In Mandarin, some languages tend to be described as a ‘-yǔ’. For example, ‘Spanish [language]’ tends to be called ‘Xībānyáyǔ’ or the abbreviated form ‘Xīyǔ’. Some languages tend to be described as a ‘-wén’. For example, ‘French [language]’ tends to be called ‘Fǎwén’.
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 ‘Xībānyáwén’ and French as ‘Fǎyǔ’, and indeed on the Chinese Wikipedia pages for both languages they list their names as both ‘Xībānyáyǔ’ and ‘Xībānyáwén’ / ‘Fǎwén’ and ‘Fǎyǔ’. But in practice, I’ve mostly seen ‘Spanish [language]’ referred to as ’Xībānyáyǔ/Xīyǔ’ and ‘French [language]’ referred to as ‘Fǎwén’ (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 ‘Yīngyǔ’ but at least 95% of the time in Mandarin it is referred to as ‘Yīngwén’. Japanese [language] is similar to English in this regard – it is usually referred to as ‘Rìwén’ but occasionally as ‘Rìyǔ’. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that Japanese described as ‘Rìyǔ’ in the very same contexts that English is decribed as ‘Yīngyǔ’ – 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)? Continue reading →
Two weeks ago I posted a guide to distinguishing Sinitic languages by ear. Here are the answers to the exercises where one guesses which language(s) are being used. But just giving the answers would be boring, so I’m adding my own commentary. Continue reading →
There are many forms of Chinese, and many of them are not mutually intelligible. For many years (basically until I started studying Mandarin) I wasn’t good at distinguishing the sounds of the various forms of Chinese. It was only through exposure that I learned how to identify forms of Chinese just by hearing it, and I’m still far from perfect. In particular, because I’ve had very little exposure to Shanghainese, I’m still not good at identifying it by sound alone.
Why do I think it is good to be able to distinguish these languages? Because it is one thing to read something like ‘Hakka culture is primarily found in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia’ or ‘Cantonese is the language of the Punti people‘, and another thing to be able to recognize the languages. Though merely being able to recognize the languages doesn’t make one an expert, I think it is enough to imprint on the mind that these cultures/peoples/languages exist in a way that just reading/hearing the statement ‘these cultures/peoples/languages exist’ cannot.
(Personally, I am embarrassed that, in spite of growing up in a neighborhood with plenty of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, I learned how to distinguish Cantonese and Mandarin at a much later age than when I learned to distinguish French/Spanish/Italian).
This blog post is a guide to learning what these five Sinitic languages sound like. This blog post is not about trying to understand these languages (which is why I ignore tones).
To start, this helpful video teaches common phrases in each of these five languages. In that video, it’s obvious that these languages are related, yet not mutually intelligible. (That video also refers to Mandarin as “guānhuà“, which is interesting). Continue reading →