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From Words to Writing...

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From Words to Writing...

Postby MinusNick » Thu 01.17.2008 6:33 pm

I have kind of a weird question here: was the Japanese language constructed with the kanji in mind? I know they spoke before they started writing (duh), but how is it that every word can be expressed with a kanji or a combination of kanjis. What I'm trying to get at is how do the different readings of the kanji characters happen to match up to what is spoken? I have an example...
火山 - kazan - volcano
山 - yama - mountain
山菜 - sansai- edible wild plants
鉱山 - kouzan - mine

Like, did they make the character and just put different readings to it to suit their language needs? Sorry if this question doesn't make sense...
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby chikara » Thu 01.17.2008 6:43 pm

MinusNick wrote:
I have kind of a weird question here: was the Japanese language constructed with the kanji in mind? ...

I don't know of too many languages (Esperanto being the obvious exception) where the written language evolved at the same time as the spoken language.

Kanji were introduced into Japan from China in about the 6th century AD. I'm fairly certain the Japanese had a spoken language before that :)
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby saraLynne » Thu 01.17.2008 7:07 pm

MinusNick wrote:
I have kind of a weird question here: was the Japanese language constructed with the kanji in mind?


No.


how is it that every word can be expressed with a kanji or a combination of kanjis.


Not every word is so direct, just rather basic ones.

Like, did they make the character and just put different readings to it to suit their language needs?


Often, yes. That's why there are Chinese readings and Japanese readings for each kanji. When they imported them, they assigned them appropriate readings for their own language (as well as imported Chinese words and adapted them into Japanese speech).
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby MinusNick » Thu 01.17.2008 7:16 pm

I know they had spoken language before written: everyone did. What I want to know is how is that the kanjis have a pronunciation that matches the spoken language, even when put into combinations. I know that isn't clear... Lemme see...
火山 - kazan - volcano
山 - yama - mountain
山菜 - sansai- edible wild plants
鉱山 - kouzan - mine
Why does 山 get used in kouzan for mine? I'm sure the word was around before the kanji, so how did they get around to assigning 鉱山 to it instead of its own kanji?
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby furrykef » Thu 01.17.2008 7:42 pm

Eh? "Kouzan" uses on'yomi. On'yomi readings come from Chinese, just like kanji. There's no reason that the word would predate the kanji, unless they had the kanji in mind (or, rather, the words that those kanji represent) when the word was coined.

This should more or less answer your question, I think. Kanji and pronunciations match up well because they were both borrowed from Chinese. The words would still have been borrowed whether or not Chinese used kanji. But it did (and does), so the kanji just came with them.

This applies to words that weren't directly borrowed from Chinese. Let's pretend that Latin and Greek used kanji. "Hydro" is a root meaning "water", which we'll represent with 水, and "electric" means, well, "electric", which we'll represent with 電. If we were to make up a word that didn't actually occur in Latin or Greek, such as "hydroelectric", it would be obvious that we should use the kanji for these parts as well, giving us 水電. (This isn't a real word in Japanese as far as I know. It might be one in Chinese, but in any case, this is only an example to illustrate that the same process is occuring in Japanese and English, only the Japanese do it with kanji.)

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Last edited by furrykef on Thu 01.17.2008 7:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby chikara » Thu 01.17.2008 7:48 pm

MinusNick wrote:
..... What I want to know is how is that the kanjis have a pronunciation that matches the spoken language, even when put into combinations. ....

Pronunciation by definition is "spoken" ;)

MinusNick wrote:
...
火山 - kazan - volcano
山 - yama - mountain
山菜 - sansai- edible wild plants
鉱山 - kouzan - mine
Why does 山 get used in kouzan for mine? I'm sure the word was around before the kanji, so how did they get around to assigning 鉱山 to it instead of its own kanji?

Do you know about onyomi (Chinese reading) and kunyomi (native reading)?

"Yama" is the Japanese native word for mountain. So the Chinese character (kanji) for mountain is used to write the native word "yama". That is an example of a kunyomi.

"san"/"zan" is the Chinese pronuciation of 山. That is an example of an onyomi.

Not only did the Japanese import a writing system from China but they also imported a lot of words where native words did not exist or when a native word existed but the Chinese word became more generally used over time. 鉱山 is probably one of those words and hence the onyomi is used for both of the component kanji.

Edit: Which is effectively what furrykef-san has said above.
Last edited by chikara on Thu 01.17.2008 7:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby Dehitay » Thu 01.17.2008 7:55 pm

Before Japan was introduced to kanji, they had a vocabulary far different than what exists today. So they did have a functional spoken language before a written one. When Chinese characters were introduced, the Japanese assigned kun-yomi to them and used them for words already existing in their language (though some may have changed). They also used the Chinese reading as the on-yomi and formed a great deal of new vocabulary. The reason why so many words mysteriously match the on-yomi which wasn't around before kanji, is because they were created after kanji was introduced. There is also another influx of vocabulary as English and other languages became more present in Japan.
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby HarakoMeshi » Thu 01.17.2008 8:02 pm

MinusNick wrote:
I have kind of a weird question here: was the Japanese language constructed with the kanji in mind? I know they spoke before they started writing (duh), but how is it that every word can be expressed with a kanji or a combination of kanjis. What I'm trying to get at is how do the different readings of the kanji characters happen to match up to what is spoken? I have an example...
火山 - kazan - volcano
山 - yama - mountain
山菜 - sansai- edible wild plants
鉱山 - kouzan - mine

Like, did they make the character and just put different readings to it to suit their language needs? Sorry if this question doesn't make sense...


