What Is the Difference Between a Yǔ​ and a Wén?

In Mandarin, some languages tend to be described as a ‘-yǔ’. For example, ‘Spanish [language]’ tends to be called ‘Xī​bān​yá​yǔ’ or the abbreviated form ‘Xī​yǔ’. Some languages tend to be described as a ‘-wén’. For example, ‘French [language]’ tends to be called ‘Fǎ​wén​’.

Spanish and French are very similar languages in many regards, so why the heck is Spanish a ‘-yǔ’ and French a ‘-wén​’?

Technically, it is acceptable to refer to Spanish as ‘Xī​bān​yá​wén​’ and French as ‘Fǎ​yǔ​’, and indeed on the Chinese Wikipedia pages for both languages they list their names as both ‘Xī​bān​yá​yǔ’ and ‘Xī​bān​yá​wén’​ / ‘Fǎ​wén’​ and ‘Fǎ​yǔ’. But in practice, I’ve mostly seen ‘Spanish [language]’ referred to as ​’Xī​bān​yá​yǔ/Xī​yǔ’ and ‘French [language]’ referred to as ‘Fǎ​wén​’ (at least in Taiwan where I lived – it may be different in other parts of the Sinophone world).

If you’re wondering what English [language] is, it’s a ‘-wén’ just like French. I have on a few occasions seen English referred to as ‘Yīng​yǔ​’ but at least 95% of the time in Mandarin it is referred to as ‘Yīng​wén​’. Japanese [language] is similar to English in this regard – it is usually referred to as ‘Rì​wén​’ but occasionally as ‘Rì​yǔ​’. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that Japanese described as ‘Rì​yǔ​’ in the very same contexts that English is decribed as ‘Yīng​yǔ​’ – which is a very strong hint that ‘-yǔ’ and ‘-wén​’ aren’t fully interchangeable.

What causes some languages to be ‘-yǔ’ by default (like Spanish) and others to be ‘-wén​’ by default (like French)?

I’m going to put together a list of languages based on whether they default to ‘-yǔ’ or ‘-wén​’. I’m mostly following my own intuitive sense, but just to check myself, I also put names in dictionaries and search engines to get a more accurate feel.

Yǔ languages
Spanish
Portuguese
Hindi
Thai
Arabic
Hebrew
Russian
German
Sanskrit
Latin
All sign languages

Wén languages
French
English
Japanese
Korean

As you can see, there are a lot more Yǔ languages out there.

I want to point out that when official United Nations languages are listed, they are all ‘-wén​’ languages, including Arabic, Russian, and Spanish. By contrast, official languages of the European Union are all ‘-yǔ’ languages, including English and French. So the United Nations is the kind of organization where people languages in a ‘-wén​’ way and the European Union is the kind of organization where people use languages in a ‘-yǔ’ way. What is it about the United Nations which puts its official languages in the ‘-wén​’ category and what is it about the European Union that puts its official languages in the ‘-yǔ’ category?

But what about Mandarin itself?

As I’ve discussed on this blog before there are many Mandarin words for ‘Mandarin’. It is often referred to as ‘Zhōng​wén’​, which literally means the ‘wén​’ of ‘Zhōng​guó​’ (which, in turn, literally means ‘Middle Kingdom’ or ‘Central Nation’ but in practice means ‘China’). However, it is also often referred to as ‘Guó​yǔ​’ especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong and certain overseas Chinese communities, which means ‘national yǔ’. And in some places, particularly Singapore, Mandarin is known as ‘Huá​yǔ​’ which means ‘yǔ of the Huá​ people’. (There is no good brief way to convey the concept of ‘Huá’ in English, but it is often translated as ‘Han Chinese’ or ‘ethnic Chinese’). More than any other language, Mandarin fully belongs to both categories.

What about other Chinese languages? They are often referred to as a ‘-huà​’ which is a category in itself, but they are also sometimes referred as ‘-yǔ’ such as ‘Yuè​yǔ​’ (Cantonese), ‘Tái​yǔ​’ (Taiwanese), ‘Wú​yǔ​’ (Wu Chinese, including Shanghaiese), and so forth. I have never, ever seen a Chinese language other than Mandarin referred to as a ‘-wén​’ – except for one very important exception. That exception is the language known as ‘Wén​yán​’ or ‘Gǔ​wén​’, which is called ‘Classical Chinese’ in English. Yep, it is the mother of all Chinese languages. It is also, in a very different sense, the mother of all ‘-wén​’ languages, including all the official languages of the United Nations and Japanese and Korean. ‘Gǔ​wén​’ literally means ‘Ancient Wén​’. No language fits the ‘-wén​’ category as perfectly as Classical Chinese.

What do ‘yǔ’ and ‘wén​’ mean anyway? Here are dictionary entries: and wén

Imagine that you grew up in a Chinese-speaking society (if you did, in fact, grow up in a Chinese speaking society, then you probably already understand the difference between ‘-yǔ’ and ‘-wén​’). How would you probably experience various other languages? Why might Spanish seem more like Cantonese, and why might French seem more like Classical Chinese? Why might the United Nations seem like the kind of place you would use Classical Chinese (if it were an official U.N. language), and why might the European Union seem like the kind of place you would use Cantonese (if it were an official European Union language)?

I think this blog post has enough information for you to deduce the difference between ‘-yǔ’ and ‘-wén​’, and if you deduce it for yourself, it will make more sense to you than any explanation I could write.

4 thoughts on “What Is the Difference Between a Yǔ​ and a Wén?

  1. This is a great post and a worthy successor to your awesome “Mandarin word for ‘Mandarin’” post, answering a question I always sort of had but wasn’t fully aware of.

    Except, in a shocking twist, you don’t answer it! Ai-yo…

    So I’ll give my best guess, based on your excellent detective work: a ‘yǔ’ is more spoken, local, linguistic, or informal, while a ‘wén​’ is more written and global and official.

    Thus France and England, two world-spanning empires, have a ‘wén​’, while the Spanish and Portuguese world-spanning empires are too long gone to qualify. Japanese and Korean qualify as ‘wén​’ because… they are official languages of the countries nearest to China, representing the independent states that would long have had ambassadors and such.

    The languages at the UN are official, ‘wén​’, each representing their independent nation. Within the EU, it’s messier, because there are national languages and regional languages, and because every nation is a kind of region within the EU, so they’re all ‘yǔ’.

    I’d kind of expect Latin and Sanskrit and ancient Greek to be ‘wén​’… Aren’t they like classical Chinese? Formal, official, and dead?

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