woensdag 21 november 2012

Lesson 2: Kana & Kanji (2)

Lesson 2: Kana & Kanji (2)

In lesson 1, I mainly talked about the Kana. Kana are phonetic symbols that each represent the sound of one syllable. They are divided into two groups: Hiragana & Katakana. Hiragana are used to write native words, like the inflectional endings of words, particles, etc. Katakana are chiefly used to write foreign words.

In this lesson I want to talk about Kanji a bit more. Kanji are the Chinese letters. They are used to write conceptual words (substantives, verbs, adjectives) and indigenous names. In 1981 the government decided on 1945 kanji to be permitted for use in official publications. Of these, 1006 kanji were later selected to be taught in the first six years of schooling.

According to origin and structure, kanji can be divided in three categories: pictographs, ideographs and complex characters. Let's get into details.


These kanji are named pictographs, because they even in the simplified form use today, you can often still recognize the object.

          ki                            tree
          yama                    mountain
          kawa                   river


These kanji indicate the meaning of abstract concepts in just a few strokes.

          ichi                         one
          ni                            two
          ue                          above
          shita                     below

Complex characters:

These kanji are made by combining the characters of the above two categories. We can differentiate between two types of complex characters.

1) Multiple pictographs with the same or a similar meaning are combined to create a new character.

(tree) + (tree)                      =                      hayashi               woods 
(tree) + (tree) + (tree)               =             森      mori                      forest
(sun) + (moon)                    =             明      akarui                  light

2) One part of the kanji is the sounds indicating part, whereas the other part indicates meaning.

(mouth) + (mon) =                       mon      ask
(metal)  +(dou)    =                      dou        copper

There are basically 16 kanji structures that appear frequently. (see below) There are also some non-frequent appearing structures.

When trying to look up a kanji in a dictionary, it's useful if you can differentiate between the different structures. If you don't know the reading of a kanji, you often need to look them up using the radical index. A radical is one of the component of the kanji. It's often, but not always, the meaning-bearing part of the kanji. The radicals are often positioned at the top or the left of a kanji, but can also appear at the right, the bottom or around. But also other possibilities exist.

(The filled part is where the radical is positioned)


If you think that's all there is to be said about kanji, you're wrong. But, I'll stick to the important stuff. (or at least, I'll try) So, let's talk a bit about the readings of the kanji. When the Japanese started to use kanji, they didn't only adopt the characters, but also the readings. As such, almost all characters have at least two readings, an On (Chinese) and a Kun (Japanese) reading. To determine what reading you need to use isn't always easy, but there are some basic rules that can help you in your decision.

1) One-character words are always read with their Kun (Japanese) reading. (Unless a character doesn't have a Kun reading, then the On reading is used instead.)

         hito        person
          kuchi      mouth
          hi            sun; day

2) Words that incorporate kana are pronounced with Kun (Japanese) readings.

一つ                     hitotsu                 one
明かり                 akari                    light
大きい                 ooki                      big

3) Kanji sequences without kana are usually read with On (Chinese) readings.

見物     kenbutsu            sight-seeing
人口     jinkou                population

4) Personal names are usually read with Kun (Japanese) readings.

田中     Tanaka
山田     Yamada

Some combinations have two or three different readings that may be associated with the same or similar meanings. Also note that kanji are either used to a) convey the meaning of a word, disregarding the usual reading of a word, or b) exclusively as phonetic symbol, disregarding the meaning of a kanji.

Stroke order

Learning the stroke order of a complex kanji sometimes really seems like a big hassle, but it'll become much easier when you know the stroke order of the compounds the kanji is made of. To really learn the stroke order of kanji, you probably have to write it down multiple times. Of course, there are again a few basic rules you can keep in mind.

Stroke direction
1) Horizontal strokes are written from left to right.
2) Vertical or slanting strokes are written from top to bottom. (Exception is a short slanting down-stroke followed by a short slanting up-stroke.  In that case the slanting up-stroke will be written from bottom to top. )
3) A stroke may change direction several times. It's not always a straight line.

I guess I could write down a more detailed list with stroke order rules, but I doubt anyone is going to read and use it. In the end it's just something you'll have to learn through practice.

That being said I'll end this lesson here. It ended up a bit longer than I expected, so no grammar today. We'll start with that next time. Please remember to do your homework.


Make sure to properly learn to read (& write) all Hiragana and Katakana. You'll really need it from the next lesson on. It's probably time-consuming, but it'll be worth it!

Questions and comments are welcome.

Geen opmerkingen:

Een reactie posten