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Radicals, components, parts, primitives, elements.  
15th-Aug-2010 06:32 am
I'm confused.

James Heisig says "Primitive elements are not to be confused with the so-called "radicals" [...]. In fact, most of the radicals are themselves primitives, but the number of primitives is not constricted to the traditional list of radicals."

Then there is Eve Kushner, who says "Every kanji consists of one or more components (also known as elements). [...] The radical may be a component with a clear meaning[...]" and then goes on to mention the functions of the "phonetic component" which is also different than the "radical component." I understand this to mean that the radical influences the meaning of the kanji as a whole and the phonetic may or may not influence its possible on'yomi readings (but not kun'yomi--right?).

So the "components" are elements or "primitive elements" and they compose the radicals (phonetic or not), which compose the kanji, which then go on to form compounds--am I on the right track? 

So, for example, 鹿 is the kanji for "deer" and a radical in (and in others, I'm sure), and its primitives (or elements or parts or components) are 广, 比 and 鹿 itself (I got this info out of jisho.org, by the way). To sum it up, 鹿 is a kanji, a radical and a primitive element all at the same time. Is that correct?

Would you say it is necessary to study all the primitive elements and radicals and only then go on to study the actual kanji? I ask this because I'm currently studying for level 2 of the JLPT -- so I've already memorized a fair share of kanji -- but only learned about radicals and primitives just recently (and find the whole thing very confusing, mind you), and I was wondering if I should take a step back and learn more about the structure of the kanji so as to make it easier to memorize the next thousand of characters I've got coming my way. Any advice from fellow japanese students would be very much appreciated!

Thanks in advance.


(Deleted comment)
15th-Aug-2010 04:46 am (UTC)
Yes, it turns out it was very specific information, and I don't need to know a lot of it at this point - but I was intrigued :) JLPT is way too much work in and of itself, so I should leave the specifics to when I'm done with the basics. I've accepted that, now ;)

Thanks for the reply!

14th-Aug-2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
I am not familiar with the books you use, but I can maybe explain how this stuff is taught in school.

In school, you start learning kanji in first grade. Most of the ones learned are fairly simple (writing-wise) like numbers, 上・下・中・先生 etc. These are mostly just learned as a lump - here's the letter, here's how you read it, now write it a bunch of times.

(Although, in elementary school you learn individual readings - kids learning 下 at first learn just した, similarly they don't learn all of the many readings of 生 yet.)

Okay. By about the third grade, the characters are getting more complex (writing-wise) and you get to stuff that can be dissected into parts. Kids start noticing this and THAT is when you learn about 部首(ぶしゅ)or what you call "radicals" and how to use a 漢和辞典(かんわじてん)or kanji dictionary. People notice that there are repeating elements, but only ONE element of a kanji will be "THE" 部首 that it's under in the dictionary, and that's what it's important to know. And, you learn all the names.

So, 氵 being さんずい, etc. Why? Because to use a dictionary, you'll be looking at the section that starts with the 部首 and then counting strokes from there. It's like the alphabet of kanji. Mind, this was all before computers. With a 漢和辞典, you look up characters by either the 部首, one of the pronunciations (in an index) or by total stroke order. So if you're looking up a character you know one reading of, maybe you go by pronunciation in the index but vast majority of the time, you go by 部首 and you have to if you can't read the thing. Okay.

Then we learn about 六書(りくしょ)or the "ways characters are made." Two are just usage cases so there's really only four that are real origins:

象形文字(しょうけいもじ)or "letters that represent a picture" like 日、子
指事文字(しじもじ)or letters that started from a diagram like 上、下、中
形声文字(けいせいもじ)or letters that have one part sound, one part form, like 姓・性・牲 etc AND ABOUT 75% OF ALL CHARACTERS.
会意文字(かいいもじ)or letters made by combining others for the meaning, like 明

Important part to note there is that loads of characters, the majority, are 形声文字 which means that you can guess the reading, and so if you see a word you can't read but you can guess how it's pronounced, you can skip the 漢和辞典 and "I'm feeling lucky" in the regular 国語辞典。

If you're interested in learning that stuff with detail, the fourth grade section of the bookstore is a good place to start. I also have a HUUUGE scan of the list of 部首 with their general meanings and the names for all of them here (link pops) if you want, it's from a junior high guide.

To be continued...
14th-Aug-2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
If you look at characters, you'll notice that aside from THE 部首 which is the "controlling" part determining where it is found in the dictionary, there are other bits that repeat. I assume that's what your book is calling "parts." We never learned about those specially, but when describing characters to people, certainly it's used, "it has a X here and a Y here under the くさかんむり" or whatever.

