Kanji Radical 言 ごんべん – 言信訓誤


In this post we are going to look at four kanji 言信訓誤 that contain the meaning “word; to say; language,” that is, a bushu gonben 言.

(1) The kanji 言 “to say”

History of Kanji 言In order to connect the origin of the kanji 言 to the meaning “word; to say; language,” we need to work a little because it has little visual connection. In all of the ancient writings — in bronze ware style (in light brown), bronze ware style (in green) and ten style (in red) — the top was a tattooing needle (辛) and the bottom was a mouth (口). A tattooing needle had an ink reservoir at the top and a large handle in the middle. Even though I did not have a problem with this interpretation that the shape was an image of a tattoo needle with a reservoir and a handle, I was still not fully convinced about the connection between the tattooing needle and the meaning “word; to say.” In references there are various different accounts. The sharpness of a needle signified the clarity of what one said is one of them. Re-reading Shirakawa’s account helped me understand it in another way. Together with 口 as a container where a prayer or pledge was kept, they meant making a pledge with the understanding that if one reneged he would be tattooed (Note*). So, the origin of the kanji 言 having a tattooing needle suggested the seriousness of one’s word. It meant “word; to say; language.”  When 言 is used as a component on the left it is called a bushu gonben, and has the same meaning as the kanji 言.

The kun-reading 言う /i(u)/ has a spoken form /yu(u)/ in words such as 田中さんて言う人 (“a person called Tanaka” /takanasan te-yuu hito; te-iu hito/). Another kun-reading /koto/ is in 言葉 (“word; language” /kotoba’/), 泣き言を言う(“to complain; cry over; whimper” /nakigoto o iu (yuu)/), 言伝を頼む (“to ask to give a verbal message” /kotozute-o tano’mu/). The on-reading /ge’n/ is in 発言する (“to speak (at a meeting)” /hatsugen-suru/), 言動 (“one’s speech and behavior” /gendoo/). Another on-reading /go’n/ is a go-on and is in the phrase 言語道断 (“unspeakably; outrageous” /go’ngo doodan/), 武士に二言は無し (“Samurai’s words are sacred; A promise is a promise”  /bu’shi-ni nigon-wa-na’shi/), 他言無用 (“Not a word to anyone” /tagonmuyoo/).

Tattoo in ancient China — In ancient times a tattoo was given to a war captive, who became a slave, and to a criminal. Sometimes, temporary tattoo was used in a religious rite. It appeared in the origin of other kanji as well. A couple of kanji that come to my mind now are 僕 (“servant; I [by a male speaker]”  /bo’ku/) and 童 (“child” /wa’rawa/). No doubt I will encounter more kanji as my work moves along. [If you are curious about a few interesting ancient shapes for the kanji 僕, it is discussed in Lesson 10 Section 1 in the Visual Kanji video course.]

The interpretation of 口 in ancient writing: There was a dispute among the kanji scholars in Japan on Shirakawa’s treatment of 口. Whether 口 is a “mouth” (as in a mouth on the face) that relates to “speaking” or a “container that contains a prayer or pledge” does not make any difference here because both relate to word or speaking.)

(2) The kanji 信 “to trust; correspondence”

History of Kanji 信For the kanji 信, the left one ( in purple) was given in Setsumon as 古文 (“old writing” /kobun/).  I am going to call this style shown in purple “pre-ten style” in this blog, based on the fact that the style in Setsumon is basically ten-style and that 古文 predated ten style.  In pre-ten style the left side was a person and the right side was a tattooing needle. In ten style, the right side took the shape of 言 with a mouth at the bottom added to the tattoo needle. Together they meant a person and his words being the same, or one’s words being true to himself. From that later on it came to mean “trust.” In kanji it is a bushu ninben and a kanji 言 together. It means “to trust; letter.” Here technically 言 is not a bushu gonben because it is not on the left side.  (-Hen or -ben means a recurring component that is on the left side of kanji.) But in our study, the position does not matter because the same origin retained the same meaning wherever it appeared.

