kanjisense

Kanji and their sound components

While the kanji constitute a logographic script, they're not just little pictures of the things they represent. In fact, the vast majority of kanji were created on the basis of sound. Out of the 3,500 most important kanji, 74% either include or serve as a sound component.

What is a sound component?

To understand the role of sound in the formation of the kanji, we have to look back to ancient China, where the script originated.

When the speakers of Old Chinese had to write down a word for which no character had been invented yet, they turned to one strategy time and time again:

  1. Find a character that has a vaguely related meaning.
  2. Find a character for a word that sounds alike.
  3. Squish the two characters together!

Case study: the character 星 star

For instance, take the Old Chinese word for "star", which sounded something like sleng. Following that process, some ancient Chinese folks created the character for star more or less like so:

  1. Find a character that has a vaguely related meaning.
    Stars appear in the sky, like the sun. So we'll take the character sun.
  2. Find a character for a word that sounds alike.
    Sleng sounds just like the Old Chinese word for live, so we'll take the character live.
  3. Squish the two characters together!
    sun + 生 sleng = 星 star!

When a kanji component has been used for its sound value, like 生 here, it's known as an 音符 onpu in Japanese, meaning something like "sound indicator". Since they are a subset of the kanji components, I refer to them here as sound components.

What does this have to do with modern Japanese?

Something like half of all Japanese words have Chinese roots. In addition to being written in kanji, these words are pronounced using Japanese approximations of ancient Chinese sounds. These Sino-Japanese pronunciations of the kanji are called 音読み on'yomi, meaning sound readings.

An awareness of the kanji's sound components will go a long way towards helping you pronounce words read using on'yomi. Once in a while, you might even be able to guess the pronunciation of words containg kanji or readings that you've never encountered before.

An example: the sound component 生

For example, if you know any of the following words:

  • 先生 sensei (teacher)
  • 学生 gakusei (student)
  • 生活 seikatsu (life)

...then you know that the kanji 生 live has the on'yomi セイ sei.

With the knowledge that 生 can serve as a sound component, you have an immediate advantage when learning words like the following:

  • 火星 kasei (Mars)
  • 姓名 seimei (first and last name)
  • 性格 seikaku (personality)

As you can see, even though the characters' readings don't have much to do with the original Chinese pronunciations anymore, the sound components still provide us with some useful information as students of Japanese. Kanji that sounded similar in premodern China still tend sound similar in modern Sino-Japanese words.

Sound components and meaning components

To be clear, it's not always as easy as in the examples above! Some sound components only vaguely hint at a character's sound, via rhyme or looser connections, obscured by the passage of time. Moreover, the fact that a component can serve as a sound mark doesn't mean that it always does. For example, 産 give birth is pronounced not as セイ sei, but サン san.

But even the absence of a sound component can tell you something about a kanji. To illustrate, let's take that same example 産, where the component 生 fails us as a sound indicator.

When we learn that 産 give birth is read as サン san, we know right away that 生 live is not a sound component. And since it's not being used for its sound, we can deduce that it's most likely being used for its meaning instead. Indeed, the meanings of 生 live and 産 give birth are closely related: birth is the start of life. Components used in this way are called meaning components (in Japanese 意符 ifu). They provide you with a focal point for remembering the meaning of the character.

Sound components and meaning components go hand in hand; awareness of one enhances your awareness of the other. Together, they reveal the logic behind the structure of the kanji. Kanjisense helps you stay attuned to the presence of sound components by clearly indicating them prominently in multiple places. In this way, you can not only remember the kanji's pronunciation better, but you can also gain insight into its structure and meaning.

What about the kun'yomi?

There are also native Japanese readings, the 訓読み kun'yomi, meaning expository readings, and these are just as important as on'yomi. Some kanji are used primarily for their kun'yomi, with their on'yomi seldom appearing in modern Japanese. A few kanji, being native Japanese inventions (国字 kokuji), don't even have an on'yomi.

But the name 読み on'yomi (sound reading) hints that the Chinese-derived pronunciations somehow embody the kanji's essential sound. Accordingly, in Kanjisense, the kun'yomi take a backseat to the on'yomi and English keywords. The kun'yomi are treated in character entries, but the Kanjisense UI prioritizes the on'yomi throughout.