Okay so now in the modern world, with computers. People do still use paper 漢和辞典 and so I think it's important that you learn how, if you want to be able to read and write like regular educated people. So it's important to know 部首 but you can learn them as you learn the characters, and probably you know a bunch by instinct anyway even if you've not learned their names.

With a computer 漢和辞典 like in an electric dictionary or the one on my iPhone, you can type in as many parts AS YOU KNOW. Which is great. You don't have to know which one is THE 部首、just go wild and type what you see. The more parts you can type in, the fewer characters you have to pick through on a list. (You can also narrow it down by pronunciation and stroke number too.)

So for instance 答, you could type たけ&あう and it'll come up. Or 解, you can type つの&かたな&うし, similar. For 酒、さんずい&とり, you don't need to remember the odd fact that the 部首 for that one is really the part on the right.

Back to 鹿, the issue is that it's a kanji by itself 鹿(しか) meaning deer. It's also a 部首 for 麝, the first character in 麝香(じゃこう)which means "musk" and 麗 the last half of 綺麗(きれい). Also notice 麝 - see how the smaller part is just 射? That gives you a good hint that it's going to be しゃ・じゃ or similar, see? Convenient. Technically that letter is 形声 and 会意 at the same time.

And, it's just a "part" (not the meaning-related controlling 部首 part) in letters like 紙を漉く(すく)which is to make paper (wet the pulp, dry it on screens, making paper).

In the 漢和辞典、漉 is under さんずい (the water 氵 thing). But in an electric dictionary, you type さんずい&しか and it comes right up in a list of three.

I think it's important to eventually know 部首 and just what the "bits" of characters are called, so that you can describe them to others or use dictionaries, but you can do it while you're learning the characters themselves.

Still, spending a day or so looking at the big 部首 chart with the meanings can probably be helpful in making you learn new letters faster, if you're reliably grasping the "parts" and not thinking of things as a unique collection of lines each time (though I suspect you aren't anyway, even if you never formally learned the system - the human brain is good with patterns!).

Edited at 2010-08-14 03:51 pm (UTC)
15th-Aug-2010 04:41 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this in so much detail. And that list is, omg, so awesome I might cry, thanks for sharing it. I've never seen such a compact listing of radicals (and even the etymology!) like that one, and it's bound to be pretty useful to me.

I had some vague idea of how japanese dictionaries worked and how the radicals were used to make finding a particular kanji easier, but not in that much detail. I didn't know electronic dictionaries had the features you mentioned, for example.

I had never heard the about the 六書 before, either. I wish there was a more universal way of learning kanji, but every book I try deals with them differently, has a different way of categorizing them, and as inexperienced as I am, I don't know which one is best for a student in my early-intermediate level. I think I may look into the 六書, out of sheer curiosity, and just memorize the radicals as they come along. It's true that I know a lot of them instinctively by now, but I'd still like to understand more about kanji structure - though I suppose I don't have to do it right away.

Anyway, thank you, again. You've really helped me out a lot and I'm sure it took a lot of your time.

16th-Aug-2010 05:13 am (UTC)
Oh you are my new hero - thank you for all of this.
I'm in the same boat as redgreendress - each book or teacher presents kanji slightly differently and it has not always come together in my brain. In college, our teacher told us how to use a kanji dictionary but I never learned the background of why/what these radicals are. Heisig has been the most useful over the years, but he does not present the on/kum yomi early on and as many people have noted, the code words can get rather misleading.

Thanks for presenting it so clearly like this.
17th-Aug-2010 03:03 am (UTC)
Omg that was awesome, you should do posts like this all the time if possible. Such a great explanation! Thanks!

p.s. ありがとう for including the hiragana ^^
14th-Aug-2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
Gah, I needed to have found a list like that years ago. English dictionaries love to give you meanings of radicals, but not what they're actually called in Japanese to be able to look them up in an elecrtronic dictionary. Trying to find 頁 as あたま really doesn't work.
14th-Aug-2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
Can I hit a "like" button on akibare's explanation, please? In 5 years of studying the language I've never heard any term besides that of "radical."

This "element/compound/phonetic/primitive" business all sounds rather specialist. By learning the radicals, you will also end up studying a good portion of their so-called "primitives," it seems. I don't get the necessity of all this fancy wording trying to obfuscate the point. XD

Knowing the sound usually associated with a main radical is sometimes helpful for the sake of on'yomi readings, but like you suspect--it's probably not gonna help with your kun'yomi.

With a lot of more difficult kanji, knowing the on'yomi is most of the battle, because the more complex stuff will be more frequent in two-character compounds and the like. So learn the radicals if you have time, otherwise just concentrate on individual kanji themselves.
14th-Aug-2010 05:33 pm (UTC)
**tl;dr Just stick to studying the kanji if you have no background in Mandarin. Learning the pronunciation of Mandarin characters is probably more useful than learning radicals, and even so this only applies to guessing the on-yomi or the meaning of an unknown kanji.

