Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Guessing The Meanings of Words from Kanji

In Japanese, it's possible to guess the meaning of a word by the kanji that compose that word. This is because, although the readings of the kanji may vary according to the morpheme it represents, the meaning of the kanji remains somewhat constant across different words.

This means if you have a kanji for a word, and kanji for another word, a word that combines both kanji is sort of a mix of both of those words.
Diagram showing the meanings of kanji in various words.

Understanding Morphemes

To understand how this works, first it's important to understand morphemes.

A word may be a single morpheme or composed of multiple morphemes. Each morpheme has a meaning. And when the meaning of a morpheme matches the meaning of a kanji, that morpheme gets associated (written with) that kanji.

So, for example, hi ひ, "fire," is a word, a morpheme, and yama やま, "mountain," is a word, a morpheme.

Then you try to write those words with kanji, and you see there's a kanji that means "fire," 火, so now the word hi ひ, "fire," is written with the kanji meaning "fire," like this: hi 火. And there's a kanji that means "mountain" too, so you do the same: yama

But then there's kazan かざん, which means "volcano." This word, kazan, has two morphemes: ka か, which means, "fire," and zan ざん, which means "mountain." (actually, the morpheme is san さん, but because of rendaku the pronunciation becomes zan ざん)

Since these two morphemes, ka and san, also mean "fire" and "mountain," they get to be written with the kanji for "fire" and "mountain," like this: kasan 山, kazan 火山, "volcano," literally a "fire mountain."

As we can see above, when different morphemes are written with the same kanji, it results in a kanji with multiple readings. But the morphemes are associated because their meanings match the meaning of the kanji. In other words: even if the reading of the kanji varies, what it means remains the same (for the most part).

English Example

An example of morphemes in English and Japanese at the same time.

The word "heterosexual" has the morpheme "hetero," meaning "different." The word "homosexual" has the morpheme "homo," meaning "same."

In Japanese, a "heterosexual person" is an iseiaisha 異性愛者, literally different-sex-love-person, written with the same kanji as isekai 異世界, "different world."

The word for "homosexual person" is douseiaisha 同性愛者, literally same-sex-love-person, written with the same kanji as doujin 同人, "same [kind of] person."

Types of Combinations

So now we know the kanji's meanings and morphemes' meanings are related. This helps because, kanji is just writing, which's not much to go by, but morphemes are more than that, they are indirectly associated to the grammar of a language.

    Adjective Kanji

    First we have the case of kanji that modify other kanji, or, in other words, adjective kanji.

    For example, kazan 火山, "volcano." The kanji in this word mean "fire," 火, and "mountain", 山. So fire mountain, right? Volcano!

    But pause to think for a second: why is it "fire mountain" and not "mountain fire"? Lava! This happens because the order of the morphemes work like the order of words in grammar.

    In Japanese, and luckily in English too, when you have an adjective and a noun, the adjective goes before the noun. For example: warui hito 悪い人, "bad person." The opposite doesn't work: hito warui 人悪い, "person bad."

    So morphemes (and kanji) follow the same pattern.

    Another example: toketa iwa 溶けた岩, "melted rock," a phrase with an adjective clause and a noun. Then we have a similar word written with the same kanji: yougan 溶岩, "melt rock," or "molten rock," or... yep. "LAVA!!!"

    Parallel Ideas

    Another case is when the kanji representing parallel ideas in a word. That is, a word composed by multiple parallel kanji represents multiple parallel ideas at once. When translated, these single Japanese words often become two or more English words.

    For example: danjo 男女, "men and women." Written with the kanji for "man," otoko 男, and "woman," onna 女. The ideas are parallel. It's not a "man woman" or "male woman" or whatever. It's "men and women." Parallel. One thing doesn't affect the other.

    And it's in that order, too. The fact the morphemes are equivalent and parallel doesn't mean you can switch them around. The word jodan 女男 doesn't exist. It's not a word. The word is danjo 男女. You can say both otoko to onna 男と女 and onna to otoko 女と男, switching around, because those are whole words. In danjo 男女 we just have morphemes. So you can't do that.

    Another example: fubo 父母, "parents," or "father and mother," chichi to haha 父と母.

    A longer example: shunkashuutou 春夏秋冬, a four-character idiom, written with the kanji for spring, summer, autumn and winter, the four seasons, it means, as one would guess, the four seasons of a year all at once. Sometimes it can mean "the seasons" or "the four seasons" or "each season," etc.

    Kanji Semordnilap

    Like I said, you can't swap the order of parallel kanji and get the same word. But sometimes you can swap the order of the kanji and get a different word.

    These types of kanji palindromes, or rather, kanji semordnilap, can be a bit tricky, because you can end up mixing one word for the other, since they're written with the same kanji in a very similar way.