Now, a kanji doesn't really have one essential sound. But learners will benefit from treating the on'yomi this way during kanji study. Paying special attention to the on'yomi has some practical advantages. The first has already been mentioned above: an understanding of on'yomi and sound indicators helps you identify meaning indicators. This is key to understanding the logic behind a character's structure. Another benefit applies when you're quizzing yourself on a kanji's meaning.

Using sound components to differentiate kanji with similar meanings

If you've gotten beyond the very beginning stages of your studies, you've likely come across the problem of kanji with similar meanings. Say you're studying with flashcards, and you come to a flashcard with the English keyword use on the front. You definitely know the kanji 使 use, but you slip up and give the answer 用 utilize instead--now what? If you're using paper flashcards, do you put the card back in the pile? If you're using something like Anki, do you mark this card as a failure, and lose your progress, even if you're sure you know that kanji?

This is a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, and if it hasn't bothered you in your studies, you don't have to worry about it, at least for now. But in case this is something that has bothered you in the past, you can remedy the situation by including the on'yomi when you're testing your recall of kanji meanings.

The chance for confusion is much smaller when you quiz yourself with cards looking like:


  • utilize
  • ヨウ
    use

Just for the sake of thoroughness, here's another example of two kanji with similar meanings, who also share a component: 欄 and 柱. Normally, the similarity in shape and meaning could easily throw you off.

  • チュウ
    pillar
  • ラン
    column

If you know your sound components and , it's nearly impossible to mix up the two.

If you're worried that this makes things too easy, remember that when you get to the point where you're actually writing out or typing a Japanese word in real life, you will likely have both the pronunciation and meaning in your mind before you think of the kanji. In this way, a kanji-recall quiz starting from the kanji's meaning and reading might actually be a better test of your skills than a kanji-recall quiz from meaning alone.

Now, Kanjisense is still in its early stages, so many of the on'yomi prominently displayed throughout may be rare or even obsolete in modern Japanese. However, even nonsense syllables have their place in education--ask any musician who has studied solfege. You could do worse than to keep a few extra on'yomi in your head.

All 935 sound components in Kanjisense

The sound marks for the 3,530 most important kanji are given below with their on'yomi and Middle Chinese pronunciations. Kanji in a sound mark group will have the same on'yomi or a similar on'yomi with respect to the sound mark or, at times, with respect to each other.

Seen in 10 or more places

シャ tśyạˬ
ホウ bâng pâng
ハク bạk
スイ tśuī
ユウ yiū
ショ tsyo
ケイ kwei
レイ lėng₍ˎ₎ leng₍ˎ₎
コウ kōng
カク kak
セン tśėm₍ˎ₎
ショウ sėuˎ

Seen in 8 or more places

テイ theng
pyīˬ
ヨウ yang
ショウ dźyang₍ˎ₎
バク mak
ホウ pạu
liˬ
kʻaˬ
ハン pʻân pânˬ
gi ki
タイ dai
コウ kạu
シン dźīn
ケイ keng
オウ ʾou
シャ tśyạˬ

Seen in 7 or more places

コン konˎ
フン pun bunˎ
セイ tsʻeng
チョウ dŷong₍ˬˎ₎
ゴウ
カン kan
ヘイ
byī₍ˎ₎ pyīˬˎ
ケイ kẹng
ボウ mâng
トウ tʻouˎ
kho
グン
tsʻïˬ
ソク śŷok
tśï
カイ kʻwạ̈
ソウ dzŏng tsŏng
フク būk
puˬ
ヘキ byek pyek pʻyek
タン tan
サン dzan
セン tsʻėm
カツ ghat
コウ kạ̈p

