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I think that the Wikipedia entry for "kanji" has an error.

Please look at the last sentence in the third paragraph underneath the "kun'yomi" heading. quote:
"...This contrasts with on'yomi, which are monosyllabic, and is unusual..."

My understanding is that none of "しゃく"、"ちょく"、"にゃく"、.... are monosyllabic.

If I am correct about this, can someone with greater standing than mine make the appropriate change to the "kanji" Wikipedia entry?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

They're borrowings of monosyllabic morphemes from Chinese. But when sounds are borrowed from one language into another, they typically have to conform to the phonology of the target language. At some point between their initial borrowings and now, these morphemes have had to adapt to the rules of how sounds are put together in modern Japanese.

And in modern Japanese, the only permissible syllable codas are:

  1. The moraic nasal (as in 漢字 /kaN.zi/).
  2. The first consonant of a geminate pair (as in 日光 /nik.koː/).

So any coda that didn't fit these rules had to bend: either it had to be dropped, or it had to become part of a separate syllable. Of course, this separate syllable needed its own nucleus, so a vowel had to be inserted, often either /u/ or /i/.

For example, according to the Baxter-Sagart reconstructions the Old Chinese reading of 息 was *sək, which is quite similar to the modern Japanese on'yomi /soku/—except, of course, for the added vowel at the end, which makes it not one but two syllables long!

As a result of this sort of adaptation, not every on'yomi in Japanese is one syllable. Many are two syllables instead. (While this isn't the only change that on'yomi have undergone over the years, discussing this change alone is sufficient to demonstrate that they're not all monosyllabic. We can gloss over the exact set of historical changes and still make our point.)

Here's one possible way to classify the current set of on'yomi:

Monomoraic, monosyllabic on'yomi

ア イ ウ エ オ カ ガ キ ギ キャ ギャ キョ ギョ ク グ ケ ゲ コ ゴ サ ザ シ ジ シャ ジャ シュ ジュ ショ ジョ ス ズ セ ゼ ソ タ ダ チ チュ チョ ツ テ デ ト ド ナ ニ ニャ ニュ ニョ ヌ ノ ハ バ ヒ ビ フ ブ ベ ホ ボ マ ミ ム メ モ ヤ ユ ヨ ラ リ リュ リョ ル ロ ワ

Bimoraic, monosyllabic on'yomi

アン イン ウン エイ エン オウ オン カン ガン キュウ ギュウ キョウ ギョウ キン ギン クウ グウ クン グン ケイ ゲイ ケン ゲン コウ ゴウ コン ゴン シイ サン ザン シュウ ジュウ シュン ジュン ショウ ジョウ シン ジン スウ スン セイ ゼイ セン ゼン ソウ ゾウ ソン タン ダン チャン チュウ チュン チョウ チン ツウ テイ テン デイ デン トウ ドウ トン ドン ナン ニュウ ニョウ ニン ネイ ネン ノウ ノン ハン バン ヒュウ ビュウ ヒョウ ビョウ ヒン ビン フウ フン ブン ヘイ ベイ ヘン ベン ホウ ボウ ホン ボン マン ミュウ ミョウ ミン メイ メン モウ モン ユウ ヨウ ラン リュウ リョウ リン レイ レン ロウ ロン ワン

Bimoraic, bisyllabic on'yomi

アイ アク アツ イウ イキ イク イシ イチ イツ ウツ エキ エツ オク オツ カイ ガイ カク ガク カチ ガチ カツ ガツ キク キケ キチ キツ キャク ギャク キョク ギョク クツ ケキ ゲキ ケチ ケツ ゲツ コク ゴク コツ コチ サイ ザイ サク サツ ザツ ジカ シキ ジキ ジク シチ シツ ジツ シャク ジャク シュク ジュク シュツ ジュツ ショク ジョク スイ ズイ スク セキ セク セチ セツ ゼツ ソク ソチ ソツ ゾク タイ ダイ タク ダク タチ タツ ダツ チキ チク チツ チャク チュツ チョク ツイ ツク テキ デキ テツ デツ トク ドク トツ ナイ ナツ ニク ニチ ニャク ネツ ハイ ハク ハチ ハツ バイ バク バチ バツ ヒキ ヒチ ヒツ ヒャク ヒョク ビャク フキ フク フツ ブツ ヘキ ベキ ヘツ ベツ ホク ボク ボチ ホツ ボツ マイ マク マチ マツ ミツ ミャク メツ モク モチ モツ ヤク ユイ ヨク ライ ラク ラチ ラツ リキ リク リツ リャク リュク リョク ルイ レキ レツ ロク ワイ ワク ワツ

Of course, if you reject this definition of syllable and instead use syllable as a synonym for mora, then you can relabel the middle category "Bimoraic, bisyllabic on'yomi", but either way the result is the same: all on'yomi are either one or two syllables long.

The above chart isn't the only possible way to classify the modern set of on'yomi—see comments for some discussion. But no matter how you do it, unless you reject the notion of syllable entirely, you're going to end up with some on'yomi being bisyllabic.

So in short, you're correct: they aren't all monosyllabic.

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I realize that these things can be analyzed in different ways, but I believe that the common analysis is that e.g. アイ is one syllable. Do you have sources that claim otherwise? – dainichi Jan 12 '14 at 1:30
Well, I wasn't sure about that. I've just been reading conflicting opinions about whether Japanese has diphthongs (it seems to be a controversial point!) and thought that if it doesn't, then the vowel pairs should be the nuclei of separate syllables, so I stuck them in the third category. I'm now away from my computer but I'll be able to revisit this answer tomorrow--any further thoughts? – snailboat Jan 12 '14 at 1:52
I've been wondering about the necessity of a distinction between morae and syllables in Japanese. You might be interested in the question I asked at linguistics.stackexchange some time ago: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1951/… – dainichi Jan 12 '14 at 2:19
There was a point where /m/ and /t/ were also allowed as syllable codas, cf. 連声 phenomena. – Zhen Lin Jan 12 '14 at 11:16

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