I am a beginner in Japanese and learning Kanji through Anki (Kanji Damage deck). I came across a word 助言{じょげん} while learning 言.

I want to know from where does the 助 kanji come from?

I searched for etymology and what I get is, 力 clearly stands for strength. While 且 stands for one of the two things, altar or erect penis.

If I go with the former origin for 且, does the Kanji mean, saving someone from death (altar symbolising death, saving someone from death using strength).

Am I correct to interpret it that way? Or does the it have some other meaning?

When I searched for etymology of 助 on Wiktionary, it gives me:

Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *zras): phonetic 且 ‎(OC *sʰjaːʔ, >*ʔsa) + semantic 力 ‎(“strong arm”) – to help with one’s strength.

When I searched for etymology of 助 on ChineseEtymology, it gives something similar:

From strength 力 (to help with) and phonetic 且. Meaning to help.

Does this mean, "saving" as a spoken word borrowed sound from 且 and used usual sound for 力? If I am correct in assuming that, is this common?

  • 1
    What's the question here? You referenced sources that are consistent with other sources which allows drawing a conclusion that they are correct. So you asked a question, answered it, and wrote a last paragraph ("Does it mean...") which, sorry to say, is incomprehensible given the above explanation.
    – macraf
    Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 13:12
  • I think @leoboiko has answered what I wanted to ask.
    – vadasambar
    Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 14:44
  • Great! So now, based on this answer, explain to posteriority if "saving as a spoken word borrowed sound from 且 and used usual sound for 力" - yes or no?
    – macraf
    Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 14:50
  • Yes it did. I didn't frame the question correctly. I was pretty confused at the time when I posted this question. Sorry for that. What I wanted to know was what exactly are phonetc sounds in Kanji, are they common, why do we need them when Kanji is pictorgraphic (which is not the case, as I learned) and how correct was I in assuming the meaning of the kanji 助, which might seem pretty obvious for you as a conclusion but it didn't for me at the time I posted this question. Sorry if that led misunderstanding. I am new to stackexchange and this is my first question.
    – vadasambar
    Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 15:07

1 Answer 1


Imagine you are an ancient Chinese scribe. You want to write the word "to help, to assist", which was something like dzryo (modern Chinese zhù, Japanese jo). However, there's no character for it. You could create a new one—perhaps a picture of a stick figure helping another; but that's kinda abstract and hard to depict as a drawing. Readers might interpret the new character as "friendship" or "embrace" or "hired work" or a zillion other things.

So you use a sound-based borrowing, or rebus. Where you want to write "to help", dzryo, you draw the character for "altar", 且 tsyo (modern jù, cù (tsù), Japanese so), because it sounds like "to help". This is just like drawing a 👁 to write the word "I", or a tin can to write the verb "can". Your readers read it aloud and, in context, they know what you meant.

Your notation is successful; so much that people start to write 且 meaning "to help" all the time. But now a new problem appears. Someone writes "I need 且", and it's not clear whether they mean helpers, or altars. Writing has grown ambiguous. So you disambiguate it by the following device: whenever you mean "to help" you add the "strength" character—a biceps カ—besides it. Now you have a composite "multimedia" character, so to speak. In 助、 the 且 part suggests the sound ("something like so "), and the 力 part suggests the general meaning ("has to do with strength") = jo "to help". This is called a phono-semantic compound 形声文字{けいせいもじ}. The sound hint is called the "phonetic component" or simply the "phonetic" 音符{おんぷ}. The meaning hint is called the "semantic component" 意符{いふ}.

This process was extremely common, and the result is that most characters are phono-semantic compounds—up to 90% of them, by Karlgren's count (though many sound-hints and meaning-hints have become obsolete, as words have changed significantly, and the shapes of the characters too).

That being said, in many cases the sound-hint works as a second meaning-hint, too. All of 包泡胞砲 are pronounced , so clearly 包 was chosen as a phonetic. However, it's easy to imagine bubbles 泡 as water packages 水+包, cells 胞 as flesh packages 肉+包, (ancient) bullets 砲 as stone packages, etc. They could have chosen any character pronounced as the phonetic for those words; but they appear to have chosen one whose meaning also made sense. This appears to be relatively common (the technical term is "meaning-combining phono-semantic compound 会意形声文字{かいいけいせいもじ}).

Is 助 a meaning-combining character? That is, did the person who created it aim at a semantic use of 且—perhaps thinking of ritual altar helpers, or something? Or was 且 a purely phonetic choice (which is also common)? The truth is, nobody knows. We have no documentation of their rationale; it's easy to speculate semantic associations, but hard to find proof. This has been the source of many bitter arguments among linguists. We're not even sure whether the original meaning of 且 was really "altar", or their old pronunciations. The above are current best informed guesses (my source for the reconstructed sounds is Baxter–Sargat's research).

But of course you are allowed to think of it as "saving from altar death", as a mnemonic, if you find it helpful. Your mnemonics don't have to follow historical truth. Even in East Asia, many characters were reanalyzed at later periods. For example, 東 "East" was originally built from 束 "bundle" for phonetic reasons; but nowadays most people interpret it as "the sun 日 rising behind a tree 木", even in China and Japan. Whatever works for you—just be sure to distinguish easy-to-remember mnemonic stories from often-confusing actual history.

  • Thanks a lot ! It makes a lot more sense now ! I learn Kanji using their origin/etymology and some mnemonic to remember it. What you said makes a lot more sense now. I have run across phonetic compounds several times but there was always some kind of etymology that I could associate with it and it worked most of the times, until I came across 助 and it seemed really ambiguous to me.I thought of Chinese/Japanese script as a pictographic. I didn't venture go into understanding what phono-semantic compounds mean because I thought of them as exceptions. Thanks for the explanation. :)
    – vadasambar
    Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 14:37

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