A friend once commented to me that Japanese has a larger vocabulary than English. I said I didn't think it did, because it wasn't really accurate to call all kanji compounds "words". My friend said I was crazy.

Words like 新車【しんしゃ】(new car) and 愛車【あいしゃ】(one's own car / "beloved" car) are in the dictionary, but... aren't they really just the application of prefixes to the word "car"?

Put another way, in English I wouldn't consider "neopragmatism" it's own word, it's just the addition of the prefix "neo" to the word "pragmatism". (I don't even know if it's in the dictionary or not and won't look it up, because my point is that as a native/fluent English speaker, I can stick 'em together if I want, dictionary be damned!) Aren't some kanji compounds the same kind of thing... not really words, but just obvious in meaning when combined correctly?

Put yet another way, if one were trying to learn Japanese vocabulary, it would be ridiculous to have a list that included all the possible kanji combinations that get used in the real world. It's more efficient to learn a concept like as a prefix and you instantly have potential understanding of many kanji compounds - 新語【しんご】(new word), 新貨【しんか】(new currency), 新地【しんち】(new territory), etc...

So, is any valid kanji compound really considered its own word in some kind of official or commonly understood sense, or are some kanji compounds considered merely "combinations"?

If I combine kanji in some new and useful way, have I invented a new word, or am I merely using the kanji in the Lego-like combinative way they're intended to be used?

Another way I might ask is, do Japanese consider "words" and "combinations" as separate things?


I ran across this paper today (via languagehat): "The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax", by Martin Haspelmath. It's a bit technical, but the boiled-down summary is that it is difficult to define "word" such that the concept is applicable and useful to all languages. (Some linguists might disagree; I tend towards sympathy with Haspelmath's view.)

So there is no "official or commonly understood sense" that we can appeal to here -- or rather, there are lots, and which one we choose depends on what we want to do with it. One simple pragmatic rule of thumb would be to say that a "word" is what's in the dictionary. In English, this means that things like "New York" and "neoclassical" are indeed words, and in Japanese it would mean that the commonly accepted kanji compounds are words and the rest are not. But I guess you don't like this answer, because otherwise you wouldn't have needed to ask the question.

If I combine kanji in some new and useful way, have I invented a new word, or am I merely using the kanji in the Lego-like combinative way they're intended to be used?

The second half of this sentence kind of begs the question, I think: the way they're "intended to be used"? (Intended by who?) What I would say is this: when you combine kanji that aren't habitually combined that way, you are, in most cases, inventing a new word. The reason for this is simple: simply cramming Sino-Japanese morphemes together like that does not result in an unremarkable sentence, even if your meaning is crystal clear. People will notice what you're doing and consider it unusual. Thus, it's more akin to saying "blueplate" than "blue plate" in English. And this is leaving aside any consideration of accent, etc. (Note: I'm using "kanji" here but of course what I mean is "morpheme that is associated with a particular kanji".)

(Sidebar: We might want to exclude cases where you combine groups of kanji that are already words in their own right, e.g. 階級 "class" + 意識 "consciousness" = 階級意識 "class consciousness". On the other hand, we might want to consider this a long-ass four-kanji word; just because we segment it into two words in English doesn't mean it has to be that way -- in German it's Klassenbewusstsein, which is clearly made up of Klasse(n) "class" + Bewusstsein "consciousness" in the same way.)

Now, some morphemes-that-happen-to-be-associated-with-kanji are "better at" making new words than others. That is, you can attach 新- or 超- to pretty much anything and as long as an obvious meaning is apparent, most people will go with it. Some, like -的 and -中, attach so easily that you might indeed question whether the results are "words" as such. If you wanted to argue that many compounds created spontaneously with -的 weren't "real words", and you accepted that this means that words like "lion-like" in English also aren't "real words", then I won't disagree with you. (I might have doubts about the usefulness of that definition of "word", but that's a different topic.)

However! Kanji that can be freely recombined like this are very much in the minority. You are free to invent any word you like, of course, but that doesn't mean that you can expect people to understand it. English is pretty flexible, too, but I still can't go around saying "Blueplate the whitenings before you exroom later," even if it would be obvious what I meant from context.

