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October 6, 2004

I’ve been meaning since at least the time I got back from China to write a little bit about the Japanese language‘s peculiar writing system. So…

Japanese has three different alphabets. Actually, if you’re being really strict about the definition of the word ‘alphabet’, it doesn’t have any: it has two syllabaries and a set of ideographs. But never mind that. I’m only really making it explicit here because my ex-girlfriend has a degree in linguistics and Japanese and takes great delight in pointing out even the smallest factual inaccuracies in what I write.

The reason that the Japanese language’s writing system is an eccentric mixture of phonetic and ideographic scripts is largely because it was initially (well over a thousand years ago) lifted pretty much wholesale from Chinese and dropped onto a completely different language for which it wasn’t designed or particularly well-suited. The two Japanese syllabaries were later created (from simplified Chinese characters) in order to remedy this oversight.

So, the two syllabaries, Hiragana (the squiggly script that looks like this: あいうえお) and Katakana (the more modern, angular script that looks like this: アイウエオ) are native to Japan, and they are phonetic, in that one character corresponds to a syllable (both the above examples read ‘a i u e o’). The third set of characters, though Kanji () — Chinese characters — are not phonetic. Instead of representing a sound, they represent a concept or idea. So, for any given sound, there are dozens of characters that could be read that way (shō, say, or ken) but they all represent different ideas. So, for example, 選択 and 洗濯 are both read ‘sentaku’, but the former means ‘choice’, and the latter means ‘laundry’.

Incidentally, a horizontal bar over a vowel – eg. ū, ō – just means that it’s a long vowel (“oooh” as opposed to “ooh”, say). If this is all seeming a bit dry and academic, please be aware that in a few paragraphs time I will get around to showing how to write something rude and amusing in kanji…

Incidentally, this set of (several thousand) ideographs that is used by Chinese and Japanese (although over the centuries, Japanese and Chinese Kanji have experienced a little evolutionary divergence…) and to a lesser extent, Korean, is (I believe) the last surviving hieroglyphic script in use in the world. All similar writing systems (like the hieroglyphs used by the ancient Egyptians) belong to languages that are now dead. Which makes kanji one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures, up there with the music of JS Bach, and the writings of Roald Dahl. Learning this amazing set of characters has also now become one of my main reasons for wanting to learn Japanese.

Writing in meanings rather than in sounds has the strange consequence that there is more information in written Japanese than in spoken Japanese. For example, if you were learning English, and you heard a word you couldn’t remember the meaning of, you wouldn’t necessarily be much better off if you saw it written down. In Japanese, though, once you see it written down, you’ve got a huge clue to the meaning. So, supposing you heard the word ‘sentaku’ — you would have to figure out from the context whether the person meant ‘choice’ or ‘laundry’, but if you saw it written down it would be clear from the characters what the meaning is.

This, in turn, has some strange and interesting consequences. Firstly, it means that written Japanese and written Chinese are (though to a very limited extent) mutually intelligible, despite the fact that the languages are not closely related at all. One of the most exciting things when I first arrived in China was that although I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, I could get the gist of a lot of signs. 入口, for example, means ‘entrance’ in both Chinese and Japanese: the first character means ‘enter’ and the second means ‘mouth’. But the way you actually pronounce the word is completely different in Chinese and Japanese. Because of this shared writing system, though, I’ve heard that ancient Chinese and Japanese scholars were able to communicate by writing letters, despite the fact that they couldn’t speak each others’ languages.

Another consequence of the written language being more information-rich than the spoken language is that, as a learner of Japanese, when I hear a word that I don’t know, my first instinct is to try and think of a meaningful pair of characters that could be read that way: often if you can guess the characters, then you can guess the meaning too. So, the first thing I want to know when I hear a new word is “How do you write it?”

Here’s an example of how that works in practice:

Yesterday I was sitting in the elective English class that is my favourite lesson of the week, and I was helping a group of girls make posters in English about different countries of the world. At one point one of them uses the word ‘kyonyū’, and I ask what it means. This triggers a lot of giggling. I assume it’s my accent. “Don’t you know?”, they ask. In my head, I’m trying to fit Chinese characters to the two syllables. I’m thinking “Which kyo? Which nyū?” The only plausible pair I can think of are kyō, 競 (race) and nyū, 入 (enter)… but somehow that doesn’t sound quite right… Usually the verb bit goes first, like in nyūgaku 入学 (entering university), nyūkoku 入国 (entering a country), or nyūin 入院 (going into hospital). Or for that matter iriguchi 入口 (entrance). (I didn’t mention: in Japanese, there are usually at least two different ways of reading each character… the Chinese reading and the Japanese reading…)

“Is it something to do with running in a race?” I ask.


While I’m racking my brains the girls are reeling off alternative words, none of which I understand any better than kyonyū. I’m scratching my head, and Chinese characters are flashing past my eyes. As they go through all the alternative ways of explaining this word, the giggling progresses to screaming, side-clutching, desk-slapping hilarity. One girl, Mina, is crying with laughter. She can’t speak. There are tears streaming down her face. They’re trying to get a boy at the back of the class to mime the word when Mina, wiping away the tears but still unable to speak, writes the word on her hand and then holds it up for me to see. The moment I see it written down, I understand the source of the hilarity: kyo is 巨 (meaning huge) and nyū is 乳 (meaning breasts).

Oh ho ho!

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