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Perhaps a dumb question, but something that I was wondering and couldn't find a clear answer via search. Since 校 is the kanji for school, why do we also need the kanji for learning 学 to say "school" (学校)? As a westerner, it seems as though schools always involve learning.

Is there some difference in nuance I'm missing? Is there perhaps a historical meaning for 校 that is more like place of training or practice, which evolved into school?

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Isn't 学校 a Chinese loanword? – user1016 Mar 28 '14 at 14:37
@Chocolate, 和製漢語じゃないかな、と思うけど – Yang Muye Mar 28 '14 at 15:02
@Chocolate, 断定できないですが、これによると、「学校」が現代的な「school」という意味で使われるよ‌​うになったのは、明治以来のことだそうです。その後、多くの和製漢語が中国語へ逆輸入されたのです。(詳しくはこちらへ – Yang Muye Mar 28 '14 at 15:55
>「身体」はshentiですよね? >>> はい、そうです。 – Yang Muye Mar 28 '14 at 15:56
I think you'll find this is more common then you might think. Two kanji mean very similar things, but one is used in X-type situations and the other is in Y-type situations. I'd go so far as to say they're often not even interchangeable, but there are rules when to use X and Y. As far as I can figure out you just have to learn them, and get the feeling for it. – silvermaple Mar 29 '14 at 0:52
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Thousands of 熟語s in Japanese are created in such a way.

  • 岩石(がんせき) ≒ 岩(いわ) (rock)
  • 河川(かせん) ≒ 川(かわ) (river)
  • 絵画(かいが) ≒ 絵(え) (picture)
  • 自己(じこ) ≒ 己(おのれ) (oneself)
  • 身体(しんたい) ≒ 体(からだ) (body)

I don't know the reason. That's how it is.

EDIT: Japanese Wikipedia describes the simple reason. One kanji character was not long enough to be distinguishable with each other when pronounced. So old people needed to stack two similar characters to construct one 熟語.


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This is a fairly normal process in languages - if a word gets too short to be distinguishable, compound it with a synonym. Chinese has vast numbers of these compounds; I don't know how many Japanese has borrowed versus created. – Sjiveru Mar 28 '14 at 15:56

isn't the character for "school", it's a character for "school". Here are some of the others: , , , , , , , , , ...

Characters are not a neat logical mapping of one picture to one concept.

In fact characters are not even Japanese, as I'm sure you know.

Characters evolved over thousands of years in China. This means meanings changed, characters changed, new concepts were invented or discovered, characters were adapted, simplified, devised, etc. Probably over and over again..

The result was characters with multiple meanings and concepts with multiple characters, sometimes with subtle differences in nuance, other times just used in different regions or in different eras, etc.

Many compound words also evolved, made of two or more characters.

Then Japan borrowed the Chinese characters both as concepts and as pre-formed Chinese compound words, adapted to Japanese pronunciation, which is utterly different to Chinese pronunciation, of which there are many utterly different kinds.

Characters were adapted to Japanese words, new characters were invented in Japan, characters changed slightly in how they were written in Japan, new compounds were created of Japanese parts written in characters, and also of Chinese parts written in characters.

Meanings and pronunciations and concepts also shifted in the time since Japan acquired characters.

Then Japanese writing was standardized and simplified, with a smaller number of characters remaining common compared to the larger set used formerly.

One of the results of this long slow natural process was the two characters you've noticed which have among their several meanings at least once meaning that is vaguely similar, with one being used in some rather arbitrary but now standard ways, and the other used in some other rather arbitrary but now standard ways.

You can expect this with the majority of the words in all languages of the world. And you can also expect it for the majority of characters or hieroglyphs, in languages that use such symbols as part of their writing systems.

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Excellent point on the "the" vs. "a" distinction in your opening sentence. It's far too easy to think of things in a foreign language as having a 1-to-1 correspondence with our own sometimes. – Kaji Mar 30 '14 at 7:58
Thanks @Kaji. I react the same when I see/hear/read people use "the dictionary says ...". – hippietrail Mar 30 '14 at 8:01
hehehe...Guilty as charged, sometimes. – Kaji Mar 30 '14 at 8:03

Well, for starters, 校 also has the meaning of "proof" (as in a proof print of something; not "proof" as in evidence) which is associated with its additional 音読み "きょう".

That aside, 漢語 very strongly favors multi-character compounds. With simpler concepts it therefore makes sense to choose two characters with similar meanings to convey it, after which one of them can be substituted out for something more specific (c.f. 学校、高校) or further prefixes and suffixes can be added (小学校、中学校, etc.).

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While definitely correct re 小中高 as shortenings with more precise meaning, can you provide a reference supporting the substitution regarding 大学? You might be misunderstanding the history of education where 中学校 and 小学校 were late additions. – virmaior Mar 28 '14 at 15:15
Rather than shortening, I was using it as an example of substitution (dropping 校 and adding 学 so that it could be kept as a 2-character compound), but giving it more thought that doesn't quite do justice to it etymologically speaking, as the printing-related meanings for 校 date further back, I grant. – Kaji Mar 28 '14 at 15:28
I guess what I'm asking if you have some sort of support for putting 大学 in the group which would mean substituting out a 校 to put in the 大. – virmaior Mar 28 '14 at 15:37
It's becoming a distraction, so I just took that example out. As I noted in my previous comment, it's an easy conclusion to draw to demonstrate a pattern, however the etymology doesn't flow exactly in that way in this case. – Kaji Mar 28 '14 at 16:02

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