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Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

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Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Bengal_Tiger234 » Wed 07.08.2009 11:15 am

So I've been looking around these forums and I found a lot of heated debates over the role that Kanji plays in the Japanese writing system, whether or not they're necessary, whether or not they add expressiveness to the language, etc.

So I've been thinking a bit about this and here's an argument that I haven't heard anyone bring up yet. It has to do with the etymology of Japanese words and the way that Japanese words relate to eachother.

My argument is divided up into two parts. 1) What exactly is the relationship between different Japanese words and 2) Why Japanese words mean what they do.

So for example, in English, let's look at the words "to swim" and "swimming." "To swim" is a verb and "swimming" is a noun (as in the sentence-Swimming is a sport.) In English the relationship between these is clear and obvious. Both words share the root "swim." Now, let's look at the same thing in Japanese. "To swim" is 泳ぐ(およぐ), and "swimming is 水泳(すいえい). If Japanese got rid of kanji now and these words could only be written in kana or romaji, then there would be no way to tell why these words are related. They sound nothing a like and look nothing alike. However, with kanji, we can see that "sui" is the on-yomi of the kanji for water and "ei" is the onyomi of the kanji for to swim and voila, it makes sense.

Here's another example. In English, we have "East" and South" and if we put them together, we get "south-east." The meaning is obvious since the words don't change their sound when you put them together. But in Japanese, however, they do. "East" is 東(ひがし), "south" is 南(みなみ), but somehow "south-east" is 東南(とうなん). Sure, without kanji the Japanese would still understand eachother just fine, but they probably wouldn't be able too explain just why exactly "south-east" isn't just higash-minami but instead "tounan" when such an explanation is very easy when done in terms of kanji and on vs kun readings.


Ok, so part two of my argument is that while in English we can often times break down words into their comonents to figure out what they mean or try to see if the word has any greek or latin roots in it, you can't do this in Japanese without Kanji. For example, in English, the word "lawyer" can be broken down into the noun "law" and the suffix ery/yer which means "one who does," more or less. And there you go. We have a break down of the word lawyer in English. Now, in Japanese, without kanji, try to break down the word べんごし so that one can understand why it means what it does. You can't. There's just no way. But with the kanji, 弁護士, you see it's eloquence +protect+expert and those kanji meanings add up and produce the word. Another example is vampire. In English, vampire comes from French or German, and in turn, the French and German words for vampire have a slavic, eastern European linguistic history. In Japanese, vampire is 吸血鬼、suck+blood+evil spirit/demon. The kanji make the meaning obvious. Without kanji, you're left with "kyuuketsuki" which could be anything. Sure no one will ever misunderstand the word to mean anything else, but without kanji, no Japanese person could tell you why exactly the word meant vampire. Without kanji you can't break down the word because "to suck" in Japanese is suu, not "kyuu", blood is "chi" not "ketsu" and evil spirit is oni, not ki.

Now, for this second argument, I know the existence of ateji and the like are glaring counter-arguments, but for he most part I think what I say holds true.

So what are your thougths on this? Especially YudanTaiteki/Chris Kern, you're the linguist on here and I'd love to here your opinion on this.
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Wed 07.08.2009 12:24 pm

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:So for example, in English, let's look at the words "to swim" and "swimming." "To swim" is a verb and "swimming" is a noun (as in the sentence-Swimming is a sport.) In English the relationship between these is clear and obvious. Both words share the root "swim." Now, let's look at the same thing in Japanese. "To swim" is 泳ぐ(およぐ), and "swimming is 水泳(すいえい). If Japanese got rid of kanji now and these words could only be written in kana or romaji, then there would be no way to tell why these words are related. They sound nothing a like and look nothing alike. However, with kanji, we can see that "sui" is the on-yomi of the kanji for water and "ei" is the onyomi of the kanji for to swim and voila, it makes sense.


I don't think this has anything to do with whether kanji are *necessary* for Japanese, though. It shows that kanji can provide some help to foreign learners of Japanese (native Japanese would know both "suiei" and "oyogu" long before they began to learn to read, so they would not need any sort of visual help to know these two words).

