By "Chinese-derived words" I mean words that are read solely in 音読み, e.g. 自転車, 会社, 選択 etc.

As a Chinese speaker, I find some of the Chinese-derived words not really Chinese. We don't call a bicycle a 自転車, or a company a 会社.

So I thought the Japanese made these words up themselves, without any Chinese influence, using the meanings of each character, like 自(self) 転(turning) 車(vehicle). And that the only Chinese influence is the characters, not the word as a whole.

But if they were made up by the Japanese, why aren't they read in 訓読み?

Also, I thought the Japanese borrowed the characters and their meanings a long time ago, causing some characters' meanings to be different from what they mean in modern Chinese. For example, 走 used to mean "run" in classical Chinese, but it means "walk" now. But then I see the relatively new adjective ending ー的. Does this mean that modern Chinese also has an influence on the Japanese language?

up vote 8 down vote accepted

But if they were made up by the Japanese, why aren't they read in 訓読み?

Because on-yomi readings sounded (and still sound) better for technical/academic terms. Roughly in the 19th century, Japanese people coined many "Chinese-looking" technical terms as they rapidly learnt Western culture and technologies. Before the Meiji Restoration, most technical terms had been borrowed from Chinese, and there were no native-Japanese equivalent for such difficult words. So it looked simply natural to use the grammar pattern and the readings of Chinese to coin new kanji words. Kun-readings were already too mundane for this purpose.

Many of the words coined in this period were even reverse-imported and became part of the modern Chinese vocabulary. See 和製漢語 on Japanese Wikipedia, Chinese Wikipedia or English Wikipedia.

In those days, Chinese people also coined many new words (sometimes referred to as 華製新漢語 as opposed to 和製漢語), and some of them were imported to Japan. -的 is a suffix which came into use in Japan in the late 19th century.

自転車 is a word coined by a Japanese sculptor Torajiro Takeuchi in the late 19th century.

日本の自転車

1870年、東京・南八丁堀5丁目の竹内寅次郎という彫刻職人が「自転車」と名付けた三輪の車(ラントン型と考えられている)について、4月29日付の願書で東京府に製造・販売の許可を求めた。この願書は「自転車」という言葉の最古の使用例とされ、東京都公文書館に保存されている「庚午府治類纂」舟車之部という文書綴りに収められている。

Likewise, many words were independently coined as translations from Western languages both in China and Japan. Other such examples are 機場 vs 空港 for airport, 棒球 vs 野球 for baseball, 電影 vs 映画 for movie and 公司 vs 会社 for company.

Today, Japanese people no longer frequently coin totally new kanji compounds nor borrow new kanji words from Chinese. Instead, people introduce new katakana loanwords almost every day.

  • 1
    I guess it's a bit like inventing an English word like "television" from the appropriate roots (be they Greek, or Latin, or whatever). – ConMan May 31 '17 at 1:21

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