Wednesday, December 14, 2005



Today's word - 性行動(seikoudou) basically means "sex." But it beautifully illustrates the power of kanji.

As a beginning Japanese student, I was constantly knocking kanji. I thought it was the most trivial, ancient, worn-out, pathetic excuse for a writing system I had ever studied. One of my very good friends (who is also a professor with a specialty in Chinese poetry - i.e. "dead kanji"), used to shake his head in a sagely yet sorrowful way when I would begin in on a tirade about why kanji is a useless writing form.

I have come to my senses.

Kanji is by far the best writing system ever created - even when compared to languages that nobody knows anymore, where evidence of their existence cannot even be found. Yes, I'm stating that kanji, as a writing system, is better than languages that may not ever have existed.

Take 性行動 for example. This is not a word that Japanese people use in conversation. It may be used in University Physiology class or perhaps a Biology textbook, but this is definitely not a word you use when going on a first date.

"Yeah but what do you mean?!" - Yeah yeah I'm getting there. Chill out.

性 (sei) is the kanji for sex and gender that I talked briefly about last post. When employed at the beginning of a word, you can instantly assume the word has something to do with sexuality.

行動(koudou) means behavior.

Taken together we get: sexual behavior. Easy as right? No - it gets better.

Here's where the power of kanji comes in to play.

What if you have no idea how to read the kanji in Japanese, but you understand the individual meaning of each kanji?

As in - you understand 性 = sex, 行 = go, and 動 = move. But you don't know their 音読み (onyomi - "on" reading) or 訓読み (kunyomi - "kun" reading).

This is frequently the situation with beginning students of kanji. You have memorized a kanji along with a word in your native language, so you understand basically what it means. But you have no clue what to do when you find two or more kanji you know side-by-side(-by-side, as it were).

Well think about it - the answer is already written on this page: sex, go, move.

And the image springs to life inside your mind. Perhaps you see people, perhaps you see animals, but you are sure to conjure the image of two living things in the animal kingdom sex go moving. You can understand purely on intuition that this word very likely means copulation.

If this post struck a cord inside you, then you'll start to "see" images when people speak Japanese to you. Without kanji, no one understands anything in this language, because it's all sounds without meaning! Native Japanese speakers frequently find themselves saying "何のせい?"(nan no sei?) when they don't understand a word because two or more kanji with the reading 'sei' have sprung to mind. They will draw it out on their desk or their hand, their friend will give them a word with the kanji they mean in it, a word which can only have this specific kanji, and they will go "わー!分かった!" (wa-! wakatta!) as if some brief moment of enlightenment has settled upon an otherwise very confused mind. That last line is a personal jab at some of my students and nothing more.

Ok great - so you start to understand that kanji is a writing system not only for static objects, but dynamic objects and actions. The word "go" doesn't not mean the same thing as "going." We need two words for the static idea of "go" and the dynamic action of actually moving from place A to place B. But in kanji - at least in Chinese kanji - the idea of "going" can be expressed in picture form, alongside other kanji for place, person, and adverbs like how a person is moving.

All just in pictures we call kanji.

Now it gets even better - the Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, and Japanese all use variations of a pictographic writing system - the Korean writing system is derived from more ancient kanji and looks very different from Chinese and Japanese BUT the best thing about kanji is that they don't need to be read to be understood.

And this is the underlying power of kanji. A Chinese or Taiwanese person can show up in Japan, speak not a word of the Japanese language, and get on very well indeed with street signs, food labels, magazines and newspapers, and menus. The kanji writing system was borrowed from the Chinese, and Japanese academics (for lack of a better term) applied their own pronunciations to each kanji, but the meaning didn't change.

Of course there are going to be exceptions. Some Cambridge dual-Chinese/Japanese scholar is going to email me saying "well, actually, no there is this case of..." and I'll have to eat my words. Who am I kidding - this blog isn't that popular.

The vast majority of kanji mean the same thing regardless of what country you find them in. That's the power of a pictographic writing system, and if the Egyptians had lasted a bit longer, we might have some very strange word-processing systems in use today.

Which brings me to leave you with The Alphabet and it's interesting evolutions. I think the original system is very kanjiesque.

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