DrDave Single-Handedly Reforms the Japanese Writing System

Though I cannot think of a more illogical, irrational, excruciatingly frustrating way to code a language than Japanese Kanji, I am slowly starting to realize how essential it is to its language structure…

OK, let me precise what I mean here: no matter how seducing the idea, there’s no way Japanese text could ever be written with a simpler character set (be it romaji transliteration or kanas).

This is no complete news to me: discussions with Japanese had already opened my eyes to the fact that it would be really tough for a native to quickly read a text without the immediate visual help that’s brought by the symbolic meaning of kanjis.

Today went a step further, after receiving a short mail on my phone from a japanese friend, who for some strange reason, exceptionally typed it in romaji: Despite my less than stellar kanji-reading abilities, I found myself having to ask him to resend it in kanjis, as there was just no way I could figure out the different possible meanings for every other combination of syllables (my very loose grasp of japanese verb conjugation associated with Japanese language’s love of short homonyms did not help). I know it sounds strange that a pathetically unskilled speaker like me might prefer undecipherable kanjis over easy-to-read phonetic characters… But believe me: it’s much easier to take a guess or use a dictionary to figure out the meaning of a particular kanji than take a guess by the pronunciation only.

That being said, kanji still sucks. Its constructions defies any attempt at using logic and escape any philological rule. I’m still waiting on valid sensible explanations as to why so many japanese words can be written with a choice of three or four radically different kanjis that all have the same meaning and the same pronunciation (if you don’t believe me, check out in a dictionary 帰る and 返る, both pronounced かえる – kaeru, both meaning “to go back”… But each using completely unrelated kanjis).

A workmate I was discussing with told me I was way too rational in my approach to kanji learning. She even suggested I tried zen meditation or something to create a sufficient void in my mind before taking on that task…
Me, too freakin’ rational??? Now come on…

Filed under: Only in Japan

1 comment

  1. Well, 帰る and 返る are different. 帰る means to go back to whence you (someone) came, as in “go back home”; while 返る means to go or give (something) back, as in “this book goes back to the library”. And かえる (the pronunciation) could stand for either of these kanjis. かえる is what kids who haven’t learnt their kanji yet, or people who just can’t be bothered to remember which kanji to use would write.

    You can see these same different shades of meaning, in English too. For example, “home”, “dwelling” and “house” are all essentially the same, but we’ve given them different meanings over the centuries.

    I know that the Japanese writing system can be confusing. But when you think about it, so can English. Just take the word “call”, for example. You can “call on” (visit) someone, “call” (telephone someone), a policeman can be “on call”, and the red-bellied woodpecker can make a whooping “call”.

    And if the sheer number of kanjis out there is driving you crazy, just think of all the many tens of thousands of English spellings we learn. Sure, we just use 26 letters, but they can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

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