The Science of Kanji Part 7: Reading Compound Words

Most people who learn Japanese kanji, or Chinese characters, tend to learn them in isolation: one character at a time. But in reality. They are often used as compound words. So learning individual characters isn’t enough: you have to learn to read compound words effectively. Someday you might even see something like this:

京都大学野生動物研究センター

How are you expected to read so many kanji?

Thankfully it’s easier than it looks once you understand some basics:

  • Most compound words usually come in two, maybe three kanji at most. Even the famous 4-character phrases in Japanese (yojijukugo), are just 2 pairs of 2-kanji compound words.
  • Longer words can usually be broken down into pairs of kanji.

Let’s start with a simple example:

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The words in orange are 警告 keikoku, which means “warning” or “caution”. The kanji means to warn or admonish and means to inform or proclaim. One kanji might be enough, but it feels like something’s missing. It looks much better when you have two kanji together in a compound word. This allows for all kinds of nuances that are hard to do in English:

  • 社長 – shachō a CEO or head of a business.
  • 園長 – enchō head of a zoo or park.
  • 店長 – tenchō owner or head of a small business.
  • 婦長 – fuchō head nurse

You get the idea, right? By combining two kanji together, you can express a lot more ideas. So, it’s very common to see compound words using two kanji.

You calso see words with three kanji though:

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This a single word, 消火栓 shōkasen, which as you can see means ‘fire hydrant’. The word 消火 means to extinguish a fire, but 栓 means a plug, cork or stopper, so it modifies the word a little. It implies that material (water, fire-retardent, etc) is stored there (literally, “stopped up”) for extinguishing fires. Another example would be 消費税 shōhizei, where 消費 is consumption (i.e. shopping) and 税 means tax. So, this is a tax for sales and consumption: a sales tax.

This is about as complicated as words get.

Now, here is a four-character word:

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This is 非常電話, hijōdenwa, which just means emergency phone (or intercom). It is one word, but actually is made up of two smaller words: 非常 (emergency) and 電話 (phone). Pretty easy.

So what about this example?

京都大学野生動物研究センター

You can break it down into pairs:

  • 京都 – kyōto, the city of Kyoto
  • 大学 – daigaku, university
  • 野性 – yasei, wild
  • 動物 – dōbutsu, animal
  • 研究 – kenkyū, research
  • センター – sentā, center (this is katakana, not Chinese characters)

If you put it together, you get the Kyoto University Wild Animal Research Center.

If you’re new to Japanese language, it looks intimidating, but once you know how to break down longer words into smaller ones, it’s actually pretty easy to read.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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