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Friday, September 09, 2011

Japanese kanji - onyomi and kunyomi

漢字 音読み 訓読み

Kanji (the word for “Chinese character(s)” in Japanese) are how the majority of Japanese people communicate with each other when writing. The system was introduced from China about 1,500 years ago. Unlike kanji as used in China, however, kanji used in Japan have more than one pronunciation. Therefore, kanji in Japan are supplemented with a phonetic script derived from kanji. Even though derived from Chinese characters, this script has taken on a purely Japanese nature.

The phonetic script has two forms, a cursive one for general use, known as hiragana (the “hira” meaning “even”), and an angular one for special use, known as katakana (the “kata” meaning “fragmentary”). The final “kana/gana” has its roots in the word for “alias, pseudonym,” as opposed to the “genuine” status of kanji itself.

The reason Japanese kanji have more than one reading is that the kanji system was superimposed on the Japanese language, and has had to be adapted. English has Latin-derived words and Germanic-derived words, and in a roughly parallel way, Japan has Chinese readings of kanji (onyomi) and native Japanese readings of kanji (kunyomi). And just as, in English, Latin-derived words generally sound more cultured and “official” than Germanic-inspired words (e.g. “domicile” vs. “house”), so, generally, do onyomi words vis-à-vis kuniyomi words (e.g. “juutaku” (domicile) vs. “ie” (house)). In Japanese, such "official"-sounding onyomi words are usually made up of a combination of two or more characters.


Furthermore, Japanese grammar, although by no means very complex, has, for example, formal and informal prefixes and suffixes, and various tenses, which put greater demands on a writing system than Chinese, which has a simpler grammar.

Let’s take, for example, the word “go,” shown here as a Chinese character:


The kunyomi (Japanese reading) of “go” is, in its casual form, “iku.” In this case, the kanji is pronounced “i” and is combined with the hiragana for “ku,” thus:


The kunyomi of “go” is, in its polite form, “ikimasu.” In this case, the kanji is pronounced “i” and is combined with the hiragana for “ki” and “ma” and “su,” thus:

Similarly, the kanji is combined with other hiragana to produce the past forms of “itta” (casual) and “ikimashita” (formal), or the present progressive forms: “itteiru” and “itteimasu” (casual and formal for “going”), etc.

However, when the kanji for “iku” is combined with other kanji, its pronunciation changes to the Chinese-style (onyomi). For example, the word for action, which combines the kanji for “go” and “move,” is pronounced kohdoh, meaning that “koh” is the onyomi.

It gets more complicated. Besides the onyomi “ko,” “iku” has yet another onyomi, “gyo,” as in the word for “line (of text),” which is “gyo.”

And then, the kunyomi and onyomi are often mixed together, as in “aragyo,” or “asceticism,” the “ara” being the native Japanese reading of the kanji for “harsh,” and the “gyo” being, in kunyomi, our friend “iku”:

Read more about Japanese kanji.

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