So whether you call clusters of kanji "words" or "combinations", some clusters are going to be more acceptable than others, and people do have to learn those clusters by rote. It's true that you can often figure out the meaning from the kanji, so that if you haven't encountered a word before you can make a good guess at what it means -- but it doesn't work the other way round. If you have a concept you want to express, and you don't know the word for it, you can't just throw kanji together and expect the result to be accepted without comment. You have to say it in other words that you already know.

(It's the same in English: Even if you know the morphemes "tele-" and "vision", how are you supposed to know that that's how you say "television" instead of "electro-opticon" or something? You aren't; you can't. Knowing the morphemes helps you figure out what new words you encounter mean, but it doesn't help you figure out what combinations are actual words.)

And so, with the exception of easily-combining kanji like 新 and so on, you really do need to learn all the words you want to use, one by one. You can only reliably get away with guessing from first kanji principles when it comes to passive tasks, like reading. (And even then, every so often you will make a mistake, because the meaning of some multi-kanji compounds just isn't transparent.)

Another way I might ask is, do Japanese consider "words" and "combinations" as separate things?

I don't know if this question is really answerable... until this question I wouldn't have thought that any English speaker would reject "neopragmatism" as an independent word, so clearly speakers of the same language can disagree on seemingly basic concepts like this.

But in the vast majority of cases, if you make up some combination of kanji that is meaningful to you and ask a Japanese speaker "is this a word?", then unless it's in the dictionary (and they know it) they will say "no", and if you ask them the same question about a compound that you know to exist, they will almost certainly say "yes". If you press them on the "no", they might expand their answer to "well, I can see how you mean X by that compound; I guess it's a word now that you've coined it," but the point is, we don't have anywhere near absolute freedom to mix and match if we want to stay within the bounds of "standard Japanese" rather than "psychedelic poetry."

Edit: Dave sez in comments:

I think your very last statement that deviating from standard Japanese lands you right into psychedelic poetry goes off the mark. Languages, and the people that use them, invent new words and uses all the time, which is how languages evolve as a matter of course.

Let me address this because it is a fair point. "Psychedelic poetry" was an exaggeration, yeah. It's absolutely true that new words are invented as a matter of course in language. The question isn't "Can words be invented or not?", it's "How much invention, and of what sort, can one get away with?" And the answer is determined by both cultural and personal factors:

Cultural: So as we all know, from at least the late Edo period through to the early Showa period, Japan was importing a bunch of concepts from foreign, notably European sources. They didn't have words for these concepts, so they invented new ones, and they often did it with kanji compounds, e.g. 競争 for "contest", 自由 for "free", 彼女 for "her" (women weren't a new concept, of course, but the highly European style of pronoun use was). So back then, you could get away with quite a lot of invention, although of course your newly coined word would have a certain nuance of foreignness.

But, after WWII, the pendulum swung hugely towards importing foreign concepts using phonetic loans (in katakana). This is why we say コンピューター instead of 電脳 or whatever. And as a result of this swing, it became less normal to invent kanji compounds, and so new kanji compounds became more noticeable and "odd".

Sidenote 1: There was also a reaction against foreign influence (historically, more about the early Chinese influence) in the shape of the Kokugaku school. They often coined new words using native Japanese vocabulary to replace existing Sino-Japanese words, and these new words had a distinctly "Kokugaku" feel. So even the cultural factors are not absolute; they depend on specific circumstances.

Sidenote 2: You can compare this kanji-compound frenzy with the use of Latin and Greek vocabulary to invent new scientific and engineering terms in English, back when modern science was new and had to name all these new ideas it was discovering.

Personal: The other thing about the "getting away with" concept is that it will depend on how different you can handle being. If you (not you personally, Dave, the general "you") are okay with everyone thinking of you as someone who invents new words all the time, and you think that the possible negative effects of this (people thinking you're a weirdo for not speaking "normally", work clients mistaking your creativity for simple error, etc.) are outweighed by the benefits of being able to say awesome things, then you will be able to "get away with" a lot more than someone who doesn't want to stand out that way and therefore has to stick to words that already exist.

And this, too, is not absolute: it's very common for families, both English- and Japanese-speaking and presumably everywhere else, to have their own jargon: words they invented or modified that everyone in the family understands but that no-one would dream of using outside the family, or expect anyone outside the family to accept as a "real word" (even if the meaning is quite clear).

