This blogsite has been on hiatus for quite some time. Many people have been visiting in my absence, and I would like to thank all the readers who showed an interest in the approach to kanji study that I am trying to develop. The manuscript draft of a study guide/reference book for a mature kanji learner covering all the 2,136 Joyo kanji was finished a couple of years ago, but fine-tuning additional information and re-writing the English account took me a long time. My manuscripts are finally in the hands of able editors. Because of the complexity of the project, I am afraid that it will be a while to make it available to the public. In the meantime, there are a few topics that I have not touched on this blog site, and I would like to bring these up. The first topic is kanji formation types, especially composite kanji.
1. Four types of kanji formation
Many of the revised Joyo kanji (2,136 kanji) are composite kanji, which were created by putting two or more existing components together. In Setsumon-kaiji (説文解字Shuowen-jiezi) in AD 100, the first comprehensive analytical kanji dictionary, the author, Kyoshin (許慎 Xu Shen), classified kanji in six types, called Rikusho (六書 Liushu). Most kanji analyses still use this classification, with a modification in some studies. Four types concerned how ancient character/kanji were formed. Even though many kanji originated as ancient characters and were transformed to kanji (the writing of the Han) during the Qin and Han dynasties, their resilient internal constructions remained largely unchanged. For simplicity of discussion, I am going to analyze kanji here.
The oldest formation type is 象形文字 shookee-moji (or shokei-moji in Hepburn transcription), “pictographic,” in which a shape depicted a single meaning in a single image. Another type that has one shape per one meaning was 指事文字 shiji-moji, “indicative,” in which abstract notions, such as numerals and location, are indicated by a line or lines relative to another reference point.
2. Two types of composite kanji formation
The third type of formation is 会意文字kaii-moji, “semantic composite kanji.” 会 means “to consolidate, merge” and 意 means “meaning,” so 会意文字 means a character in which meanings are consolidated to form a new meaning. In this type, two or more semantic features (called 意符 ihu) are used, and the pronunciations of the contributing characters/components are not transferred. The fourth type is the second composite type called 形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite kanji,” keesee-moji (or keisei-moji). The literal translation of 形 is “shape” and 声 means “sound,” so the word does not translate to the label we use, “semantic-phonetic,” directly. However, I suspect that Kyoshin must have used the term 形声 in the context that a character shape was a direct depiction of meaning in pictographs in ancient times; thus “shape” equated with “meaning.” In creating semantic-phonetic composite kanji, one component is used as a semantic feature and another as a phonetic feature (音符 onpu) discarding its original meaning. Semantic-phonetic composite characters existed even in oracle bone style (which attests that there was character style that preceded oracle bone style). In later times, when it became necessary to express more complex words, the elimination of the need to create entirely new shapes became a powerful tool, and semantic-phonetic composite kanji proliferated. During this process of creating new semantic-phonetic composite kanji, we can also imagine that, among many synonymous components, in many cases, one that also had a similar meaning to the word they were trying to create was chosen. Such a component would have dual features/functions as phonetic cum semantic. The examinations of ancient characters in this blog have supported this view repeatedly. Some kanji dictionaries, such as Kanjigen (藤堂 et. al. 2011), call this type of formation as 会意兼形声文字, (semantic-complex composite kanji).
3. Semantic composite – 25 % of Joyo kanji; and Semantic-phonetic composite – 61% of Joyo kanji
In classifying each kanji’s formation type scholars do not necessarily agree. Since my goal is to explain kanji shapes to kanji students outside Japan from a historical perspective, the analysis in Shirakawa (2004), in which all the Joyo kanji are explained with ancient characters, is most useful. Based on his classification, my calculation is that, of the 2,136 Joyo kanji, 25 % are semantic composite kanji (including kokuji, kanji that were created in Japan), and 61 % are semantic-phonetic composite kanji. Some readers may find these numbers surprising because we often read or hear something like, “Nine out of ten kanji are “keisei-moji. Trying to understand a large number of kanji through etymology is a vain effort.” This comment neglects the important fact that a ratio depends on the subset of kanji. We are not studying all the kanji that ever existed. Eight out of ten present-day Japanese kanji are semantic-phonetic kanji (no subsets are explicitly stated) (Ochiai 2014). In contrast, among the 1,026* Educational kanji (学習漢字 or 教育漢字), the ratio shifts to 31 % semantic composite kanji and 49 % semantic-phonetic composite kanji. I would like to discuss the implication of these numbers in a future posting.
4. Samples of composite kanji that are inter-related
Now I would like to discuss a few groups of kanji that are made up as composites, sharing a common shape. Because the histories of kanji with ancient character lineage have been already discussed in the previous posts (Previous Posts and Search), I will skip them in this posting.
