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Kanji etymology

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Kanji etymology

Postby sugarlevi » Sat 05.17.2008 9:14 am

There have been several post on kanji learning books, but I didn't really find what I was looking for, so here is goes.

Recently I've started digging into the kanji's and the book that helped me the most with getting started was 'Read japanese today',
currently I'm still going through it, but when I am done, I'd like to continue studying kanji by their etymology. As this helps me remember them the best, and helps me a lot with deciphering kanji I don't yet know, by giving attention to the different radicals, and the readings of the kanji.

But I'm kinda lost at which book to get after this. Most of you probably own a lot of books and know their content, so can any of you help me in choosing a book which gives the etymology, and the why does this kanji mean such and so reason?

I did a bit of research myself and stumbled upon the henshall book 'A guide to remembering japanese characters' would this be a good choice to continue my kanji studies?

Are there any other books which gives the etymology of the kanji?
And are there any good sites which give some information about the etymology?
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sat 05.17.2008 9:32 am

Henshall's book is the only book I know of that gives kanji etymologies. It's an interesting book, but using etymologies to learn characters doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Most of the time the etymologies only have a vague relationship to the actual usage of the character in modern Japanese. So you get a kanji like 注, which is said to be the water radical plus 主, which indicated the pronunciation at one time in ancient Chinese but no longer does. 主 may also have been chosen as the right side because the original meaning of 主, a pictograph of a long-stemmed lamp, suggests columns of water and thus "pour". Now, even if that is useful to remember that 注 does sometimes mean pour, the most frequent use of 注 is in words like 注意 (caution) and 注釈(analysis), 注 itself often shows up as an abbreviation for "footnote" or "note". If that sounds helpful to you, then buy Henshall, but I have the book and I consider it useless as a kanji learning tool.
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby sugarlevi » Sat 05.17.2008 10:51 am

I do know rather often the meaning is all scrumbled up and changed through history. But I'm just really interested in etymology and I noticed when using 'read japanese today' the meaning of the kanji's sticked with me more than they did with any other method. Even when the meaning has changed, I'll remember that is has changed and so I am able to remember the current meaning.

Besides I just can't help myself asking, why, why, why all the time. And when the 'why' question is left unanswered my mind just blocks remembering it. I am just really terrible at cramming and remember naturally when I know the why and how.

And maybe I should have said this before but it won't be the only source of information I'll be using. I supplement my flashcards with whatever I find. It doesn't stop by knowing how the kanji came to be, and means pour, I also put on other meanings and different compounds/phrases on them to help giving them context. But the etymology does the trick for me as a stepping stone to remembering them, and gives me a basis for bringing them to life.
Honestly I am amazed anyone is able to cram the meaning of such abstract pictograms into their mind without knowing where they came from, without knowing which images the chinese wanted to express when creating them. Without that piece of information they are just a bunch of random lines from my point of view. Guess all the more proof I am one that thinks in images. :roll:

I am even more amazed people are able to remember by making up random stories to use as mnemonics, maybe I am just not creative enough to be able to make them up and connect them to a kanji.

So, I guess I will be getting the Henshall book, looking forward to it. Though any other recommendations containing some etymology will be welcome. Are there any dictionaries that reference to the etymology of the kanji?

Furthermore after Henshall, I think kanji in context, will be an excellent book to improve further reading of the kanji?
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sat 05.17.2008 11:25 am

Kanji in Context is a good book, but you will need to have a decent grammar knowledge to use it. Note that you really shouldn't think of yourself as learning "reading of the kanji" -- the kanji are just one small part of learning to read Japanese.

If you have a good handle on basic Japanese grammar, KiC is an excellent book. There's some more advanced grammar in there, but you can use various resources or ask here if you get stuck. If you do not have a good handle on basic Japanese grammar, I suggest focusing on that and putting off kanji study until later. Knowing lots of kanji is really not very useful unless you have the grammar necessary to read things.

The kanji should not be treated as "abstract pictograms" -- when people get into trouble with learning kanji, the #1 reason is that they're trying to learn them out of context, as stand-alone, abstract entities with little or no connection to the Japanese language (that is, the kanji are treated as shapes that carry an English meaning and some "readings" which, taken out of context, are really just strings of random syllables). In my experience both as a learner and teacher of Japanese, most people have little trouble remembering the kanji shapes when they learn to read Japanese with a focus on actual reading material and not just stand-alone kanji. (Writing the kanji is a different matter entirely.) I also think people tend to box themselves too easily into specific categories and create mental blocks -- the usual "I'm an X type of learner so I can't do Y" statements.

