On Saturday, December 1, 2001, at 04:52 , Christian Molstrom wrote:
>>> Most Japanese text is Kanji + hiragana.
> What?!?!?! Surely you don't mean what you mean. Would you be
> mistaking katakana for hiragana?
Let me try to give a summary ...
Most Japanese words are written in Kanji, for example "Ofuro" (bath)
some Japanese words are written in Hiragana, for example "sayonara"
Words of Chinese origin are written in Kanji, for example "keizai"
... but sometimes in Katakana, for example "Ramen" (Chinese noodles).
Words of foreign non-Chinese origin are written in Katakana, for example
"depato" (dept.store), ...
... but sometimes they go so far back that they have turned Japanese, ...
... and are written in either Hiragana, for example "tabako", ...
... or in Kanji, for example "Tempura" (of portuguese origin)
Female names are often written in Hiragana only or at least used to,
names of small animals, particularly birds and flora and fauna are often
written in Katakana, for example "watari karasu" (trespassing crow for
magpie) even though "watari" could be written in Kanji and Hiragana.
Endings and fillers are yet another special case:
As Kanji are of Chinese origin and the Chinese language does not have
word endings but Japanese does have word endings, the Japanese had to
look out for some method to write the endings to words written in Kanji.
Had they written the endings in Kanji as well, which originally they
did, it would have been not only a bit confusing, but also quite
elaborate. As a result they picked some obvious Kanji with fewer brush
strokes as syllables for writing the endings, which later evolved into
some form of shorthand, now known as Hiragana and Katakana. Older texts
are more likely to use Katakana for those word endings while today all
of those word endings are written in Hiragana.
For example, the Kanji for Asia, pronounced "Ah" in Chinese and
Japanese, was an obvious pick for denoting the syllable "ah" and thus
both the Katakana and the Hiragana for "ah" derived from a shorthand
writing of the Kanji for Asia "Ah".
However, due to the increasing number of foreign words (mostly of
English origin) in use in modern Japanese today and those words being
written in Katakana, one might get the impression that Katakana is more
and more dominating the script.
There is also the notion to use Katakana in comic strips and in
advertisement in order to emphasise, which is often compared to italics
in Western text. With the amount of advertising presumably increasing,
this may also lead to the impression that Katakana is dominant.
However, today the main function of Katakana is to write foreign words
and make them distinguishable from Japanese words.
Note that the Chinese have at least one method of writing sounds in a
similar fashion as the Japanese use Katakana. An example is the word for
Coffee, which is written as Kah-Fey in Chinese but neither the character
for Kah nor the one for Fey has any relationship to coffee. They are
used simply as syllables. In order to avoid confusion, the characters
are tagged with a small square to the left which is also the character
for mouth, thus indicating that this character is just a sound and not a
symbol. This tagging has over time become an integral part of those
characters, which is not surprising because the entire system of Kanji
(or Hanzi in Chinese) is based on such tagging (called a radical and
usually to be found on the left side but not always) in order to give a
hint to the meaning of the character.
For example the Kanji for language "Go" is a mouth (square) with sound
waves coming out of it, which is the radical to the left of the Kanji
hinting at the meaning. On the right the Kanji contains the symbol for
the number five, which is pronounced "go" and is a hint at the
This system works perfectly well in Chinese the language around which it
evolved. Every character has a hint to the meaning and a hint at
pronounciation of which there is only one (within the scope of a
particular dialect). But in Japanese, where some words have Japanese
origin and many words have foreign origin, mostly Chinese, this system
does not work so well, It often works for the so called On-Readings
which are the adopted Chinese pronounciations, but it doesn't work at
all for the so called Kun-Readings which are the original Japanese names
for objects the characters stand for.
It is for this reason that the Japanese writing has developed into a mix
of different character sets used for different things and even in
different situations. This is also the reason why writing Japanese is so
painful to learn, even for the Japanese themselves.
Just consider this:
Adult is written Big + Person,
"big" could be pronounced oh (Kun-Reading of Japanese origin) ...
... or Dai/Tai/Dah/Tah (On-Reading of Chinese origin probably influenced
by various Chinese dialects)
"person" could be pronounced hito (Kun-Reading of Japanese origin) ...
... or Jin/Nin (On-Reading of Chinese origin)
So, you would guess that adult in Japanese is either "oh-hito" or
"daijin" or some variant of it.
Bad luck! The trouble is that the Japanese already had a word for adult
in their portfolio when they imported the writing for it. They needed a
way to write it not a new word. And thus the compound "big"+"person" is
pronounced completely outside of the system: Otona. Logical isn't
it ?! :-)
Also note the many variations of On-Readings! How is this possible if
this is of Chinese origin and the Chinese have only one reading for each
character, we wonder ...
I take it that the Japanese were true Japanese when they learned from
the Chinese about the Kanji, accepting the Chinese as masters of their
own writing and thus they probably never ever questioned anything no
matter what ;-)
So, one day there was this tradesman from one province of China speaking
that dialect, and he told the Japanese that the reading of the Kanji for
big was Dai. This would also have been backed up by documents from the
the region he came from. So far so good. The other day there was another
Chinese tradesman who came from another province speaking a different
dialect and he would have used the same character but pronounced it Dah.
Now if it had been us Westerners in the true spirit of our ancient Greek
philosophers criticising anything and everything in order to improve on
it or even just for the heck of it, we would have said "What the hell
are you talking about - the other day there was one of your folks here
who said it was Dai and not Dah - get out of here!" But the Japanese
would have bravely made a note and ended up with yet another reading for
the same character "Who are we to question this Chinese master ?!"
That was probably a very admirable notion but unfortunately it didn't
help much to prevent the proliferation of hurdles to learn to read and
It would seem that the Koreans have managed to keep their writing system
manageable with a lot less effort as they can write everything in Hangul
(some kind of Kana) without confusing themselves although they too had
imported Chinese Hanzi and Chinese words.
Gosh. I really can't get warm with these Koreans - I am biased towards
the Japanese in a kind of Love-Hate relationship, but these Koreans
seems to be doing everything right by accident such as abandoning their
homegrown phone standard for an international one ... Oooops I think we
had that discussion already, so I stop it right here. ;-)
Have a nice weekend ...
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Received on Sat Dec 1 14:08:24 2001