Well I suppose this radicals business is basically some extra knowledge about the system of Mandarin word formations. The Japanese borrowed Mandarin characters and adapted them as Kanji so, as you may expect, they use a similar system. I wouldn't say it's completely necessary for learning Japanese, but as you have pointed out it does affect the on-yomi so it might help with the memory work.

I have formally studied Mandarin as my second language since I was a child (although I was always terrible at it compared to my classmates), so I can tell you honestly from my experience that knowing radicals may help you remember the on-yomi and meaning of a certain kanji, but it won't help much at all for the kun-yomi as that's purely Japanese.

But just to attempt to clarify things a bit, let me try and explain Mandarin word formation rules. I had to do up a short project on Mandarin linguistics before, and our finding was that the basic rules of the system are as shown below. Of course, it was a very very brief and somewhat informal project so please don't take it as the sacred truth; I don't have any formal background in Mandarin (or Japanese) linguistics and etymology.

Some Definitions:
Free radical = standalone units = can exist as a word alone
Examples: 日目月木手金石人比

Bound radical = non-standalone units = cannot exist as a word alone. They
extend over the entire length of the side(s) of the word to which they are
Examples: 广凵亻彳扌灬冖宀艹廴辶冂卩

Radicals can be further broken down into top, bottom, left, right, left-top, left-bottom, top-left-bottom, left-top-right, left-top-right-bottom radicals etc. although only the Japanese seem to have some concise name for all these categories (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_(Chinese_character)#Type_of_radical_and_position).

Basic Rules for Mandarin Word Formation:
X = {Y, Z} means X can consist of Y and Z in any order.
Let F and B be a free and bound radical respectively, and WORD here refers to a 'possible' but not necessarily 'standard' Mandarin character. Provided that B does not repeat in a word,
1. WORD-x = {F}
2. WORD-y = {WORD-x, B or F} OR {WORD-y, B or F}
i.e. A word resulting from (1) or resulting from (2) may undergo (2) again, resulting in a new word {F, F} or {F, B}

As you may imagine, Mandarin is therefore a very productive language since you can theoretically add as many radicals to an already existing word, hence the apparent ambiguity in the definition between a kanji, radical and primitive element.

I suppose here you could also call the 'word' in (1) above a primitive element, since it is a free radical; a radical that can be used directly as a word and hence, has a meaning.

Since free radicals are standard words, it has a formally recognised phonetic sound, of course, and this is where Japanese kanji borrow the sounds of the Chinese characters and there you have it - a Mandarin-sounding on-yomi. Hence, for kanji with the same primitive elements/free radicals, the on-yomi will likely be the same or similar, e.g. 江(B+F) and 工 (F) both have the on-yomi コウ.

The two examples you gave, however, don't quite work the same way, since 鹿 is lù in Mandarin, its on-yomi is ロク, and since the primitive in 麗 is for some reason 丽 in Mandarin, it is pronounced lì and its on-yomi is レイ. This is another reason why just learning radicals will not be enough; Mandarin phonology can be quite a tough nut to crack sometimes.

**Then again as akibare has said, radicals are very important for using Japanese dictionaries effectively. +Like for clear explanation! Also very interesting since I only started learning Japanese as my third language 4 years ago and they never taught us radicals in Japanese (they probably assumed we all sort of knew it since most of us knew Mandarin) :/

>_> I'm sorry for the long post, and I hope I haven't added on to the confusion DDDD:
14th-Aug-2010 06:20 pm (UTC)
Oh yes I forgot to mention this, but those radicals, elements, compounds, primitive elements etc. are probably just some of the numerous linguistic terms/jargon used in order to be more specific when differentiating the smallest unit of a kanji or Mandarin character from a combination of them and also for differentiating which of these smallest units can stand alone or not.

In English linguistics, for example, we call them free and bound morphemes. Free morphemes e.g. happy, sad, ball, cloud, and bound morphemes e.g. -ly in 'sadly', pre- in 'preschool' etc.

Ultimately the use of these terms is rather subjective (some are probably interchangeably used etc.), but I presume they seek to differentiate between the same type of units of words.
15th-Aug-2010 05:12 am (UTC)
This is *exactly* what I wanted to know - the difference between free radical and bound radical and how they vary in position within the character and how they might influence the readings. Thank you, this didn't add to my confusion at all! It was very helpful, I feel I see things more clearly now ;)

Mandarin is, by the way, next on my list of languages I want to learn. I'm planning to go into East-Asian linguistics when I'm done with school, so this was an interesting read for me! Thanks again.

