All languages were spoken before they were written. Ways of recording
words and ideas were invented in only a few places in the world, and
over many millennia were altered to adapt to many diverse languages.
Many languages, like ours, use an alphabet — symbols that indicate
the way words sound. Other writing systems use symbols to show what
words mean as well. The Chinese writing system uses characters that
indicate both sound and meaning.
||Thousands of characters borrowed from Chinese
writing, each with a different meaning
||46 "smooth" style phonetic symbols
used for inflected endings, grammatical particles and other Japanese
||46 "block" style phonetic symbols
used for writing foreign loan words, foreign names, and for emphasis
Kanji: Chinese characters
The Japanese began to use the Chinese writing system about 1,400 years
ago. These Chinese characters, called kanji in Japanese, are
also called pictographs because they indicate meanings as well as sounds.
The way that Japanese use Chinese pictographs to write their own language
is a good example of Japanese ingenuity in adapting elements of other
cultures to enhance their own.
How would you go about writing English with Chinese pictographs? You
could do it easily enough by using each Chinese character to represent
the same meaning as an English word. 日, for example, means "day," or
the "sun." Then you would read it "day" or "sun" instead
of pronouncing as it is in Chinese. Or, you could use 日, which
is pronounced "rur" in Chinese, to represent the English
sound 'r.' Then, of course, you would be pronouncing the pictograph
much as it is in Chinese, but it would have lost its original meaning.
Japanese people use both these techniques. As a result, each Japanese kanji can
be pronounced in several different ways.
Characters also sometimes look like what they mean: 三 san,
or mitsu, means three. But usually they do not, especially when
the meaning is a more complicated concept: 愛 ai means
love. A character can have only one line, or stroke, like 一 ichi,
or hitotsu, which means one, but some have as many as twenty
strokes or more, like 響 hibiki, or kyô,
which means to echo or vibrate.
There are thousands of kanji, or characters, and students must
learn 881 of them in elementary school, and a total of 1,850 by the
time they graduate from high school. So you can understand that it
takes a Japanese student a long time to learn how to write his/her
language. See how many kanji you can learn to recognize in the
When the Japanese started to use Chinese characters for their own
language, they ran into some problems. Chinese words are only one or
two syllables, and they can use a character for each syllable, but
Japanese words frequently have many syllables, especially inflected
words. So the Japanese developed symbols from the kanji, called kana,
to indicate sound without meaning, the way our alphabet does. But the
symbols in these syllabaries indicate the sound of a whole Japanese
syllable instead of each separate part. か
is ka, for example, and つ is tsu. Kana usually have many
fewer strokes than kanji.
There are two standard syllabaries being used today, each one with
forty-six symbols. One is called hiragana, and is used for inflected
endings, grammatical particles, and other Japanese words. For example,
do you remember the sentence "I bought a book yesterday"?
It sounds like this: Kinô watakushi wa hon o kaimashita.
But is it usually written with a combination of kanji and hiragana,
and looks like this:
Japanese can be written horizontally, from left to right, as it is
here. But it is usually written vertically, in columns running from
right to left. Books, therefore, begin at what is the back of English
books. Can you recognize which symbols are kanji and which are kana?
Which kanji have you seen before?
The other syllabary is called katakana. It is squarer-looking
than hiragana. Ka is カ instead of か, and tsu is ツ instead
of つ. Japanese, like English, has many foreign loan words in
its vocabulary, and katakana is used for these, such as テレビ (terebi)
for television, アイスクリーム (aisu
kurîmu) for ice cream, or rômaji for roman letters.
It is also used for foreign names, like ヅヨン (zu-yo-n)
for John or カレン
(ka-re-n) for Karen, and it is used for emphasis, the way we use underlining
or italic type in English.
Mastering the language
As you can imagine, it takes many years to learn how to read and write
Japanese. For English we need to know only twenty-six symbols — the
letters of our alphabet — to have the basic tools of our written
language, although it takes a lot of practice to use these tools well.
Japanese students must learn about two thousand symbols to have their
basic tools, and still it takes practice to use them well. During the
Meiji era (1868-1912), some people wanted to switch to the roman alphabet,
or even to English. In the years after World War II, the written language
was simplified and standardized to make it easier to learn.
However, the difficulties of learning Japanese have their compensations.
Having symbols that indicate both sound and meaning gives the language
flexibility, and can express deep and subtle meanings. The writing
system is also a beautiful one, and when it is written with a brush
and ink it is an art form in itself.
This essay was written by Dr. Amy Vladeck Heinrich, director,
C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University.
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