I looked up 塞 in my 漢和辞典, and I found four readings:



What I noticed is that サイ is used when the kanji means とりで, and ソク is used when the kanji means ふさぐ:

  • 「とりで」の意味: 要塞{ようさい}・[防塞]{ぼうさい}
  • 「ふさぐ」の意味: 閉塞{へいそく}・[逼塞]{ひっそく}

I noticed the same thing with 省. The reading セイ seems to be used when the kanji means かえりみる, while ショウ is reserved for the other meanings.

What is the historical reason for this sort of correspondence? Does it mean 塞 was borrowed twice, with a different pronunciation and meaning? Was 塞 confused with 寨, perhaps? What about 省?

  • 3
    You missed the third option: 塞 already had two readings and two meanings in Chinese when it was borrowed.
    – Zhen Lin
    Oct 22, 2012 at 7:15
  • 1
    While you mentioned 防塞, it can also be read as bōsoku and fits the pattern of joining the ふさぐの意味 category. And there are other words same pattern. 阨塞: aisoku vs. aisai, 阸塞: aisoku vs. aisai, 険塞: kensoku vs. kensai, 障塞: shōsoku vs. shōsai.
    – Dono
    Oct 22, 2012 at 12:01
  • 1
    According to the 漢字源 dictionary: ソク 漢呉 サイ 漢呉 both readings are both 漢音 and 呉音, which backs up what Zhen Lin said.
    – By137
    Oct 22, 2012 at 19:08

2 Answers 2


Ultimately the reason is the remnants of verbal morphology in Old Chinese. (Recently every time I post on japanese.SE it seems to be about Old Chinese...) Modern Chinese is a very low-morphology language, but reconstructed Old Chinese had some derivational morphology which is responsible for noun/verb pairs with different readings on the same character (for instance, 長 has a verbal reading zhang3 and an adjectival reading chang2).

Most reconstructions of Old Chinese posit a morpheme *-s which, among its functions, nominalises a verb. Just as 塞 has the two readings サイ and ソク in Japanese, it has two readings coi3 and sak1 in Cantonese (I use Cantonese because, unlike Mandarin, it preserves the syllable final -k which was still present at the time the reading was borrowed into Japanese).

Baxter's reconstruction of the verb 塞 is *s?ək, and the nominalised form (understood as a built up thing) with the nominalising suffix is *s?ək-s. Middle Chinese sound changes caused the verb to retain its coda, while in the form with the suffix, the coda became a glide. As such, when these were borrowed into Japanese, they already existed as a noun/verb pair differing in the coda.

  • Fascinating, thank you! Are there other cases where final /-ks/ became a glide? That seems a weird phonetic shift. Was this a case where the velar /k/ softened and became a vowel, perhaps similar to final and interstitial /g/ in Danish? (Influence from Danish / Norse on English is why someone who makes wagons is a "wainwright" and not a "wagonwright".) Jun 16, 2014 at 17:09
  • I think the mechanism you mention in Danish is a reasonable explanation for Old Chinese as well.
    – jogloran
    Jun 16, 2014 at 17:23
  • Thanks for the reply! The voiceless plosive > vowel shift is still a little odd to me, unless the final /k/ in Chinese itself became voiced. Are you aware of any evidence or theories for final /k/ or /ks/ becoming final /g/ or /gs/ (or even /gz/)? Jun 16, 2014 at 17:29
  • Final stops in Cantonese and Wu are actually unreleased stops -- there's barely any duration for the vocal cords to be vibrating so voiced/unvoiced doesn't really apply. Granted it's not clear how they were realised in Old Chinese since it's all a reconstruction.
    – jogloran
    Jun 16, 2014 at 17:58
  • There would have to be a release in /ks/, no? Or was the /s/ wholly unpronounced somehow? Jun 16, 2014 at 18:16

I can't be sure, but I would estimate that this is preserving the distinction between the noun form and verb forms of the word. They operate in pretty isolated spaces in the Japanese language (I can't speak toward their sino roots).

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