As far as I know, there are no English kanji dictionaries that contain etymologies. There are a number of Japanese-language kanji dictionaries that contain etymologies (such as 漢字源), but these would be advanced-level resources, not learning tools.
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby sugarlevi » Sat 05.17.2008 12:45 pm

I find them an enormous part to reading Japanese. I messed up in the begin with the ' Japanese for busy people textbooks', which don't use kanji. I have got some magazines in japanese that corresponds to my interests but not knowing most of the kanji is kinda of a setback in using them as an interesting way to improve my reading skills, and I really really want to be able to read those.
Although my Japanese is still rather basic and raw, reading along my interests has been an enormous push learning any other language, so I hope it will give my Japanese the same push as it did with those. Even though understanding a language not related to the languages I do understand proves to be a bit more challenging, I'll just have to try to see if it is gonna work this time.

Thanks a lot for answering my questions with the lightening speed you did. :)
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby skrhgh3b » Sat 05.17.2008 2:35 pm

I love Henshall's book. His mnemonics are useless - except for the occasional well known mnemonic that he freely lifts - but it is incredibly interesting and the only book of its kind in English that I know of. Sometimes etymologies are a great way to remember a character, more often than not they're anything but, but either way, I enjoy familiarizing myself with them anyway out of curiosity.

two free resources you might be interested in are:

http://www.kanjianatomy.com/index.htm

these are language learning mnemonics based upon kanji etymology, so it's watered down, but more often than not very helpful. they only cover the 579 kanji introduced in the Genki textbook series, though.

http://www.kanjinetworks.com/

this is a massive free online resource on kanji etymology as interpreted by two scholars, but the etymologies themselves are written in short hand and are anything but helpful as a study aid. but they're still interesting nonetheless.
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby jimbreen » Mon 05.19.2008 7:31 am

skrhgh3b wrote:
[...]

http://www.kanjinetworks.com/

this is a massive free online resource on kanji etymology as interpreted by two scholars, but the etymologies themselves are written in short hand and are anything but helpful as a study aid. but they're still interesting nonetheless.


Interesting, yes. Authoritative, well..... Let's just say that a lot of other scholars don't agree with them.
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby sugarlevi » Sun 05.25.2008 9:30 am

Authorative or not, it does help, I have started supllementing my anki deck with the information from the kanji networks, and it's a real help in learning them. And I wonder if there are any authorative works at all for the non-asian market. Besides over something like these pictograms where history isn't always very clear there is always going to be stride over who has got the right theory. As long as one keep an open mind and remembers it is probably not the absolute truth one is learning, it doesn't matter to much, does it?
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby Sairana » Sun 05.25.2008 10:24 am

sugarlevi wrote:Authorative or not, it does help, I have started supllementing my anki deck with the information from the kanji networks, and it's a real help in learning them. And I wonder if there are any authorative works at all for the non-asian market. Besides over something like these pictograms where history isn't always very clear there is always going to be stride over who has got the right theory. As long as one keep an open mind and remembers it is probably not the absolute truth one is learning, it doesn't matter to much, does it?


I guess that depends on whether you were actually interested in etymology, or mnemonics, don't you think?
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby Musiflare » Sun 05.25.2008 4:43 pm

The last time my boyfriend was in Japan, he picked up a copy of 漢字は難しくない which is stylized more for children, but still gets the basic information across. It really depends on what level you're at--I found this would be pretty good for an upper beginner, because it keeps it simples and offers explanations in both English and Japanese.
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Re: Kanji etymology

Postby sugarlevi » Tue 05.27.2008 9:41 am

Sairana wrote:
sugarlevi wrote:Authorative or not, it does help, I have started supllementing my anki deck with the information from the kanji networks, and it's a real help in learning them. And I wonder if there are any authorative works at all for the non-asian market. Besides over something like these pictograms where history isn't always very clear there is always going to be stride over who has got the right theory. As long as one keep an open mind and remembers it is probably not the absolute truth one is learning, it doesn't matter to much, does it?


I guess that depends on whether you were actually interested in etymology, or mnemonics, don't you think?


You can put the question like that.
I major in philosophy and biology, even though I don't go and read all theories and books published about it. Mostly it suffices to just go with one to get acquainted with the topic and after that when still interested you go and read some more, and maybe even specialise in it. Am I not interested in evolution because I don't read anything about creationism?
It is not a bad thing to don't read everything published about a certain thing, as long as you keep in mind, you're probably don't know the whole truth. And though interested in etymology I am even more interested in getting acquainted with the Japanese script, but you can't expect me to go and spend hundreds of hours of time to approach the subject of etymology at an advanced academical level without having the basis necessary to do so.
So I use my current resources to build such a base, learn about etymology and learn about the japanese language. And when done so maybe I will go after such a more advanced level of knowledge about etymology, but honestly I am totally not interested in going after it in such a scholarly way. My schedule is rather full as it is. :wink:
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