The Evolution Of Written Japanese

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2001

This article contains Japanese characters.

by William Hall

Modern Japanese has three writing systems: Chinese ideographs, or kanji; plus two syllabic scripts known as hiragana and katakana (each script contains 46 basic symbols). Although both syllabic scripts cover the same sounds, hiragana -- ‚Ђ炪‚È -- is a rounded, flowing script, while katakana -- ƒJƒ^ƒJƒi -- is a square, boxy-looking script. Katakana is primarily used for foreign loan words in Japanese, while hiragana is used for those elements not written in kanji or katakana.

The Japanese language had no written form until Chinese characters were brought across to Japan around the 6th century AD. Japanese is a polysyllabic language, meaning that most words in the original language are made up of more than one syllable. An ideograph can be brought across for its meaning and used to represent a number of syllables in a polysyllabic language, or it can be used for its sound by stringing a number of ideographs together to represent a polysyllabic word. Just to make life simple, the Japanese did both. As well, the pronunciation of the ideograph in the original Chinese was also brought across, modified slightly, and used as an additional pronunciation for the word in Japanese.

To complicate matters, sometimes two or more Japanese-style readings are applied to the same ideograph, and sometimes two or more Chinese-style readings are also applied to the same single ideograph. The result is that it is often not possible to figure out the pronunciation of a word made up of a combination of characters -- it must simply be memorized.

A Japanese character dictionary approximately equivalent to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary contains some 5,000 to 6,000 individual characters, each with Chinese and Japanese readings, plus some 70,000 compounds.

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