Mandarin is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of Standard Mandarin or Standard Chinese, which is also referred to as "Mandarin". Because most Mandarin dialects are found in the north, the group is sometimes referred to as the Northern dialects (北方话; běifānghuà). Many local Mandarin varieties are notmutually intelligible. Nevertheless, Mandarin is often placed first in any list of languages by number of native speakers (with nearly a billion).
Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, with 70 percent of Chinese speakers and a huge area stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas.
Most Mandarin varieties have four tones. The final stops of Middle Chinese have disappeared in most of these varieties, but some have merged them as a final glottal stop. Many Mandarin varieties, including the Beijing dialect, retain retroflex initial consonants, which have been lost in southern dialect groups.
The Chinese capital has been within the Mandarin area for most of the last millennium, making these dialects very influential. Some form of Mandarin has served as a national lingua francasince the 14th century. In the early 20th century, a standard form based on the Beijing dialect, with elements from other Mandarin dialects, was adopted as the national language. Standard Chinese is the official language of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan (Republic of China) and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is also one of the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities internationally.
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