steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

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.
Tags: nippon notes
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