March 11, 2004

Kanji for European Words

Mark's reports from Japan about texting made me think about how European words are written in Japanese. Usually such loan words are written in katakana, one of the two moraic writing systems (usually mischaracterized as syllabaries). For instance, [meeru] "mail" is written メール [me-lengthmarker-ru]. Sometimes words borrowed from European languages are written in Chinese characters. This used to be more common, when the prevailing attitude was that it was desirable to use Chinese characters as much as possible, but some such spellings are still found today.

Sometimes the Chinese character spelling is derived by choosing characters whose meaning adds up to something appropriate, without regard to their pronounciation. [tabako] "tobacco" can be written 煙草. The first character means "smoke". It has the native readings [kemu] and [kebu] and the Sino-Japanese reading [en]. The second character is "grass". It has the native reading [kusa] and the Sino-Japanese reading [soo].

In other cases, the Chinese characters are used primarily for their sound. [kurabu] "club" can be written 倶楽部. The first character is [ku] "together". The second is [raku] "pleasure", also read [gaku] "music". The third is [bu] "department, section, category". This is essentially a phonological spelling, in which the characters are used for their sound, but they have been cleverly chosen so that their meanings are not far off. Another example of this type is 珈琲 for [koohii] "coffee" The first character is [ka] "ornamental hairpin". The second is [hai] "string of pearls".

The first approach to spelling European words represents a continuation of the technique by which native Japanese words were given Chinese character spellings centuries before. For the most part, native Japanese words and morphemes were associated with single Chinese characters, but not always. Sometimes native Japanese words were given Kanji spellings by choosing a sequence of Chinese characters whose meaning was appropriate,without regard to their pronounciation. For example, [mukade] "centipede" can be written 百足. The characters mean "100 feet", just as the English word does, but the pronounciation of the word is not derived compositionally from the pronounciation of the characters. If the characters are given their native Japanese readings, the pronounciation should be [momoashi]. If they are given their Sino-Japanese readings, the pronounciation should be [hyakusoku].

The second approach, using Chinese characters for their sound, goes all the way back to China, where foreign words, such as Sanskrit Buddhist terms, were written according to their sound. Early Japanese was written entirely in Chinese characters, some used for their meaning, others for their sound. The characters used for their sound were gradually systematized and simplified until they became the kana in use today.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 11, 2004 12:14 AM