(1). The Kanji with 臣 … 監艦鑑
(a) The kanji 監 “to watch attentively, supervise, monitor”/[kan] comprised 臣 “loyal subject, government minister”/[shin] [pictographic], 人 “person” [pictographic] and 皿 “vessel” with 一 “water reflecting inside.” [pictographic] Taken together, the person was examining his own reflection. In this kanji the three components all contributed to the new meaning. [semantic composite] (b and c) In the kanji 艦 “warship”/[kan] and 鑑 “paragon, to heed”/[kan], 監 was used for the sound kan, while 舟 “ship” and 金 “metal” were used for the meaning. [semantic-phonetic composites] Additionally in 艦, a warship is a ship that “supervises and monitors” a military operation, overlapping the meaning of 監, and 艦 “paragon” was a metal mirror against which one “reflected one’s own deeds” against the model, also overlapping the meaning of 監. So in those two kanji, 監 had dual features, the sound kan, and the meaning. The Kanjigen dictionary treats such cases as 会意兼形声文字, semantic-complex composite kanji, while many other references take only the phonetic feature. [semantic-phonetic composite]
(2). The Kanji with 女 … 安案
(a) The kanji 安 “secure, peaceful, inexpensive, cheap”/[an] comprises two semantic features, 宀 “house” [pictographic], bushu ukanmuri, and 女 “a woman” [pictographic], together signifying “tranquility.” An inexpensive thing is less strenuous to obtain; thus, it also meant “inexpensive, cheap.” [semantic composite] (b) The kanji 案 “plan, proposal”/[an] comprises 安, used for the sound an, and 木, used for the meaning “wood” for a desk. One thinks sitting at a desk about a matter in order to make a proposal. [semantic composite]
(3). The Kanji with 斤 … 近質新
(a) The kanji 近 “near, close by”/[kin] comprises the shape 斤, which by itself means “hand axe” [pictographic] but is used here for the sound kin to mean “near,” and a bushu shinnyuu “to move forward.” [semantic-phonetic composite] (b) The kanji 質 “quality”/[shitsu] had two 斤 “hand axes” that were used to weigh things and 貝 “cowries, valuable,” together signifying equal quality of two things. [semantic composite] The pronunciation [shitsu] did not come from either components because they were used semantically. (c) The kanji 祈 “to pray”/[ki] comprises ネ a bushu shimesuhen [示 pictographic] “religious matter” and 斤 used for the sound ki from kin to mean “to wish.” [semantic-phonetic composite]
(4). The Kanji with 木 … 末抹
(a) The kanji 末 “end, tip”/[matsu] comprises 木 “tree” [pictographic] and a line at the top indicating the location of the tree being talked about. [Indicative] (b) The kanji 抹 “to erase”/[matsu] comprises 扌 , bushu tehen “an act done by hands,” [pictographic] and 末, used for the sound matsu to mean “to erase.” [semantic-phonetic composite]
(5). The Kanji with 京 … 景影憬就蹴
The kanji 京 “capital”/[kyoo; kee] depicted a scene in which a building stood on a high land. [pictographic] Bright tall hills were better suited to reside and attracted people. An area of concentration became the capital. (a) The kanji 景 “bright light”/[kee] comprises 日 “the sun” and 京 used for the sound kee, and together they meant “bright sunny place.” [semantic-phonetic composite] (b) The kanji 影 “shadow”/[ee] comprises 景 “bright light” and 彡 “(pretty) shape.” Bright sunshine creates a clear silhouette, which casts a shadow. [semantic composite] (c) In the kanji 憬 “to long for, yearn”/[kee], 景 “good view” was used for the sound kee and 忄a bushu risshinben “heart” was used as a semantic feature. 景 and “a heart” together signified one’s heart looking up to or desiring something in the distance with a bright thought [semantic-phonetic composite]. (d) In the kanji 就 “to begin, become employed”/[shuu], 京 was used for the meaning “capital” and 尤 was used for the sound shuu to mean “to gather,” together signifying that people congregated to the capital to get employed and began to live there [semantic-phonetic composite]. (e) In the kanji 蹴 “to kick, turn down”/[shuu], 足 “leg” was used for the meaning and 就 was for the sound shuu to mean “to step on.” [semantic-phonetic composite]
There seems to have been no set principle on whether a component would be used as a semantic feature or a phonetic feature. For instance, in the samples at (5), above, with the common shape 京, the pictograph 京 was used as a phonetic feature in 景憬 and as a semantic feature in 影就. On the other hand, in 影, 京 was a part of a semantic component 景; and in 蹴, 京 was a part of a phonetic component 就 for shuu.
Thank you very much for your reading. – Noriko [October 24, 2021]
* In 2020, on the Educational kanji「学年別漢字配当表」(the list of kanji to be introduced by grade level) by the Japanese government, 20 more kanji were added, resulting in 1,026 kanji in total. The new kanji are used in prefectural names. Some kanji such as 岐 and 阜 for 岐阜 /Gihu/, 埼 for 埼玉 /Saitama/ and 茨 for 茨城 /Ibaraki/ are not used elsewhere. [November 19, 2021]