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I am currently in the process of slowly learning kanji. I have found out that there are 2136 characters of general use "joyo" kanji, but it is said that the total number of kanji characters could be very well over 50,000, though obviously it is very rarely used, if at all.

A question then came into mind. What happens when someone already fluent in joyo kanji (imagine a native japanese high school student in his/her final year) were to read a printed text out loud that happens to contain a single kanji they did not know before? Did they simply skip it? Or is it actually possible to make an educated guess of the pronunciation of the character?

I would imagine it would be common courtesy to at least provide furigana when printing kanji outside of the joyo list, but I do wonder what happens when it is printed without.

Obviously being a relative beginner in japanese, I could not provide an example, so it would be nice if the answer also contains an example.

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    I guess it'd be pretty much same when an English speaker had to read a word they didn't know. – broccoli facemask - cloth Mar 4 at 10:12
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    I believe the primary difference is that with latin alphabet you can just pronounce it as normal even though you dont know the meaning – Dalva Mar 7 at 17:41
  • Yes most Latin alphabet languages are but I don't think English is that easy... – broccoli facemask - cloth Mar 7 at 18:46
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Did they simply skip it? Or is it actually possible to make an educated guess of the pronunciation of the character?

In the majority of cases, they can make a guess (although it may be incorrect). Most kanji, especially difficult ones, are phono-semantic, and one can guess the on-reading of a phono-semantic kanji by looking at its radicals. Typically the radical at the right is the phonetic component.

For example, you may be able to read 犠牲 and 憧憬 correctly if you know how to read 義, 生, 童 and 景, which are much easier. 噴, 墳 and 憤 share the same on-reading (ふん), so if you know the reading of one of them, you may be able to read 古墳, 憤死 and 噴火, too. Actually these examples are not particularly difficult to educated adults, but the same strategy basically works for much rarer non-joyo kanji, too.

This obviously does not work for difficult kun-readings and jukujikun such as 向日葵 (ひまわり), but most difficult words native speakers are likely to encounter in everyday life are on-on compounds.

See also: Do native speakers consciously use phonetic elements in 形声文字?

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  • A very nice explanation, thanks. So it is indeed possible to guess from the already familiar radical in on-on situation. As for jukujikun, I guess there's no jukujikun reading using non-joyo kanji? or if there is, what other strategy, if any, that can be used other than giving up? – Dalva Mar 7 at 17:39
  • I doubt that "no jukujikun reading using non-joyo kanji" is even remotely true, and wonder what makes you believe so. 牡蠣・蚯蚓・蝸牛・孑孒・薯蕷 and more... – broccoli facemask - cloth Mar 7 at 19:02
  • Hence my question, thank you very much. and an explanation would be nice too. – Dalva Mar 8 at 5:46
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What happens when someone already fluent in joyo kanji (imagine a native japanese high school student in his/her final year) were to read a printed text out loud that happens to contain a single kanji they did not know before? Did they simply skip it? Or is it actually possible to make an educated guess of the pronunciation of the character?

I have sometimes been in this situation, with some Japanese adults reading texts out loud where they do not know what some of the words say. There's no rule about what people do when they encounter a kanji word which they can't read. Sometimes they may guess, or they may stumble over it, but in the cases I've dealt with they usually just ask someone else what it says.

I definitely haven't seen that the majority of cases people can guess what it says from kanji radicals in the manner that the other answer describes, but my experience is not very comprehensive.

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