And in any case, of course there is a way to tell the words are related -- they mean the same thing. The words are only related in two ways: (1) their meaning, and (2) the kanji used to represent them. For (2), obviously if kanji weren't there that relationship wouldn't matter. And for (1), if you learn the meaning of the words then you know they are related without seeing any written representation of them at all. It's not like they have any sort of etymological relationship.

Here's another example. In English, we have "East" and South" and if we put them together, we get "south-east." The meaning is obvious since the words don't change their sound when you put them together. But in Japanese, however, they do. "East" is 東(ひがし), "south" is 南(みなみ), but somehow "south-east" is 東南(とうなん). Sure, without kanji the Japanese would still understand eachother just fine, but they probably wouldn't be able too explain just why exactly "south-east" isn't just higash-minami but instead "tounan" when such an explanation is very easy when done in terms of kanji and on vs kun readings.


The problem with both of your other arguments is that you do not, in fact, need kanji to see certain relationships. If you know a number of words using these morphemes (such as 東南, 北東, 関東, etc.) you can get some meaning from the morphemes without any need for a visual symbol. We know the meaning of certain morphemes in English that do not stand on their own as words, without the need for a Chinese character to mark them.

Ok, so part two of my argument is that while in English we can often times break down words into their comonents to figure out what they mean or try to see if the word has any greek or latin roots in it, you can't do this in Japanese without Kanji. For example, in English, the word "lawyer" can be broken down into the noun "law" and the suffix ery/yer which means "one who does," more or less. And there you go. We have a break down of the word lawyer in English. Now, in Japanese, without kanji, try to break down the word べんごし so that one can understand why it means what it does. You can't. There's just no way. But with the kanji, 弁護士, you see it's eloquence +protect+expert and those kanji meanings add up and produce the word. Another example is vampire. In English, vampire comes from French or German, and in turn, the French and German words for vampire have a slavic, eastern European linguistic history. In Japanese, vampire is 吸血鬼、suck+blood+evil spirit/demon. The kanji make the meaning obvious. Without kanji, you're left with "kyuuketsuki" which could be anything. Sure no one will ever misunderstand the word to mean anything else, but without kanji, no Japanese person could tell you why exactly the word meant vampire. Without kanji you can't break down the word because "to suck" in Japanese is suu, not "kyuu", blood is "chi" not "ketsu" and evil spirit is oni, not ki.


Once again, this does not have anything to do with whether kanji are *necessary* to represent Japanese. Being able to see etymological formations is not necessary to read a language. You are correct that the presence of kanji can sometimes clarify relationships between words that might otherwise be unclear because of multiple morphemes that sound the same, but you don't need etymology to learn to read or speak a language.

And once again, even without the characters you could still know the meaning of the morphemes by comparing them to other words that use them. "ketsu" may not mean blood by itself in Japanese, but if you know words like 血液 that use "ketsu" as a morpheme meaning "blood", you don't necessarily need the kanji.

You've pointed out some reasons why kanji can provide some help to learners of Japanese (though is it really worth the years necessary to learn the thousands of symbols?) and how kanji can show relationships between words or highlight etymological links, but that's a far cry from saying that Japanese must be represented with the current kanji/kana system.
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby coco » Wed 07.08.2009 6:36 pm

Yudanさん
長らく腑に落ちなかったYudanさんの「漢字-非必須論」の元にある考え方がようやく少しわかったような気がします。
ご説明ありがとうございました。 :)
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby furrykef » Thu 07.09.2009 4:54 pm

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:So for example, in English, let's look at the words "to swim" and "swimming." "To swim" is a verb and "swimming" is a noun (as in the sentence-Swimming is a sport.) In English the relationship between these is clear and obvious. Both words share the root "swim." Now, let's look at the same thing in Japanese. "To swim" is 泳ぐ(およぐ), and "swimming is 水泳(すいえい). If Japanese got rid of kanji now and these words could only be written in kana or romaji, then there would be no way to tell why these words are related. They sound nothing a like and look nothing alike. However, with kanji, we can see that "sui" is the on-yomi of the kanji for water and "ei" is the onyomi of the kanji for to swim and voila, it makes sense.


