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JAPANESE AND CHINESE PT 2: The Japanese Writing System

Popularity 1Viewed 3835 times 2017-3-12 05:36 |System category:Life| language

Why does Japanese writing contain Chinese characters?  

And what are all the odd squiggles around the character in the sentence?

The answer to the first question is actually simple.  The Japanese at a certain point in history decided that they needed a writing system, and since they were copying so many other features of Chinese culture, apparently it seemed natural to them to copy Chinese writing.

The answer to the second question is based on knowing something about the Japanese language, that made it a very poor fit with the Chinese system of writing.

Japanese verbs and adjectives are conjugated.  They have roots which take suffixes (much like English jump+ed or walk+ing) -- that signify whether a verb is positive or negative,  polite or casual, passive or active, and then the verb tense -- present tense, simple past, past progressive, probable, probable progressive, and command forms.   Japanese also uses particles that signify the function of nouns in the sentence -- grammatical subject, direct object, and topic marker.  Words that are prepositions in English, such as "of," "from,"  "with," etc., are also treated as particles that follow a root word.

Since Japanese could not express these elements with Chinese characters, it had to develop another writing system for these particles.  Since elements that signify past tense, direct object, etc., have no intrinsic meaning but only change the meaning of another word, there was no way of representing them with ideograms.  
 This is a phonetic system, a syllabary (each symbol represents a syllable, e.g., ta, ma, ka, etc.)  This syllabary is called "hiragana."  Those are the squiggly symbols between the characters.

I have sometimes explained to English speakers the difference between Chinese and Japanese writing thusly:

Suppose we English speakers wanted to adopt Chinese characters to write English.  We could write "dog" as  and "walk" as ,for example, no problem.  But suppose we wanted to write "dogs" or "walking"?  There is no character for -s or -ing.  Aha! Let's write the "-s" and "-ing" in English! So "dogs" would be 狗s and "walking" would be  笑ing.   We could write "The dogs are walking" as "The  狗s 是 笑ing."  In effect, the developers of Japanese writing did something like this.  The Chinese characters, which are called kanji, form the meaning-roots of most words and sentences, and the suffixes and grammatical particles are written in hiragana.

(The Japanese also created another syllabary, called katakana, for transcribing foreign words.)

This makes the Japanese writing system the most complex in the world.  But it gets worse!   Unlike Chinese, which has one pronunciation per character, Japanese can have different pronunciations for the same kanji (which is their name for Chinese characters).    You have to know the meaning of the word before you can pronounce it -- something like, you have to know the meaning before you can pronounce "tears" in "He tears the paper" or "His eyes were full of tears."  A kanji dictionary I had listed at least two, often three, sometimes even four pronunciations for the same kanji.  Granted, many of the meanings were literary and not used much in everyday speech, and those literary readings were usually based on the Chinese pronunciation at the time the character was borrowed.  When the Japanese borrowed Chinese characters, they usually borrowed the Chinese pronunciation AND also used the character to write their own native Japanese word, giving each character at least two pronunciations and sometimes more. 

So Chinese writing overall is a very poor fit for Japanese language, and that has given rise to the most complicated writing system in the world.

Now, the Occidental mind might ask, "Well, if the Japanese have a phonetic writing system (the hiragana) why don't they just use it to write Japanese and forget about the Chinese characters?"  To which Japanese schoolchildren would say YES!   "Everyone hates kanji!" as a Japanese schoolgirl told me.  Indeed, Japanese can be written completely with hiragana, or any word can be written with hiragana if you don't know the kanji, but in Japan that is considered a mark of poor education.  Knowing kanji well is a sign of good education in Japan.  So the Japanese children must learn the most complicated writing system in the world.  But they do it.  The human brain is infinitely capable.  

So that is the story of why the Japanese written language contains Chinese characters, mixed with other stuff.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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