I read once (in this comment by Victor Mair on Language Log) that Chinese has single morphemes that span two hanzi. The example given was the Chinese word pútáo 葡萄. At the time, I assumed it applied to Japanese equally, because I assumed 葡萄{ぶどう} was the same word. I then assumed I could generalize from that to similar compounds. (In retrospect, I don't think that reasoning was very good, which is why I'm asking this question.)

Other compounds that look like they might be monomorphemic include [薔薇]{ばら}, [蜘蛛]{くも}, and 麒麟{きりん}.

Are any of these single morphemes? Pairs of bound morphemes? If these are bad examples, are there two-kanji compounds that are single morphemes?

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    That would depend on how you define "morpheme", which is not trivial. You should definitely be able to argue that all of your examples are single-morpheme, since for instance, it would be hard to argue the ば of ばら has any meaning by itself relating to "rose".
    – dainichi
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 4:28

2 Answers 2


Chinese is a lot neater with regard to its characters; one character equals one word (now morpheme) equals one syllable. In theory at least. 葡萄 being a two syllable morpheme, Chinese would rather adhere to a policy of one character per syllable than one per morpheme if it has to choose. In ancient Chinese there were prefixes and suffixes as well, but they could be added without changing the number of syllables, so one character per syllable held true. All of your examples look like borrowed words where this happened. Japanese is a bit messier. Niwatori is evidently 庭+鳥、but since in Chinese "chicken" is just one word, Japanese follow suite and uses 鶏. I know there are cases of the opposite, where the word has more kanji than morphemes, or even syllables sometimes, but my Japanese isn't great, so I wouldn't be able to give any examples. Someone mentioned 百舌鳥.


The only place you would find morphemes that span multiple kanji are in gikun or in reformed words, simply because "morpheme" in Japanese is defined as the sound a single kanji or kana has/makes.


「[今]{け}[日]{ふ}」 -> 「[今日]{きょう}」

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    Also 百舌鳥, the first one of these types that I ever saw
    – ssb
    Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 23:49
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    To add to Ignacio's clear and concise answer: gikun are cases where the reading does not match particular kanji in the compound... and sometimes has more kanji than morphemes, implying that at least one morpheme would cover two kanji (although the common view is that there is simply no kanji<->morpheme connection for such compounds). I am less sold on 'reformed' words: even the example above doesn't really show two kanji for one morpheme (merely a blurry frontier).
    – Dave
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 1:24
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    "morpheme in Japanese is defined as the sound a single kanji or kana has/makes"? This is utter nonsense. So the morphemes of a word depends on whether you write it with kana or kanji?
    – dainichi
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 1:41
  • ssb: You must living in Osaka, like I did, 百舌 (more specifically 中百舌鳥) was my first too!
    – paullb
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 9:08
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    @kandyman, I'd learned morpheme to mean "the smallest unit of meaning", as pertains to the spoken language. With Japanese in particular, there can be yawning gaps between the spoken and written languages. The smallest unit as pertains to the written language, would be the grapheme. See Wikipedia here, particularly the sections Types of graphemes and Relationship between graphemes and phonemes. Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 20:53

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