I'm aware the two kanji are often pronounced the same, but why does one contain the other in it?

  • 2
    I didn't think this was interesting until I read the answer, and now I definitely think it is, so +1.
    – atlantiza
    Feb 17, 2012 at 1:25
  • @atlantiza: sawa's or jogloran's?
    – Golden Cuy
    Feb 17, 2012 at 2:42
  • sawa's, because that's the one I can understand...
    – atlantiza
    Feb 17, 2012 at 4:08
  • i feel exactly the same about the other answer. i was going to downvote this question until i read it.
    – ixtmixilix
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:35

2 Answers 2


That is called 形声. About 90% of all kanjis are created in this way. In this case, the left side is responsible for the meaning, and the right side, is responsible for the pronunciation. In turn, is composed of the upper part , which is responsible for the pronunciation and the lower part , which is responsible for the meaning. Why is included in ? Because it was created so. Why is this way of creating kanji so popular? Because it will be a mess if thousands of kanjis were all pictograms, and if the pronunciation and the meaning are combined, it will be easy to both remember its meaning and the pronunciation.


In Middle Chinese and a reconstruction of Old Chinese, 吾 and 五 have the following readings (Baxter):

五: wu3 < ngu < *nga

吾: wu2 < nguX < *ngaʔ

語: yu3 < ngjoX < *ng(r)aʔ

In modern Mandarin, 語 (yu3) and 五 (wu3) have diverged in pronunciation, but according to reconstructions they were pronounced similarly in antiquity.

There are other cases of 形声 where the phonetic does not apparently match the pronunciation -- some of these are because of this divergence.

  • 2
    As long as you are talking about Japanese, all three characters are pronounced completely the same as "go", (and in ancient Chinese when the characters were created, they were the same as well according to you).
    – user458
    Feb 16, 2012 at 13:33
  • +1 i love this answer
    – ixtmixilix
    Feb 16, 2012 at 14:44
  • 2
    I see. I didn't realize that part. I misinterpreted your description. I see, they are different.
    – user458
    Feb 17, 2012 at 4:19
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    Just wondering if it's common to use ? for glottal stop when there is already a symbol for it... Using ʔ (and hopefully noting what it means) would at least not make people think you are writing something question-related.
    – atlantiza
    Feb 17, 2012 at 7:44
  • 1
    @atlantiza: Good question. SAMPA and Kirshenbaum are two common ways we use to represent a subset of the IPA in ASCII. In both of these, the question mark represents the glottal stop. Certainly I could have used Unicode.
    – jogloran
    Feb 17, 2012 at 14:34

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