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It seems that in response to questions regarding the differences between 漢語 and their 和語 equivalents, it is often explained that the 漢語 is "more formal" than the 和語. As a result, I get the feeling that this is a trend.

One example of this, which made me think of this question, is What is the difference between [友達]{とも・だち} and [友人]{ゆう・じん}?.

And so, the originally question was this: Is this feeling of mine correct? And is it always that way, or are there some instances where the 和語 is clearly more formal?

Upon reading some comments, however, I realize that I am not entirely sure what even I mean by "formal" in the above questions.
Is there some consistent way in which we can understand "formal" as it is used in responding to these types of questions? Or are people using it to refer to a bunch of different concepts?

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    Interesting question. I feel like I suddenly do not know what exactly "formal" means anymore. There are quite a few Yamatokotoba words that most people would agree to be more "high-class" than their Sino loanword counterparts. If that means those are more formal, I just do not know. – l'électeur Aug 23 '14 at 13:39
  • @非回答者 formal in English has a boatload of meanings... Maybe in this case 専門語的 ? But I'm sure OP can clarify. – virmaior Aug 23 '14 at 15:23
  • @virmaior Honestly, I don't know what exactly I mean by "formal" -- though that is most certainly not reflected by the question. I suppose I should update it to fix that. But essentially, I do feel like rather often in response to "what is the difference between <KGWORD> and <WGWORD>?"-type questions, I hear "Nothing, except that <KGWORD> is more formal than <WGWORD>."-type responses. Maybe what I should be asking first is what that means... – rintaun Aug 24 '14 at 16:37
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    Separating out the question of what formality is would be reasonable I think. A more general question is just how to effectively discuss the dimensionality of register in Japanese at all. – Darius Jahandarie Aug 24 '14 at 22:42
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I think there's definitely lots of truth in that tendency. 漢語 was essentially the Latin of Japan for a long time; i.e the language of the elites. In fact, Chinese poetry is still compulsory in Japanese education, a bit like Latin I guess.

Because of this history, 漢語 is associated with art, science, government etc. and is thus generally more formal.

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I'll leave any definitive answers to our native speakers, but rather than formal–informal I've started to think that maybe poetic–prosaic might be a more apt duality. (And formality usually implies little poeticality.)

One other example where both readings are common is 竹林 with チクリン being "prosaic" and たけばやし being poetic.

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    +1 for a very interesting idea. (I comment here because I don't feel competent to at all judge the merits of its accuracy but found it intriguing as an idea). – virmaior Aug 23 '14 at 15:24
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While 漢語 is more formal/technical/academic than the 和語 equivalent in most cases, there are a few exceptions.

  • 一番 (kango) is less formal/academic than 最も (wago).
  • 喧嘩 (kango) is less formal than 争い (wago).
  • 本当に (kango) is less formal/polite than 誠に (wago) in greetings.

I think the number of such exceptions is very small. I understand these may not be good examples because they don't share even a single kanji. Anyway, just because a word is in on-yomi doesn't mean it's always more formal.

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