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The Japanese writing system - part 2

Featuring the infamous kanji...


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As stated in my first post about the writing system, hiragana and katakana already contain all the sounds used in the Japanese language, therefore they should suffice to write in theory...well, that would be too simple and why make simple when one can make complicated?...The complexity, but also the beauty of written Japanese, lies in the infamous and fascinating kanji that represent the hurdle to overcome for every student. There are several thousands of them, of which 2000 are needed to be able to read the newspaper.

It all originates more than 1500 years ago. Back then, the Japanese had no writing system and therefore imported and adapted the kanji from China. Contrary to the hiragana that are only sounds, each kanji carries a meaning. Here are some examples:

  • 愛: love
  • 夢: dream
  • 家: house
  • 宝: treasure
  • 髪: hair

Overall, they are graphically more complex than the hiragana and katakana but there's pretty much everything, from 1 to over 20 strokes! There is at least one character you can easily remember, since it is a single stroke (一) that, amazingly, represents the number one. Even more amazing, ladies and gentlemen, 二 represents the number two and 三 the number three. Calm down, it gets trickier from four!...

Most kanji individually represent a word but they can also be combined to other kanji to form other words. For instance:

  • 今日: today (composed of 今, "now", and 日, "day")
  • 恋人: boyfriend/girlfriend (composed of 恋, "love, passion", and 人, "person")
  • sudoku fans should know that sudoku writes 数独 and literally means "single (独) number (数)"

It makes sense, doesn't it? I chose simple examples on purpose, practically there's pretty much everything. However, more often than not there is some sort of logic behind and learning new words is sometimes similar to solving certainly is tough but also fascinating and paradoxically, the complexity can sometimes help you understand a word you see for the first time, if you know the individual characters that compose it.

Now, remembering each individual character is already a huge challenge. The key here is that you do not need to remember every single stroke for each character. Indeed, characters can usually be divided into commonly used groups of strokes, here are some examples:

  • the top part of 宝, 家, 守 and 宣 is the same and is used in quite a few kanji
  • 車 appears for instance in 輸, 軽 and 軍
  • the top of 義 appears in 着 and 差, and the whole character appears in 犠, 儀 and 議...

And so on...therefore the idea is, instead of memorizing each stroke, to remember the groups and how they are assembled in each kanji. Easier said than done but trust me, experience helps a lot!

As far as I'm concerned, I'm studying with an extremely well designed mnemonic method which makes learning kanji easier as well as, and that's the most important, fun! Note that I said "easier" and not "easy"...although "much less difficult" might be more appropriate.

Learn the kanji, learn how they combine to form words...sounds pretty hard, right? Well it sure is but wait, there's more! Obviously, characters borrowed from another language couldn't just as easily be transposed and practically, since several words with different pronunciations share common notions, they may also end up sharing the same kanji and consequently, each kanji may have several pronunciations (usually two).

It may sound obscure so here is an example: it kind of makes sense that the words "to touch" and "shiatsu" (a form of therapeutic massage in which pressure is applied with the thumbs and palms) should contain the character for "finger". But since these words have different pronunciations, the only way to inject that character was to allow it to have several pronunciations. Concretely:

  • "finger" writes 指 and pronounces "yubi"
  • in the verb 指す (to touch) it pronounces "sa"
  • in the noun 指圧 (shiatsu), it pronounces "shi"

Yes, remembering the pronunciations is another tough nut to crack...

The funny thing with kanji is that sometimes, you can understand a word you see for the first time because you know the meaning of its characters, but cannot read it because you don't know their specific pronunciation in that context...

So how do hiragana and kanji coexist in actual written Japanese? Well practically, hiragana and katakana are only used for conjunctions, prepositions, verb endings etc...Nouns, verb roots, almost anything that conveys a meaning is written in kanji.

For example, the sentence "わたしはぎんこうへいきます", written in hiragana, means "I go to the bank". Let's replace with the appropriate kanji:

  • わたし (I): 私
  • ぎんこう (bank): 銀行
  • いきます (go): 行きます

Using kanji, the same sentence becomes "私は銀行へ行きます".

The pronunciation and meaning are exactly the same but thanks to the kanji, the semantics become visible. In our example, only a few hiragana remain:

  • は: particle designating the topic
  • へ: particle designating the destination
  • きます: verb ending, in the case the polite present

Of course, for the layman, my example just consisted in replacing gibberish with some other gibberish, but I can assure you that the difference is striking for any learner of Japanese. With the kanji, not only the meaning but also the sentence structure are much clearer. Technically, it is not wrong to write only in hiragana and katakana but the text won't have any semantic richness and will be hard to understand: first, one does not include spaces in Japanese and second, the low number of syllables implies that the same sounds and therefore hiragana would appear frequently, making it really hard to separate the words. And you have no choice anyway, kanji are used everywhere all the time and you must learn them if your goal is to read Japanese.

So what are your options when you cannot read a word? If you're lucky, its pronunciation is written above or below, and it is often the case in children books, at the karaoke etc, even in magazines and newspapers for very uncommon words. Otherwise, you need to use what is called a denshi-jisho (electronic dictionary). The better you get, the less you need a denshi-jisho...As for me, I'm still far from being able to read the newspaper by myself!

You can follow this link if you're interested in learning more.

Category: Japanese language

3 comment(s)

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By mamie on 02/10/2007 at 16:29:08

c'est trop difficile pour moi,j'en perds mon latin, quant à toi, bravo et bon courage,
tu vas devenir un expert je te tire mon chapeau
grosses bises de ta mamie.

By Musahi on 02/13/2007 at 21:31:06

Hello, on progresse on progresse, une question :ça peut t'arriver de lire le journal à l'envers sans t'en apercevoir ...
Moi je me mets au Russe, paraît que c'est coton aussi.
Dozo !!

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