Language differences between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese

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Broadly speaking, Simplified and Traditional Chinese are two character sets that represent the same language – but the nature of Simplified Chinese means it has evolved somewhat further.

Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese are two related but separate character sets that are used to represent Chinese. Traditional Chinese is significantly more complicated, and has been used for thousands of years. More straightforward forms of these characters have also existed since ancient times, though Simplified Chinese as it stands today was developed after 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded after the Chinese Civil War. The idea was to make writing more accessible for ordinary people and promote literacy, and so simplified characters used to write the complex traditional Chinese symbols were codified. Today, the majority of Chinese speakers use Simplified characters.

It is important to understand that Simplified and Traditional Chinese refer to writing systems, not dialects. For example, the Cantonese dialect is spoken in the Canton region, as well as by people in Guangdong province in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and some in Malaysia and Singapore. Mandarin is used commonly and officially in China (although each region has its own local dialect), as well as in Taiwan. However, Simplified Chinese is the official writing system used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia, whilst in Taiwan and Hong Kong Traditional Chinese characters are still used (despite being Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking, respectively). Both character sets are used online.

Differences in style

Simplified Chinese generally uses fewer strokes to represent the same characters and is significantly easier to learn and write than Traditional Chinese. There are consistent rules governing the process of simplification, although it may not always seem like it for those learning Simplified Chinese who have already studied Traditional Chinese. Some strokes that are present in many different traditional characters were stylised and used the same way across all simplified characters. Similarly, where there were several traditional characters with the same meaning, they were reduced to just one simplified symbol. Although some characters appear completely different across the two forms, then, it is worth noting that the differences between many traditional and simplified characters is slight – and some of the most commonly used characters are identical in each form.

Terminology

Initially, this simplification of form was the only difference, since the new character set expressed the same vocabulary as the original one. Over time, though, Simplified Chinese has picked up more words, reflecting modern usage and the need to represent additional concepts. Some of these words may have different local versions since they have been adopted independently.

So, what does this all mean?

When translating materials for China, you will need to decide whether the Simplified or Traditional character set is most appropriate for your target audience based on their exact location in the region. There may be some minor differences in the characters used for certain words according to region, reflecting specific vocabulary, so it is important to find a translator who emanates from your target region in order to ensure effective localisation of your content.

Fortunately, Comtec is here to help. We’re experts in all things languages and will be able to offer advice on how to proceed. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch on +44 (0) 1926 335 681 to discuss your needs with us!

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