Take the 2-minute tour ×
Japanese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Here is my present state of understanding:

  1. A kanji's meaning is the same regardless of reading.

  2. A reading is a way of speaking the kanji out loud.

  3. Kun readings are always used when the kanji appears alone, except apparently with numerals, and with those kanji which lack Kun readings.

  4. On readings are almost always used when the kanji appears as part of a compound word.

  5. In the vast majority of cases, there is only one correct reading for a kanji in a given context. That is to say, most compound words are spoken aloud in only one way, as are most solitary characters.

  6. If a kanji has multiple On readings, then there is no way to know which On reading to use for it in a compound word except to simply learn by trial and error as other people correct you, or to look up every new word you find to see how it is pronounced. Unless there are furigana.

  7. There are a series of different On readings called go-on, too-on, and so on (you know what I'm talking about better than I do), and many Kanji have a different reading for each one, and all are used in different contexts, and a learner must memorize all of them for most Kanji.

If anyone could contradict/confirm the above seven statements, it would probably be very helpful. Please refer to them by number so we know exactly what we're talking about. I am hoping to God someone contradicts number 7.

share|improve this question
1  
I'm not sure about #1,5. For example, 今日 can be こんにち or きょう which have a slight nuance. For example: 「今日のアメリカにおける私たちの生活は、地球上すべての人との平和な競争に支えられています。」 –  Chris Harris Jul 22 '12 at 22:06
3  
Yes, I think it would be prudent to point out that almost every rule has it's exceptions :) –  silvermaple Jul 22 '12 at 22:48
1  
1 might be true in general, but there are special cases, see ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  dainichi Jul 23 '12 at 1:49
3  
Oh yes [工場]{こうば} and [工場]{こうじょう} have different nuances. [市場]{いちば} and [市場]{しじょう} refer to different things. What else... [風車]{ふうしゃ} and [風車]{かざぐるま}, [牧場]{ぼくじょう} and [牧場]{まきば}, [草原]{そうげん} and [草原]{くさはら}, 二重、心中、工夫、上手... –  Choko Jul 23 '12 at 4:18
2  
If you are trying to formalize a standard approach to reading kanji, I think you might be setting out a sisyphean task for yourself. As @silvermaple says, each one of these has some exceptions. However, the good news is that for the last point, number 7, unless you are studying the history or linguistics of the Japanese language, you can completely ignore all categories of reading outside of kunyomi and onyomi. Nobody outside of specialists ever uses them. Ever. –  Questioner Jul 23 '12 at 7:44

3 Answers 3

(1) A kanji's meaning is the same regardless of reading.

Not always true, and in many cases it's hard to talk about giving a kanji a singular "meaning". Take this set of words:

着る{きる}、着物{きもの}、着く{つく}、着ける{つける}、接着{せっちゃく}、到着{とうちゃく}、着衣{ちゃくい}

In some cases 着 has a meaning "to wear". Actually, whenever it uses the kun-reading き・ぎ it has this meaning. In some cases it means "to arrive", as in つく, however the verb つける which also uses the reading つ can also mean to put on clothing, as in 身{み}に着{つ}ける. In the case of the words where it is read ちゃく it could take any of several meanings, including "wear" or "arrive".

I would rephrase: with a few exceptions, the reading of a kanji in a particular word is not linked to the meaning of the same word.

(2) A reading is a way of speaking the kanji out loud.

Fair enough.

(3) Kun readings are always used when the kanji appears alone, except apparently with numerals, and with those kanji which lack Kun readings. (4) On readings are almost always used when the kanji appears as part of a compound word.

(3) is not true; it's a guideline, not a hard rule. Kun readings are almost always used when there is okurigana (e.g. for verbs excluding suru verbs and for i-adjectives), but there are words read with on-readings which are standalone kanji (e.g. 本{ほん}). If you add an "almost" there, as with (4), it would be right.

(5) In the vast majority of cases, there is only one correct reading for a kanji in a given context. That is to say, most compound words are spoken aloud in only one way, as are most solitary characters.

In the comments dainichiさん and chocolateさん gave some info about when this is not true, but generally, yes. A word has a reading. A 'solitary character' is just a word written with a single kanji, so it has a reading.

(6) If a kanji has multiple On readings, then there is no way to know which On reading to use for it in a compound word except to simply learn by trial and error as other people correct you, or to look up every new word you find to see how it is pronounced. Unless there are furigana.

Not just if a kanji has multiple on-readings. You can guess at a compound reading using the on-readings and be correct a fairly high percentage of the time. However, even if both kanji only have one on-reading, the compound could use kun-readings or have a special reading, and there may be 連濁{れんだく} (see here ) which isn't 100% predictable either.

(7) There are a series of different On readings called go-on, too-on, and so on (you know what I'm talking about better than I do), and many Kanji have a different reading for each one, and all are used in different contexts, and a learner must memorize all of them for most Kanji.

On-readings can be categorised by what time period they were imported from China. I've never paid much attention to which reading was which type as I don't think it makes any difference in the modern language.

I do not think that a learner should memorise every reading for every kanji, no more than someone learning English should learn all the possible ways ~ough can be pronounced. For a start, as we've established, there isn't a rule about which reading to use where, so just knowing a list of readings isn't very useful. Also, some readings might not be as common as others. It is better to learn a few common words - then you will also learn the common readings and exceptions.

Taking an example of a simple, common kanji: 白

Probably if you looked this up you would see しろ・しら as the kun-readings and はく、びゃく and the on-readings. However, しら and びゃく are not that common, and for a beginner knowing しろ as in 白{しろ}い and はく as in 告白{こくはく} is plenty; you can worry about the other readings when you start learning words that use them.

share|improve this answer

As you said, the kun reading is almost always the representation of the kanji in its base form. 北海道{ほっかいどう} (Hokkaido) is the name of the north island. 北{きた} means north and is read hoku in this word because it is a compound word. If you are talking to someone about going north you say Kita.

