Differences Between Spoken And Written Chinese

The difference between spoken and written language is more significant in Chinese than in English. However, distinctions between the two styles are fluid.

In each language, spoken and written styles have their differences, especially when the written language has a long history. As China has a very long written tradition dating back to the Shang dynasty (3500-3000 years ago), the spoken language (口语 kǒuyǔ) and the written language (书面语 shūmiànyǔdiffer considerably more than in most languages. Written Chinese is much more formal than spoken Chinese, making it difficult for many Chinese learners who are able to carry on normal conversations to read a newspaper or write a business letter. Even if written Chinese isn't within the scope of your Chinese learning goals, it is useful to be able to recognize it and differentiate it from spoken language as you progress through your Chinese lessons. 

What is 口语 And What Is 书面语?

Until the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), all government documents were written in a language that is incomprehensible to most Chinese people today, in the same way most people in Europe don't understand Latin. However, aspects of classical language that are not normally heard in conversation remain in newspapers, books, official addresses, and documents today. 

The following table is a list of some words which can be interchangeably used depending on whether you are speaking or writing. For a more complete list of 5,000 most commonly seen characters in newspapers and other print sources, refer to HSK (Chinese Proficiency Test) test prep materials. 


Spoken Language (口语)  Pinyin Written Language (书面语) Pinyin Meaning
今儿  jīn er 今天  jīntiān  Today
 mǎi 购买  gòumǎi  Buy
 kàn 观看  guānkàn  Look at
 zàng 肮脏  āng zāng  Dirty 
 hǎo 美好  měihǎo  Beautiful; great
 chàng 歌唱  gēchàng  To sing
 hé 河流  héliú  River
 shù 树木  shùmù  Tree(s)
小气  xiǎoqì 吝啬  lìnsè  Stingy
吓唬  xiàhu 恐吓  kǒnghè  Frighten; intimidate
脑袋  nǎodai 头部  tóubù   Brain; head
吃醋  chīcù 嫉妒   jídù  Jealous
 zhēn 特别  tèbié  Very; especially
 nòng  zuò  To deal with something
 gěi 给予  jǐyǔ  To give
 xián 嫌弃  xiánqì  Despise

Most spoken words are shorter or more informal synonyms of their written counterparts. In the following example, 嫌 is a shorter version of 嫌弃, and 小气 is a less formal and more commonplace version of 吝啬. 



Meaning: He despises that his wife is so stingy.

While the essential point of these two sentences is that the wife is stingy, 小气 is much more lively and natural-sounding than 吝啬, which is more precise in its meaning. The spoken version could be in a playful way, but the written version is less flexible in its interpretation. Written materials in China are meant to be taken more seriously, and magazines and newspapers make less effort to attract readers with humorous and catchy. 

Sometimes the written words will not even be near synonyms of their spoken-style counterparts. Take for example how written sources normally use "sacrificed" (牺牲 xīshēng) to describe military casualties, as opposed to the word meaning "died" (死了sǐle) that would normally be used

Spoken: 革命战士死了。

Meaning: Revolutionary soldiers were killed.

Written: 革命战士牺牲了。 

Meaning: Revolutionary soldiers sacrificed their lives. 

Especially when describing decorated soldiers who died in a historic battle, written sources are likely to depict death very differently, painting a rosier picture than their spoken counterparts. As you can see in the following example, you would need to know more vocabulary to read a sentence in the newspaper than if you were to understand it in conversation. 

Spoken: 政府给了受灾地区很多东西。

Written: 政府给予受灾地区丰富物资。

Meaning: The government sent aid to the disaster-affected region. 

Formal language is not limited to written materials, but also is often used in public service announcements or formalized customer service. The following examples demonstrate how some cashiers speak to customers more formally than other cashiers.

Spoken: 找钱一块五。

Written:  找零一元五毛。

Meaning: Your change is 1 yuan 5 mao.  

How Much Do I Need To Know About 口语 AND 书面语?

It is useful to know which words are 口语 and which words are 书面语 as you progress through your learning and accumulate more vocabulary. Your word choice in a job interview, for example, could mean the difference between coming across as more personal, or more formal and professional. As in other languages, the differences in which words are used in spoken language and written language are fluid, and it necessary to exposure to native speakers while learning the differences between口语 and 书面语.

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