Origins of Japanese Writing System

Discussion in '日本語 (Japanese)' started by ShakeyX, Apr 2, 2013.

  1. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    My brain is literally melting off trying to wrap my head around how Japanese integrates Chinese into it's language. I've read the wikipedia article on Japanese language like 20 times and I think if someone could just give me a clear, chronology of how it actually happened in lamen terms, I might understand.

    So this is what (I think) I know.

    - Japan had it's own written language.
    - Chinese characters were used for there phonetic value early on, to write the first japanese records/poems. (So they used the characters based on how they sound in chinese, paired them with there own words, but if a chinese person was to read this it would make zero sense? Nor did the original meaning of the symbol mean anything to the japanese reading it purely for sound....right?)

    Now this is about where I get lost, I know that the two other alphabets were derived from simplified chinese characters but how come chinese got into the mix in modern japanese and holds the exact same meaning as it does in china (if not at least very similar meanings). Also is it any coincidence that for example the word Man ( だん (dan), なん (nan) ) in Chinese is also nan? Were they just straight up taking words and using the chinese pronunciation, slightly altered by there own dialect? I am so confused. I have always read that Chinese and Japanese has no mutual intelligibility and believed that they were both able to read chinese (say in a newspaper) but if read aloud would not be able to understand each other. But I am seeing a lot of words with similar sounds.

    Care to explain?

    Cheers, Jake
  2. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    P.S. are the two japanese alphabets hiragana and katakana, using the same sounds as the original chinese sound for the unsimplified versions of themselves... if that makes any sense?
  3. trigel Senior Member

    English - US, Korean
    Right, these Chinese characters were borrowed into Japanese with the Chinese pronunciations. (The Chinese characters were used to also represent native Japanese words with the same meaning whch is why you have "kun" readings) Indeed the character 男's Japanese "dan/nan" reading sounds similar as in Chinese nán but there are many more characters whose pronunciations in Chinese and Japanese diverged so much as to be mutually unintelligible. What's more:
    *the "Chinese" words that Japanese uses are often not the same Chinese words that Chinese does, because the Japanese created their own kanji words or imported Korean-coined kanji words (edit: though I'm not sure how much).
    *Japanese also has a completely different grammar, sound system and basic vocabulary (which is written with Chinese but is pronounced as native Japanese words) to Chinese.
    *Mandarin uses simplified Chinese characters, unlike Japanese which uses traditional characters.

    Right, hiragana and katakana are sets of simplified Chinese characters which originate from spelling Japanese in Chinese charactersl (man'yōgana), which explains why they represent syllables that sound similar to the original Chinese.
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2013
  4. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    Okay almost there. So let's take 男 as an example. And I'm talking go all the way step by step just so I can imagine it. So Japanese people have this word... for many years.... "otoko" which to them means "man". Then how did this symbol become integrated and why was a KUN pronunciation ever made (are they trying to learn Chinese?) and how much is this pronunciation actually used in Japanese if atall? This is where I am confused.
  5. trigel Senior Member

    English - US, Korean
    I myself am just speculating here, but when they started writing Japanese more commonly, instead of spelling "otoko" (whatever form the word had back then) out in Man'yogana or whatever, they might have found it more efficient to use the kanji with the same meaning (since if you were among the literates you would already know written Classical Chinese, so you would understand what 男 meant in Japanese.)

    Well obviously "otoko" is used when 男 represents the word "otoko"; and the on-readings, in Chinese derived compounds where 男 represents the Chinese morpheme "nan/dan". In case of 男 when it stands alone without any other kanji it will represent "otoko", and when it's accompanied by other kanji it probably represents a Chinese compound. Example:

    (sono <otoko> wa se ga takai desu: That/The <man> is tall.)

    (<dansei> wa josei yori jumyō ga mijikai desu: <Males> have shorter lifespans than females.)

    But there are many other cases which are much more complex, and in the end you will just have to learn how what word is written in kanji, and you'll learn what kanji in which context represents what word/reading.
  6. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Just for the record, Japan did not have a writing system before the introduction of Chinese characters.

    I wasn't aware that Japanese took kanjis of Korean origin. What are some of them? Chinese characters sometimes have a different meaning in Japan. 狸, for example, meant a fox or a cat when it was created in China. It almost always means a raccoon dog in Japanese.

    The post-war Japan simplified Chinese characters differently from the way in China.

