this is probably a silly question, but since words with multiple kanji are usually read with on’yomi would that effectively make most japanese vocabulary loanwords? like 森林 or 図書館?i understand differences like how 本 does not mean book in chinese but it just makes me wonder about how japanese these multi kanji words are

2 Answers 2


As far as Japanese is concerned, loanwords (外来語) usually refer to words brought into Japan from countries other than China and written in katakana. But strictly speaking, it depends on how you define loanwords. Many on-yomi Sino-Japanese words had been around even before Japanese people learned how to write their own native words, so IMHO it doesn't make much sense to call them loanwords. I suppose most English speakers do not want to call common words derived from Latin loanwords, either.

Here are some definitions of 外来語.


外来語(がいらいご)とは、日本語における借用語のうち、漢語とそれ以前の借用語を除いたものである。(snip) 日本語に入った年代の古い語や日本人の生活や文化に深く浸透したものを指す語の一部(「タバコ」「イクラ」など)も外来語と認識されないことが多い。





大辞林 第三版



外来語. Words brought into Japanese from languages other than Chinese.

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    If you asked most English speakers whether common words derived from Latin counted as loanwords, I think you'd probably get more blank stares than answers. From a linguist's point of view, most words in English are in fact loanwords, but loans do undergo a process of "nativization" (assimilation) over time; Sino-Japanese vocabulary can be thought of as "more native" than recent loans (gairaigo). See Loanwords in Japanese (Irwin 2011) for some discussion of the lexical strata of Japanese, or the alternative core–periphery (set inclusion) models proposed by Ito & Mester and others.
    – user1478
    May 8, 2019 at 15:29
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    @snailboat It's been too long since your last answer here... This would be a good opportunity ;) (In other words, please post a more detailed answer. I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one appreciating it!)
    – Earthliŋ
    May 8, 2019 at 19:21
  • you’re absolutely right, i never thought of it being similar to our own english terms with latin origins. i definitely wouldn’t call “transformation” a loanwords for instance. thank you for the thoughtful answer! May 9, 2019 at 6:45
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    To extend the analogy even further, I was once told that using on'yomi kanji compounds instead of kun'yomi (old Yamato?) words adds a sort of intellectual (for lack of a better word) nuance, similar to the way that certain Latinate words tend to sound "smarter" than Germanic words do (and the latter may even be found more often in literature or poetry). I don't have any real sources to back this up though, other than vague feelings of correctness. Here's a list of Latinate/Germanic equivalents though. May 9, 2019 at 8:27
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    @HotelCalifornia We have many existing questions about this. See wago-and-kango.
    – naruto
    May 9, 2019 at 8:32

I think you are answering your own question in part. Most compound words use a reading that derives from Chinese but remember that Japanese was its own language already before it drew from the Chinese writing system, as far as I know. It might have adopted many loanwords but it also used onyomi reading for many existing Japanese words. That is, in part, why I would say that it might be too much of a stretch to call all these native Japanese terms loanwords on that basis alone.

You call your question silly because you recognize that you would probably be stretching the interpretation of what constitutes a loanword a little, but on the other hand I have had similar musings about the onyomi readings and the origin of the Japanese writing system. It probably does make Japanese a very unique language that way, but I think it would be similar to calling a large portion of English words "loanwords" from Latin or Greek because one can trace their etymology to either.

Going by the narrower definition of a loanword, we usually mean terms that are adopted without or with little translation. There certainly are many such loanwords in Japanese but since most of these terms you would be including with your definition had words in Japanese that were distinct from Chinese before characters were adopted for them I would say that it is simply too much of a stretch to call such a substantial portion of the Japanese vocabulary loanwords.

  • japanese really is at an interesting and unique state. it’s true that spoken language comes before writing and words naturally come from other words. so of course japanese would have some chinese base to their words. thank you for answering!!! May 9, 2019 at 6:46

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