Teach Yourself Japanese
Subject: Re: Why use kanji?
From: TAKASUGI Shinji (tssf.airnet.ne.jp)
Date: Tue, 16 Oct 2001 16:33:39 GMT
References: 1, 2, 3, 4
Kanji are very useful because they provide an organized vocabulary.
As you know, a modern language has many words of philosophy, science, economy, etc., and we have to memorize them in order to live in a modern society. It's good if we have an organized vocabulary - a set of complex words that can be derived from simple words, so that we can memorize words easier and guess the meaning of words we haven't seen before. English is not a good language in this way, because it has imported many French, Latin, and Greek words, which are often difficult to guess meaning, even though you usually need a large vocabulary when you use English. German, for example, has a more organized vocabulary. Compare the English word television and the German word Fernsehen (Fern = far, sehen = to see).
Having an organized vocabulary has a problem, though. Complex words tend to be long because they consist of several morphemes (word elements), which is not good for our fast-moving society. Chinese have solved this problem by using Han characters (kanji), each of which has a simple syllable, and pairing them produces immense words. There is a risk of having homophones because there are many more characters than possible syllables, but logograms help you distinguish words correctly.
Japanese is a unique language that has succeeded in internalizing foreign logograms. Importing words can deteriorate the organized vocabulary system because understanding of morphemes can be lost, but Japanese enjoy the benefit of having organized and short words imported from Chinese and still deeply understand meanings of morphemes, i.e. kanji. The key is the combination of an on-reading and a kun-reading of a kanji. You can usually guess the meaning of a kanji compound if you know the kun-readings of the kanji. Remember we are not computers but humans, and we need associations to properly memorize. The tight relationships of on-readings and kun-readings help you understand sophisticated words. Again, English doesn't have a good vocabulary system, because it doesn't tell you meaning of foreign-origin morphemes. See an English thesaurus to find words for an excellent artistic work and you'll find masterpiece, magnum opus, tour de force, chef d'oeuvre, acme of perfection, etc. In Japanese, the list will be: 傑作, 名作, 力作, 佳作, 秀作, etc. It's clear the Japanese vocabulary is more organized.
You might think Chinese is much better than Japanese if its vocabulary system is so efficient. Maybe that is true, but since Japan is economically and culturally more interesting than China now, it's good to study its official language. In addition, you can't write what you want to write in Chinese unless you master enough kanji, while you can use kana in Japanese if you don't know kanji.
Throwing away on-readings and using only kun-readings may seem to work, but actually it wouldn't work, because we would lose complex short words. The Japanese language achieves fast speech speed by its simple syllable structure, which easily results in having long words. Japanese avoid this by on-readings, accepting having many homophones. Homophones are not a big problem if logograms are used.
> I just thought it was up that a modern nation like Japan would insist on using ideograms when countries like Korea, for example, use entirely phonetic scripts. Plus, Japan actually does have a phonetic script, that's been around for 800 years or so, so it seems odd to me, I guess.
It's a common misunderstanding that logograms are obsolete and phonograms are modern. In fact, linguists have proven that a human being can read logograms faster than phonograms if trained to read. There are some Japanese who have been trying to write Japanese only in kana or only in alphabets with no success. If you write Japanese without kanji, you will forget the meanings of morphemes. The disadvantage of logograms is their difficulty to learn, but the fact that developed nations such as Japan and Taiwan have a very low illiteracy rate indicates it is not so hard to learn kanji as you might think, if good education is available.
The reason why most people in the world don't use logograms is that it needs hundreds of years to build a writing system based on logograms. Ancient people who invented first characters had a plenty of time, and the Japanese are the only major people who have successfully integrated foreign logograms into their native language. On the other hand, importing phonograms is very easy. The problem of using phonograms is the gap between spelling and pronunciation caused by inevitable pronunciation change. Do you know Japan had a different orthography of kana before World War II? Japan easily changed its orthography of kana after the war because that didn't affect most words that have kanji. If Japanese had given up kanji long ago and used only kana, the orthography wouldn't have been changed, and the sentence "今日東京で洋服を買った" (I bought clothes in Tôkyô today) would be: けふ とうきやうで やうふくを かつた. The gap between spelling and pronunciation would be wide.
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