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This may seem like a strange question coming from someone who has studied Chinese for a number of years now, but I recall a teacher long ago saying I shouldn't call Chinese words

CC-CEDICT: 单词 (dān​cí​): word / CL: 個|个

but rather one of

CC-CEDICT: 词 (cí​): word / statement / speech / lyrics / CL: 組|组, 個|个 / a form of lyric poetry, flourishing in the Song dynasty 宋朝 / CL: 首

CC-CEDICT: 词语 (cí​yǔ​): word (general term including monosyllables through to short phrases) / term (e.g. technical term) / expression

CC-CEDICT: 词汇 (cí​huì​): vocabulary / list of words (e.g. for language teaching purposes) / word

Because of this teacher's comment, I've only used 单词 to describe words in other languages. However, since then I've encountered people use the term 单词 to describe Chinese words, including Chinese teachers in videos.

I don't recall precisely when and where I've encountered 单词, but one example is in this YouTube video by someone describing the post-reform HSK7-9 trial run:

7到9级听力的第二部分也是和6级的第二部分相似,不过从这部分开始另外添加了填空题。这部分选项就开始有a、b、c、d。而且,选项的内容开始变长,后面两道题目就开始需要填空。题目数很多,不仅要选出正确的答案,还需要填写所缺的单词。不过呢,单词不是那么难,听到什么写出什么就好。这个单词呢很短。但是,我也是第一次遇到这种类型的题目,还是觉得比较复杂的。

So...

Question: Does Chinese have 单词 ("words")?

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5 Answers 5

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我觉得“单词”一词并非一个常见的汉语表述,我们一般使用“词”,“词语”,“成语”这些比较常见的表述,“单词”这种表述多见于外语学习资料,用于区分于“合成词”,和“单词”搭配最为常见的表述是“背单词”。

如果我询问同事“那个表达某某意思的单词是什么来着?” 那么他回答我肯定是某个英文单词而非汉语词汇。

对于你所看到的视频中对于“单词”一词的运用,多少是类比于中国的英语考试中“单词”的定义和使用场合。

所以我认为汉语中“单词”的概念并非完全等效于“word”,难以类比

“语言的边界就是思想的边界”

I think "单词" is a less common phrase in Chinese, We use "词", "词语", "成语" more often. The expression "单词" is commonly used in Chinese English text books, used to be distinguish from "合成词". We usually use "单词" in phrase "背单词" ("recite words").

If I ask my colleague "what's the '单词' is meaning something?", the one who I asked will think I am asking for an English word rather then a Chinese word.

So I think "单词" is not all the same like "word" in English, this made this question is not well-defined.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

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    对于你所...: "As regards the usage of "单词" in the video you saw, it's probably by analogy with the usage of "单词" [for English words] in the context of China's English Language test." (You skipped this sentence, figured I'd clarify for the English readers)
    – Tiercelet
    May 26 at 20:33
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Other answers have mentioned that we don't use 单词 for Chinese. Here I'm offering my opinion why it's the case.

Linguistically, 字 (character, glyph) and 词 (word) are totally different concepts. 字 is in the writing system, while 词 can exist even if a language doesn't have a writing form.

To understand their difference, try the character 站. On the one hand, the glyph represents the word to stand up; this is inherent in Chinese. On the other, it represents another word, a stop/station, which is directly borrowed from Mongolian.

In Chinese, 字 is “always” (there are some complications) monosyllabic. Even in modern Chinese, there is still a considerable amount of (单音节词) monosyllabic words, though disyllabic words makes a large proportion.

Note that it is incorrect to say that the disyllabic words are made up of two characters; characters are at the writing level. An appropriate way is to say that the disyllabic words are made up of two monosyllabic morphemes.

Because 字 is a single unit, it makes sense to say 单字. This concept existed way before 单词. But because 字 is "always" (again, there are some complications) a single unit, it's redundant to say "单"字. That's why 单字 is heard but much more often 字 is used.

单词 is a recent concept used for foreign languages. In the long history of the Chinese language, monosyllabic words have always been a significant part. This, plus the fact that the glyph is viewed as a single unit, makes it inappropriate for 单 to describe Chinese words since many of them are composed of more than one syllable and can be analyzed to two or more morphemes.

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  • On a related note, 单字 is sometimes used to stress that in context, the characters are not to form words with each other, e.g. when listing the most common characters.
    – Max Xiong
    Jun 3 at 6:01
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My understanding:

单字 (character) in Chinese are single characters. e.g. 风(wind)、土(soil)、 人(people)、情 (feeling)

单词 (word) in Chinese are words made up of two characters e.g. 风情 (style)、人情 (favor) 土人 (native)

风土人情 (style and customs) would be a 单句 (phrase) made up of two 单词

"见识加国的风土人情" -- "Get to know the customs and style of Canada" is a 词句 (sentence)

  • 单词不成句 (a word is not a phrase or sentence)

  • 单句不成词句 (a single phrase is not a sentence)

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    FWIW, 30yrs ago in Taiwan, people used 單字 for 'word' May 26 at 9:32
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    My understanding is, that 单字 are (single-character) words and 单词 are (muti-characters / compound) words e.g. 人情 (favor), 土人 (native), 电单车 (Motorcycle) -- all 复合字名詞; 单一名詞 (single word)
    – Tang Ho
    May 26 at 9:58
  • @John That's for English. In English classes, word -> 單字。When referring to Chinese characters, one uses 一個字,兩個字.I never use 單字 to refer to Chinese characters.
    – joehua
    May 26 at 14:45
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I want to add to some of the excellent answers already given and don't have space to say everything within a Comment.

