4

I'm trying to learn Japanese but I'm the kind of person who can't really learn if they don't understand some of the mechanisms. I'm stuck when learning vocabulary because I can't just be like "OK this one is strange but whatever, it must be an exception, I'll learn it that way".

What slows me down are the many ways of pronouncing kanji. I don't want to learn the whole story from the beginning but I just want to know the different cases about why sometimes the main rules about kanji aren't followed.

The point of my topic is to understand every case I can encounter when learning Japanese words, so I won't be stuck trying to figure why a word has a strange pronunciation.

So here is what I have gathered, I'd like you to correct me or to add some things, please. I'm interested in knowing the appropriate terms for the phenomenons, I've written them in italic and bold for the first use in my message.


BRIEF HISTORY

(helps understand some cases)

Japanese people had a language without writing system. They then discovered Chinese writing and used the kanji with their own Japanese pronunciation (kun'yomi) and the Chinese - simplified - pronunciation (on'yomi).

They then used the kanji for their phonetic value only (man'yôgana), which leads to creating katakana (a part of a man'yôgana to show the pronunciation of a kanji in a text, something like what furigana are nowadays) and hiragana (a simplified man'yôgana when written fast).


MAIN RULES

1) a kanji alone uses kun'yomi reading.

2) a combined word uses on'yomi readings of each kanji (with sometimes little alterations).

Ex:

火 = ひ

山 = やま

火山 = カザン

Question 1: why is that so? Is it because Japanese didn't really mix words together before getting kanji? They didn't have a word for a volcano?


OTHER CASES

(breaking the main rules)

1) a kanji alone has no kun'yomi reading because the word didn't exist in pure Japanese:

菊 = キク

Question 2: does this phenomenon has a name?

2) a combined word has a kun'yomi reading for each kanji because Japanese had already orally created combined words. They've then combined the correct kanji of each kun'yomi reading:

名前 = なまえ

小山 = こやま

Question 3: does this phenomenon has a name?

3) a kanji alone has a combined kun'yomi reading because a unique kanji existed in Chinese for a word made up of two words in Japanese. It doesn't break the main rules but we can see sort of a "orally combined word" on a unique kanji:

鶏 = にわとり

Question 4: does this phenomenon has a name?

Funny: the word たまご has two writings corresponding to point 2 (玉子) and 3 (卵).

4) a combined word with two kanji, the first one in on'yomi reading and the second one in kun'yomi reading (jûbakoyomi):

曜日 = ヨウび

5) a combined word whose reading is neither the kun'yomi readings or the on-yomi readings of the kanji, because the word existed in Japanese and the kanji are used for their meaning only (jukujikun):

山羊 = やぎ

大人 = おとな

Question 5: was the combined writing of a jukujikun only created by Japanese to suit the meaning of the word, or could it have existed in Chinese?

6) a katakana word combined with a on'yomi reading of a kanji to create a new word:

フランス人

7) a word using kanji for their pronunciation only (ateji). It can be the on'yomi reading (shakuon) or the kun'yomi reading (shakkun). They tend to be written with kana only:

誤魔化す = ごまかす

合羽 = カッパ

8) a word using two purely Japanese readings because it's a repetition (often written with the repetition sign 々):

時時 = ときどき


Apart from my questions, I'd be glad to read every information and correction you can offer. Thank you.

  • 2
    I understand that these can be confusing, but rather than looking for a name for each phenomenon, try to think why the writing system works in a specific way in that situation. The exceptions are endless, and you can't possibly find a technical term for everything. Some key reasons for exceptions: distinguishing similar-sounding words, context, chance. – siikamiika Apr 10 '17 at 10:39
  • "Aso" or "Asama" are an old word that meant volcano but they are currently a proper noun. – user4092 Apr 11 '17 at 20:20
1

Question 1: why is that so? Is it because Japanese didn't really mix words together before getting kanji? They didn't have a word for a volcano?

As you already wrote in the following part of your question, there are many straightforward kun-kun compounds, including 竹箒, 緑色, 花火, 夜空 and 岩山.

The number of on'yomi compounds is larger because recently-coined terms, many of which are technical terms, generally use on'yomi. Many yamatokotoba have been replaced by on'yomi compounds or katakana loanwords. Pure yamatokoba will not increase any longer, while many new sino-Japanese (kango) words and katakana loanwords are still being introduced every day.