    Notably, oujo 王女, "king-woman," and joou 女王 "woman-king" mean different things. An oujo 王女 is a "princess," while a joou 女王 is a "queen." In this case the best I can do is an one-sided mnemonic. The female (woman) king is the queen, so joou 女王 is "queen," therefore the other one must mean princess.

    Another example: shakai 社会 is the "society," while a kaisha 会社 is a "company." Maybe because of how these words sound, I never had a problem telling one apart from the other the way I have with oujo and joou.


    Next we have prefixes. Prefixes are like adjectives, but a bit different... I think. Honestly, I wouldn't really be able to make rules to tell one apart from the other when talking about kanji words, but I think these examples should be in a section called prefixes, and not in a section called adjectives.


    A couple of common kanji (morpheme) prefixes are fu 不 and mu 無. Because they are all negating prefixes.

    For example, kanou 可能 means "possible," if you add the prefix, "impossible," fukanou 不可能. Similarly, ri 理 means "reason" or "logic," so muri 無理 means "without reason" or "devoid of logic," of "illogical," "unreasonable," basically the same thing as "impossible."

    More examples: this ri 利 means "advantage," so this furi 不利 means "disadvantageous." Then aji 味 means "taste," and mazui 不味い means "lacking taste," or "awful taste."

    And the best example, of course: ryoukin 料金 means a "fee" or a "charge," so muryou 無料 means... "free" as in free beer! That is, "no charge," "no fee."


    Finally, we have words like suugaku-teki 数学的, "MATHEMATICAL!" Here, teki 的 is a suffix. Because "mathematics," the science, is suugaku 数学, written with the kanji for "numbers," kazu 数, and "science," gaku 学. So "numbers-science-cal," suu-gaku-teki 数学的, "mathematical."

    The same teki 的 is also seen as suffix in other words, doing exactly the same thing:
    • shakai-teki 社会的
      Social. Society-teki.
    • kihon-teki 基本的
      Fundamental. Fundaments-teki.
    • seishin-teki na dameeji 精神的なダメージ
      Mental damage. Mind-teki na damage.
    • kouritsuteki 効率的
      Efficient...al? Efficiental! Efficiency-teki!!!


    It's not always that attempting to figure out the meaning of a word by its kanji works. There are a couple of pitfalls in doing this. And, of course, the only way that always works is to simply not try to guess at all and just use a dictionary.

    Stretching Meanings

    For most basic words, it's easy to separate and mix its morphemes. But words like kakkou 格好, "appearance," written with the kanji for "status" and "preference," are just pointless to try to understand.

    I mean, you can, maybe, come to figure out why that word is written with those kanji, how the word came to mean that from those morphemes, however, is that any useful?

    Guessing the meaning is only useful if you can do it right and quickly. If it's not instantaneous and blatantly obvious it's easier to just pick up a dictionary and look that word up.

    So, if it looks like it's just adding 2 plus 2, guess. If it looks like a game of guessing the right word from someone doing mimic, pass. It's just not worth the trouble.

    When Kanji Means Nothing

    In Japanese, there are some words which are written with kanji disregarding the kanji's meanings entirely. For example, mechakucha 滅茶苦茶 being written with the kanji for "tea"... TWICE. What's this supposed to mean? "Ruin tea, pain tea." MECHAKUCHA. It doesn't mean anything!!!

    This is because this word is an ateji 当て字, meaning the kanji were associated with the word because of how they were read, and not because of what they meant. Needless to say, this results in words that make abso-fucking-lutely no sense and will make you wonder what exactly did you do wrong in your life to make the Japanese language hate you so much.

    You Keep Using That Word... I Don't Think It Means What You Think It means

    There are some cases where the word doesn't mean what you'd think it means from its kanji

    For example, if you join the verb ugoku 動く, "to move," together with the noun "thing," mono 物, you get nothing more nothing less than doubutsu 動物, which you'd be sane to guess means "thing that moves," or "something that moves." And you'd think of stuff like cars and stuff.

    But doubutsu is a lot more primitive than that. The word doubutsu 動物 means "animal," which in its defense, is kind of a thing that moves.

    Another example: there's a word, jidousha 自動車, written the kanji meaning "self moving carriage." Which does mean, as you'd probably guess, an "automobile."

    But then there's a similar word, jitensha 自転車, written with kanji meaning "self rotating carriage," that doesn't mean what you'd expect. It means "bicycle." And not a motorcycle, either. Just a bicycle. The kind that doesn't move on its own.

    Guessing the Meaning of Kanji?

    Honestly, I'm no linguist so I wouldn't know where the meanings of each individual kanji came from. I can only attest for how they're used in words because I have seen them being used that way. So although I can tell you it's possible to guess the meaning of a word from its kanji, I can't tell you whether you can tell the meaning of the kanji by the kanji itself.

