Monday, May 15, 2006

My first Kanji experiences

Kanji, as you all know, are the mysterious pictographic characters used by the Japanese to write with. Because they are crazy, the Japanese have 3 alphabets: 2 syllabic alphabets (where each letter represents a sound) containing about 40-50 characters each (mostly composed of about 35 basic characters) and the big one, Kanji, which contains at least 10,000 characters.

This last alphabet might seem a little daunting with this number attached to it, but in fact it is not that large. The government has a list, the Joyo list (or something similar) of 2000 characters considered essential for modern life. Apparently with these and a knowledge of the kanji for technical terms and animals (and a supplemental list of 245 kanji used in names) one can easily read, say, a newspaper. I live with a Columbian chap who is proficient in the language, and he claims to have used some cunning methods to identify a core list of only 800 characters required to read an article in a newspaper. So it is not really as bad as all that.

Currently I know 40 kanji well (after 5 lessons on the topic!) and another 30 or so by sight, probably. I don`t know these kanji in their entirety because almost all kanji have 2 readings, and in some cases I only know one.

That`s right, most kanji have 2 readings. The first of these, the on reading, is the sound the kanji makes when it is read with other kanji. The second, the kun reading, is the sound it makes when read with one of the two kana alphabets, when read on its own or when read as part of a proper name (but not a name of a country). Sometimes the on and kun reading have different meanings, and sometimes a kanji has more than one. It is also possible that I have mislabelled, and called the on the kun and vice versa. For some reason I am having difficulty with the names of these two forms (though not, fortunately, learning the associated facts).

By way of example, consider the kanji for a meeting place, kai:

When read with another kanji, for example the kanji for house, kan, this kanji is read as kai. My home is called the kaikan, for example (meaning `meeting house`), and written as:


However, kai also forms the stem of the verb to meet, in which case it is read as a, and the verb inflexion is written with kana. In this case, we have (for example), I will meet:


which is read as aimasu with a silent u.

Such a system of writing is not entirely incomprehensible, although difficult to write (and to read, my apologies to those of you whose computers are sensible enough to refuse to print these characters!). It is fun to learn, though, and easier in many ways than learning the actual language (which is hard). It is also easy to do on a computer, since handwriting is not then an issue. I confess that because I am a sad-arsed nerd, this is my favourite part of learning so far, and I am speeding along with it in hopes of being able to write haiku sometime soon. Being able to read signs is also a nice bonus, and I want to be able to do this as soon as possible! Rumour has it we will officially know 220 characters (including the numbers) by the end of my 4 month course. I hope to know more than that!


Blogger Cracklypork said...

Fab! Probably easier than Chinese...

9:29 PM  
Blogger Sgt M said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Sgt M said...

Don't let the boys back in A barracks catch a whiff of this dear boy! They'll positively scream you've gone native....

9:59 AM  

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