So I guess what I'm saying is, I don't disagree with you that new words are invented all the time and there is no absolute prohibition against it. It may even be true that Japanese is more flexible in this regard than English because kanji are perceived as "modular". But there are still many factors, often changing drastically over time, which condition the relative "social acceptability" of different kinds of word-coining.

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    +1 for reminding us that ‘word’ is not a universally agreed-upon concept. And lots more +1 if I could, but alas, I cannot. (Also, what say you to autokinetica and other such ‘purified’ compounds? ;)) – Zhen Lin Aug 30 '11 at 15:04
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    優答だと思います。 (as an example of an unnatural sentence) – Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 30 '11 at 19:03
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    @Zhen Lin Ha! That's actually why I chose "television", but then I couldn't think of a good way to reverse the sources for the roots). – Matt Aug 30 '11 at 23:15
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    @Tsuyoshi Ito I totally thought 優答 was a word, heh. It might be a good example, actually: 優答 is in use, apparently as an abbreviation for 優秀答案 (sample ["superior"] answer for an exam), but if I read Tsuyoshi's comment correctly he doesn't consider it a "word". It's in the twilight zone between jargon/newly coined words and general vocabulary. – Matt Aug 30 '11 at 23:32
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    @Dave M G Yes, I know you hold very strong views about inventing new words. I won't criticize you for that -- you may have noticed that I feel strongly about descriptivism, so I'm not going to say that inventing words is "wrong" -- and it's certainly true that coining new words is one important way languages develop. The practical issue though is how much coining one person can "get away with", and this is determined by social factors as well as personal ones. I wrote a detailed response as an update to the original, check it out. – Matt Aug 31 '11 at 4:05

If you follow your logic, you would have to say New York is not a word but are two words, or that there is no difference between greenhouse and green house. I think you have an essential misunderstanding about what words are, and you are confusing a word and a dictionary entity.

Whenever a particular expression means something that cannot be obtained systematically from the meaning of its components, then, that has to be specified in the dictionary. Word is something that has integrity in the sense of accent pattern, etc. A dictionary entity may be a word, or may be a phrase (idiom). A word may be a dictionary entity, or may be created systematically and hence not in the dictionary.

For example, greenhouse as opposed to green house is a word and is a dictionary entity because its meaning cannot be systematically obtained from the meanings of green and house; it meaning is something that is specific, and does not necessarily have to be green or have plants (green) grown inside. If there is a word neopragmatism, that would probably have significance in the relevant field of study, and would mean a particular academic school; It would not mean anything that is 'newer' ('neo') than 'pragmatism'. I doubt that you can 'stick them together and damn the dictionary'. For 新貨, it is a word because of the integrity seen from the accent pattern, etc. It is a dictionary entity also because it has a specific meaning in the history of Japanese currency, and cannot mean anything that is a new coin. Likewise, for 新地, I can imagine that it has a specific meaning for a particular area of land in the context of history about a certain geographical location; hence it is a dictionary entity.

Conclusion. All kanji compounds are a word. The moment you say compound, it is a word (To be precise, not all of what you refer to are compounds). But that is independent of whether it is dictionary entity or not.

You may want to take a look at the German history, where many words came to be spelled together, hence assumed a single word, in order to increase the dictionary entries (which is inappropriate from what I mention above) and show the superiority/strength of the language/country to the rest of the world.


In order to understand how kanji really works, you need to understand that kanji compounds sometimes mean exactly as they look. In that sense, I understand why you think of it as a prefix: As in Shinkansen. Shin means new and Kan sen has to do with a line of travel. In Japanese, it means bullet train.

However, there are words such as SaYuu, where the two kanji put together form a completely different concept.
By itself, Hidari also read as (sa) means left. Migi also read as (u) means right. When put together, they don't necesssarily mean left and right, but might mean influence, and therefore, one would not be a prefix or a suffix of the other, but they would be a completely different concept.

Think of Oxymoron in English. If you tried to put these words together and form the meaning, you would not get the actual meaning that is in the dictionary, or at least not right away if you are not a native English speaker. An oxymoron is like a satire based on a word or idea having one meaning, but that meaning being used in the wrong way such as... government Intelligence.

There are cases, though, where shin is used like a prefix and means (new) to describe something. That can most easily be seen in town or city names. But Shinbun (new hearing) is not correct. Shinbun means newspaper!

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