There is no kun-reading in Joyo Kanji. The on-reading /shi’n/ is in 信じる (“to believe” /shinji’ru/), 信用する (“to believe; accept someone’s story as true” /shin-yoo-suru/), 信者 (“believer” /shi’nja/), 私信 (“private letter” /shishin/), 通信 (“telecommunication; correspondence” /tsuushin/).

(3) The kanji 訓 “lesson; Japanese reading of kanji”

History of Kanji 訓History of Kanji 順The kanji 訓 and 順 were closely related–川 appears in both kanji, and they shared the sample of bronze ware style writing. In the bronze ware writing for the kanji 訓 the top of the left side had a river (川), signifying following in one direction, and the bottom had “word”(言). These two elements were placed side by side in ten style, and the person on the right side was dropped and became 訓. From “teaching the correct way of following words,” it meant “a lesson.” In Japan, this also came to mean the way that one read Chinese characters in Japanese, which is the kun-reading.

For the kanji 順 (shown on the right), in the first sample of the bronze ware style, the right side had a person with a tattoo needle at the top, but in another sample, the tattoo needle was replaced by a person with big eyes bending the knees facing the river. Someone watching the flow of a river carefully meant observing the order. In ten style, the right side was replaced by the bush 頁 “head,” which originally depicted an official with a ceremonial hat on his head. The kanji 順 means “order; turn; obedient.”

There is no kun-reading for 訓 in the Joyo kanji. The on-reading /kun/ is in 教訓 (“lesson” /kyookun/), 訓練 (“training” /ku’nren/) and 訓読み (“Japanese pronunciation of Chinese character” /kun-yomi/.)

4) The kanji 誤 “mistake; error”

History of Kanji 誤For the kanji 誤, in ten style the left side was 言 and the right side was 呉. Because 誤 did not have an earlier writing than ten style, we bring in a couple of earlier writings of 呉 (in bronze ware style, in green). They are mirror images of each other — Each had a person with his head tilted and a mouth next to his head. In the ten style of the kanji 誤, 言 “word; language”was added. Together with the meaning of 呉 described above signified that the words that were spoken were different from what the person meant. It meant “mistake; error.” The kun-reading is in 誤る (“to make a mistake” /ayama’ru/) and 誤り (“mistake; error” /ayama’ri/). The on-reading /go/ is in 誤解 (“misunderstanding” /gokai/), 誤字 (“wrong letter or character; typo” /goji/) and 誤差 (“error” /go’sa/).

Additional note on the kanji 呉:  呉 was the name of the Wu dynasty. 呉音 /go-on/ of on-reading is a word that is related to this kanji. Also in Japanese it is used in the kun-reading 呉れる (“someone gives to me” /kureru/). The on-reading /go/ is also used in 呉服屋 (“kimono fabric store” /gohukuya/)(which came from the fabric that was woven in Wu style –the Koojien dictionary)

There are many many kanji that take a bushu gonben and all carry a meaning related to speaking or words. In the next post I would like to show you the kanji that you would never have suspected were related to the kanji 言 until you see the ancient writing. [11-1-2014]

One thought on “Kanji Radical 言 ごんべん – 言信訓誤

  1. This post made me ponder about the kanji 信 because his classification is highly controversial.Some authors believe that it is an ideograph >広辞苑 会意。「人」+「言」。その人の言葉と心が一致している意。Other authorities (e.g. Professor William Boltz) argue that it is a semantic-phonetic compound (形声文字).

    Sometimes I find logical explanations (会意) that are delightful and helpful for remembering the kanji. However, nowadays I doubt about their veracity because they seem to be the product of circular reasoning. Those who are interested in this topic, may consult a PhD thesis written by professor Zhiqun Chen at Monash University;

    “Compound ideograph : a contested category in studies of the Chinese writing system” http://tinyurl.com/kdrnqjq

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