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I am quite new to learning Japanese. Ideas are welcome.

  1. How do Japanese speakers pronounce Chinese characters? Do they need to remember all the pronunciations of a single Chinese character? And then what? Try to match to figure out the actual meaning?

  2. In a Japanese verb/adj, what do Chinese characters mean in a Japanese speaker's eyes? For a Chinese speaker it means and relates to something.

  3. 慌ただしい and 慌しい are the same, but with different appearances. And the 慌 is pronounced differently. Why not 慌い , which could save some writing?


I do not want to just remember all the combinations of kanji and their corresponding pronunciation and meaning, but I would like to be able to understand which combinations go together, and which do not, as well as how to derive the meaning from a combination of kanji depending on their constituents.

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    Are you a Chinese speaker if you don't mind me asking?
    – aguijonazo
    Jan 23 at 4:12
  • @dungarian Sorry about not understanding what you actually said. Yes. A bit overwhelmed now about remembering Japanese words. The fact is that I do not want to have the Japanese words hard-wired into my brain which could be very cumbersome efforts.
    – user50335
    Jan 23 at 4:41
  • @aguijonazo Yes, I am.
    – user50335
    Jan 23 at 4:42
  • 2
    Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Jan 23 at 4:43
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    @user50335 My bad, let me rephrase. This comment doesn't answer your question, but if you are worried about memorizing so many meaning/pronunciations of the basic characters, I wanted to let you know that even professionals make mistakes. Everyone makes silly mistakes and continue to learn until they die. So take it easy if you feel overwhelmed. I'll delete the previous comment.
    – dungarian
    Jan 23 at 5:08

4 Answers 4

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  1. No, they understand them as words in their own language, because they are.
  2. It still has some meaning, but again, it's just a word.
  3. I believe this is called okurigana, and it changes what characters are part of the kanji. Some okurigana usages are more common than others. It's not a language all about practicality.

For this specific example, しい tends to form a class of i-adjectives that indicate a human emotion.

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  • Does anyone have any materials or books to refer to ?
    – user50335
    Jan 23 at 4:16
  • If the answer helps, please upvote and potentially accept it :).
    – Riolku
    Jan 23 at 4:27
  • As for books, I believe the site frowns upon such recommendations, but you can find a heap of opinions online, on sites like reddit
    – Riolku
    Jan 23 at 4:27
  • @Riolku The site frowns on questions specifically asking for resources, I don't think there is a problem in you including them in your answer to a non-resource question such as this one. Jan 23 at 9:07
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    In that case, I use Tae Kim's Grammar Guide, Wanikani, Anki, Genki and A Basic Guide to Japanese Grammar.
    – Riolku
    Jan 23 at 17:31
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How do the Japanese speakers pronounce the Chinese charactors ? Do they need to remember all the pronounciations of a single Chinese Charactor ? And then what ? Try to match to sigure out the actual meaning ?

They may be written the same way (for the ones that are used in Japanese, at least), and have the same Unicode assignments; but in the context of Japanese text, they are Japanese characters - i.e., 漢字{かんじ}, not 漢字{Hànzì}. Just like how chat can either be English for a casual conversation or French for a cat, and in a French text, they are French characters.

Native speakers learn Japanese pronunciation just like those of any other native language: by immersion since childbirth (and reading of kanji by being schoolchildren and being immersed in real-world text the rest of their lives). Like in Chinese, in Japanese the characters fundamentally encode meaning. (They may also encode an on-reading. These are readings that are influenced by the Chinese reading. For example, かん is supposed to sound like Hàn, and じ like zì. But the word was imported into the Japanese language many centuries ago, and there has been some drift since then. Anyway, a common example is 語, which shares its on-reading of ご with the 五 in the top right.)

Typically, kanji in a Japanese text will either cluster in groups of four (四字熟語{よじじゅくご} - literally four-character compounds) which can be either nouns or stand-alone idioms; pair up (these are normally nouns, and normally use the most common on-reading for each); or else are followed by okurigana (indicating a verb or an i-adjective, possibly with further inflection).

So, for 自分 we recognize a common word じぶん, and 分 is simply read ぶん (the on-reading is ふん, which becomes voiced by what is called 連濁 {れんだく}). For 分かる, we again recognize the common verb, where 分 is read わ. Because it's a verb, the kun-reading (native Japanese reading) is more likely. We recognize it as a verb because of the okurigana.

In a japanese verb/adj, what does the Chinese character mean in a Japanese speaker's eyes ? For Chinese speaker it means and relates to something.

To my understanding, as a rule it has a similar meaning. The root meaning of 分 has to do with splitting something up. Nouns containing it typically have a meaning of some kind of portion of a whole. (For example, it's used to mark a minute of time, because it's a small division of an hour - just like the English word minute, which shares a root with the adjective, minute (different pronunciation!), meaning small.) The verb meaning, typically glossed with words like "understand" or "become clear", is related: a complex thing becomes understandable when it is broken down into pieces.

This meaning-awareness can inform reading. For example, 食欲{しょくよく} "appetite" uses the very commonly seen 食 of 食{た}べる and the 欲 of 欲{ほ}しい ("usually kana" per Jisho, but you'll at least see it all the time if you input text with an IME). So to pronounce it, we need to think of words that have the related meanings (eating/food and desire), and then we come up with one that can plausibly match known readings of the characters (しょく is very common for 食, used in a lot of compound words). If you've already heard the word spoken and know what it means, you can recall it when you see the kanji and the concepts are called to mind.

However, I doubt that native Japanese speakers commonly think about things on this level. Being a native speaker of a language is a rather Zen practice.

