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I'm learning Japanese on Duolingo and they're starting to teach me some vocabulary about schooling. Things like 大学, 中学, 小学, and... 高校?

I know that 学校 is the kanji spelling of "school," but why does "high school" use the 校 kanji, whereas all the other forms use the 学 kanji? What's the difference between these two kanji/why is one more appropriate for high-school specifically?


James' answer below has informed me that 日本語 has abbreviations for some of its words, in this case from 高等学校 to 高校. My question now becomes, "Why does 高等学校 get abbreviated to 高校, keeping the 校, but all other forms of school keep the 学 instead?"

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    小学校 and 中学校 are more frequent than 小学 and 中学. – Aeon Akechi Feb 3 at 7:55
  • @AeonAkechi Nice to know, thank you. So then, is 高学校 used at all? If not, why does high-school get the shortening to 高校? – matthew-e-brown Feb 3 at 7:57
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First of all, 小学, 中学 and 高校 are abbreviations. The full (non-abbreviated) forms are:

  • 小学校
  • 中学校
  • 高等学校
  • 大学

You can already see some inconsistencies. Only 高等学校 has two characters before 学. 大学 are officially 大学 and has no 校 in the first place! (The word 大学校 exists, but it refers to something different.)

After the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese education system underwent repeated reforms, which is too complicated to explain here (see these charts). Roughly speaking, 大学 was a very old word borrowed from Chinese, and it remained unchanged. The name 高等学校 was established relatively later as a special type of school for selected elites, and that's why it looks different from 小学校/中学校. These words have different origins and histories, so it's no surprising that they were abbreviated differently.

学 and 校 both means school anyway, so 高学 seems equally reasonable as the abbreviation of 高等学校. I could not find why exactly 高学 was not chosen, but I guess there were some practical reason in those days. Maybe someone thought こうがく was confusing because there was already the word 工学 (engineering)?

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  • Wow, I did not expect an answer this detailed. Thanks! 日本語 definitely has a lot more changed and culture imbued in its language than English does. The nuance is impressive. – matthew-e-brown Feb 3 at 18:14
  • Maybe someone thought こうがく was confusing because there was already the word 工学 (engineering)? Possibly, but what about science (科学) and chemistry (化学) sharing the same pronunciation? – ajsmart Feb 3 at 19:47
  • @ajsmart They are not abbreviations, and they are both imported words from Chinese, so... you know. (Both 科学 and 化学 are sometimes categorized as 和製漢語, though) – naruto Feb 4 at 1:39
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Additional post to provide a bit more detail.

Appearance of 高校

FWIW, it appears that the term 高校 first appears around 1949, shortly after the 1948 promulgation of a new Japanese educational law, reformulating the educational system.

Japanese abbreviation patterns

Japanese abbreviations are much more commonly derived by choosing the first component of each two-character portion of a larger compound. Thus, [世]{●}界[銀]{●}行 ("World Bank") is abbreviated as [世]{●}[銀]{●}, [下]{●}院[議]{●}員 ("member of the lower house of the Diet") is abbreviated as [下]{●}[議]{●}, [保]{●}健[体]{●}育 ("health and physical education", the subject taught in schools) is abbreviated as [保]{●}[体]{●}, etc.

We even see this pattern in borrowed terms, where the first component isn't a kanji, but instead (usually) the first two mora (kana). For example, [ワ]{●}[ー]{●}ド[プ]{●}[ロ]{●}セッサー is shortened to [ワ]{●}[ー]{●}[プ]{●}[ロ]{●}, [ス]{●}[タ]{●}ー[バ]{●}ックス is shortened to [ス]{●}[タ]{●}[バ]{●}, [コ]{●}[ス]{●}チューム[プ]{●}[レ]{●}イ is shortened to [コ]{●}[ス]{●}[プ]{●}[レ]{●}, etc.

As such, we'd expect to see [高]{●}等[学]{●}校 abbreviated to *[高]{●}[学]{●}. But instead, [高]{●}等学[校]{●} is abbreviated a bit oddly, as [高]{●}[校]{●}

Reason for using 高校 as the abbreviation for 高等学校

I cannot find anything definitively explaining why 高等学校 was abbreviated as 高校 instead of 高学, but @naruto's guess seems like a good one -- there are many homophones for こうがく, several of which appear to be in common use even in the spoken language, and most of which already end in 学 in the written language. While there are also many homophones for こうこう, fewer of these appear to be in common use in spoken Japanese, and the only one with the 校 character is 高校, which may leave less room for ambiguity.

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高校 is an abbreviation of 高等学校, which does include the character 学。

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  • Abbreviations like how English abbreviates "Co-operate" to "Co-op"? – matthew-e-brown Feb 3 at 8:27
  • @Matthew, I thought you were asking why the inconsistent 等学 →高校 not 高学, whereas 小学校→小学 not 小校, 中学校→中学 not 中校. (大学 is not an abbreviation) – Chocolate Feb 3 at 8:29
  • @Chocolate I wasn't originally (Duolingo didn't each me 高等学校, just 高校), but now that I know about abbreviations (which, to be honest, it only makes sense those would be a thing), I am now wondering why 高等学校 gets a different one than all the rest of them. – matthew-e-brown Feb 3 at 8:35

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