Shapes of kanji characters
Some history of kanji characters
Japanese people cannot pronounce kanji characters
How can Japanese people make new words?
Wrap-up, a trait of kanji characters
IntroductionHave you ever imagined existence of kanji characters which Japanese people could not pronounce correctly? Definitely, it is difficult for Japanese learners to pronounce them correctly. But, sometimes even Japanese people suffer from pronunciation of kanji characters. In this blog post, I will explain why kanji characters could be difficult that much, plus by-products of the difficulty.
Shapes of kanji charactersFirst of all, let me talk about my experience in China. Don’t worry! This story is highly related to the topic of this post.
I’ve been to China several times. I’ve never learned Chinese language, but interestingly, never been lost there. Shapes of Chinese characters are very similar to those of Japanese kanji characters, so they always help me a lot to guess what they mean based on my knowledge of Japanese language.
I strongly believe that this experience is not unique to me. This means that other Japanese people would have the same experience as mine. Why can Japanese people guess meanings of Chinese characters? Before answering this question, please let me talk about some history.
Some history of kanji charactersJapanese language has three different character types, namely, hiragana, katakana and kanji. As you probably know, kanji characters were originally imported from China more than thousand years ago. So, at a certain point of time in the past, Japanese kanji characters were completely the same as Chinese characters. And then Japanese people started to develop their own characters, hiragana and katakana, by simplifying imported characters.
In parallel, Chinese people have been doing the same thing with their language. They have been modifying Chinese characters by reducing their strokes or simplifying their shapes.
More than thousand years have past since two language started to grow apart, yet shapes of characters have not been changed that much. Interestingly, both countries haven’t succeeded in changing them drastically. Therefore, even today, Japanese people can guess meanings of Chinese characters with comparing them to kanji characters.
IdeogramsAs I mentioned above, both China and Japan haven’t succeeded in changing character shapes significantly. It’s a not coincidence. Let me explain a reason.
Modern Chinese characters and Japanese kanji characters both of which have the same root are well known for members of the ideogram family. From the grammatical, or more precisely, linguistic point of view, ideograms express their meanings by their shapes. In other words, shapes of these characters have very strong relation with their meanings. This is the reason why both countries haven’t changed shapes of characters that much. Shapes are always a key to better understanding of meanings.
PhonogramsContrary to Chinese characters and Japanese kanji characters, English alphabets are well know for phonograms. This means that their shapes express their pronunciations but we cannot guess their meanings. Therefore, my experience in China explained above could sound a bit weird to those who are familiar with phonograms. They usually don’t face situations where they can guess meanings from shapes of characters and also situations where they cannot guess pronunciations.
By the way, I haven’t explain the difference between pronunciation of Chinese characters and Japanese kanji so far. Both characters are not phonograms, but ideograms. This means that we can guess their meanings from their shapes, but cannot do the same thing for their pronunciations. Actually, pronunciations of these two languages are very different. What I’m saying in this blog post is that only shapes of characters are similar both in Chinese and Japanese.
Japanese people cannot pronounce kanji charactersNow I reached to the main topic of this post. As I explained, kanji characters are ideograms. So they usually do not help us to understand their pronunciations. Therefore even Japanese native speakers sometimes feel difficulty to pronounce them correctly. Especially when new characters appear in books, most probably Japanese people cannot pronounce them.
On the one hand, this fact encourages Japanese learners a lot. They don’t have to be nervous with pronunciation of kanji characters. Even Japanese native speakers cannot pronounce them correctly.
On the other hand, however, it would disappoint Japanese leaners a lot. Shapes of kanji characters do not help them to understand correct pronunciations. Only one way to be a better speaker is just remembering as many kanji characters as possible.
Even for Japanese native speakers, this trait of Japanese kanji characters, namely, being ideograms is a double edged sword. Nevertheless, they know how to get along with the edge towards their side. Interestingly, they use it often to create new Japanese words.
How can Japanese people make new words?The title of this chapter could sound a bit weird. However, like other languages, new words can be created also in Japanese. One major way to create new words is definitely mispronunciation of kanji characters.
I already mentioned that Japanese words written in kanji would be hard to pronounce even for Japanese native speakers. In Japanese, this difficulty plays a significant role to create new words. Let me take an example.
Example 1Below is an example to show how wrong pronunciation contributes to make a new word.
- dokudanjō – 独壇場(どくだんじょう) : a noun to mean “monopoly” or “unchallenged position”.
- dokusenjō – 独擅場(どくせんじょう) : a noun having the same meaning as above.
Fortunately, these two kanji expressions above are still slightly different. So we can understand how mispronunciation happened and how the new kanji expression was born. In following paragraphs, I will show you a more difficult example. In Japanese, sometimes, a new word has completely the same kanji expression as the original one.
Example 2Below is the next example.
- Taningoko – 他人事(たにんごと) : a noun to mean “a problem not related to one”, “his/her business” or “a problem one is not involved in”.
- Hitogoto – 他人事(ひとごと) : a noun having the same meaning as above.
This example also shows how mispronunciation contributes to creation of new words in Japanese.
Wrap-up, a trait of kanji charactersLet me summarize what I’ve explained In this blog post.
I explained the trait of kanji characters. They are ideograms. So we can guess their meanings from their shapes. This trait is very helpful to guess their meanings, especially, meanings of new characters. However, they usually do not tell us their correct pronunciations unlike English alphabets. So even Japanese native speakers sometimes cannot pronounce them correctly. Interestingly, this mispronunciation plays a significant role to create new words in Japanese.
Japanese Particles Master
Masaki Mori is a Japanese particles master. Through teaching Japanese language, he is trying to spread the culture of Japan. His goal is to preserve it as much as possible.