15th-Aug-2010 03:06 am (UTC) - Great Explanation! + Note on Pronunciation
I'm a native Mandarin speaker and Japanese is my third language (English being the obvious second xD) and what you've just explained is pretty much how I learned Chinese then applied it to Japanese kanji~~ Kudos!

Just a quick explanation for why the Mandarin and Japanese pronunciation don't always match up: Japanese appropriated the characters around the Tang dynasty, when the pronunciation of words was quite different than it was today (think Old English v.s. Modern English). The pronunciations they attributed to the characters were a Japanese version of Tang Dynasty Chinese pronunciations, hence, why there are those perplexing kanji that don't seem to make any sense. :)
15th-Aug-2010 05:40 am (UTC)
Actually they adopted them in a bunch of waves (which is partly why some characters in Japanese have so many different "onyomi", which are which are marked in a regular 漢和辞典, they got one new reading each time, kinda, and it's marked out 呉読み・唐読み like that) - but yeah, definitely a lot of the readings sure don't sound like Mandarin! The Tang readings were a huge wave.

Thing is, if you know why some of the waves happen sometimes you can guess which reading a word will have, like, oh, it's a Buddhist jargon? Then probably it's the crazy rare reading [whatever] which happened at the time Buddhism came over...

I only know a tiny bit of Mandarin that I learned in college, and even far less bits of Cantonese that I know from pop song lyrics, it's interesting some readings sound more like (again, not too much like but SORTA!?) Cantonese than Mandarin. But it was definitely a "okay, this isn't like modern Mandarin" moment. Bummer for my lazy self! But all the tone information got flattened too.

Of course in school you have to learn how to read old Chinese poetry (by translating it into old Japanese with little "reading order rearrangement marks" (返り点, I have no idea what the proper word in English is) and then from there into modern Japanese), so I knew how to do that but then yeah modern Chinese is entirely something else (which makes more sense!)

Also pure trivia but there are some characters that were invented in Japan, they are called (in Japanese) 国字(こくじ), among them are 辻・込・働・峠 but you can see still it's using normal "bits," I suppose following the basic rules demiotaku talks about too.

The dictionary 漢語林 and also the big 漢字源 that's on the iPhone and what, give modern Mandarin pinyin pronunciations as one reading of the character, which is convenient.
18th-Aug-2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
Oh that makes a lot of sense! I didn't know there were so many different episodes of character adopting.

And the translating from old Japanese to Chinese modern Japanese sounds harrowing!!! Where were you expected to do that (high school/College?) I know translating old Chinese poetry and such is a real pain cause meanings change and there's no punctuation @-@

26th-Aug-2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
I think some of the readings probably came from the local languages of parts of coastal China rather than Mandarin.
I found it interesting that 世界 is read as sekai in both Hokkien and Japanese.
15th-Aug-2010 02:31 am (UTC)
"Would you say it is necessary to study all the primitive elements and radicals and only then go on to study the actual kanji?"

Nope. For N2, my advice would be to learn words more so than kanji in isolation and you can do that quite comfortably with any of the vocab. books for the N2.

To put it in an English perspective, there are lots of latin prefixes and suffixes and things, like we know 'ped' is related to foot and so on, but you don't need to know that to understand English. Ultimately it's about memorizing words and their meanings. If you have an interest in kanji from a linguistic perspective, go and have a look at all that "radical" stuff by all means - after you've taken the test :)

I've quite happily studied Japanese for nearly 20 years and done 1-kyuu several times and worked as a translator without really knowing too much about it. I can tell you some of the simple radicals like sanzui and kusakanmuri and know they relate to water and plants respectively, and stuff like that, but reading akibare's very knowledgeable post (and kudos to akibare for explaining it so well) made my eyes glaze over :)
15th-Aug-2010 05:02 am (UTC)
I do have an interest in kanji beyond getting my hands on an 1kyuu certificate, but I suppose I really should take it one step at a time.

I so admire you for having worked with Japanese translation, by the way. I've read a lot about how unbelievably hard it is, especially when it comes to literature and poetry. I hope to have a go at it when I have enough experience.

Thanks for taking the time to reply!

17th-Aug-2010 09:07 pm (UTC)
Basically, there's a traditional set of "radicals" that you'd use to look up characters in a traditional dictionary (where they're listed by only one radical, not every common element they contain). This set includes most--but not all--of the common elements that you see in lots of kanji.

Various modern books and methods, especially ones for foreigners, make up slightly different sets of radicals. Sometimes they call them other things like "primitives" or "elements". Also, lots of people call every component part of every kanji a "radical" (instead of saying that each kanji has 1 radical: the one it's listed under in the dictionary).

I do recommend that you study radicals a little bit, but I wouldn't waste huge amounts of time on it. You probably already know a lot of the common ones since lots of radicals are also separate characters (日, 月, 口, 水, etc.).
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