Japanese Language Fun Facts (4)

Sometimes it's fun to encounter new words. If there's a lot in common, it's just swell. But when they're opposed to everything you know and love, it might take some time to get used to.

Sometimes it’s fun to encounter new words. If there’s a lot in common, it’s just swell. But when they’re opposed to everything you know and love, it might take some time to get used to.


Today we’re going to look at some weird words and the patterns that underlie them.

C’mon, Kanji Readings

When I first started learning Japanese, I remember having this false sense that Kanji were consistent. One of the first kanji I learned was 食 in 食べる.

“Ah, so 食 is pronounced た,” I naïvely thought.

But then we learned 日曜日.

“Whoa, wait. Is 日 pronounced にち or び?”

Oh how simple I’d imagined things. Eventually I’d learned that there were 音読み and 訓読み readings for words from Chinese and native Japanese words, respectively. Most words had them. So 食 was both しょく and た. 日 was both にち and び. But unlike Chinese, which limited itself to two or three readings per Kanji, I learned that the simple Kanji often had many more in Japanese.

食 was た in 食べる, しょく in 食事, く in 食う, じき in 食休み, は in 食む.

日 was ひ in 日, び in 曜日, にち in 毎日, か in 四日…

Can’t forget 本日. That confused me when I saw it for the first time. 日本 is にほん but 本日 is ほんじつ?

On the bright side, complex kanji often only had one or two readings. 資 is nice. Pretty much always し. Even at the end of a word, like 融資, where I’d’ve thought it’d be ゆうじ. Nope, always し. Compare that to 生.

Fuck 生.

Oh yeah, it’s only 5 strokes. But let’s look at some of its readings:

先生 = せんせい = teacher
生きる = きる = to live
生まれる = まれる = to be born
一生 = いっしょう = whole life
生 = なま = raw / beer
生す = す = to change into
生す = す = to grow (moss)
生やす = やす = to grow
生える = える = to grow (these are different, I swear)

The point is, simple kanji are deceptive. Complex kanji are your friends in the long run.

Case In Point

Today we’ll look at 人. Two strokes. Deceptive.

人 = ひと = person
ドイツ人 = どいつじん = German person
一人 = ひと = one person
三人 = さんにん = three people

Not too bad. But because it’s common, it has some real odd ones lying around:

大人 = おとな
海人 = あま

Examples like the above two made me think that this kanji was beyond repair. So when I came across 素人 and found out that it was read しろうと, I thought I was done. A few weeks later though, I ran across 仲人(なこうど). “That’s odd,” I thought. “Is there a pattern here?”

Indeed, there is.

素人 = しろうと = novice
仲人 = なこうど = matchmaker
玄人 = くろうと = expert in a field
若人 = わこうど = young person
狩人 = かりうど = hunter

These are the only common uses for this pattern, but it exists. Even better, this isn’t a difficult pattern to learn.

わかいひと? –> わこうど

なかがいいひと –> なこうど

しろうと is a novice and くろうと is an expert? Well, 四 is less than half of 九. That’s how I remember them.

What I’m Trying To Say

In the process of studying kanji, and Japanese in general, there’s a lot of seemingly random tunnels to navigate. Sometimes you don’t see sunlight for days and wonder why you’re even braving the depths. But the maze wasn’t set up haphazardly. Unfortunately, we often look for the wrong markers when we’re navigating.

The better your pattern recognition is, the easier it is to learn a language. But even if you don’t possess that particular skill (and unless you’re a neuroscientist, who but yourself says you don’t), you will find these. Just keep looking. Keep finding the individual pieces. Maybe you’ll never notice it, but because the pattern exists, it will work itself out eventually.

Keep at it. Let the patterns flow.

What're ya thinkin'?

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