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他 is one of these common words that still to this day confuses me...

My general assumption is that:

  • used as a prefix, it should always be read 【た】, e.g.: 他人【たにん】
  • when treated as a "substantive" (that is essentially, followed by の), it is 【ほか】: 他【ほか】の人【ひと】(?)

But then, some expressions crop up, like 他の物, which my dictionary indicates as read 【たのもの】, and make me doubt whatever little I have deduced so far.

Could anybody settle the た/ほか rules once and for all (and point out any nuance in meaning, if they exist, between the two usages)?

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Aged people sometimes read as 'た' and as 'とう'. – user458 Aug 25 '11 at 10:11
@sawa: you mean instead of 'ほか'? Are there any rules, though (cases where it's always 'た' or always 'ほか')? – Dave Aug 25 '11 at 10:25
Yes, that's what I mean. Cases where it is always 'た' is just like you mentioned. Cases where it is 'ほか' can be optionally read as 'た'. – user458 Aug 25 '11 at 10:38
@sawa: if that's all there is to it and you care to make your comment an answer, I'll be happy to accept it :) – Dave Aug 26 '11 at 7:18
The biggest one that confuses me is その他. I've seen it read both ways and I don't know which one is right. And this appears everywhere, especially on garbage/recycling bins. – istrasci Aug 26 '11 at 14:17
up vote 8 down vote accepted

You are right about when to read it as . The cases where it is read as ほか is correct, but some (mainly aged) people optionally read it as . Similarly, is read as など or とう, but some aged people read it as とう instead of など.

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btw just to clarify, do you mean that (in the cases when it is pronounced as ほか) if we were to pronounce ほか as た, it would sound as if we are from the "older generation" ? – Pacerier Aug 29 '11 at 11:29
@Pacerier Yes. That's what I mean. – user458 Aug 29 '11 at 11:37
Since we are on the precisions: what about my example above, 他の物? WWWJDIC also reads it as たのもの... Is that an obsolete reading, or just an exception? – Dave Aug 30 '11 at 2:26
@sawa Heys btw I was wondering when WWWJDIC csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/… lists "他の物" as "たのもの", does it mean that "たのもの" is also a fixed-phrase that has a different nuance/meaning from "ほかのもの" ? – Pacerier Apr 11 '12 at 10:21
@Pacerier It is not a fixed phrase. It means the same. – user458 Apr 11 '12 at 13:59

First I want you to know you are asking about what people would call the difference between on-reading and kun-reading (音読み versus 訓読み), which are ancient chinese (or sino-japanese, as my professor refers it) reading and (traditional) japanese reading respectively. Simply speaking, chinese originated words (or parts) are pronounced in sino-Japanese ways. japanese originated words are pronounced in traditional Japanese ways. and that was supposed to be the grand, master, iron rule of pronouncing things in Japanese

Second is, the state of Japanese is defined on a "sort of as-is" basis, that is to say, while there are some unclear rules, whatever people are used to reading in practice, it may become regulation. This is why you see these different readings. Rendaku(連濁, or sequential voicing, another thing that might change the pronunciation of a word) is a wonderful example of a twisted (metaphorically) morphology rule in Japanese. Japanese people sometimes deliberately play with the pronunciation of a kanji to express even more meanings than it already have.

So what I would recommend is, do it the hard way, learn a lot of words, before you start guessing.(as opposed to trying to find a general rule)

Back to your answer. I think you sort of got it in your two rules, they are two special cases of two meta-rules.

1, prefix can be associated to an on-reading because words that are pronounced in sino-japanese are either of chinese origin, or japanese-made-chinese word.

This is why you feel they are always prefix of something: most chinese words have two chinese charecters.

2, On the opposite, when a kanji stands alone as a word or with a kana on its side, it is more likely a kun-reading word. "hokano hito" is a good example because the kanji 他 is alone. But relating it with the use of "no" might not be such a good idea. because no connects nouns, and nouns are.... nasty.

Again, there are many exceptions to my rule 1 and 2, I know you guys are gonna list it any way, so i might as well provide some:

To your second question: not all kanji can distinguish meaning with its pronunciation alone in a word. and unfortunately i find it hard to do so with 他.

You can often tell the origin and sound changes happened along the history though, which nobody cares unless you are linguist or really, really love the language.

btw there are more readings of this kanji that are not used, thought you might be interested. from http://kotobank.jp/word/%E4%BB%96

[音]タ(呉)(漢) [訓]ほか あだし [名のり](<-that's for people's names)おさ・ひと

Edit: I would definitely read 他の物 "hokano mono" because its less confusing. ta+no become the head/stem of words such as "tano-mu" "tano-mashii", which both have a tail started with m.

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