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Japanese Diary 34: On learning Chinese without meaning to
When I went to Taiwan in 2013 I had exactly two words of Chinese at my disposal - meaning "thank you" and "hello". I was ashamed of this lack, naturally, but got by just fine because English was everywhere on signs, and my host (Dutch herself) was fluent.

Anyway, I just had a bit of "Duh!" moment, which makes me realise that I actually know quite a bit more Chinese than that - albeit the Chinese of some 1,200 years ago. The thing is, when the Japanese imported characters from China, they not only assigned those characters to native Japanese words, but also kept the Chinese readings (as I discussed here). The general rule is that native readings ("kun" readings) are used when the kanji is on its own, and Chinese readings ("on" readings) are used in compound words involving more than one kanji. So, for example:

Character: 山
Kun reading: yama ("mountain" in Japanese)
On reading: san
Japanese for "volcano" (火山): kazan

Character: 小(さい)
Kun reading: chiisai ("small" in Japanese)
On reading: shou
Japanese for "primary school" (小学校): shougakkou

Character: 年
Kun reading: toshi ("year" in Japanese)
On reading: nen
Japanese for "annual" (年間): nenkan

Character: 心
Kun reading: kokoro ("heart/mind" in Japanese)
On reading: shin
Japanese for "worry" (心配): shinpai

And so on - several thousand more times...

Anyway, it only just occurred to me to check the on readings against modern Chinese, and results are pretty striking. Take examples above:

On reading: san
Modern Chinese for "mountain": shān

On reading: shou
Modern Chinese for "small": xiǎo

On reading: nen
Modern Chinese for "year": nián

On reading: shin
Modern Chinese for "heart": xīn

Assuming this works more generally (and I've tried it on quite a few words now), it means that if I ever get around to learning Chinese I'll be off to a flying (if somewhat antiquated) start.

Our trip to China, knowing kanji got me nowhere conversationally, either speaking or listening, but it did let me puzzle out signage to the point of having a clue what the topic was, if rarely the exact message. Well, aside from "caution do not enter" which is written almost the same as in Japanese.

Yes, in similar wise my Korean-speaking mother can piece together some written Chinese and Japanese despite having studied neither--and a bit of spoken Japanese if it's very technical and thus sinitically derived; in that case it was medical, a veterinary-oriented jdrama I was watching. Also similarly, from the K-direction it doesn't go much past trivia. (Koreans in Korea haven't had to learn much hanja since the 1970s--basically, since when she left as a youngish adult.)

I find that it helps with going between k- and j-dramas a bit, with the shocking result that I remember j-readings for my few characters (30-40?) better than the k- ones . . . but any semantic nuance is lost.

I've been told that Korean and Japanese grammars are almost identical, which must be a help - and certainly makes programs like Google translate more reliable when translating between them than is the case with most other pairs of languages. Watching Korean drama, though, I've not been able to pick out more than a few words using my knowledge of Japanese.

Hmm, they're similar grammatically, but not close enough for me to parse a written sentence in Japanese reliably (despite, re: parsing specifically, my having been elbow-deep in various dead European languages).

The less conversational, the better, for things like this: several Japanese commonplaces come to mind from jdramas which are written with kanji but which have no idiomatic equivalent in Korean or Mandarin. 仲間 (nakama) is one. My mother can't do it with conversational Japanese, either--it was specifically the medical terminology.

Yes, I did the same thing in Taiwan - though at that time I knew fairly few. I do remember the joy of recognising 線 at a railway station, much like a lepidopterist spotting a rare moth.

When C.S. Lewis visited Greece, he amused himself reading the newspaper against his knowledge of Ancient Greek.

I wonder how far he got? An even closer analogy would be someone who only knew Norman French trying to understand modern English. Some help, perhaps, with individual words, but probably not enough to let you understand a newspaper!

I am reminded that C.S. Lewis's brother once found him to be under the impression that Tito was the king of Greece. Perhaps he had been misreading Greek newspapers for longer than anyone knew? :-)

Apparently koine isn't that difficult for modern Greeks, but going the other way could well be a very different matter.

I found knowledge of Classical Greek a little helpful in reading modern Greek, though much more at the level of signs rather than newspapers, but almost entirely useless in understanding spoken Greek, since the sounds represented by the letters have shifted so much eg b->v, d->th, nt->d etc. For example, Odysseus (which of course is pronounced differently anyway in Classical Greek than in modern English) comes out in modern Greek sounding something like "Otheesefs".

Likeise my sister, visiting Jerusalem with ancient Hebrew, deciphered the word for a chariot and realised she had found the bus stop.


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