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I have seen a lot of kanjis with two dots on the top as in 前、咲く、呼ぶ、etc. What is that radical? In http://jisho.org/kanji/radicals/, I see they have mentioned this two dot radical in their list, but when I look it up in any proper Kangxi radical chart, I see no such radical.

Is it a combination of two ´「てん」? If it is, how do such dots make any meaning? Another similar example in this regard would be the "diagonal sweeping stroke" in kanjis like 呼ぶ and 町. How to arrive at meanings with such radicals?

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In all three, the two dots are 八. As an element in other characters, 八 often appears upside-down; sometimes it depends on the particular font which way it faces.

As for meaning, we can consult a variety of sources, but they all agree on the basics: Zhongwen.com describes 八 as "an ideograph representing division". Henshall says it symbolizes "splitting/dividing", and is often found in compounds with a meaning of "divide/disperse/away/out". ChineseEtymology.org says that it's a primitive pictograph with two lines indicating "separation".

But note that strictly speaking each character has only one 部首, because 部首 are a system for indexing characters in dictionaries, and each character appears under only one 部首 in most dictionaries. So although 八 is a Kangxi radical, not all characters containing it are listed under 八.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. Any idea what that diagonal stroke in 町 means? – Steel Jan 30 '14 at 16:37
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    @Steel 町 has two elements: 田 (a pictograph of a rice field) and 丁 (a pictograph of a nail). The latter is the phonetic element, giving the character its pronunciation. What specific meaning it lends to 町 is debatable; Henshall says it "was used phonetically to express walk, and also lent its T-shape to suggest junction of paths. [町] originally meant paths through the fields, and by extension place where fields join, then area/community." – snailcar Feb 12 '14 at 6:21
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    +1 for clarifying that "radical" does not refer to each element of a kanji, especially when you want to be clear. – hippietrail Mar 31 '14 at 4:44
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This boils down to the question "What is a radical?"

In the loose sense, it's any part of a kanji, which occurs in a number of characters.

In some stricter sense, it's one of the 214 kanji radicals that have been used to index kanji characters ever since they appeared in the 1615 Zihui 1716 Kangxi Dictionary dictionaries.

For searching by applying a filter, having more radicals means more options to narrow down the characters to find the one you are looking for.

The radicals in the latter, stricter sense have a Japanese name. In general, the others don't.

Whether you consider a part of a kanji a radical or not, you can often describe parts either in terms of other kanji or in terms of katakana characters. This is because katakana characters are derived from kanji in the sense that they are precisely only a small characteristic part of a full character. Notably, ソ derives from the two dots on 曽. So any such dots can be said to "be" ソ.

For example, the 偕成社 6th year 漢字練習ノート says for 呼ぶ

くちへんに ノ ソ よこ一で たてまげはねる

Most if not all occurrences of the ソ "radical" are derived from the 八 radical (which is a radical in the strict sense), so 曽 itself has 曾 as traditional variant. In this sense ソ "is" also 八.

  • Also worth mentioning is that there are more than 214 commonly reused elements, so some "radicals" is the loose sense are never "radicals" in the strict sense, while in some characters every element may also be used as a "radical" in the strict sense in other characters. Then there are elements which occur in few or even in a single character, it makes even less sense to think of those as "radicals". – hippietrail Mar 31 '14 at 4:49
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    Also, many of the most complext traditional radicals make no appearance whatsoever in the 常用漢字, even when you add in the 人名用漢字. Or, in the case of 鼓, they are the only element in the lone character they appear in. – Kaji Mar 31 '14 at 5:09
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はちがしら / hachigashira

however, the 部首 of your examples are:
前 = りっとう
咲 = くちへん
呼 = くちへん

Trying to derive meaning from radicals can be a fool's errand in many cases.

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    Well it can be a fool's errand if you expect to find a logical system, like always for etymology and spelling in natural languages. On the other hand knowing the radical can help with mnemonic memory tricks for learning characters and can help for those times when you need to use a radical index. – hippietrail Mar 31 '14 at 4:52
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    Agreed. Radical knowledge greatly increases one's ability to recognize and distinguish new characters—not to mention writing characters without references. – Kaji Mar 31 '14 at 5:10
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The radical「丷」is a component form of「八」. As mentioned in the other answers, radicals are a way of indexing characters only - their presence does not imply that the radical is part of the Kanji's history or provide any function to the Kanji at all, and there is no contribution of meaning of「丷」towards「前」,「咲」,「呼」. Note that their radicals (section headers in dictionaries) are:

  • 刀/刂 for 前;
  • 口 for 咲 and 呼

However, calling all appearances of「丷」as component forms of「八」, especially in non-radical contexts, is very dubious. Characters which originally contained「丷」were almost universally turned into「八」in the Kangxi Dictionary printed form of characters, possibly for aesthetic purposes, whereas before they were kept separate. Since most modern Chinese character dictionaries inherit Kangxi radicals, the confusion continues to this day. As far as I can recall, the only semantic contribution of the component「八」(to split, now written「別」) is towards the common characters「半」(half) and「分」(divide).

So, where did「丷」come from in each of「前」,「咲」,「呼」?

In「前」,「丷」is part of「䒑」, which was an abbreviation of「止」. See Why does 前 mean "past" in terms of time, but "forward" in terms of direction? for an explanation for the glyph origin of「前」.

In「咲」,「丷」is also part of「䒑」, but this time「䒑」is a cursive calligraphic variant form of「艸/艹」, the grass/plant component.

「咲」was originally a variant of「笑/㗛」(smile/laughter/happy; the Japanese usage bloom/blossom is a repurposed usage unrelated to the original).「笑」in turn was originally「𦬫」, that is, a combination of grass/plants「艹」and dog「犬」.

enter image description here

For reference,「犬」around the same time period/state looked like:

enter image description here

The forms「咲」and「笑/㗛」came from the oft-muddled component exchange between「艹」and「竹/𥫗」(see What is the character etymology of 着 ? for a model case study) because「艹」and「𥫗」were so similar in shape. In some script styles, they were almost just upside-down versions of each other:

enter image description hereenter image description here

「呼」(to call out) was originally「乎」, which was a picture of a tree branch being blown around in strong winds. The wind was represented by several strokes in an abstract manner.

enter image description here

The character invokes the meaning of howling winds, extended to mean to yell/call out, and「口」was added to emphasise this meaning while the original character「乎」became increasingly used as a Classical Chinese particle. A decorative stroke was added to the top later, resulting in

enter image description here

which leads on to the modern shape.


References:

  • 杜忠誥《說文篆文訛形釋例》
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》
  • 小學堂

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