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I have heard that Japanese has the largest number of words of any language because every Chinese word can also be a Japanese word. Is there any truth to this statement?

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  • @Patricker: I think you might be confused over the potentiality of every Chinese character to be used in Japanese, but most Chinese words are actually compounds of two or more characters. Jun 2, 2011 at 3:53
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    @Louis i actually doubt it.. but where did you get that info from?
    – Pacerier
    Jun 15, 2011 at 3:21
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    @Louis because japanese imports, and is still importing words from english. english 230k (oxforddictionaries.com/page/93) japanese 600k (answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081019181001AAkrNoE) of course.. this is very subjective
    – Pacerier
    Jun 15, 2011 at 4:19
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    @Louis problem is that every single word created by science will map 1 to 1 (at least most of them you can say) to every language wouldn't it? (So shouldn't it be safe to exclude words created by science from both languages when doing counting?)
    – Pacerier
    Jun 15, 2011 at 6:52
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    @hippietrail got it, thank you! I don't know any Chinese but was under the impression that most Chinese words are made of one character, not two. I agree with your statements.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 4, 2023 at 5:30

6 Answers 6

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Although it's true that there are a very, very large number of kanji compounds imported from Chinese to Japanese, it's not as direct as that statement. There are Chinese words that don't exist in Japanese, and many Chinese Kanji have different meanings or pronunciations, as well as occasionally being written slightly differently. These differences are particularly profound in words with grammatical significance:

  • 你 (cn: nei5; jp: ni, ji, nanji) - Chinese for 'you'. Very common in Chinese, rare in Japanese (other words are used instead)
  • 我 (cn: ngo5; jp: wa, ware) - Chinese for 'me'. In Japanese carries a connotation of referring to yourself as a representative of a larger group, and is therefore somewhat uncommon.
  • 的 (cn: dik1; jp: teki) - Chinese possessive particle; has a function similar to の in Japanese. In Japanese, this is a suffix meaning 'the essence of'. You see this used in, eg, 攻撃的 or 積極的, but it is not used the same way as in Chinese at all.

There are also differences in usage patterns for modern inventions - eg, Chinese uses 电脑 for 'computer', but in Japanese the katakana コンピューター is more common.

As for whether there are more words in Japanese than other languages, I couldn't say. I would suspect, though, that if you looked at the set of commonly used words, it would be about the same; if you were to include classical words, loanwords, and rarely used native equivalents for loanwords, you might see a bit more than the average language.

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    电脑 is computer,计算机 is calculator (or 計算機 if you're in HongKong, Taiwan)
    – repecmps
    Jun 2, 2011 at 1:39
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    @repecmps 计算机 can mean both calculator AND computer actually
    – Ken Li
    Jun 2, 2011 at 1:51
  • @Ken: The translation 计算机 = computer is there because 30 years ago a calculator was indeed a computer. Nowadays it is just a "counting machine" or calculator whereas 电脑 is the "electronic brain" or computer :)
    – repecmps
    Jun 2, 2011 at 2:00
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    @repecmps Actually 计算机 still means computer in modern usage, this is from my experience with speaking with native speakers AND see this article baike.baidu.com/view/3314.htm (although i'm not a native speaker myself so I can't really say which one is more popular, but I can say they are both used)
    – Ken Li
    Jun 2, 2011 at 2:03
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    As I said, in dictionaries it is to indicate that during a time a calculator was a computer. 现代计算机是一种能快速而高效地完成信息处理的数字化电子设备. You have remnants of these times in words like micro-computer (which is not very recent either) = 微型计算机 but 计算机 alone is nowadays a calculator. 计算机 is seen as computer in the sense it "computes numbers". Chinese who want to talk about computers will say 电脑 or 笔记本. When my wife asks me 计算机给我, I don't give her the computer but a calculator and when she forgot how to find calc.exe she asks: 计算机怎么打开? </off topic>
    – repecmps
    Jun 2, 2011 at 2:29
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The Chinese calligraphy came to Japan approximately 1,500~2,000 years ago, so I'd argue that that statement goes the other way: Chinese people can read many Japanese words and grasp quickly what they mean.

Chinese, on the other hand, uses many, many kanji that are not found in Japanese's ~2,000 常用漢字 joyo-kanji taught in the education system. So, I don't think it's true that Japanese people, without proper study, can read Chinese words, nor does it mean that for that reason Japanese has so many words.