Well, in English, if you put together "water" and "lightning", you don't get "waterlightning", you get "hydroelectricity". It's pretty much the same thing. In English, we generally either understand the Greek/Latin word just fine or, if it's too obscure, we just ignore the word and find an alternative. Why should Japanese be different?

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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Bengal_Tiger234 » Thu 07.09.2009 9:12 pm

Well, in English, if you put together "water" and "lightning", you don't get "waterlightning", you get "hydroelectricity". It's pretty much the same thing. In English, we generally either understand the Greek/Latin word just fine or, if it's too obscure, we just ignore the word and find an alternative. Why should Japanese be different?


In English, hydro always refers to water though. You don't have 6 different hydros floating around the language that can mean a bunch of different things. There's no need for kanji because hydro always equals water. The etymology of the word is distinct. This is not the case with Japanese. All of the following kanji can be read as "sui" 吹,推,睡,酔,翠 and many others. So in Japanese, there is no direct etymological link between "sui" and "mizu" as there is in English with "water" and "hydro".

NOTE: This is NOT me saying that because Japanese has a lot of homonyms that kanji are necessary to understand written text. What I am saying is that without kanji, the etymological links between words in Japanese don't really exist in the same way they do in English.

My main point here is that although kanji are NOT necessary to read Japanese texts and to understand written Japanese, they ARE necessary if you want to preserve the etymological foundation on which the language is built. Sure, I recognize the fact that the etymology of words isn't necessary for learners or native speakers of the language in order to communicate, and I concede that point to you Yudan, but wouldn't it be a shame to lose that which basically form the glue that holds the language together, in a sense. So this is why I consider kanji indispensable, not because they are necessary to read, but because without them you're basically ripping out the soul of the language.
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Gundaetiapo » Thu 07.09.2009 9:32 pm

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:So in Japanese, there is no direct etymological link between "sui" and "mizu" as there is in English with "water" and "hydro".


You should cite a source because it is not at all evident that "water" and "hydro" have a direct etymological link.
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Bengal_Tiger234 » Thu 07.09.2009 10:15 pm

You should cite a source because it is not at all evident that "water" and "hydro" have a direct etymological link.


Sorry. I should have been more specific. I know hydro has latin/greek roots while water is germanic in origin so in that respect they do not have a direct link. But in modern English, when you see hydro as a morpheme in a word it's almost guaranteed to have something to do with water. But in Japanese, seeing "sui" in a word doesn't relate to "mizu" probably even half the time. The 1 to 1-ness between hydro and water in English doesn't exist in Japanese between Mizu and sui. The same thing can be said for countless other English words vs countless other Japanese words.

I do recognize your point as I said before that "water" and "hydro" come from two completely different languages but in modern English they represent the same thing, more or less, just used in different contexts (water as a full-fledged word and hydro as a prefix).
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 07.09.2009 10:51 pm

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:they ARE necessary if you want to preserve the etymological foundation on which the language is built.


When was the Japanese language built? What did they do before kanji?

If you know words like "suizokukan" and "suiei", then if someone introduces you to the word "suiryoku denki" (水力電気), assuming it's in context, someone will probably be able to figure out what it is. If not, the person can say "suiei no sui" or the like, without any reference to kanji. There's no worry that someone is going to think it means drunken power or something like that.

Now, it is true that sometimes writers will either make up terms or use obscure words with the understanding that their readers will be able to figure out the meaning from the kanji. I do not like this practice, particularly the practice of making up words; it makes it hard to understand exactly what meaning the writer is trying to communicate (it surprises me when people mention this as a *good* thing about kanji.) Luckily this is nowhere near the problem it is in Chinese; Japanese writing, for the most part, is fairly close to common speech.

Sure, I recognize the fact that the etymology of words isn't necessary for learners or native speakers of the language in order to communicate, and I concede that point to you Yudan, but wouldn't it be a shame to lose that which basically form the glue that holds the language together, in a sense. So this is why I consider kanji indispensable, not because they are necessary to read, but because without them you're basically ripping out the soul of the language.


