Sample 2 from Chapter 18. Kanji: Chinese Characters

Kanji Readings: On/Chinese and Kun/Japanese

In the way they use logographic Chinese characters, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Koreans differ most clearly and dramatically in the sounds assigned to characters, as can be seen in the samples given throughout this book. The Japanese use of characters is similar to, but by no means the same as, the Korean use. For one thing, both peoples can give two quite different readings to characters, Chinese and native, but the Koreans now use only the Chinese readings ("Complicated Hancha Use in the Past" in chap. 12). By contrast, the Japanese not only use both types of readings, Chinese and native, but also use a few varieties of each type of reading, making oral reading of characters exceedingly complicated.

Consider the now familiar character for "ten". It is given one sound shi (rising tone) in Mandarin Chinese and sip (no tone) in Korean but several quite different sounds: to, too, so, jitt-, j, jutt-, all without a tone, in Japanese. The first three sounds are examples of Kun readings ('Japanese native readings'), while the second three are On readings (Chinese readings). Kun is a Sino-Japanese word for "meaning" or "semantic gloss": The Japanese reading too for "ten" is none other than the Japanese native word for "ten," so that it is akin to providing a gloss on a Sino-Japanese word. The Kun reading too (no tone) sounds quite different from the Chinese shi (rising tone), because the two languages are unrelated. To get the flavor of the differences between Kun and On, imagine that English speakers were to adopt the Chinese character for "ten" and pronounce it either as ten using an English reading or as shi using a Chinese reading.

Besides Kun/Japanese readings, most Kanji have one or more On/Chinese readings that attempt to approximate the Kanji's Chinese sounds. On/Chinese readings are never identical to Chinese sounds because of the differences in the sound systems between Chinese and Japanese. On/Chinese readings and the sounds now used in Chinese resemble each other very little for some characters, as between juu and shi ('ten'), and are very similar for some other characters, as between san and shan ('mountain').

For one particular level-1 Kanji the dictionary lists six meanings, some related and some not, and most of which can be used as verbs, nouns, or adjectives: 'life', 'birth', 'growth', 'physiology', 'pupil', and 'raw'. It also lists the following 19 official and unofficial sounds:

13 (10 official) Kun/Japanese readings: i-, iki-, ike-, u-, uma-, -umare; o-, oi-; ki-; nama; ha-, -ba-, hae-;

4 (2 official) On/Chinese readings: shoo, -jyoo; sei, -zei; and

2 unusual Kun readings: iku, ubu.

Actually, this Kanji has many more unofficial and uncustomary readings, especially in place names: yoi, nari, ai, soo, nu, gose, maru, dan, dori, sa, iko.... It is said to have over 100 different readings!

To complicate Kanji reading further, there are Ateji and Jukujikun. In assigning Kanji to Japanese native words, Kanji's meanings are sometimes ignored but their sounds are kept, to create Ateji ('assigned Kanji'), as in sewa ('care'), which ignores the two Kanji' meanings, 'world' and 'talk'. Ateji are used also to write a word with little or unknown meaning, such as a foreign word like America, which requires four Kanji with the meanings 'sub- or pseudo-, rice, clever, add'. (The Chinese use a similar trick to write European names; see "Foreign Loan Words" in chap. 2.) However, a handful of Ateji do reflect the meaning as well as the sound of a native word, as in kokochi ('mind, ground' for 'feeling'). The official Kanji allow Ateji of this kind but not ones that represent the sound without the meaning.

In Jukujikun ('idiomatic Kun') two or more Kanji are assigned to a native word, preserving their meanings but usually ignoring their customary sounds. For example, kesa ('this morning') is an one-morpheme native word, for which two Kanji ('now, morning') are assigned, disregarding the Kanji's Kun/Japanese sounds ima'asa and On/Chinese sounds konchoo . Another one-morpheme native word is miyage ('souvenir'), for which two Kanji ('land, product') are assigned, ignoring their On/Chinese sounds tosan.

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