Just an observation...

Japanese, general discussion on the language
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RE: Just an observation...

Post by witega » Mon 07.30.2007 4:38 pm

Today, I was reading and encountered the compound 帰路. I don't believe I've ever seen or heard this word before. But because I 'know' both the component kanji, I had no problem immediately understanding the word ('way back', 'return route') or identifying the correct reading (きろ). I expect that anyone (including native speakers) who has spent much time reading Japanese has had this experience multiple times--a new compound is encountered, the individual kanji are recognized and the new word is known. And sometimes this even occurs without being sure of the reading. I can never seem to remember how to pronounce 証拠 but when I saw 証言 I immediately knew it 'meant' testimony because I recognized 証.

This experience is what gives people a certain gut-feeling that kanji 'have meaning'. Even if I don't know how to read 食事 I recognize '食べる' (eat) and I recognize '事/こと' (thing) and I have at least a general idea of what I'm reading. But the gut-feeling is missing several things:

1) It doesn't always work that way: 悩殺 has nothing to do with suffering or death no matter how you try to put together the normal 'meanings' of those two kanji.

2) A vague idea of meaning often does not get you directly to the actual usage (which I think is the core of Yudan's pedagogical objection to the whole 'meaning' approach). 食事 'eat-stuff' does not simply mean food. It is a more specific term--one a reader will probably gather quickly if they read the word in context but which they won't get from just looking at the kanji in isolation.

3) Second-language learners approach kanji in an artificial way. A native Japanese child is not taught: here is '食', it is read as 'た*べる' or 'しょく' and means 'eat'. Instead, they are taught: here is '食', you use it to write the た in たべる, the く in くう, and the しょく in 食事 and 食後 and 食器 and a dozen other words they already know.

In other words, Japanese natives learn kanji not as a core meaning and a set of readings but rather as representions (spellings) of one or more bound morphemes that they already know. In English, we don't see 'un' as having any inherent meaning. In the words bUN or UNderstand or dUNe the 'un' means nothing by itself. But even before we learn to spell it, we know that when 'un' is used as a bound morpheme in certain contexts (undo, unhappy, untie), it means 'not'.

This may be more difficult for English speakers to intuitively grasp simply because English does not actually have that many bound morphemes and those we do (un-, the plural and possessive 's', past tense 'ed', etc) generally only supplement or modify 'real words' (the unbound morphemes they are added to). Japanese, on the other hand, partially because of the way it borrowed linguistically from Chinese and partially because of the agglutinative nature of much of its grammar, has thousands if not tens of thousands of such morphemes. So 食 does not mean eat but rather represents several different morphemes which each mean eat. In 帰路, the meaning is obvious not because 帰 means return but rather because 帰 and 路represent the morphemes き and ろ, respectively, which mean 'return' and 'path, way'. The situation is complicated (but not actually changed) by the fact that most Japanese morphemes have multiple homophones. 帰 represents the morpheme き which means return; 着 also represents a morpheme 'き' but this one is associated with 'wear'--and 着 itself represents 2 different morphemes both pronounced ちゃく but one means 'wear' and the other 'arrive'.

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Yudan Taiteki
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RE: Just an observation...

Post by Yudan Taiteki » Mon 07.30.2007 5:14 pm

Good post.

And if anyone's confused by the terminology:

A morpheme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that has meaning. In English, "tele-", "-ing", "green", and "idea" are all morphemes. The sound "p" as in "pen" is not a morpheme because it has no meaning.

A bound morpheme is one that cannot stand alone. So "tele-" and "-ing" are bound morphemes. Many on-yomi of kanji are also bound morphemes.

A free morpheme can stand alone, like "green" or "idea".

I believe that all kanji readings are morphemes. Most on-yomi are bound morphemes, although there are some free morphemes. A small number of kun-yomi are bound morphemes, but most are either free, or a combination of free+bound, free+free, etc.
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Mon 07.30.2007 6:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.
-Chris Kern

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