In addition, on'yomi noun-verb or verb-verb compounds are still two-kanji compounds (e.g., 転職 (v+n), 飲酒 (v+n), 競争 (v+v)), but kun'yomi noun-verb compounds are usually mixture of kana and kanji (e.g. 火遊び, 語り草, 飲み物) with a few exceptions (e.g., 船出, 見境). Kun'yomi verb-verb compounds are merely called compound verbs, which of course are mixture of kana and kanji.

Question 2~4: does this phenomenon has a name?

No I don't think so, at least in laypeople's vocabulary. There are so many common kun-kun compounds that I had never thought we need a special name for it. By the way I think most Japanese people cannot tell with confidence whether 菊【きく】 is on'yomi or kun'yomi.

Question 5: was the combined writing of a jukujikun only created by Japanese to suit the meaning of the word, or could it have existed in Chinese?

As the literal meaning of 熟字 ("character-combination(-based)-kun'yomi") suggests, it's the word used to refer to certain Japanese words. I don't know if similar exceptional hanji readings exist in Chinese.

2

Overview

What slows me down are the many ways of pronouncing kanji. I don't want to learn the whole story from the beginning but I just want to know the different cases about why sometimes the main rules about kanji aren't followed.

When people say they don't know how to pronounce it, they actually don't know what word the written form refers to. In most cases, they don't know the word. So, if you find you don't know what the given characters read, try dictionaries, ask Google.

That a kanji has multiple pronunciations are actually that the kanji persistently represents multiple series of synonyms. If a kanji could be read both autumn or fall, what decides which to read? The unpredictability of kanji readings are, in fact, that of lexicon. Generally, synchronic (i.e. a certain time-slice of) inventory of vocabulary has little rule in relation to grammar. English demonyms are good examples: English, American, Japanese, Iraqi, Argentine, Cypriot, but not Englese or Japanish. Each suffix (-ish, -an, -ese...) could have possibility to attach to more words, but those words just don't exist in the actual language.


1) a kanji alone uses kun'yomi reading.

This may be not a bad guess on a frequency basis, though not a rule. Try think not in pronunciation way but word, as the standalone on'yomi and kun'yomi words may have different meanings.

  • 金: キン (gold) ←→ かね (money; metal)
  • 文: ブン (sentence) ←→ ふみ (letter (mail))
  • 剣: ケン (sword, basic word) ←→ つるぎ (sword, poetic)

2) a combined word uses on'yomi readings of each kanji (with sometimes little alterations).

Question 1: why is that so? Is it because Japanese didn't really mix words together before getting kanji? They didn't have a word for a volcano?

There is a great number of multi-kanji words imported from China as is, or created in Japan imitating the format (like neologisms in many European languages that use Greek and Latin elements). They are of course read in on'yomi, while words that made of two kun'yomi words are of course kun'yomi. So the truth is that despite they share the same kanji, カザン is not made of ひ + やま, no more than helicopter is made of whirl + wing (even though that's what it means!).

1) a kanji alone has no kun'yomi reading because the word didn't exist in pure Japanese:

2) a combined word has a kun'yomi reading for each kanji because Japanese had already orally created combined words. They've then combined the correct kanji of each kun'yomi reading:

8) a word using two purely Japanese readings because it's a repetition (often written with the repetition sign 々):

Those statements are no more valid since what is said above, alongside the questions.

3) a kanji alone has a combined kun'yomi reading because a unique kanji existed in Chinese for a word made up of two words in Japanese. It doesn't break the main rules but we can see sort of a "orally combined word" on a unique kanji:

にわとり is one word as much as blackboard is. That's proven by the accent: にわとり{LHHH} < にわ{LH} + とり{LH}. The true "a kanji alone has a combined kun'yomi reading" examples only appear in documents of oldest times.

五に曰く、餮【あぢはひのむさぼり】を絶ち、欲【たからのほしみ】を棄て……(十七条憲法 (604))

I'm not sure if they're kun'yomi in proper sense, though.

Question 5: was the combined writing of a jukujikun only created by Japanese to suit the meaning of the word, or could it have existed in Chinese?

If it doesn't exist in Chinese, it's called ateji by definition.

6) a katakana word combined with a on'yomi reading of a kanji to create a new word:

Not true: 南【みなみ】アフリカ "South Africa", ノイマン型【がた】 "von Neumann type".

  • Many thanks, I'll read your answer more carefully tomorrow. – Destal Apr 11 '17 at 20:59

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.