Well, now you're moving from "Kanji are necessary to represent Japanese" to "Kanji should be used to represent Japanese". That's a much more opinionated question than the first one. Whatever advantages kanji may provide, I personally do not believe they are worth the enormous amount of time it takes to learn the symbols. I think that's what you have to remember in this kind of discussion -- when you're comparing an alphabetic/syllabic system with the current Japanese writing system, the alphabetic system starts off with a huge advantage over kanji/kana in that it takes so much less time to learn. That means that whatever advantages kanji/kana may have, they need to be pretty large in order to make up for their major disadvantage.

(Now, this is not saying "Japan should get rid of kanji" -- that's a cultural and political issue that goes beyond any discussion of whether kanji are necessary or whether they're better or worse than a syllabery or alphabet.)
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Bengal_Tiger234 » Thu 07.09.2009 11:26 pm

Well, now you're moving from "Kanji are necessary to represent Japanese" to "Kanji should be used to represent Japanese".


Woah, woah, woah. I feel like I should start with this because nowhere in this thread have I stated that kanji are necessary to represent Japanese. If that's what you got from my posts, then you didn't really read them.

I even put in a note to make sure that no one would make this mistake:

NOTE: This is NOT me saying that because Japanese has a lot of homonyms that kanji are necessary to understand written text. What I am saying is that without kanji, the etymological links between words in Japanese don't really exist in the same way they do in English.


And in plenty of other places I specifically stated that this argument was not about needing kanji to represent Japanese and that I agree with you that kanji aren't necessary to understand written Japanese, only that kanji serve a very good etymological purpose.

When was the Japanese language built? What did they do before kanji?


Two things. 1) Before kanji there was no writing system at all. And 2) before kanji there was only yamato-kotoba so my entire point about the differences between "mizu" and "sui" and "higashI" vs "tou" etc etc wouldn't even matter because Japanese wouldn't have had all of these onyomi and chinese borrowed words. Kanji and chinese in general changed EVERYTHING about the language and ironically, it is the effect that kanji itself has had on the language that is why they have become so important in showing word relationships.

Looking back at what I posted I suppose the word "built" might have been the wrong choice but to clarify but when I said built I was referring to when the Japanese first started learning to write and when the influx of chinese came in. I guess in that sense that is when the language began forming to how we know it today (even though this was more than a thousand years ago) but I digress.

Again, I'm going to say just as I've always said that kanji aren't necessary for communication between people who understand Japanese. My point is that without kanji you're sort of losing the glue that holds the on and kun, sino japanese versus native japanese words together.

OF COURSE, without kanji a japanese person wouljd still have no trouble at all knowing the meaning of suiei or the meaning of tounan or whatever other sino-japanese word there is, but my point is they might not always understand why the words are related. Another example is the verb hanareru, versus the noun rikon. Of course a japanese poerson will have no trouble understanding both . But the fact that the two share a kanji relate them in a way that is not possible without the kanji. And I feel it does a great disservice to the language to shatter that relationship and it is for this reason that I feel kanji should be kept (not that anyone here was advocating for their abolishment in the first place).
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby furrykef » Fri 07.10.2009 1:07 am

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:In English, hydro always refers to water though. You don't have 6 different hydros floating around the language that can mean a bunch of different things. There's no need for kanji because hydro always equals water. The etymology of the word is distinct. This is not the case with Japanese. All of the following kanji can be read as "sui" 吹,推,睡,酔,翠 and many others. So in Japanese, there is no direct etymological link between "sui" and "mizu" as there is in English with "water" and "hydro".


On the flip side, if you take the root "hydro", you know how to pronounce it just by looking it. If you know 水 as "mizu" and 泳 as "oyo(gu)", then you have no clue 水泳 is pronounced "suiei" -- especially considering that many kanji have more than one on'yomi, so many cases really are hard to figure out how to pronounce. So, you either lose the connection to the meaning, or the connection to the pronunciation; something's got to give somewhere.

Also, when you consider that a lot of kanji words don't actually give that much clue to the meaning (would you ever guess that a 八百屋 is a grocery store?), often you don't even get much of a connection to meaning either -- not unless you're already aware of the etymology of the word, anyway. (There is a story behind it; I just forgot what it was.)

So a lot of words have little connection to meaning or pronunciation, which is a lose/lose system in my opinion, from the standpoint of practicality. But I do think kanji are beautiful, regardless. (I think anybody who doesn't find them beautiful is going to have a really rough time learning how to write them...)

