A friend of mine who just started learning Chinese (Mandarin) asked me the other day about the "correct way" to say the term "Chinese language" in Chinese. I spent some time explaining to her and I thought I'd share with everyone as I'm sure those who are learning Chinese may have the same question.
So before I get into the different names for the Chinese language in Chinese, first I'd like to define a few Chinese words:
- 語 / 语 Yǔ - Language, including BOTH spoken and written.
- 話 / 话 Huà - Spoken language.
- 文 Wén - Written language / script.
Due to various historically, cultural and political reasons, there are many names in Chinese referring to the Chinese language:
- 漢語 / 汉语 Hànyǔ - This literally means "Language of the Han" where the Han refers to the Han ethnic group who is the majority in China and is usually synonymous with the term "Chinese". If you learned Chinese in mainland China or at almost all universities anywhere in the world, chances are this is the term you learned in class. This term has existed for a long time and was revived by the PRC in the past few decades. It's mostly used in the context of comparing to other non-Han languages, including those as foreign as English or Russian and also those spoken by Chinese ethnic minorities such as Tibetan, Mongolian... etc. as opposed to say Cantonese (Yue) or Shanghaiese (Wu).
- 普通話 / 普通话 Pǔtōnghuà - Literally "common speech". This term was used by the PRC to refer to Mandarin, as opposed to the other Chinese dialects/languages such as Cantonese (Yue). It's only used in the context of comparing different Chinese dialects as opposed to foreign languages.
- 國語 / 国语 Guóyǔ - "National language". This is currently used in Taiwan to refer to Mandarin. The usage is similar to Pǔtōnghuà as stated above.
- 華語 / 华语 Huáyǔ - "Chinese language". This term is generally used by oversea Chinese communities including Singapore.
- 中國話 / 中国话 Zhōngguó huà - "Chinese speech". This term is rarely used anymore. It doesn't necessarily refer to any dialects in particular.
- 中文 Zhōngwén － “Chinese script". This is perhaps one of the most used term to refer to the Chinese language (both written and spoken) including by this forum. However, it is also the most incorrectly used. This term is supposed to refer to only written Chinese but often you can hear people ask something like "你會說中文嗎？" / "你会说中文吗？" Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? This incorrect usage doesn't only apply to the name for "Chinese language in Chinese" but also other language names such as 英文 (English)，法文 (French)... etc. Sorry if I sounded like I'm ranting, it's just a personal pet peeve
- 官話 / 官话 Guānhuà - "Official spoken language" or "Spoken language of government officials". This term only refers to Mandarin and is pretty much no longer used. Back in the days, government officials, especially those from the south, would not be able to effectively communicate with the emperor or each other. Therefore they were asked/made/"encouraged" to learn Mandarin, which resulted in the name. Thanks to Checkov for reminding me of this term.
Hopefully this helps some of you. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.