese:

  • Chinese - PR China - simplified
  • Chinese - Hong Kong - traditional
  • Chinese - Taiwan - Traditional

Simplified compared to traditional Chinese characters

From a graphic perspective, it's all about shape. Simplified characters are basically a short form of traditional characters. Simplified characters are the official standard in the PRC, while traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both are used to record standard Chinese, but with some local variations in terminology. You will also find that people in Taiwan and Hong Kong can generally read simplified characters, but the reverse is not true.

Which version should you be using?

Choosing between Simplified and Traditional Chinese depends on which market you want to reach. The best way to orientate yourself is geography:

  • PR China: Chinese - PR China (simplified)
  • Taiwan: Chinese - Taiwan (Traditional)
  • Hong Kong: Chinese - Hong Kong Traditional

This is why LanguageWire provides the locale when you commission a Chinese translation and ensures that a native speaker from that region does the translation and adjusts it to local preferences. So that you speak the language of your target group.

Would you like to know more?

The terms “simplified” and “traditional” relate to the graphic representation of the Chinese characters used. Basically, Chinese characters are a syllabic notation, and a syllable in Chinese can be either a word or part of a word. In contrast to the alphabet with its individual letters, the Chinese script records entire syllables. Let's take a closer look at the generic term for “Chinese things”. It reads: zhōnghuá 中华 and consists of two syllables, zhōng + huá. A simple example to clarify.

If zhōnghuá is to be written in Mandarin, we have three options. Or even four, if you add the Latin alphabet. In digital correspondence, the Chinese use Latin letters - the syllables are simply converted into Chinese characters.

Let's take a closer look at zhōnghuá:

  • Chinese - PR China - simplified: 中华
  • Chinese - Hong Kong - traditional: 中華
  • Chinese - Taiwan - Traditional: 中華

In every version of the written Chinese language, the first character is identical - but the second is not. Although it's the same word.

The development of simplified Chinese

There was a time when all Chinese wrote with traditional characters. In order to reduce the complexity, shortened, handwritten versions of characters were often created. Shorthand has a long history for the simple reason that it saves time when writing. So 華 became 华. The simplified spelling therefore corresponds to the traditional spelling ... on slimming diet.

After the PR China was founded in 1949, the simplified notation was promoted there and finally introduced as the official notation. For inexperienced readers, simplified characters are easier to decipher because they are less cluttered. And that's exactly what matters in everyday life.

It could be compared to the different spellings of words in the UK and the US. For example “aesthetic” (Great Britain) and “esthetic '” (USA). The same word, just spelled differently. But not only that - the pronunciation is also different. If you say [ˈe: sθetik] in the USA, it sounds more like [ˈi: sθetik] in Great Britain. And of course there are countless local pronunciation variants - but only one or two spelling options.

The language behind the scenes

There are also differences in pronunciation in Chinese. Albeit with a small difference. Let's come back to our example 中华 / 中華:

  • In the PRC and Taiwan this would be pronounced as "zhōnghuá"
  • In Hong Kong it is pronounced as "zung1waa4" (where 1 and 4 refer to Cantonese sounds)

The reason for the significant difference: A resident of Hong Kong would pronounce this in Cantonese, the everyday language for most people in this city.

Cantonese is an important regional dialect and is fundamentally different from Mandarin. Unlike most Chinese dialects, Cantonese even has its own written representation. Spoken Cantonese can be reproduced in its entirety using characters that only make sense in Cantonese. When someone writes in Cantonese, those whose first language is Standard Chinese will be able to read at most a few words from it.

Hong Kongers are basically bilingual. That means: It is quite likely that a standard Chinese text will first be translated into Cantonese before it is read out, for example, as a bedtime story. In short, it's all about the written language - and for the most part, that's standard Chinese.

The geography determines the use

However, the use of the word differs depending on where standard Chinese is spoken. You could compare it to the way Austrians and Germans use the terms “yeast” and “yeast”. That is why it is important that you know your target audience.

The first question should be: In which country or region will my text be read? If it's Taiwan, choose a native Taiwanese speaker. Is it Hong Kong, a native translator from this metropolis? And when it comes to the People's Republic of China, a native speaker from this vast country is the right choice. This will help you determine whether you should use Simplified or Traditional Chinese for your Chinese translations.