Why Does Mandarin Have Two Words For “We”?


Word of the Week: 

zán men 咱们

To native English speakers it often seems strange to learn that Chinese doesn’t have plurals. The exception to the rule here is pronouns, you just stick suffix men on the end of the word for “I” (wǒ 我) to make “we” (that’s wǒ men for those of you who can’t add.)

But in Mandarin Chinese there is the word zán men 咱们, which also means “we”. Don’t bother asking a Chinese person what the difference is because if they’re not a Chinese teacher it’s quite likely wont be able to tell you. In fact, if they’re from the south of China they almost certainly won’t even use the word zán men.

So that’s the first difference right there for you, zán men has a particularly northern feel to it. But there’s more to it than just geography. zán men is strictly inclusive, whereas wǒ men is not. This means zán men is only used when “we” includes the person you’re talking to, a bit like saying “you and I”.

So imagine you’re talking to your Chinese girlfriend/ boyfriend, you might want to say zán men kàn diàn yǐng, zěnme yàng?  (how about the two of us watch a movie?)

In this sentence it would be just as acceptable to use wǒ men but zán men sounds a little more informal, and certainly a lot more northern. If someone asks you what you and your girlfriend/ boyfriend plan to do today you might say  wǒ men yào kàn diàn yǐng (we will watch a movie) but in this sentence you can’t use zán men because you’re talking about what you and someone else will do (not what you and the person you are talking to will do.)


zan men can sound a bit more friendly and intimate

So that should hopefully make it nice and clear. zán men can always be replaced with wǒ men but wǒ men can’t always be replaced with zán men. With that in mind you might be thinking what’s the point in using zán men. In fact, if you’re in the south of China there’s probably not much point at all, but if you’re in the north it’s common to use zán men, it perhaps sounds a bit friendlier and is commonly used when inviting people.

zán men chī fàn, zěnme yàng? (how about we get something to eat?)

So why is it that zán men is only really used in the north? One likely reason is the influence of non Sinitic languages spoken by the Yuan dynasty (Mongolian)  and Qing dynasty (Manchu). Both these languages, which border with northern China, distinguish between inclusive and exclusive “we”.

The Chinese languages  spoken in the south of China, such as Cantonese, are accepted as being far closer to middle Chinese as it was spoken 1000 years ago. The fact that zán men is only really used in the north of China suggests that this inclusive/ exclusive distinction is the result of influence from the Mongolian and Manchu languages.

For more information on Chinese dialects click here.


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