There are two kinds of words there. "Yama" was an original Japanese word used before kanji went into use, but when they adopted kanji they saw that 山 means mountain in Chinese so they just used 山 to stand for the Japanese word "yama". That's 'kun' reading.

For the ones with "san" however, they actually used the Chinese word ('on' reading) for mountain.

火山 may have already existed in Chinese and imported into Japanese together with the readings "ka"+"san" which combine to "kazan", or the Japanese followed the same rules and made up a new word the same way as the Chinese do it. Japanese coined many new words following this convention.

Edit: And... I should spend time reading earlier posts because now we have like 4 descriptions of the same thing.
Last edited by HarakoMeshi on Thu 01.17.2008 8:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby AJBryant » Thu 01.17.2008 8:17 pm

We had a similar effect in English when the Normans conquered England. There was a HUGE infusion of French vocabulary that still remain in English. Many of the French terms were for the higher class people, while the common folk kept with native English -- which is why farmers raise sheep but they EAT "mutton" (which is just the French word for sheep). Likewise, a lot of older english terms fell out of use and only exist now in place names (like "-stowe" as a town's name ending), while the French "ville" became the more common English ending "-ville".

Many words we don't even think of aren't English at all. Castle, hotel, dance, vacation, etc., owe their origins NOT to Old English but to French.

Likewise, a metric buttload of modern Japanese vocabulary is owed to (originally) Classical Chinese, and fairly early on the Japanese were coining their OWN terminology using their imported writing system, using the kanji as self-contained glossaries to provide the definition of neologisms.

Many Chinese terms, due to compactness, overwhelmed "Yamato kotoba" (the term used by linguists to describe the poorly documented oral Japanese that existed before the influence of Chinese writing). For example, the Yamato word for "volcano" *may* have been "hi no yama" -- mountain of fire -- that was simply converted to those kanji and read in Chinese as "ka-zan."

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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby chikara » Thu 01.17.2008 9:59 pm

AJBryant wrote:
We had a similar effect in English when the Normans conquered England. There was a HUGE infusion of French vocabulary that still remain in English. ....

As George W Bush supposedly said to Tony Blair, "the problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur" :D
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 01.17.2008 10:13 pm

As other people have indicated, quite a bit of the vocabulary came not really from the kanji, but from the Chinese language -- Chinese is structured much more strongly than any other language around single-syllable morphemes, which are combined to make words. At first, the kanji were not used to write Japanese, only to write and read Chinese. So the aristocrats were familiar with a large amount of Chinese vocabulary from the written Chinese texts, which then entered the spoken language as the learning became more widespread.

So it's not really that they borrowed the kanji and then just made up all the words from the on-yomi; a huge amount of vocabulary (especially dealing with Buddhism and governmental things) came into Japanese from Chinese, and then once those morphemes had become part of the language they began to coin new words from them. As Tony says, it's a lot like what happened with French and English.

(It was probably not compactness but the prestige of the Chinese language and culture that caused so many of them to be borrowed.)
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby AJBryant » Thu 01.17.2008 11:08 pm

chikara wrote:
AJBryant wrote:
We had a similar effect in English when the Normans conquered England. There was a HUGE infusion of French vocabulary that still remain in English. ....

As George W Bush supposedly said to Tony Blair, "the problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur" :D


LOL! Well, they do. "Le businessman." ;)

Oh, Chris -- do you remember ever studying the list of words that were "re-imported" to China from Japan during the 19th century? A whole pile of jukugo that the Japanese had created (many of them coined from Western terminology, like "democracy" and so on) that the Chinese hadn't had concepts for, so the kanji vocab went back as new terms. I love that sort of thing.


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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 01.17.2008 11:49 pm

Yeah, I've heard of that but I've never seen a list. I think it's a lot of the political and philosophical vocabulary like you said that were coined to translate Western works.
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby arbalest71 » Fri 01.18.2008 1:31 am

It's also worth noting that Japanese had at least three major waves of imported Chinese words. This is one of the reasons that there are a few Chinese readings for some characters- they were imported at different times, from different regions.
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RE: From Words to Writing...

Postby keatonatron » Fri 01.18.2008 6:02 am

I don't know any Chinese, but my theory is that in the very beginning they had many basic words (like fire [火, 'ka'] and mountain [山, 'san']) and then when they had a need to create a new word, they would build it out of existing ones (i.e. "OMG what is this big mountain that spews fire? Let's call it a 'fire mountain!' [e.g. 火山])

When the simple words were too simple or limited they would create new words... which would then be used as building blocks for even more complicated words.

If English had kanji, I'm sure "fireman" would be spelled with the kanji for fire plus the kanji for man. :D Do you think someone just randomly came up with the word fireman when the profession was invented, or did they use pre-existing words to create it? ;)
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