Things I’ve noticed about Japanese

So, as I study Japanese more and more I’ve noticed a few things that are pretty interesting. This is just my perspective, it might be completely wrong, but it is none-the-less how I see it.

Japanese has a large native vocabulary, and a huge loaned vocabulary as well. The loaned in vocabulary must have come in quite a few waves because the phonology of the loaned words seems to conflict.

First on the list is Chinese. I don’t know if these words once resembled Chinese phonetically or not, but they don’t at all anymore. Comparing the Chinese pronunciation to the Japanese pronunciation of the same compounds is more or less like listening to a bear growl and a cricket chirp. You couldn’t possibly mistake one for the other. The Chinese loan words though are quite obviously different from the native Japanese vocabulary though because they tend to come in two kanji pairs. The native Japanese vocabulary is often long and complex. For example: authored-work: 著作(ちょさく/chosaku) vs remarkable: 著しい(いちじるしい/ichijurushii) or government: 政府(せいふ/seifu)vs government: 政(まつりごと/matsurigoto). If you look at the kanji there, the first one of the two kanji pairs is the same as the second word’s only kanji. The first one is some sort of probably archaic application of the Chinese language into the Japanese spoken language. And the second is just an application of Chinese writing system directly onto the native Japanese vocabulary for writing purposes. I think, anyway.

From my limited perspective the native Japanese vocabulary, especially when you consider there tremendous amount of reduplicative onomatopoeia (wow I just spelled that right on the first go) sound a lot like Austronesian languages. I’m not making any inferences based on that perception, it’s just a marginally similar kind of feel. There have definitely been people that believed Japanese was related to the Austronesian languages, but there’s not a lot of real evidence for it.

Back to kanji. I think I’m starting to finally understand why most Japanese people don’t feel that they could do away with kanji entirely, and it’s not entirely about homonyms, which granted, there are a ton of. It’s about the way Japanese adults conceive of the world with their language, and I’m beginning to as well. When you learn a new word in Japanese, after knowing a good amount of kanji, your brain tries to compartmentalize that new vocabulary into a preexisting lexical space where it will share similar meanings to related words. This is because they use kanji to write their language, and kanji are ideograms firstly, and representations of sound secondly. For instance, today I was overhearing a conversation about hoikuen (pre-school). One co-worker was asking how a particular hoikuen is referred to formally, and the response was Nozu (place name) bun’en. I already know by analogy that the “en” is the same, it means garden (think kindergarten). But the bun I wasn’t sure about, so I asked if that was the “bun” in “bubun” which means “part of”. I guessed based on my knowledge of the locality and that Nozu is a branch school from the primary village school. Evidently, I guessed correctly. My mind was quickly trying to find a place for that unknown part of the word (morpheme) so that I could understand the meaning more completely.

Anyway, I dunno if that will make any sense for someone that hasn’t studied Japanese or not, so feel free to ask questions and I can try to explain in greater detail.


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Filed under language, musing

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