Seen in 5 or more places

tʻoˬ doˬ
リュウ lip
tśiˬ
キン kin₍ˎ₎
セイ sẹng₍ˎ₎
śīˬ
koˬ
タン tanˎ
kiˬ
ショウ śėuˬˎ
キュウ kiūˬ
トウ douˎ
dzạˎ
エキ yek
ヨウ ŷongˬ
pạ
マイ mwaiˬˎ
コウ kau
タイ twaiˎ dwāiˎ
コツ kʻwot
タン tan
ショウ dźėuˎ
カイ kwạiˎ
サン dzan
ジン nźim
バン
チョウ dėuˬ
セン tsʻėm
セキ tsạ̈k
カイ ghaiˬ
オウ ʾou
バン man mânˎ
シュン tsʻyūn
エキ yek
リョウ lyŏng
カン kwanˎ
セイ tsʻeng
カン kạ̈nˬ
ショウ syang
ghoˬ
キン kim
tśīˎ
yạˬ
キョウ kŷong gŷongˎ
リョウ lyang
セイ tśėng₍ˎ₎
ドウ
ショウ syang₍ˎ₎
ヨウ yang
チョク dyŏk
yo₍ˎˬ₎
キョ gyoˬ
キツ kyīt
コク kōk
ハン panˎ
シャク
ngo
ヨウ yep
テイ thei
ユウ iūˬ
ゲン ngwên
シン tśīn
トウ tōng
カン kwanˎ
コク kok
キュウ gip
セキ sėk
tśīˬ
ngu₍ˎ₎
ゲン
トウ tŏng
リョウ lŷong
エン ėm
テキ thek
コウ kou₍ˎ₎
ホウ bông
キョウ kėu gėu
シュ tśyu
ヘイ pyeng
ヘン pʻyen penˬ benˬ byenˬ
ソウ sauˎ
カン kạm₍ˎ₎
コウ kạ̈p
リン līnˎ
キョウ khyangˬ khạng
タク dạk
ショク dźŷok
ショウ syang
kạˬ
yu
キク kwīk
シン tśīn
カツ ghat
シュウ dźiūˬˎ
ガク ngak
ソウ dzŏng
リュウ liūˎ
pyï
バイ mwaiˬˎ

Seen in 4 or more places

スン
ジョ nyoˬˎ
tsiˬ
カン khanˬˎ
kīˬ
シュツ tśʻyūt
バイ
ウン un
nźiˬ
チュウ diūng₍ˎ₎
śïˬ
ゼツ
シャク tśyak dźyak
セキ dźėk
シュ tśyuˬ
シュ tsʻyuˬ
ngaˬ
mîˎ
セイ dźėng
tsʻīˎ
khwạˎ
セン tśʻwėn
ヨウ ʾėu₍ˬ₎
ngïˎ
puˎ
コウ kōng
gu kuˎ kou₍ˎ₎
リン lwīn
dźïˬ
ヒツ pyīt
アン ʾan
コウ kwang₍ˎ₎
シュウ tśiū
ショク tśyŏk
コク ghwŏk
エン wên
カン kwan
kwaˬ
テイ dhengˎ thengˎ
pʻu
メン mėnˬ
ソウ tsʻang
ケン kem₍ˎ₎
koˎ
シュク śyūk
テイ dheiˬˎ
コウ kang
リュウ liū₍ˎ₎
エン ʾwên₍ˬ₎
ソン tswon
テイ theiˎ
トン dwon
ユウ yiū
ロク lōk
ハン ban pan pạn
カン kʻan kʻạ̈n
ドウ
フツ put
コウ kang kʻangˎ
gho
u
エン wên
ソツ tsʻwot tswot
リョウ lėu₍ˬˎ₎
yu
シュウ dźiūˬˎ
nźïˬ
ゴウ ngạuˎ
ギョウ ngeu
ロウ lou₍ˎ₎
ハツ bat
コウ kwangˬ
シュン zyūn
ショウ tsyang₍ˎ₎
ロク lōk
ケイ ghei
ヘイ pyengˎ

