Reading Ōshima Shōji 大島正二's Chūgokugo no rekishi 中国語の歴史 ("History of the Chinese language"), I came across an interesting comment on the Chinese word for "grammar."

As any fule know, the word for "grammar" in Japanese is bunpō 文法 ("sentence/writing rules"). Its use as a term of art in the field of linguistics dates from the 19th century, but the two-character combination has been around for much longer with related but premodern meanings (e.g. in the 17th C. Nippo Jisho 日葡辞書 it's defined as the rules for writing letters correctly). I don't have a cite, but it seems likely to me that in this sense it goes back to Chinese.

However, the standard word for "grammar" in contemporary Mandarin is yǔfǎ 语法 ("word rules"). This word is also in Japanese, but with a much more restricted meaning: the rules for manipulating and using individual words, not for combining them into sentences.

Ōshima points out that there was a time when 文法 was used in Chinese too, as can be seen from the very titles of books like Lí Jǐnxī 黎锦熙's 1924 Xīnzhe guóyǔ wénfǎ 新著国語文法 ("New grammar of the national language"). Around 1942-1943, though, books began appearing with 语法 (well, at the time, 語法) in the title instead.

Zhōngguó xiàndài yǔfǎ 中国現代語法 ("Contemporary Chinese grammar"), by Wáng Lì 王力, was one such book. According to Ōshima, Wáng explained his use of 語法 as follows: of the three words in current usage, 文法 refers properly to written language and 話法 ("speech rules") refers to spoken language. Only 語法 can refer to either, and therefore it is the best neutral term for "grammar".

Ōshima speculates that the triumph of 语法 may reflect the Chinese view of grammar as something that boils down to the correct arrangement and use of (fixed, atomic) words — as opposed to, for example, the Indo-European and even Japanese model where the words themselves change according to their role in the sentence — but I don't know enough about Chinese attitudes towards their own language to assess that hypothesis.

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Except for the fact that words are not called 语 in Chinese. 单语 a couple of times maybe, but never 语. The standard term is 词(儿). The 语-文 opposition is instead focused on the relation between spoken and written language.


Oh, snap! Thanks for the correction. I don't suppose you happen to know Wáng's actual reason for preferring 语法 over 文法 and 話法, in that case?


Yufa is the term used in mainland China. In Taiwan they use wenfa for grammar. In this case and others Chinese compounds in Taiwan often correspond to their equivalents in Japanese


I know a little bit about the terms, but my knowledge is so porous that I can only talk in the most vague terms. Basically in 40s-50s (and irrespective of the political division), 文法 was the folk term and 語法 the linguists' jargon. In Taiwan, 文法 finally persisted in general usage, and 語法 still the linguists' word. This 使い分け can be seen in http://formosan.sinica.edu.tw/m/ch/intro.htm, for example, where 文法 is used only to refer to grammar books, and 語法 more to the grammar -- the rules of the language. In the PRC, on the other hand, 语法 has prevailed over 文法, which now feels bookish or Taiwanese.

As to why 文法 is substituted to 语法 in linguists' usage at the first place, it must be the 文 vs 语 thing, of the primacy of the spoken language over the written or other now-platitudes.


I was hoping that the compilation 汉语研究小史 (王立达编译, 1959), a translation from the Japanese of something called 中国语学研究史, would be helpful, but now that I've found my copy, I see that it treats 文法 and 语法 pretty much interchangeably, without comment or footnote. The former is cited in titles and quotations, while the latter is used in the main body text throughout.

What it does offer is a bibliography of grammar texts drawn up by 牛島德次 that lists the title 中国语法纲要, published in 1920 by 杨树达, or more than two decades before Wang Li adopted the term.


<i>Except for the fact that words are not called 语 in Chinese. 单语 a couple of times maybe, but never 语. The standard term is 词(儿). The 语-文 opposition is instead focused on the relation between spoken and written language.</i>

Excellent point. Although Chinese people traditionally seem to have thought more in terms of 字 than of 词.

As you note, 文 is officially reserved for the written language, although ordinary people are much less strict and seem quite happy with 你会讲中文吗?

Is it possible that the use of 语 reflects linguists' official preference (derived from Western linguistics) for describing language in terms of the spoken rather than the written language? That is, it doesn't reflect an ancient distinction but a quite modern one. There is also the fact that 语 is used in the names of languages (which is the same as in Japanese, of course): 汉语, 英语, etc.

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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