Kanji

Japan had no written language until regular contact with China began in the 6th century.  Over the next several hundred years, Japan adopted many aspects of Chinese culture, and one of these aspects was writing.  At first, though, all of this writing was actually done in Chinese, not Japanese.  Why?  Because Chinese isn’t written with an alphabet.


Chinese is written using glyphs known as hanzi, meaning “Han characters” – “Han” being the name of China’s dominant ethnic group.  In Japanese, this word is pronounced kanji.

Kanji began many thousands of years ago as pictograms.  So the word “bird,” for example, was a picture of a bird.  But what if you want to write “hawk,” or “duck,” or “heron”?  And then what about different varieties of hawk, duck, and heron?  Trying to have a different pictogram for every bird quickly becomes ridiculous.  And what about abstract ideas?  Pictograms are too cumbersome, and so most kanji were instead created by combining other kanji.

One type of combination deals purely with meaning.  For example, 明, a character that means “bright,” is composed of 日 and 月, the characters for “sun” and “moon.”  This category is small, though.

The majority of kanji were created such that one part indicates pronunciation and another indicates meaning.  Take 松, the character for “pine tree.”  The left half comes from 木, meaning “tree,” and the right half is 公, which means “public.”  A pine, therefore, is a tree whose name is pronounced like the word for “public” – in ancient Chinese, that is.

However, it’s generally not the case that kanji equal words.  Rather, most kanji correspond to morphemes, the units of meaning that make up words.  For example, the English word “geology” is composed of two morphemes, geo-, meaning “Earth,” and -logy, meaning “study.”  So if we used kanji to write English, that would be a two-character word.  (As it happens, “geology” is written with three kanji – 地質学 – which mean “ground-qualities-study.”)

Oh, and when I say that 松 was made by combining 木 and 公, note that the creation process happened millennia ago; you don’t make up new characters every time you write a sentence.  Sometimes artists and authors will invent new kanji, but it’s not something that is normally done.


So.  Each kanji character corresponds to a morpheme (usually), and each kanji is either a pictogram – stylized beyond recognition – or a composite of pictograms, most often consisting of a part that hints at meaning and a part related to pronunciation.  It’s complicated, but not arbitrary.  But what happens if you want to use kanji to write a different language?

Well for one, the clues to pronunciation are immediately rendered useless.  “Pine” and “public” may be pronounced the same in Chinese, but they sure aren’t the same in English.  And what do you do if one language has a morpheme that the other doesn’t?  And how do you write names?  “Kevin” means “kind and gentle,” but if you decide to use those characters to write “Kevin,” then you’re assigning them two separate pronunciations.  And in that case, how does anyone know that they’re reading the name and not the sentence fragment?

All of these problems meant that when Chinese writing was introduced to Japan, it could only be used for writing Chinese.  This was better than having no writing, but understandably, people wanted to find a way to write in their native Japanese.  Eventually they did, although it took centuries and left the Japanese language permanently changed in the process.

But I’ll talk about that another time.

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