Seen in 3 or more places

デン
ゲン ngên
ヨク yŏk
ホウ pạu
ghwa
モン mwon
リョク lyŏk
チュウ tiūng₍ˎ₎
ブツ mut
イン ʾim
ボク
ブン mun
コウ kạp
kʻîˎ
イツ ẁīt
tśï dźïˬ
ziˬ
ngoˬ
シン śīn
チョウ dyang₍ˎ₎ tyangˬ
pū₍ˬ₎
キョ kyo
ʾiˎ
リン lim
タイ daiˎ
クン kun
カン ghạ̈m
ヘイ bẹng
ユウ iūˬˎ
バイ mạ̈ˎ
コウ kʻauˬ
ハツ pât
ハン bạ̈nˎ
カイ kạ̈i
タイ twai
ハン bâm
ジャク nźyak
レツ lėt
チン dimˬ
loˎ
セツ tśėt dźėt
トウ tong
ネン nhemˎ
テイ dėng₍ˎ₎
キュウ giū
ゴウ ngang ngyangˬ
ボウ
mạ
テイ dheng₍ˎ₎
ジン
ケン kênˎ
ボウ mạuˬ
シュウ dziū
ヨウ ŷong
イン
エン ʾwênˬ
ngi
クツ kut kʻut
キツ kʻit
ショウ tsyang₍ˎ₎
カン kām
イン ʾyīn
ホウ pʻūng
kîˎ
ホウ bôngˬ
ngo
タン twan
キョ gyo kyoˎ
ソウ tsong
puˬ
バツ mat
イン yim
ショウ tśyang
ソツ tsʻwot tswot
ボウ mạuˬ
コウ kwŏng ghwạ̈ng
ngạ
カン kāmˬ
nźïˬ
キュウ kiū
カク ghwạ̈k
ショウ
タク tʻak
サイ tsʻaiˬ
ボウ
スイ dźuï
ホウ bŏng
タク dạk
ヒョウ
yạ
テイ tėng
ボウ mouˬ
tʻa
タク tạ̊k
キョウ ghep
ソウ dzau
ショウ tśʻyang
ジュ
kʻwạ
ʾwï₍ˬ₎
セン tśwėn
フン bun
ジュン
ケン gwėn gwênˬ kwėnˬˎ
ゼン
キン gīn kinˬ
トウ dau
ケイ kʻeiˎ
スウ tṣʻyu
ヘイ byeiˎ
lo
バイ mạ̈ˎ
シャク tśyak dźyak
ラン lan
サン tsʻam₍ˎ₎ sām
カン kʻamˬ ghạ̈mˎ
リョウ lėp
ヘイ
kîˎ

Seen in 2 or more places

コウ kʻouˬ
nźīˎ
ジュウ
ベキ
ユウ iūˎ
シン sim
タイ dāiˎ
ショウ sėuˬ
ベイ meiˬ
ケン kenˎ ghenˎ
dẓiˬ
ホク pʻōk
サン sạ̈n
チク twīk
セイ sẹng₍ˎ₎
キュウ kiūng
bu pu
si₍ˎ₎
キン kim
źīˎ
ヨウ ŷongˎ
ユウ iūˎ
kạ
セイ śėiˎ
シュ dźyu
ngoˬ
リョウ lyang
puˬ buˬ
イン ʾinˬˎ
źīˎ
テン tʻhen
ジュツ
ユウ yiūˬ
イン ẁīnˬ
mu
オク ʾwōk
セン sen₍ˎ₎
シン sīn
キョ kʻyoˬˎ
ʾî₍ˎ₎
ゼン nźėn
カイ ghwāiˎ kwāiˎ
シュウ tśiūˬ
クウ
ロウ lang
ショウ
フウ pūng₍ˎ₎
ゲン ngwên
yạˎ
チョウ theuˬ
ソク
ホク bōk
ユウ iūˬ
mouˬ
ショ tśʻyoˬˎ
puˬ
イツ ẁīt
キュウ kʻiū
gî₍ˎ₎ kî₍ˬ₎
リク lwīk
ミン myīn
コウ ghạ̈ngˬ
サイ tsạ̈iˎ tsėiˎ
ʾạˎ
チョウ tėu dėu
カイ kạ̈iˎ
シキ
ヘイ pẹngˬ
ケイ kẹngˎ
kwîˬ
ホウ pʻông
シツ śīt
ケイ kẹngˬ
no
kwîˎ
dźiˬ
レン lėn
līˎ
ジュ
カク kʻạk
ライ lai
ソク tsŏk
セン dzwėn
エイ wẹngˬ
ヘイ bengˬ
サイ dzai
サイ
オウ
ロク lōk
muˬ
キュウ giūˬ
ジン nźīnˎ
tʻï
pʻu
コウ kwangˬ
キョウ khyang
カン ghwan
ツイ tuī
コク ghok
シュク śyūk
サン tsʻam₍ˎ₎ sām
ケイ kẹngˎ
キュウ kiūˬ
ジュウ
ビョウ mėu
ショ tśyo
ハイ pʻạ̈ˎ
シュウ siūˎ
ガイ
ゼン
サン tsạ̈mˬ
kîˎ
シュウ tśiū
キュウ giūˬ
ホウ bang
ソウ tṣângˎ
サン sanˬˎ
tsʻạ
コウ kŏngˎ
レキ lek
ノウ nong
セイ seng
tsʻïˎ
ギョウ ngeu
ソウ tsauˬ
ホウ bông
ミチ
ケイ gheng
シュウ dziūˎ
エキ yek
カイ ghwạ̈i
ソン swonˎ