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  • In my last rant about all the ridiculousness it takes just to write a simple sentence in Japanese,

  • the list of complications kept growing and growing and growing until we threw that kanji bomb into the mix like a writing systems ninja.

  • But I didn't even get into the stuff that really takes Japanese kanji over the top, making them seriously awkward.

  • Don't forget, don't you dare forget, that Japan borrowed its characters from China.

  • That's important because it explains what happens next.

  • When a kanji came on the boat across the sea, it brought its Chinese pronunciation along with it.

  • But Chinese and Japanese are two very different languages with two very different pronunciation systems.

  • So each character didn't get pronounced the way somebody from China would say it, but the way somebody from Japan would hear it.

  • Here's how I imagine that history.

  • - Well, hello! Who might you be? - Han.

  • - Okay, Kan? - No, Han.

  • Yes, Kan. Nice to meet you, Kan.

  • And that is just the tip of the Sapporo ice sculpture.

  • What makes this confusing cultural mismatch even better is that the acoustic exchange happened a long time ago, so it's the way characters from old China sounded to people in old Japan.

  • And since, like I explained last time, most characters are a bad game of charades with one part of the character telling you what the word "sounds like", the confusion coming out of this phonological telephone game makes that vague "sounds like" hint even more vague in Japanese.

  • The fancy term for this cultural mishmash of kanji pronunciation is the Sino-Japanese reading.

  • In Japanese, they call it the "on'yomi", literally "sound reading", which makes sense, since you're reading the kanji with its Chinese sound.

  • And, of course, there's more than one way to skin an on'yomi.

  • There's "go-on"; that's the classical Wu pronunciation of the characters from the 5th century.

  • Then came the "kan-on", which are Tang dynasty pronunciations starting in the 7th century.

  • "Tō-on" pronunciations made their way to Japan from later dynasties.

  • The final on'yomi is "kan'yō-on", outlier pronunciations, and even mistakes, that became conventional and stuck around over the centuries.

  • So, yeah, don't be surprised when the on'yomi for a kanji you're learning is actually a bunch of different Sino-Japanese pronunciations.

  • This has amusing consequences.

  • If you go to Zen ceremonies, they recite this passage in Classical Chinese that's called the Heart Sutra.

  • But this is Japan, and these are all kanji.

  • So how do you think the Sutra gets pronounced?

  • In Classical Chinese? No. In Standard Chinese? No. In Japanese? No.

  • It's just chanted as a long string of on'yomi, basically resulting in gibberish in both languages.

  • Kanji don't just have on'yomi, though; they also have kun'yomi.

  • Like I said before, Japanese and Chinese are two very different languages, which means that all these on'yomi getting borrowed century after century are basically foreign vocabulary words.

  • But do you think the native Japanese words just stepped aside and made room for all the shiny new Chinese terms?

  • No. The incoming kanji had to fit Japanese, too.

  • So Japanese words got matched to Chinese characters that seemed like a good fit at the time.

  • Here is the character for cart or vehicle.

  • It has a few Sino-Japanese on'yomi, but the basic one is "sha".

  • But the Japanese already had a word for this, "kuruma", so this character can represent any of these pronunciations.

  • It wasn't an exact science, though.

  • Just like you can have multiple Chinese pronunciations for each kanji, why not have multiple Japanese meaning readings, too?

  • There's even one more bunch of readings to add to this list.

  • Nanori.

  • It's for proper names and it's usually yet another native Japanese pronunciation for the character.

  • And the excitement doesn't stop here, tomodachi, because it's time to forget the reading fun and think about all the writing fun you could have with these.

  • That is where you really get to play with this systems within systems madness... I mean, uh, amazingness that is the kanji.

  • If you want to play fast and loose with the history and meaning of these characters, you can switch in some Ateji.

  • Those are kanji characters used just for the way they sound.

  • When you see "sushi" written this way, that's some improv ateji stuff going on.

  • Neither of those characters has anything to do with the meaning of that word.

  • Sometimes Japan just builds its own characters following the logic of Chinese character composition, just makes characters up, because you can be productive with this charades game.

  • These are called "kokuji", country characters.

  • Sometimes there are newer ways and older ways of writing the exact same character.

  • Shinjitai, kyūjitai.

  • Sometimes a character gets way too complicated or you're just feeling creative and you need to abbreviate it in one way or another.

  • And by abbreviate, I mean turn it into a completely unrecognizable thing that I'll sit there trying to look up, like, "What is that? It wasn't on my official kanji list!"

  • Ryakuji.

  • And mastering one character is only a fraction of the battle.

  • Often, characters don't mean what you think they mean, or they really don't mean much on their own.

  • Japanese loves to combine characters to make a word.

  • You go, Japan! Stack those characters!

  • And then, once you're comfortable with multi-kanji words, level up again to tackle those terse little three-character or four-character proverbs that pack some deep meaning in just a very few syllables.

  • This is not even where things get out of hand; I promise you.

  • You see, it's not the quirky syllables from last time.

  • It's not the quagmire that you get into when you start memorizing all the kanji with their sound readings, their meaning readings, their substitutions and abbreviations.

  • It's the untamed beast that only rears its head when you first put ink to that fresh sheet of Japanese paper, which looks a lot like regular paper.

  • Uh, stop and think about how super intricate the characters get with all their little lines and strokes and daswell, I tell you in all seriousness that there's officially a right way and a wrong way to write each and every single mark in these things.

  • You made it this far, but I need you next time to help me through this.

  • Stick around and subscribe for language.

In my last rant about all the ridiculousness it takes just to write a simple sentence in Japanese,

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B1 US japanese chinese character kan pronunciation meaning

Kanji Story - How Japan Overloaded Chinese Characters

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    jigme.lee888 posted on 2018/08/22
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