The term "word" in English seems to have a clear meaning, but actually just means a unit of language that, when written, is usually surrounded by spaces or punctuation and is without internal spaces. It doesn't have a clear meaning applied only to speech; nevertheless, because of how English grammar works, it is a convenient concept for English speakers to use. If you are talking about very colloquial speech with lots of contractions, the concept begins to break down, since the written form is arbitrary. For instance, can you easily tell how many "words" are in this utterance: "ya gonna see 'em?" It would be a common spoken equivalent of "Are you going to see them?" in some forms of American English.

Mandarin can be written in pinyin, which introduces the possibility of distinguishing written words; however, no one besides lexicographers actually knows all the rules about how to use spacing and many of the rules go contrary to what an English speaker might anticipate, based on English grammar. For instance, one dictionary I have even lists sentences with what seems to be inconsistent spacing, transcribing various groups of characters as "zuò xià le," "zuòxià le," "zuò xiàlai," and "zuòxià."

I think the word 单词 is mostly a technical concept that doesn't have an obvious use in daily speech. That is like the terms "verb phrase" or "main clause" in English that people may know from schooling, but don't use in daily conversation. The word "phrase" has a technical meaning in linguistics, but this is ignored in daily speech. I think that 单词 is similar and is not clearly defined or used for common speech.

When I look up 单词 in my copy of the 汉语大词典, I get in Chinese:

  1. 语法学用语。即词。与“词组”相对

("Grammatical terminology. Namely, a term. Comparable to a phrase.")

  1. 语法学用语。指单纯词,区别于合成词。

("Grammatical terminology. It indicates a single-morpheme word, which is different from a compound word.")

These definitions support the fact that 单词 is specialized terminology and further suggest that it is narrower in scope than what English speakers think of as "words," since it excludes "compound words" in one meaning.

I think Chinese speakers default to the use of 字 for talking about language, even when spoken. If there is a need to talk specifically about groups of words, I think the character 词 is used and defaults to the meaning "expression," with the number of characters being unspecified. I think that an expression like 常用词 does not clearly refer to "commonly used words" but rather to "commonly used terms."

From the Chinese perspective, it is unclear and unimportant whether a term like 下班 is one or two "words," whatever that means as applied to written or spoken Chinese. That is why a 词典 does not define words; it just lists various terms or expressions. It is not important or possible to define what are and what are not "words" when talking about sequences of characters.

Even in specifying the rules for writing pinyin as separate "words," the government seemed to have no use for the term 单词. Instead, the 2012 standards just refer to 词 (terms/expressions) and say things like:

拼写普通话基本上以词为书写单位

(followed by a list of one-syllable and two-syllable words and one three-syllable word, túshūguǎn (图书馆))

and

表示一个整体概念的双音节和三音节结构,连写。例如:

(followed by a list of two and three syllable "words," including quánguó (全国),zǒulái (走来),chángyòngcí (常用词),and duìbuqǐ 对不起))

and

单音节词重叠,连写。双音节词重叠,分写。例如:

(followed by a list of expressions, including rénrén (人人),hónghóng de (红红的),yánjiū yánjiū (研究研究),and shāngliang shāngliang (商量商量))

Rather than using the term 单词, which would be confusing to most people, they talk about whether expressions of various syllable length are written together or written separately. There is no need to refer to whether an expression like 睡觉 is one or two "words," only whether the parts should be written together or separately.

A definition of "word" in Chinese cannot use character writing as an arbiter, since all characters are written together, and cannot rely on pinyin because it necessarily uses arbitrary rules. The concept of "word" has uncertain application to the many Chinese morphemes that sometimes are independent and sometimes bound to others like the 识 of 知识 and 一字不识. The concept is also hard to apply to other morphemes that seem like suffixes, but may be separable in other grammatical contexts, like 看见 and 看得见.

In the end, pinyin is written in "words," but these do not share a clearly definable property beyond being separated by spaces and punctuation. In any case, these "words" correspond to both 单词 and 合成词. This marginal practice within Chinese speaking society is not enough to create the necessity for a common term to describe it beyond just saying something like 连写词 when talking about pinyin.

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The content below is excerpted from an online article. Note that it has been edited according to my own understanding/knowledge. 字≠詞

什麼是字?什麼是詞?字和詞的區別在哪里?常見有些語文教師弄不很清楚,甚至還有一些教學參考書,把不是詞的字當成詞來講,以為字和詞沒有什麼區別。殊不知字和詞是兩個完全不同的概念,不應該混為一談。

字,是記錄語言的基本單位,是用來書寫的。一個字記錄的有時是一個詞(word),有時是一個語素(morpheme)。比如“他喜歡吃批杷”這句話裏一共有6個字,其中包含4個詞(他,喜歡,吃,批杷), 5個語素(他,喜,歡,吃,批杷). 注意, “喜歡”是兩個語素(喜和歡)合成的詞,而“枇杷”是兩個單字合成的詞,同時也是一個語素 - 語素是最小的而又具有意義的單位("枇"和"杷"不是語素, 因為分開來, 這兩個字沒有各別的含義和獨立的用法).

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