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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby hyperconjugated » Fri 07.10.2009 3:38 am

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:Woah, woah, woah. I feel like I should start with this because nowhere in this thread have I stated that kanji are necessary to represent Japanese. If that's what you got from my posts, then you didn't really read them.

Well, the in the topic you state that your arguments(possibly) favor the indispensability of Kanji. And nowhere in the original post you mention or insinuate that the kanji aren't, in fact, indispensable.

Only in later post say that your indispensable means "without them[kanji] you're basically ripping out the soul of the language". Not that's doesn't really qualify as indispensable, or do you think? Can you now see why people might confuse what you are actually trying to say?
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Bengal_Tiger234 » Fri 07.10.2009 10:53 am

Well, the in the topic you state that your arguments(possibly) favor the indispensability of Kanji. And nowhere in the original post you mention or insinuate that the kanji aren't, in fact, indispensable.


Do you recognize the difference between me saying that kanji are indispensable to reading and comprehending modern Japanese and me saying that kanji are indispensable if one wants to preserve the relationship between words and etymology of the language? Because the latter is the only thing I've ever claimed here and numerous times have I said the former is false. The term "indispensability" can refer to different reasons and I don't need you linking dictionaries to me. So really, any one who gets confused really hasn't read my posts and is merely picking out a few sentences here or there and basing their opinion of what I'm saying off of that and so far it seems that that is what some people here have been doing...

Also, that quote of mine in your post was a direct response to Yudan's post, which he wrote soon after I had specifically stated at least twice, if not more so that I had never stated kanji are "necessary to represent Japanese" ie-without them we couldn't read.

PS-If you go back to my original post you'll see that several times I did state that "no Japanese would ever misunderstand the meaning of these words (without kanji)."
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby two_heads_talking » Fri 07.10.2009 2:34 pm

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:Do you recognize the difference between me saying that kanji are indispensable to reading and comprehending modern Japanese and me saying that kanji are indispensable if one wants to preserve the relationship between words and etymology of the language? ."


The only thing I recognize here, is much confusion and no solid information or sources on your part. it's all just speculative insight and quite frankly without knowing your background to determine if such insight is worthwhile, it's all just hot smoke and I'm not happy with you blowing it up my kilt... :o :o
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby hyperconjugated » Fri 07.10.2009 3:26 pm

Bengal_Tiger234 wrote:Do you recognize the difference between me saying that kanji are indispensable to reading and comprehending modern Japanese and me saying that kanji are indispensable if one wants to preserve the relationship between words and etymology of the language? Because the latter is the only thing I've ever claimed here and numerous times have I said the former is false. The term "indispensability" can refer to different reasons and I don't need you linking dictionaries to me. So really, any one who gets confused really hasn't read my posts and is merely picking out a few sentences here or there and basing their opinion of what I'm saying off of that and so far it seems that that is what some people here have been doing...

In the strict sense you are right. But the for sake of the argument there should probably be some realistic scenario where somehow the relationship between words and etymology of the language could be lost. Even if the Japanese would get rid of all the kanji, like the in scenario speculated in the OP, there would still be plenty of written material and knowledge left everywhere else to trace the etymologies. It would need an event in the magnitude of giant asteroid hitting the earth or a global kanji-Endlösung(sparing neither knowledgable people nor written documents) etc. to make this link utterly fubar.
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Re: Possible argument that favors the indispensability of Kanji

Postby Gundaetiapo » Fri 07.10.2009 8:58 pm

Your use of "etymology" sounds a bit like ab-use. "sui" and "mizu", regardless of orthography, are not etymologically related, though they are semantically related. You can't change the history of a word by how you write it. ...Unless you're talking about the influence on future etymologies?

ironically, it is the effect that kanji itself has had on the language that is why they have become so important in showing word relationships.


I simply don't know what effect you refer to. The written language is generally derived from the spoken language, be those spoken words 和語 or 漢語, and be it based on the pronunciation or the semantics of those spoken words. In theory I suppose the written language could be a feedback influence on the spoken language, but I would ask what your evidence for this is.
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