    All I know is that, sometimes, the radical of a kanji might hint its meaning.

    For example, the body parts ude 腕, "arm," koshi 腰, "hips," ashi 脚, "legs," hiza 膝, "knees," and mune 胸, "chest" all have the same 月 at the left side.

    However, since we're talking about guessing the meaning of a word from its kanji, and guessing the meaning of the kanji from its radical, I think there's too much guesswork required and I'm lazy so I'd rather just use a dictionary instead. That sounds easier.

    More Examples

    For reference some more examples of a kanji showing in a word.


    The kanji for siblings in Japanese provide a perfect example of parallel morphemes.
    • ani
      Older brother.
    • otouto
      Younger brother.
    • ane
      Older sister.
    • imouto
      Younger sister.

    When combined: (some are jukujikun / gikun readings)
    • kyoudai 兄弟
      Brothers (both male)
    • kyoudai 兄妹
      kyoumai 兄妹
      Brother and younger sister.
    • kyoudai 姉妹
      shimai 姉妹
    • kyoudai 姉弟
      shitei 姉弟
      Sister and younger brother.


    The kanji for "person," mono 者, is used as a suffix in countless words:
    • yomu 読む
      To read.
    • dokusha 読者
    • shinobu 忍ぶ
      To conceal.
    • ninja 忍者
    • igaku 医学
      Medicine. Medical science.
    • isha 医者
      Doctor. Medical person.
    • haisha 歯医者
      Dentist. Tooth medical person!
    • wakai 若い
    • wakamono 若者
    • warui 悪い
    • warumono 悪者
      Bad person.
    • okusuru 臆する
      To be hesitant.
    • byou
    • okubyou 臆病
    • okubyoumono 臆病者

    The word kanji for "person," hito 人, also jin and nin, works in similar way.
    • koi
    • koibito 恋人
      aijin 愛人
      Lover. Love-person.
    • shoku
    • shokunin 職人
      Worker. Work-person.
    • mushokunin 無職人
      Someone unemployed. No-work-person.
    • ookii 大きい
    • otona 大人
      Adult. Big-person. Grown-up-person.


    All the words for school seen in manga and anime rely on kanji meanings.
    • chiisai 小さい
    • shougakkou 小学校
      Small school. (elementary)
    • chuu
    • chuugakkou 中学校
      Middle school.
    • takai 高い
    • koukou 高校
    • ookii 大きい
    • daigaku 大学
      Big school. (college, university)
      (a school for "big people")
    • chuunibyou 中二病
      Middle[-school] second[-year] syndrome.

    Enter and Quit

    A couple of kanji for entering (starting) things and quitting stuff are also used in a number of words.
    • hairu 入る
      To enter.
    • nyuugaku suru 入学する
      To enter school. To enroll.
    • nyuuin suru 入院する
      To enter a clinic. To be hospitalized.
    • nyuushoku suru 入職する
      To enter a job. To start working.
    • shirizoku 退く
      To quit.
    • taigaku suru 退学する
      To quit a school. To drop out of school.
    • taiin suru 退院する
      To quit a clinic. To be discharged from the hospital.
    • taishoku suru 退職する
      To quit a job. To retire or resign from work.

    Up & Down, Higher & Lower

    The kanji for the directions up and down are frequently used in other words in a way or another.
    • ue
    • shita
    • jouge 上下
      Up and down.

    In skill:
    • jouzu 上手
    • heta 下手

    In clothing:
    • uwagi 上着
      Ovewear. Coat.
    • shitagi 下着.
    In some people's weird fantasies:
    • fukujuu 服従
    • kokufuku 克服
      Conquest (through overcoming something).
    • gekokujou 下克上
      Inferiors dominating superiors.


    Half of everything that starts with ma 魔 is magic.
    • hou
      Law. Method.
    • mahou 魔法
    • jutsu
    • ninjutsu 忍術
      Ninja techniques.
    • majutsu 魔術
      Magic techniques.
    • michi
    • bushidou 武士道
      Way of the warrior.
    • nindou 忍冬
      Way of the ninja.
    • madou 魔道
      Way of the magic.
    • madoushi 魔道士

    The other half is demons.
    • akuma 悪魔
      Evil + demon. Evil demon.
    • mazoku 魔族
      Demon + tribe. Demon tribe. Clan. Race. Etc.
    • maou 魔王
      Demon + king. Demon king.

    The meaning of this kanji has even been used in some games, like by turning the word nakama 仲間 into nakama 仲魔 when your nakama is a bunch of demons.

    Word Explorer

    It isn't exactly the same thing, but there's a learning tool now called suiren.io that shows words related by their kanji and lets you explore them by navigating through the connections. If you want more examples, you should check it out.

    A screenshot of suiren.io, a kanji relationship explorer

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