I have always thought, perhaps wrongly, that it was mutual intelligibility that was the deciding factor as to whether a 方言 would be considered a dialect or it's own separate language.

Wikipedia's entry Dialect: Political Factors says:

An opposite example is the case of Chinese, whose variations such as Mandarin and Cantonese are often called dialects and not languages, despite their mutual unintelligibility.

I'm not interested in politics, though; linguistically speaking when can a 方言 be considered a language and not a dialect?

  • 2
    Mutual Intelligibility is pretty much the only criterion. Literally the only thing stopping Mandarin and Cantonese from being called separate languages/topolects are political considerations.
    – Ringil
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 12:33
  • Is there a list of mutual unintelligible 方言?
    – Mou某
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 13:11
  • 5
    Defining the difference between language and dialect has been a very very long dispute among linguists since... like... forever. If you are not a linguist (which seems the case), just don't bother about it. There's no consensus and it won't lead you anywhere. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 18:12
  • 2
    @wuerling swedish, norwegian and danish with the their respective variants together form a continuum of dialects of the a common language. The difference isn't larger than the German spoken in the southern Germany and in the northern Germany.
    – user58955
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 17:54
  • 2
    "A language is a dialect with an army and navy."
    – Olle Linge
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 8:19

4 Answers 4


I'm going to assume that the question you want to ask are how mutually intelligible various 方言 actually are. This 2009 study by Chaoju Tang and Vincent J. Van Heuven has some data on it.

Here's the excerpted table on how mutually intelligible various 方言 are:

Word Classification: Word Classifying Test


Word Understanding: Word Understanding Test

You can read more on the methodology in the paper itself.

For comparison's sake this 1989 John B. Jensen study found that Spanish and Portuguese are

50-60% mutually intelligible at least as measured on...passive listening to electronically re-produced voices

  • 1
    Here is an indication of how these measures of mutual intelligibility can work very differently than you would expect. Listeners from many regions understand Beijing speech better than their own region's. And, for example, on both charts Beijing listeners understand Taiyuan speakers better than Taiyuan listeners do. Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 6:46

There are always difficulties in classification. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language#Languages_and_dialects). Unintelligibility is one criterion, but there may be others, for example, the similarities in grammar, vocabulary, written forms, etc.

Some people and even linguistics DO consider Cantonese as a language, but in that way, Chinese will be a language family which consists of at least 8-9 major languages, where Mandarin is one of them.


"A language is a dialect with an army and navy"

Unfortunately, there is no hard scientific distinction between "two related languages", and "two dialects of the same language".

A biological analogy might be when are two groups of animals considered distinct species? Inability to interbreed (cf. "low mutual intelligibility") is one criterion, but it is not necessary for two groups to be considered distinct species e.g. chimpanzees and bonobos.

Likewise, while it might be easy to categorise two lects with low mutual intelligibility as distinct languages/belonging to distinct language groups (e.g. English/Japanese, or French/Italian), two closely related lects may be either defined as distinct languages or dialects of one language, depending on historical and political context (e.g. Portuguese/Galician, vs Catalan/Valencian).

There is no consistent, scientific distinction between two dialects of a single language, and two separate languages (with a common ancestor). It's most often a political distinction. Some highly mutually intelligible lects are considered different languages (e.g. Serbian and Croatian) whereas others with extremely low degrees of mutual intelligibility are considered the same language (e.g. the Valais dialect of Walser German and Standard German).

Chinese dialect groups

Local varieties from different areas of China are often mutually unintelligible, differing at least as much as different Romance languages and perhaps even as much as Indo-European languages as a whole. These varieties form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family (with Bai sometimes being included in this grouping). Because speakers share a standard written form, and have a common cultural heritage with long periods of political unity, the varieties are popularly perceived among native speakers as variants of a single Chinese language, and this is also the official position. Conventional English-language usage in Chinese linguistics is to use dialect for the speech of a particular place (regardless of status) while regional groupings like Mandarin and Wu are called dialect groups. ISO 639-3 follows the Ethnologue in assigning language codes to eight of the top-level groups listed above (all but Min and Pinghua) and five subgroups of Min. Other linguists choose to refer to the major groupings as languages. Sinologist David Moser stated that the Chinese authorities refer to them as "dialects" as a way to reinforce China as being a single nation.


The misalignment of definition comes from misunderstanding of words.

From the very beginning of Chinese writing, writing is not word by word record of spoken, but specialized form of record eliminating any unnecessary redundancy. This makes Chinese writing more independent from actual pronunciation of languages and allows the evolution of languages without affecting Chinese writing much. It is no surprise that Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese has adopted it for a long time with this adaptable structure.

《方言》 is a book written nearly two thousand years ago, which means the words of various places (in the empire).

When Western linguistics was introduced in Chinese, "方言" was chosen to mean "dialect". While a dialect means a mutually understandable branch within a language, some perceives it is various speeches in China.

It is pretty tricky that while the Chinese writing is understandable across languages but the speakers of various languages are not mutually intelligible in daily life. The political issues on the unification and nationalistic climax of China causes widespread misinformation of 方言.

Nowadays linguistics agrees that they are Chinese languages and linguist groups them in a Chinese language family. Only those with no linguistics knowledge would still debate on the word 方言.

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