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Whenever I see vegetable translated, it seems to always be as 野菜{やさい}. But doesn't 菜 by itself mean vegetable? If so, why add the extra character?

I've noticed this in a couple of other cases as well, such as 言語{げんご} being used for language even though 語 by itself also means language (such as in 日本語).

Are these combinations done just for historical reasons, or is there a logic behind this that I'm missing?

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Well, this isn't totally a Japanese problem, but a nature of Chinese vocabulary.

You said "菜 by itself mean vegetable", but more exactly speaking, 菜【さい】 means:

  • "edible plant": 菜食, 山菜, 菜園 etc.
  • "dish (cooked food other than grain)": 主菜, 惣菜, 前菜 etc.

A single kanji is often polysemous, and the most of those kanji are only viable within compounds, being interdependent with other characters to specify their meanings.

In modern Japanese, 野菜 is the only way to refer to "vegetables", and 菜 doesn't exist as an independent word.

Similarly, 語 only roughly means "act of speaking", that is "language" (日本語, 英語...), "word, term" (語源, 敬語...), or "speech, talk" (私語, 落語...). 語 does have a standalone usage, but it's linguistic term of "word", instead of "language".

  • Thanks for that explanation. This combined with @naruto's link really helped clear things up. I first became interested in Japanese because of the etymological stories behind the kanji, so I'd really be curious if 野菜 was always the only way to refer to vegetables, or if it used to be just 菜, and at some point 野 was added to disambiguate. – lfalin Jul 9 '17 at 4:46

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