    If one knows Chinese characters well enough, it is far thrifty to write 男 for "man" than to spell out three syllables with three characters. A reader would understand that
    男 is for "man." When necessary, the reader would read out loud and say otoko or wotoko back then.

    The concept kun-pronunciation is misleading (although I am bad at ease how to put otherwise). It is not a pronunciation but a word. It is more like associating the Japanese word otoko with the Classical Chinese word *nan (I used the asterisk to indicate my ignorance of the exact pronunciation) with a common written representation, 男. Apparently no two words are the same and the differences are wider between two languages, so there are gaps and misunderstandings in this method of translation. For the current example, otoko seems to have been represented as 壮士 (Sino-Japanese reading: s
    ōshi; valiant man) in Maňňyōshū. Yes, Japanese borrowed a lot from Chinese since the earliest time. It represented a civilisation about a thousand years ahead. The system of ideograms helped sharing ideas between cultures that speak different languages.

    A lot. Again, they are not simply pronunciations but words or morphemes. As English use a lot of Latin words and morphemes, so Japanese relies on Sino-Japanese vocabulary.
  7. trigel Senior Member

    English - US, Korean
    I'm unsure and quite curious about the cause of the extreme degree of lexical similarity between (modern) Sino-Japanese and Sino-Korean, but this probably deserves an independent thread.
  8. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    Forgive me, brain slip up, I actually meant spoken language. But apart from that, thanks for the explanation. I think I am just about getting it!
  9. Tonky Senior Member

    I'll try and summarize things a bit in my own words, hopefully easy for you. I hope you do not mind reading :p

    • Japan had its own spoken language
    It is said that there were a few original Japanese languages pre-history. But since they did not have writing systems, nobody knows what they were like, and we can only guess and speculate from the oldest scripts that were written in Chinese characters.

    • First wave of Chinese characters : 呉音
    In general, it is said that people started importing Chinese characters around in 5th to 6th centuries AD. (But this first wave also includes those imported before those times.)
    <1> Kings of Japan at that time were said to be sending tributes to the rulers of southern China and it is believed that the pronunciations we imported then were originally from there, most likely around Shanghai, but no proof.
    <2> Many Koreans came to Japan with Chinese books(mostly of Buddhism) and their own knowledge of China and Chinese. Many of them worked as clerks who kept records in Chinese for big houses. Thus it is believed that the pronunciations Japanese learned back then were through Koreans. No proof, but most likely.

    • Second wave of importing Chinese characters : 漢音
    In 7th to 8th centuries AD, Japanese started sending students directly to China to learn Buddhism and Chinese. The Chinese characters imported around this time were from Chang'an(長安/ now called Xi'an/西安), the biggest Chinese city back then. Now you can guess we started to learn new pronunciations and some pronunciations of the first wave imports were lost, although some stayed to survive. Many On'yomi we use now are greatly influenced by this wave.

    • Third wave of importing Chinese characters : 唐音
    After around 12th century AD, Samurai days, Shoguns traded directly with Chinese and also imported Zen teachings. However, the pronunciations imported then were not valued much later days, maybe because they were of merchant terms and Zen-specific.

    • Hiragana + Katakana, and Kundoku-method
    The intellects in ancient times used Chinese when writing and reading, while they talked in Japanese. Chinese characters were used for phonetic values for Japanese specific culture, such as poems and histories, but it was not the mainstream at first. As more people started learning, they invented Hiragana and Katakana to make it easy for learners, as well as Kundoku which is a method to read Chinese without translation by using symbols and Katakana.

    • New Kango Part 1
    As Japanese learned Chinese, they started to coin their own Japanese words expressed in Chinese characters using its meanings to match with the Chinese-ish official documents. Some new Kanji were also invented by using parts of Chinese characters.

    • New Kango Part 2
    As Western cultures started pouring in, the intellects coined to translate foreign words and concepts, sometimes by Chinese characters' meaning, sometimes by the sound, or even both. (As time goes by, however, foreign words flooded, and we could not manage to always translate them all. thus, started using katakana instead, you know it is much easier!)

    • Reverse import of New Kango by the Sinosphere
    China and some other countries that use Chinese characters started to reverse import of Japanese made-up words and kanji. It is said that Chinese intellects who studied in Japan translated Japanese books into Chinese in Meiji era and that many of Japanese kango were introduced to Chinese, and then to Koreans and other kanji using areas.​

    Just bits and pieces of the history you seem to be interested in... I hope some mysteries are solved.

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