Archive for February, 2010

Adapting Kanji to Japanese

February 4, 2010

As I discussed in my last post, Japan imported writing from China.  However, these symbols – called kanji in Japanese – are morpheme-based, representing both sound and meaning.  Thus kanji could at first only be used for writing Chinese.  In time, however, a system for writing Japanese eventually emerged.

Adaptation began with Man’yōgana.  Named after the first anthology of Japanese poetry, the 8th century “Man’yōshū,” Man’yōgana are kanji used purely for their pronunciation, with no regard for meaning.  They made it possible to write in Japanese, but they weren’t codified; to write the sound “a” for example, any character pronounced “a” could be used.   Given that kanji number in the tens of thousands, this made for a cumbersome system.  Nonetheless, it was a start, and Man’yōgana in turn gave birth to the two syllabic alphabets still used in writing Japanese today.

One of these syllabaries is katakana (like the other types of writing I’m talking about, the name refers both to the syllabary as a whole and to the individual symbols).  Katakana were originally used for writing notes or pronunciation glosses in the spaces between columns of text.  This meant that katakana’s symbols had to be simple, in order to fit into small spaces legibly.  This chart from Wikipedia shows how katakana were created.

In each cell katakana is on the left and kanji is on the right, with the parts used to create the katakana colored red.

The other syllabary is hiragana.  Hiragana was the direct evolution of Man’yōgana, created not by taking pieces of kanji, but by writing whole characters in a simplified cursive form.  Furthermore, hiragana were used not for annotation, but for general writing.  This chart from Wikipedia shows the evolution of hiragana.

In each cell the original kanji is on top, the intermediate cursive form is in the middle in red, and the modern hiragana is on the bottom.

Hiragana replaced Man’yōgana as the means of writing Japanese-language poetry and literature, but Chinese continued to be used for official documents.  However, in these Chinese documents, there had to be a way of writing the names of Japanese people and places.  Man’yōgana was one method, i.e. kanji could be used to spell out names.  The other method was to use kanji for meaning instead of sound, and to then assign these kanji the native pronunciations.  This approach became increasingly common, with more and more kanji acquiring a Japanese reading in addition to the original Chinese reading.  In cases where it was unclear how a word was meant to be read, a gloss could be written next to it in katakana.

As a body of native literature was written in hiragana, people got used to reading and writing in Japanese.  And as it became more common to apply native Japanese readings to kanji, using katakana to annotate text when necessary, it became possible to write Japanese using these meaningful kanji.

The system of writing that finally emerged combines kanji with both hiragana and katakana.  Kanji are used to write most nouns, verb stems, and adjective stems.  Katakana are used for foreign words and as the equivalent of italics.  Hiragana are used for most everything else, notably for inflectional endings for verbs and adjectives, for grammatical particles, and for words with no kanji or whose kanji is obscure.  Hiragana also replaced katakana as the script generally used for pronunciation glosses.  And in modern Japanese, Arabic numerals are common and Roman letters are used for SI units and for a few words like “CD.”

Here’s an example sentence.

Kanji is in orange, hiragana is in blue, and katakana is in green.  A word by word translation would be  “Interesting program [subject marker] few because, television [topic marker] much watch-[negative verb ending].”  Fully translated, it means “There aren’t many interesting programs, so I don’t watch much TV.”

In this sentence, katakana is used for the loan word, “TV.”   Kanji is used for the native noun, for the stems of the adjectives, and for the stem of the verb.  Hiragana is used for the grammatical particles, inflectional endings, and for the words “because” and “much.”

I’ll stop there for now.  More on kanji and hiragana in my next post.