Amazing versatility shows the depth and difficulty of the Japanese writing system.
Most people will tell you that the most difficult thing about learning Japanese is dealing with kanji, the written characters originally imported from China. Not only are there more than 2,100 general-use kanji, some of them are incredibly complex, even the ones with rather mundane meanings.
For example, this 27-stroke monster…
…is what you have to write out if you want to use the kanji for suzuki, or “sea bass.”
Thankfully, sometimes the Japanese language throws you a bone, with kanji that show up incredibly frequently also being a snap to write. For example, the kanji meaning “sun” or “day” only has four strokes, and isn’t much more difficult to write than the numeral 8.
But just because a kanji is easy to write doesn’t mean it’s simple to read. Kanji represent concepts, not sounds, and since they were originally brought over from a different language, they can be read with a corrupted version of their original Chinese pronunciation, an indigenous Japanese pronunciation, or an irregular pronunciation that came about as a force-fit of assigning kanji with an appropriate meaning to preexisting Japanese vocabulary. Driving home that point is this tweet from Japanese Twitter user @DNApro_mikokoro, which contains a sentence in which the 日 kanji shows up five times…
この文章、読めますか？ 「3月1日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした」 おそらく皆さんほとんど読めたと思いますが 実はこの文、海外の日本語学校では超難問です 気づかれましたか？「日」の字の読み方全部違うのです—
佐野美心 (@DNApro_mikokoro) March 16, 2017
…and is pronounced five different ways!
Let’s break them all down.
● In 1日/tsuitachi, meaning “the first of the month,” the pronunciation of 日 is part of an unbreakable set with the numeral one
● In 日曜日/nichiyoubi, meaning “Sunday,” the first instance of 日 is pronounced nichi and the second bi
● In 祝日/shukujitsu, meaning “holiday,” 日 is pronounced jitsu
● And finally, all by itself, the fifth time 日 shows up it’s pronounced hi, meaning “day”
Put it all together, and “3月1日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした” is read “Sangatsu tsuitachi ha nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”
By the way, look close enough and you’ll notice that two more of the kanji in the sentence, the yo part of nichiyoubi (曜) and the ha portion of hare (晴), both have miniature versions of the 日 kanji as part of their components, in keeping with their respective meanings of “day of the week” and “sunny.”
“I think everyone [who’s Japanese] could read the sentence,” tweeted @DNApro_mikokoro, which is a totally reasonable assumption, as all of the vocabulary and kanji are pretty rudimentary by native-Japanese standards, who are used to their language’s heavy reliance on context for meaning. “But this is a really tough task for students studying Japanese overseas,” @DNApro_mikokoro continued.
Still, if you want to learn the language, it’s one of the hurdles you’ll have to get over. Keep at it, and remember that while some parts of Japanese can be hair-pullingly aggravating at first glance, it’s not all bad news.
Source: Hachima Kiko
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’d be happy to talk about Japanese linguistics all day.