For 慌ただしい and 慌しい, they are the same. But with different appearences. And the 慌 pronouse differently. Why not 慌い , which could save some writing.

Fundamentally, the pronunciation of 慌 is あわ. Over time, it became acceptable to leave out the ただ in writing, although you still pronounce it. My understanding is that, typically, those skipped characters get folded into the reading for the kanji, and they disappear completely as okurigana. However, this is an organic process that takes a long time (like spelling or pronunciation changes, or notions of acceptable grammar, in other languages). In this particular case, it would be difficult, because the reading as あわ is reinforced by the existence of the verb form 慌てる.

That said, most seemingly "extra" okurigana are there because historically, they were not "extra". i-adjectives ending in しい are the common example, as already noted; most of these indicate human emotions (think 美味{おい}しい, 悲{かな}しい, 懐{なつ}かしい, 欲{ほ}しい...). This is considered a pretty important distinction. Another common case is 食{た}べる: it used to be that the べ could change with inflection.

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  • Thanks for the very professional and extensive explanation. You talked about "Zen practice" which is far beyond ordinary people expecially beginners.
    – user50335
    Jan 25 at 1:47
  • Really? I thought that part was just a throwaway observation about how one can't just be taught to do things instinctively. Jan 25 at 8:40
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These are interesting questions but ones that are difficult to answer. Let me try, anyway.

If we take 慌 as an example, every native speaker who has learned it recognizes it as, before anything else, the character for 慌てる. Suppose some of them already know the word あわただしい but have never seen it written as either 慌ただしい or 慌しい. Chances are many would still manage to recognize it as あわただしい when they first see it. The former is easier to guess because 慌 corresponds to the same sound as in 慌てる, of course, but the latter is not that hard, either, because あわてる and あわただしい are so close in both meaning and sound that the gap in knowledge can be easily filled with the help of the Chinese character 慌.

Whether to write it as 慌ただしい or 慌しい is a matter of convention. The former looks more familiar, and logical, to me precisely because the Chinese character is associated with the same sound as in 慌てる, but the latter causes me no trouble at all. Even if it were written as 慌い, my first guess would still be あわただしい because I cannot think of another word that ends with い and whose meaning seems to be better represented by the character 慌. The word is simply not written that way.

Whether one knows how to read 恐慌 is a totally different story. This needs to be learned separately. However, it obviously looks like an on’yomi word, guessing its pronunciation is not hard if one already knows 荒 is also pronounced こう. This corresponds to a Chinese speaker guessing the pronunciation of 慌 as huāng from 荒. As for the meaning, many would correctly guess from its Chinese characters that it has something to do with fear and panicking even if they have never seen the word before.

Although 慌しい and 恐慌 are too easy for educated adults, we do sometimes have to rely on similar guesswork when we are reading about unfamiliar topics. When we run into an unknown word in Chinese characters, we are often able to guess its meaning. In my case, I rarely bother to look it up in a dictionary and move on reading if I can guess the meaning even if I am not completely sure how to read it.

Some basic characters have many different readings. To cite a few extreme examples, you need to learn how to read such words as 今日, 明日 and 明後日 individually. In these words, the character 日 is associated only with the meaning of “day” and not with any particular sound. Though there happens to be a common sound in [二日]{ふつか}, [三日]{みっか}, [四日]{よっか} and so on, the character 日 is still more strongly associated with the meaning of “day” than with the sound か in these words for Japanese speakers.

The pronunciations of some proper nouns are simply impossible to guess. As an example, you wouldn’t know how to read 日下部 unless you already know it.

Compared to Chinese, in which most characters represent one sound each, Chinese characters in Japanese seem less strongly associated with sounds. I have read about a type of dyslexia that affects a Japanese speaker’s ability to read Chinese characters only, leaving their ability to read hiragana and katakana intact. If my memory is accurate, the affected area of the brain is different from the area a Chinese speaker uses to recognize Chinese characters. It is close to, if not exactly matching, the area where people, including Japanese speakers, recognize human faces. I have not been able to find a good reference, though.

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  1. How do Japanese speakers pronounce Chinese characters? Do they need to remember all the pronunciations of a single Chinese character? And then what? Try to match to figure out the actual meaning?

No, they first learn words along with their pronunciations. Kanji is the last thing they learn. That's why a 3 year old kid can speak fluent Japanese without knowing any kanji (or even hiragana). Average Japanese speakers don't know how many ways 生 can be pronounced, but they can easily pronounce 生【いき】霊, 生【なま】卵, 生【せい】活, 一[生]【しょう】, 生【き】娘 and so on without thinking because they recognize text based on words. See also: 日曜日,the different meanings and pronunciations of 日

  1. In a Japanese verb/adj, what do Chinese characters mean in a Japanese speaker's eyes? For a Chinese speaker it means and relates to something.

If you ask this to a Japanese speaker, they will say each kanji of course have a meaning, but that doesn't mean they are always consciously aware of it in daily readings/writings. Only when they encounter a totally new word, they start to think about the meaning of each kanji (or even radicals of kanji).

On the other hand, hiragana and katakana represent only sounds, so they don't have any specific meaning.

  1. 慌ただしい and 慌しい are the same, but with different appearances. And the 慌 is pronounced differently. Why not 慌い, which could save some writing?

The "technically correct" form is 慌ただしい【あわただしい】 because this word is etyomologically from an old verb 慌つ【あわつ】 (慌てる【あわてる】 in modern Japanese). However, the story of okurigana is very complicated, and some words have customary variations and abbreviated forms. 慌しい is one of such variations. Although such variations arise naturally over a long history, you cannot abbreviate okurigana as you like.

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