My Evolving Thoughts on Kanji

My thoughts on kanji and what they are for have evolved over the past year or two.  When first starting Japanese, they seem almost redundant and needlessly difficult.  Why use kanji, you think, when there are around 110 perfectly good syllables to use in their place?

But that’s an English way of looking at the problem.  We don’t have a syllabary, though we have syllables.  About fifteen thousand possible ones, though I don’t know how many we actually use.  So we take a look at the twenty-six letters of our alphabet, the 110 or so syllables that the Japanese languages use, and try to learn them through a functional one to one comparison.

That doesn’t work and it will never work.

The reason is that kanji fulfill a purpose that is wholly (or mostly) absent in English.  They are a sort of alphabet of their own, but instead of specifying specific sounds or sets of sounds, they specify meanings, and the sounds that relate to them map to the syllabary, but that mapping is not one to one.  We have twenty-six sounds and characters and they are sufficient to contain our language, because there are quite a few different syllables that we can make from them.  That is not the case in Japanese, because the number of sounds they can use are so limited.  For example, I can think of about four kanji right off the top of my head that are pronounced “hou”, several that are pronounced “ryou”, quite a few that are pronounced “do” and “to”.  The sound that a kanji makes, while important, is not important in the same way that the sound of an English letter would be.

This is why studying kanji, I think, is so critically important to understanding Japanese.  You can get along without them for conversational purposes, but without understanding the role kanji play, you’ll never understand the important role that they play in making the Japanese language what it is.

Put another way, I don’t think the Japanese language has an alphabet of 110 characters.  I think it has an alphabet of over 2,400 characters.  It just serves a very different purpose than ours.

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