I'm likely missing something, but I think whenever people say 'Chinese' without qualifiers, a more precise term is applicable such as 'Cantonese', 'Mandarin', 'Sino', 'Hong Kong Chinese', 'Mainland Chinese' or 'Macau Chinese'.

Example: I consider 'Do you speak Chinese?' to not be precise since I guess it means something like at least one of the following:

  • 'Do you speak Mandarin or any Chinese dialect?'
  • 'Do you speak Mandarin?'
  • 'Do you speak Cantonese?'

Question: Is there a situation where I can use the word 'Chinese' without qualifiers and where other words are not actually more precise or accurate or something (besides things like this sentence of course)?

Another example: Wiki says Sino-British and not Chinese-British.

Another example: From the 2009 film Push

Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning): You speak Chinese?

Nick Gant (Chris Evans): Cantonese.

Now does Cassie Holmes just feel weird? or what?

  • Most native English speakers would not understand what you meant if you said you spoke "Sino Hong Kong." I think the safest way to go would be to ask, "Do you speak Mandarin, Cantonese or any other Chinese dialect?" The word "Chinese" will still be used for a very long time. It's unfortunate that many people are still unaware of the many languages spoken by natives of China. – Mark Hubbard Jan 1 '17 at 16:43
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    "Sino-" is just a combining form meaning "Chinese" (like "Franco-" is a combining form meaning "French"). As far as I know, it is not any more or less precise. – herisson Jan 1 '17 at 17:05
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    ‘Chinese’ is practical because it covers Mandarin, Yue, Hakka, Wu, Gan, Min, Jin, Xiang, and a host of other dia- and regiolects (or languages, if you prefer). Most people are barely aware that Mandarin is the official language of the PRC and the lingua franca of the Chinese-speaking world, and that the others can be utterly unintelligible to Mandarin-speakers. They are almost certainly entirely ignorant of the mere existence of Gan, Jin, and Hakka, and they (like you, it would appear) think Cantonese is Yue. To most people, the difference is largely irrelevant, and ‘Chinese’ is most useful. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 1 '17 at 17:50
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    @MarkHubbard thanks. edited question – BCLC Sep 24 '20 at 8:04
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    @BCLC It’s true that it is a bit culturally insensitive, but so are most things when people have to deal with cultures they’re only vaguely familiar with. ‘Chinese’ is somewhat unique in that it’s the only major language term that has this ambiguity, for whatever reason. You wouldn’t normally say that someone speaks ‘Indian’ (you’d say ‘an Indian language’), perhaps because people know that India has loads of languages. You do sometimes hear people talk about someone ‘speaking Celtic’, which is somewhat similar, except never right. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 24 '20 at 8:59

If you start from the premise that Chinese is a language and that Mandarin and Cantonese are Chinese dialects, then a good question might be:

What Chinese dialect do you speak? (A: Cantonese, Mandarin).

I have never heard of a language described Mainland Chinese as it would be almost meaningless. (Two "Mainland Chinese" speakers could read and understand the same written article, but depending on where said speakers are from, they may or may not speak mutually intelligible dialects.)

To your question:

Is there a situation where I can use the word 'Chinese' without qualifiers and where other words are not actually more precise...

Yes: Do you want to order Chinese take-out?

And removing tongue from cheek, a decent question (and accepted answer) are at a sister website, Chinese Language.


The use of the adjectival prefix "Sino-" can be seen at Google Ngrams "Sino * "

(You should ignore Sino ang and Sino cami as they appear to be Tagalog!)

In broad terms, "Sino" used in an hyphenated form with another geographical/political adjective and is used to imply, and in connection with, a relationship between the governments of the two countries involved at the highest level - usually defence and trade.

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