There is no easy explanation for why they are used in a certain way. The ON were taken from a ton of different Chinese dynasties and before WW2 there were a million different ways to say them. During WW2 the Japanese decided do remove all foreign words (like ベースボール"Baseball" became 野球{やきゅう}) and tried to reduce the number of ON readings, and got it down to about 13 different dynasties, but due to the time of use for most of the words in Japan, couldn't remove all of them without making their language virtually impossible to speak anymore.

The ON you learn now is because of the evolution of the Japanese language in general. The only real way to learn it is to use it. Why do Americans say "I went to THE hospital" but only say "I went to school"? The British don't use THE with hospital. There is no rule to remember, we only do it because of use.

share|improve this answer
    
-1: Don't exaggerate. There are two major groups of on'yomi, not 13. –  Zhen Lin Jul 23 '12 at 2:24
    
Thank you for your concern, but if you are talking about major groups, there are actually 4! The OP mentioned the go-on and the to-on/toso-on, there is also the kan-on, and the kan'yo-on, but that's not what I was referring to. It was the actual different dynasties those groups took their reading from. Each group took their readings from different eras in Chinese history, usually more than one dynasty was involved. Even if I got the numbers wrong (I didn't) my information still hold true to why there are more than one way to read a kanji character. Please consider changing your vote. –  BillyNair Jul 23 '12 at 5:18
    
Tōsō-on and kan'yō-on are relatively minor groups – most characters do not have such readings. The number of dynasties is not relevant and is misleading – in one century there might be many and in another there might only be one. –  Zhen Lin Jul 23 '12 at 5:59
2  
I wish we could get together and chat about this, but I dont think this is the right place to bring up a long discussion about something that has little to do with the actual question. Just because you are right doesn't make me wrong in this case since we were talking about 2 different things. You agree that there were 4 groups, and there are actually more, but rare enough to not be an issue. Referencing the dynasties was not misleading, that is how I learned why there were so many readings. Even if you won't give me an upvote, at least remove the down vote or explain how it is misleading. –  BillyNair Jul 23 '12 at 6:05
    
If you think it would help. I reread and saw 2 places where I changed the sentences from previous edits (the comma at the beginning and "really" near the end) but not sure where the other spelling errors would be. Thanks Dave, whatever you think will help. –  BillyNair Jul 23 '12 at 9:37

This is kind of tricky and subjective here. Here is my take on it, from how I understand it as a non-native speaker.

A kanji has the same meaning no matter how it's read. With this in mind, you might notice that when the kanji is read using it's On-reading it can take on a more official, or fancier feel to it.

It seems to me like in English, which is also a hybrid language, with a great number of words with French origin. Say you want to compliment someone by calling them "smart". Well, that's all well and good, but if you called that same person "intelligent", it means the same thing but it feels like a higher compliment. What's different? We get the word the word "intelligent" from French (intelligent). (Note: This isn't really the same thing as using actual French when speaking English..."Oh what a lovely painting, it has a certain...je ne sais quoi")

That's just my personal understanding, and I'm more then open to critiques of this, if anyone disagrees or has a better explanation.

1-6 seem spot on, but as for #7 in your question, I have never heard of those things in my 6 years of studying, so I would say that is highly technical and you wouldn't have to worry about memorizing them at all. What I try to do when studying kanji is try to remember the meaning and the two most common readings. Most of the time the On-reading is only different by one sound anyway (カン、ガン and so on).

EDIT: To clarify what I mean about changing the nuance and to not confuse the comments. A kanji compound's reading is its reading, and its meaning doesn't change any more then any other word in a given language. What can be changed is what word you find the kanji, or if you use the On-reading or the Kun-reading to get your point across. To call someone smart or clever you could either say someone is 賢{かしこ}い or you could use 賢明{けんめい}: it uses the same kanji (or 50%), but a different reading, an there is a different nuance.

share|improve this answer
    
That is a very good start, the key piece in there is "A kanji has the same meaning no matter how it's read." Hopefully other answers will confirm this and not contradict it. But this still confuses me somewhat, as your example seems contrasting in nature with this particular problem. For instance, smart and intelligent are virtually interchangeable in English, in most cases. But as I understand it, Kun readings are always used when the character is by itself, and On is when it's in a compound word. So...it's not like the speaker has a choice, is it? –  Aerovistae Jul 22 '12 at 21:28
    
Based on the character's context, there is only one right reading, or so I thought. –  Aerovistae Jul 22 '12 at 21:29
1  
@Aerovistae: There are some 熟語 or compounds that the speaker does have a choice on the pronunciation like "各々". Yet, it is harder/impossible(?) for kunyomi because hiragana often follow it, such as 食う and 食べる. –  Chris Harris Jul 22 '12 at 21:39
1  
@Aerovistae: I edited it to say what they mean (smart, clever). It's not a perfect example, because they're slightly different parts of speech (the former is an i-adj, the latter a na-adj). And yes, that's pretty much what I'm saying :) That said, my advice would be to only worry about learning one way of saying something when you first start out (I would suggest the Kun-reading as they tend to have broader meanings). An English learner doesn't need to know "smart" "wise" "clever" "intelligent" "quick-witted" and so on and so forth, just to get their point across :) –  silvermaple Jul 22 '12 at 22:45
1  
@Chris, some times only context (beyond 送り仮名) can give you the right pronunciation. E.g. 解{と}く and 解{ほど}く –  dainichi Jul 23 '12 at 1:52

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.