You are correct in noting that Japanese does have a lot of words because various nuances can be formed by combining slightly different kanji with similar meanings. When I was learning about 状態, I was very frustrated to find that 実態, 事態, 状況, 実況, and 事情 all more-or-less translated as "circumstances" or "situation" in my dictionary at the time.

Soapbox: that's why learning kanji can be good for your vocabulary - it becomes about understanding the nuance of the kanji, not rote memorization of a bunch of words.

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Not EVERY Chinese word. But lots and lots of them. China has always been the dominant culture in that area, so there are lots of Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Japanese words. Writing was imported from China and later adapted for Japanese. When the Dutch brought over all of their science and medicine books, all of terms that didn't exist in Japanese were translated using Sino-Japanese words.

Slowly katakana English is taking over, however, meaning that there are a huge number of words with both English and Chinese counterparts. Even if Japanese doesn't have the biggest vocabulary in the world (remember diglossia in Arabic societies, languages with morphology so complicated that it denies all attempts to count words, etc.) it still is huge.

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You need to know that languages will evolve over time. Parts of the Japanese language was largely influenced by classical Chinese, so a lot of Japanese words you see will make sense in Chinese and vice versa. However Japanese and Chinese are different language so even if they share similar volcabulary they are not simliar grammatically wise.

Some words in Japanese means the same thing in Chinese and Japanese. This is the case about 75% of the time. Then there are cases where Japanese words make sense in Chinese, but Chinese people tend to not use them. For example the word 上手 means to be skilled at something. If you say that in Chinese people will (probably) understand you but it's not natural because it's like saying "grand fries" in English rather than "large fries"

Then there are cases where Japanese words means something completely different in Chinese. For example 勉強 means to study in Japanese, but in Chinese it means reluctance.

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This actually came up in class awhile back and our sensei (native speaker) answered roughly as follows:

A Japanese person going to China will recognize enough kanji to be able to get around and maybe get the gist of a newspaper article but since Japanese uses a limited subset of the sinographs, they will not be able to read everything they see and will also encounter problems in regards to interpenetration due to the changes since when they were first introduced. Likewise, Chinese person will recognize enough kanji that they can also get around if they visit Japan, but will encounter the same problems with interpretation and would also need to learn the hiragana and katakana.

Couple this with the differences in grammar (i.e. verb-final vs. subject-verb-object) and the meaning of a sentence can also be lost even if you have a rough idea as to what the kanji mean.

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On an practical level, the other answers are correct.

However, it is technically (almost) true that "any Chinese word is also a Japanese word", because (almost*) all Chinese characters can be theoretically used as kanji and have an onyomi (音読み, sino-Japanese pronunciation).

The most comprehensive Kanji dictionary, the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten has around 50000 characters—similar in number to the largest Chinese hanzi dictionaries.

To be clear, "any Chinese word can be used as a Japanese word" is true only in a pedantic sense. It is almost like saying "any Latin word is an English word".

See also: naruto's answer to this related question


*of course, there are also Chinese characters (Hanzi) that have never been used in Japanese, so don't have a well-defined onyomi, just like there are Japanese kokuji (国字) that have never been used in Chinese and therefore have no pinyin pronunciation.

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  • What makes a word "Japanese"? I don't think that because you can write any given Chinese word in the corresponding Japanese kanji and onyomi it automatically turns it into a Japanese word. That's an assumption I am not willing to make. To me, your statement is equivalent to saying "kuruma" and "tomodachi" are English words, because we have a way to spell them using the alphabet.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 3, 2023 at 16:56
  • @jarmanso7 "kuruma" and "tomodachi" CAN be made into English words, if you define them, and IF you have a good reason to use them instead of "car" and "friend". On the other hand, you cannot use 車 and 友達 in an English text because it would be ridiculous to expect the average reader to be able to read them. That's the point I was trying to make.
    – Aqualone
    Sep 3, 2023 at 18:12
  • the answer to this question japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/52145/… sums it up nicely
    – Aqualone
    Sep 3, 2023 at 18:15
  • You are answering and quoting a very nice answer to a different question (can any kanji be used as part of the Japanese writting system?). I don't get your point, of course "kuruma" can be made into an English word, and so can "hihilupipo" (I've just invented the term on the fly). What's your point?
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 3, 2023 at 22:17
  • As you acknowledge in the beginning of your post, you are not giving an answer from a practical standpoint, the problem is that what you claim is technically not true, either, or at least it is up to debate. The fact that any word can be made into a word in Japanese, or English, doesn't equate to that word being Japanese or English in the first place, at least until it has been assimilated or integrated. See What are the criteria to adopt new words into English?
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 3, 2023 at 22:24

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