So you’re chillin’ like Bob Dylan, studying some kanji. At first it’s nice and easy. Hey, this totally looks like a tree! 木. Cha-ching! Then, you have to start learning the pronunciation of kanji, and everything gets complicated (don’t worry, I’m here to make it simple). You realize that there are multiple ways to pronounce almost every kanji out there. Sometimes there are 5, 6, 7+ different pronunciations. How can this be? It’s not like each English word has 5, 6, 7+ different ways to pronounce it (I’m looking at you, Canada. Aboot?). Sometimes you have to add hiragana to the end of a kanji, since the kanji isn’t big enough to hold the pronunciation. It becomes totally overwhelming. Don’t worry! Part of your problem is the way you’re learning kanji (we’ll talk about that a little later this week). The other part, though, is just your lack of knowledge on how kanji works (that’s what this article covers. In the last Kanji Week article, we went over the history of kanji. We’ll pretty much just pick up where that one left off.
When Kanji Came Over To Japan…
As you know from the last article, Japan didn’t have a written language at the time kanji meandered its way over from China. They did, however, have a spoken language (duh) that didn’t sound anything like Chinese. That right there is the (simple) reason on why kanji is read so many different ways in Japanese. There were word adoptions, trades, and more, which just ended up making things really complicated. This broke kanji up into two big categories, on’yomi and kun’yomi.
音読み (On’Yomi) – Chinese Reading
On’Yomi translates directly to mean “Sound reading.” This refers to the Chinese reading of the kanji, i.e. the original sounds that they make in the Chinese language. Of course, the Japanese and Chinese languages are very different, which means the sounds that Japan gave to these kanji are really just close approximations of the original Chinese pronunciation. So, even if you learn Japanese, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to translate this over to learning Chinese (at least with 100% accuracy). If only it worked that way.
Now, that’s nice and all, but kanji didn’t make it’s way over to Japan in one fell swoop, nicely bound and ready to go. There are often multiple On’Yomi readings for each and every kanji because they were introduced to Japan multiple times over the course of a few hundred years, and for some reason Japan decided it would be cool to keep all of them. Pile ‘em up, Japan said. More is better. These different readings came from different provinces, dynasties, and what have you, and apparently all of them had slightly different ways to pronounce things. That’s why you’ll often see multiple on’yomi options with an individual kanji.
But when do you use it? In general, you’ll use on’yomi when a word is made up of a multi-kanji compound (this is called jukugo). Usually when you see a multi-kanji compound word, it has originally come from China. Sometimes these words filled a gap when no such word existed, though often times it just ends up being a synonym for another word. In general, people who use a lot of jukugo are big smarty pants, like people who use big words in English all the time.
To Remember About On’Yomi:
- Chinese reading of a kanji
- Used when there is no hiragana attached to the kanji
- Often consist of multi-kanji compound words, like 空港 (see, no hiragana attached! This is kuukou)
- Can sound erudite wordy and snobby if you use these words too much.
訓読み (Kun’Yomi) – Japanese Reading
Kun’yomi, on the other hand, is the Japanese reading of kanji. This, as you can imagine, is Japan’s (pretty successful) attempt at making their language work with kanji, that way they wouldn’t have to learn Chinese to read everything. A Chinese kanji’s meaning (not to be confused with pronunciation) would be taken, and a close Japanese equivalent word to that meaning would get associated with it. Because the longer Japanese words didn’t always fit with a single kanji (Chinese usually associated one-ish syllable to each kanji), notations were created (which later turned into hiragana) to be added to the kanji and finish out the word (as well as dictate the tense and context behind a word).
Here’s a great example of this from Wikipedia:
…the kanji for east, 東, has the on[yomi] reading tō. However, Japanese already had two words for “east”: higashi and azuma. Thus the kanji 東 had the latter readings added as kun’yomi. In contrast, the kanji 寸, denoting a Chinese unit of measurement (about 30 mm or 1.2 inch), has no native Japanese equivalent; it only has an on’yomi, sun, with no native kun reading. Most kokuji, Japanese-created Chinese characters [however], only have kun readings.
So, how do you know when to use the kun reading? In general, you’ll use kun readings when a kanji has hiragana attached to it (though this isn’t always the case), or when a kanji’s sitting out there on its own. Really though, prior knowledge of the kanji and how it is used is necessary, which unfortunately means you actually have to practice since there are no really solid rules you can use to shortcut your way out of figuring out how to use what pronunciation and where.
To Remember About Kun’Yomi…
- It’s the Japanese reading (i.e. the pronunciations come from the Japanese language).
- Often has hiragana (also known as okurigana) attached to the end. Words like 食べます, 赤い, and 怖い are examples (okurigana in red).
- You won’t find kun’yomi readings when it comes to multi-kanji words as often (though people’s names can be an exception… not to mention all the other exceptions as well).
- Yeah, you gotta study if you want to know how to read kanji, especially since each kanji can be used in so many different ways.
Of course, the big question that should be asked here is “how the cuss do I learn all these different readings??” That question will be answered in time (i.e. soon!). Make sure you subscribe to our RSS feed, or just watch the Kanji Week tag, and you will get your answer (or perhaps it will just raise more questions?).
P.S. The Tofugu Newsletter only has one way to pronounce it.
P.P.S. The Tofugu Twitter account has 5, 6, 7+ pronunciations, if you like it better that way.