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  1. Do native speakers of Japanese use phonetic elements when reading less common kanji? For example, does the compound 咆哮 look like ほうこう because of the elements 包 and 孝, even if you haven't learned to read 咆哮 yet? Does seeing 癇癪 remind you of the reading かんしゃく because of 間(閒) and 積, even though the sound appears to have changed between 積 and 癪?

  2. Do students in Japan use phonetic elements while learning kanji? For example, I came across はず written as 筈, so I looked it up and saw the reading カツ. Thinking of 筈 as たけかんむり and カツ helped me remember it, because I know the phonetic element 舌(カツ) from 活 and 括, so I ended up learning the 音読み even though I couldn't find any vocabulary using that reading. Would this be normal or strange in Japan?

  3. Are phonetic relationships obvious to native speakers without being studied explicitly?

  4. What references would students in Japan use to look up the phonetic derivations of 形声文字? All I have is Henshall's book (written in English), but that only covers the old set of 常用漢字. I know if I'm forced to guess based on 音読み or visual similarity, some of my guesses will be wrong. My 漢和辞典 doesn't cover character etymology at all, and googling for 字源 only seems to be helpful some of the time.

This is my first question on StackExchange, so please let me know if I've done it wrong. Thank you!

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up vote 11 down vote accepted
  1. Japanese speakers also use the strategy you describe, guessing at the 音読み from the right side of the 漢字 (or otherwise). However, the Japanese have a larger "database" from which to sample when making their guess...

  2. & 3. I don't think these phonetic relationships are as obvious to native speakers as to foreign adult learners. The relationships are not part of the curriculum (I'm sampling from 小学校 years 1,2,3,5,6 here, maybe such relationships are studied in 中学校 or 高校?). Not emphasizing this seems silly from the perspective of the adult learner, but children learn the characters by repetition, rather than the more logical way of building up the language from the bottom (starting with the radicals and moving on to more and more complex characters)...

4. Can't say anything about this, sorry.

In general the Japanese (just like anyone else learning a language as their native language) do not think as structured about their language as you might expect as a foreigner, who picked up the language as adult. A little curious fact is the following example, which I came across recently. The 醤 from 醤油 is not 常用漢字 and authors of recipe books, for example, are not allowed (or advised not to) use the 漢字 for 醤油. However, a similar 漢字 is the 奨 from 奨学金 (scholarship), which is 常用漢字 and the readings are identical and the written 漢字 are so close that there is no extra effort for remembering both. Even if one hadn't learned 醤, the most logical guess would be the reading ショウ, but that's not how it works, it seems.

P.S. Nice question, nothing wrong with it.

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Good answer overall, but can you provide any evidence to support this statement: authors of recipe books, for example, are not allowed (or advised not to) use the 漢字 for 醤油? –  Dave M G Sep 8 '12 at 9:55
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My partner is publishing a recipe book at this very moment :). The editor corrected all occurrences of 醤油 to しょうゆ (and all occurrences of 味噌 to みそ, which is equally strange, since the RHS 曽 is the origin of the hiragana そ...). The editor said that it wouldn't be possible to use the 漢字 for these words, since publishing companies are expected to adhere to the 常用漢字. I don't have any published reference, though, if that is what you are looking for. –  Earthliŋ Sep 8 '12 at 10:01
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