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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 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." "Ok, 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”, 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 T'ang dynasty pronunciations starting

  • in the 7th century. Tou-on pronunciations made their way to Japan from later dynasties.

  • The final on'yomi is kan'you-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's 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 is 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

  • can 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 the 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! Kyuujitai!

  • 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


  • 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.

  • ("Yame!")

  • This 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 da--... while 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


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B1 中級

漢字物語-日本はいかにして漢字を氾濫させたか (Kanji Story - How Japan Overloaded Chinese Characters)

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    jigme.lee888 に公開 2021 年 01 月 14 日