Literary and vernacular readings of Chinese characters

Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters

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Differing literary and colloquial readings (simplified Chinese: 文白异读; traditional Chinese: 文白異讀; pinyin: wénbáiyìdú) of certain Chinese characters are common in many Chinese languages. Literary readings (simplified Chinese: 文读; traditional Chinese: 文讀; pinyin: wéndú) are usually used when reading aloud and in formal settings, while colloquial readings (simplified Chinese: 白读; traditional Chinese: 白讀; pinyin: báidú) are usually used in informal speech.


For a given Chinese language, colloquial readings typically reflect native phonology, while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese languages, typically more prestigious varieties. Colloquial readings are usually older, resembling the sound systems described by old rime dictionaries such as Guangyun. Literary readings are closer to the phonology of newer sound systems. Many literary readings are the result of Mandarin influence in Ming and Qing.

Literary readings are usually used in formal settings because past prestigious varieties were usually used in formal education and discourse. Although the phonology of the Chinese variety in which this occurred did not entirely match that of the prestige variety when in formal settings, they tended to evolve toward the prestige variety. Also, neologisms usually use the pronunciation of prestigious varieties. Colloquial readings are usually used in informal settings because their usage in formal settings has been supplanted by the readings of the prestige varieties.

Because of this, the frequency of literary readings in a Chinese language reflects its history and status. For example, before the promotion of Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin), the dialects of the had few literary readings, but they now have literary readings that resemble the phonology of Modern Standard Chinese. Outside the central plains, the relatively influential Beijing and Canton dialects have fewer literary readings than other varieties.

In some Chinese languages, there may be many instances of foreign readings replacing native readings, forming many sets of literary and colloquial readings. A newer literary reading may replace an older literary reading, and the older literary reading may become disused or become a new colloquial reading.

Sometimes literary and colloquial readings of the same character have different meanings.

Behavior in Chinese languages


In Cantonese, colloquial readings tend to resemble Middle Chinese, while literary readings tend to resemble Mandarin. The meaning of a character is often differentiated depending on whether it is read with a colloquial or literary reading. There are regular relationships between the nuclei of literary and colloquial readings in Cantonese. Colloquial readings with [ɛ] nuclei correspond with literary [ɪ] and [i] nuclei. It is also the case with colloquial [a] and literary [ɐ], and colloquial [ɐi] and literary [i]. Of course, not all colloquial readings with a certain nucleus correspond to literary readings with another nucleus.



Hakka contains instances of differing literary and colloquial readings.



Unlike most varieties of Chinese, literary readings in the national language are usually more conservative than colloquial readings. This is because they reflect readings from before Beijing was the capital, e.g. from the Ming Dynasty. Most instances where there are different literary and colloquial readings occur with characters that have entering tones. Among those are primarily literary readings that have not been adopted into the Beijing dialect before the Yuan Dynasty. Colloquial readings of other regions have also been adopted into the Beijing dialect, a major difference being that literary readings are usually adopted with the colloquial readings. Some differences between the Taiwanese Guoyu and mainland Chinese Putonghua are due to one standard adopting a colloquial reading for a character while another standard adopts a literary reading.

Examples of literary readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Examples of colloquial readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:


In the northern Wu-speaking region, the main sources of literary readings are the Beijing and Nanjing dialects during Ming and Qing, and Modern Standard Chinese. In the southern Wu-speaking region, literary readings tend to be adopted from the Hangzhou dialect. Colloquial readings tend to reflect an older sound system.

Not all Wu dialects behave the same way. Some have more instances of discrepancies between literary and colloquial readings than others. For example, the character had a [ŋ] initial in Middle Chinese, and in literary readings, there is a null initial. In colloquial readings it is pronounced /ŋuɛ/ in Songjiang. About 100 years ago, it was pronounced /ŋuɛ/ in Suzhou and Shanghai, and now it is /uɛ/.

Some pairs of literary and colloquial readings are interchangeable in all cases, such as in the words 吳淞 and 松江. Some must be read in one particular reading. For example, 人民 must be read using the literary reading, /zəɲmiɲ/, and 人命 must be read using the colloquial reading, /ɲiɲmiɲ/. Some differences in reading for the same characters have different meanings, such as 巴結, using the colloquial reading /pʊtɕɪʔ/ means "make great effort," and using the literary reading /pɑtɕɪʔ/ means "get a desired outcome." Some colloquial readings are almost never used, such as /ŋ̍/ for and /tɕiɑ̃/ for .


Min Nan

Min languages, such as Taiwanese Hokkien, separate reading pronunciations (dúyin, 讀音) from spoken pronunciations/explications (yǔyīn, 語音; jieshuō, 解說). Min Nan dictionaries in Taiwan often differentiate between such character readings with the prefixes 文 wén for the literary readings, and 白 bái for colloquial readings.

The following examples in Pe̍h-oē-jī show differences in literary and colloquial readings in Taiwanese Hokkien:


The following are examples of variations between literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters in Gan Chinese.


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