I am a very beginner in Japanese and not very good in English, so I hope my questions will be clear enough.

I'm learning some kanji and I've been through a reflection when comparing some kanji between them, with French and with English. I need your help to understand how it works - it's about something like "what is a word" in Japanese. Yeah I know I'm not very intelligible but I'm still thinking about it, so it's not even clear for me.

I'll drop my reflection here and hope you will help me making all this understandable.

I'll start with French-English comparisons.

In English there is the word hound which is a dog for hunting. In French, we don't have a word for that. We have a locution: chien de chasse which means hunting dog. That means in an English-French dictionary, you will find "hound = chien de chasse", but in a French-English dictionary you won't find "chien de chasse = hound". You will find "chien" then somewhere in the description you will find "- de chasse = hound, hunting dog ; - d'aveugle = guide dog ; d'arrêt = pointer ; etc.". Keep that in mind.

Another thing: in French we have the word gendarme which is sort of a policeman. It comes from gens d'armes which means something like "people with weapons". But nowadays it's a single word, you could say "un gendarme sans arme" (a policeman without any weapon) without anyone being like "it's nonsens, don't call him gendarme if he has no arme!", because the origin of the word does not matter. Keep that in mind too.

OK so now let's talk about Japanese.

Niwatori is for chicken. It was made, before Japanese had writing, from niwa (garden) and tori (bird), because basically a chicken is a bird we keep in a garden. Questions start here:

  • is niwatori a word like gendarme, which was made from two words but nowadays it doesn't matter, or is it a locution like hunting dog and chien de chasse?
  • if it's a locution, why is it not niwa no tori? I thought it wasn't possible in Japanese to create locutions like in English.
  • can you make words like yamatori, kawatori, niwaneko or whatever you want to do?
  • can you say niwa no niwatori?

I heard someone saying hana no hanabira:

  • isn't hanabira already a flower petal or is it only a petal so you can say hana no hanabira and you could say yume no hanabira (I'm such a poet)? Or would you say yumebira?

After that, I saw the word yagi, which is a goat. This word is made with two kanji: yama and hitsuji. So the same questions apply to yagi, but do the same answers do?

  • does it really mean goat or does it mean mountain sheep which can be understood as goat (slight difference)?
  • is it really a word, can we call it a word, or is it more like a locution?

Can we create new words with many kanji or do we have to use no if we want to express new things like "a sheep from a mountain is a goat"? Example: I want to say a cat from a forest is a tiger, can I say morineko or is it mori no neko?

Thanks, I know it's hard to understand, plus with Japanese it's never the same between "saying" and "writing" (it's like you write chien de chasse but read it hound so you write three words but pronounce one, wow, does the question "is it a word?" still have any sens?).


1 Answer 1


Let me start from [鶏]{にわとり} (niwatori).

"niwatori" is like gendarme, so we do not imagine gardens when we say "niwatori". We rarely regard this word as niwa plus tori.

All of your examples, yamatori, kawatori, and niwaneko, sound unnatural, as such words don't exist. A similar example is ヤマネコ (yamaneko), which comes from yama (mountain) + neko (cat). This is a single word for a name of a species. However, as we are far less familiar with yamaneko than niwatori, when we hear "yamaneko", we still imagine something like "cats from mountain" while understanding that this is a single word.

Another example is [家猫]{いえねこ} (ieneko), which is ie (house) + neko (cat) and refers to domesticated cats. In this case, we recognize that it is ie plus neko but use this as a single word.

So, saying "niwa no niwatori" is fine. Furthermore, there is a famous phrase for discussing ambiguousness involving niwa and niwatori:

niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru.
There are two chickens in the garden.

Nextly, [花]{はな}びら "hanabira" is definitely flower petal. So we don't say hana no hanabira when we discuss general flower petals. But saying "ano hana no hanabira (petals of that flower) etc. is fine.

Note that, though its etymology may be hana + bira, it is an unsplitable word. "bira" would never be "petal" and you can't say "yumebira". A phrase "yume no hanabira" might be possible but it doesn't make sense at least to me.

The last example [山羊]{やぎ} "yagi" needs a bit different discussion, as it involves kanjis. The key is that "yagi" is not [漢語]{かんご} (kango, a word made up with kanjis) but a pure Japanese word (though it may have originated from other ancient languages). That is, the sound of "yagi" came first and its kanji was determined much later. So the meaning of kanjis (here, mountain and goat) is not so much related to the meaning of the word. We just understand yagi as goats, but not mountain sheep.

Another example is [海豚]{いるか} (iruka = dolphins). Its kanji is sea + pig. Obviously, we should not believe that dolphins are sea pigs. Especially in animal names (which are rarely 漢語), the relation between meanings and kanjis are no more than this extent.

If you say morineko, every native speaker of Japanese should notice that it is a result of word creation. They then would wonder how morineko is different from mori no neko.

On the other hand, 漢語s are often understood as combination of kanjis. For example, [国旗]{こっき} (national flag) is composed of 国 (nation) and 旗 (flag). In the region of 漢語s, word creation might sometimes make sense and be accepted as a result of valid wording.

As a conclusion, you should consider most non-漢語s as single words but not composed words. In the above examples, yamaneko and ieneko can actually be considered as a composed word, but now they are treated as single words. Indeed, yamainu is still possible but ieinu doesn't make much sense. This kind of composed words may have taken long time to be accepted as single words, so you have to work very much absolutely hard advertising, for example morineko, to make it accepted as a valid word.

  • Thank you very much, you've understood my questions very well. So what you mean is that hanabira, ieneko, niwatori, yagi, etc. (kango or not) are real words and not locutions like house cat that can be created when you want. Indeed what disturbed me in the first place was that the kanji niwatori countains AND pronounces the word tori. The difference between a word made with two kanji and a kanji made with two radicals that exist as kanji too.
    – Destal
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 18:31
  • 1
    @SimonDéchamps Yes, they all are real words and not locutions. To make the same sound as locution "house cat", you say "ie no neko."   As for the kanji of niwatori, you will notice that the kanji of non-kangos are almost wordplay if you look into the meaning of each kanji in it. "tori" in its pronunciation is just etymology, so when we say niwatori, we notice that it has tori in it but that's all. It is similar to that a lot of insects have "mushi" in their name. Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 2:12
  • Is yagi what you call a jukujikun?
    – Destal
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 20:21
  • 1
    @SimonDéchamps Yes. If the meaning of the word cannot be split into two (here "goat" can't be split), its reading (here, yagi) are also unlikely to be split. So yagi can't be split into two to match two kanjis. Thus yagi is jukujikun. Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 1:38

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