I'm referring to frequency tables such as this one:. To take one example, it lists words like 商 and 业 in the top 500 characters and words like 买 and 卖 in the second 500 characters.

That's true even though 商 业 and 买卖 both loosely mean "business."

Are these relative frequencies valid across the board or does the average person use 买卖 more in speaking rather than writing?


Of course it is. Interjections are far more common in any spoken language compared to its written counterpart. Chinese also consists of many words and phrases that are very formal and rarely spoken.

https://naccl.osu.edu/sites/naccl.osu.edu/files/NACCL-21_Vol._1--Hongyin_Tao--pp._13-27.pdf could be taken as a starting point.

While the ten most common written characters are 的,一,是,不,了,在,人,有,我 and 他, the most spoken ones are 的,是,我,就,不,你,了,那,啊 and 个。

那个 and 啊 stand out in spoken Chinese, as does 你, since written language usually addresses a collective.

嗯 occupies place 2042 in the written frequency list, but position 30 in the spoken. Similar for 吧 and 哦.


The site listed doesn't give a lot of information on what exactly the corpus is, but as the paper is from 2010, we can assume that there isn't quite as much bias towards social media posts as there would be if such a study occurred today. That's important because social media tends to be "written" in a register that's much more in line with the spoken register of a language compared to traditional written media.

As such, this phenomenon is not unique to Chinese, but can be noticed throughout pretty much any language with a large corpus of written media. Much like a news article in English would likely use the word "purchase" more often, whereas spoken English would tend towards "buy/bought," it would be natural for a similar situation to occur in Chinese. This would result in a different frequency distribution for characters in written Chinese as opposed to spoken Chinese.

  • It would be awesome to see a frequency list based on spoken chinese. – Enrico Brasil Nov 25 '15 at 1:57
  • @EnricoBrasil: My guess is that the way to do it would be tape record a lot of conversations, and transcribe them. Maybe "programs" such as newscasts would be intermediate between the written and spoken languages, but even movies may tell a different story. – Tom Au Nov 25 '15 at 3:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.