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Replacing kanji in Japanese

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Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby quendidil » Fri May 21, 2010 11:17 am

I thought this topic, brought up over here deserves its own thread for discussion.

Personally, the only people I know who would eliminate kanji from Japanese orthography are either foreigners who can't get them down and a minority of politically extreme (both "left" and "right") Japanese. The use of kanji in literature often exploits not only the homophones but the range of kanji with similar but slightly different meanings to emphasize different nuances in the phrase; another practice is to give kanji the readings for words with readings entirely different from the original ones for puns or again to emphasize certain points. The first pages of the Death Note manga have three examples of these: 人間界 (usually にんげんかい but here given the reading げかい which is usually written 下界), 死神大王 (しにがみだいおう but given the reading ジジイ) and 死神界 (しにがみかい given the reading ここ). All of this can't be duplicated with a kana only orthography or through Romanization.

It's also worth noting that the homophone problem exists because of kanji, not the other way around. If people didn't haphazardly mash characters together, they wouldn't get so many homophones.


There are two fundamental errors here IMHO.

1. The use of Sino-Japanese compounds had been inextricably linked with the language since the dawn of literacy in Japan. You can't eliminate homophones just by getting rid of kanji, the words themselves are already an inherent part of the Japanese lexicon.

2. If people didn't haphazardly mash characters together. I personally find this statement rather offensive and ignorant as someone who knows Chinese and Japanese. How can you even say this with a sound knowledge of Chinese characters? Yes, kanji-compounds may seem complex at first glance but they are hardly "haphazardly mashed together", I would say they have more semantic content for the average Japanese (even if he didn't take 漢文 in high school) than Graeco-Latin compounds do for the average Anglophone.

If Sino-Japanese compounds were to be replaced, what would you replace them with? I hope you don't say Graeco-Latin compounds from Western languages; they are seldom intuitive to most westerners and would mean even less to Japanese, it would be like replacing the Graeco-Latin compounds in English with alternatives from Hebrew. Native Japanese compounds could be an option but the same problem exists with replacing Graeco-Latin (including Romance) loanwords in English with Germanic equivalents.

Having said that, I do believe that the problem of homophones has been overstated. Most of the phonetically productive readings have around 1-3 kanji compound variations of which only 1 will be common. The ones with many possible compounds like かんじょう, こうどう also only have a few commonly used compounds. If you mention homophones having a variety of single kanji to represent them, they are hardly used that way, except sometimes to specify what kanji to write.

As for the case of Korean largely eliminating hanja in the mass media, I can't say much, not knowing much Korean but Korean preserves more of the phonetic contrasts from Middle Chinese and early Modern Chinese than Japanese for one, particularly with the final stops and even now, hanja are used to clarify the meanings in case of homophones and are still used in serious academic literature.

An argument made on the basis of literacy is also without basis - Taiwan, Japan and even the PRC have high rates of literacy in spite of the use of the "oh-so-complex" writing system, with it being particularly remarkable in China with the many rural areas.
Last edited by quendidil on Fri May 21, 2010 2:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby Lex » Fri May 21, 2010 11:44 am

quendidil wrote:Personally, the only people I know who would eliminate kanji from Japanese orthography are either foreigners who can't get them down and a minority of politically extreme (both "left" and "right") Japanese.


Why would the poltical right want to get rid of them? I thought the right would want to keep them because they are traditional. Or is this an ultra-nationalist thing, where some would reject kanji and the on readings because they aren't native Japanese?

quendidil wrote:An argument made on the basis of literacy is also without basis - Taiwan, Japan and even the PRC have high rates of literacy in spite of the use of the "oh-so-complex" writing system, with it being particularly remarkable in China with the many rural areas.


In addition to being very literate in Japanese, the Japanese people, at least in the Greater Tokyo area (Tokyo and Saitama prefecture, in my case), also managed to be capable enough in English for it to impress me.

I have never heard of an argument being made on the basis of literacy of the Japanese (their literacy rate is 99%). I have heard arguments made for easing literacy for foreigners, and this is sometimes argued to be necessary to get the foreign workers that Japan supposedly needs to prop up their social programs, because of their low rate of reproduction (1.21 according to the CIA World Factbook).
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby furrykef » Fri May 21, 2010 12:16 pm

It's a good thing you split this discussion from the other thread :lol:

Personally, the only people I know who would eliminate kanji from Japanese orthography are either foreigners who can't get them down and a minority of politically extreme (both "left" and "right") Japanese.


That's probably because most Japanese don't care. After all, English spelling is pretty messed up, but we native English speakers don't care about it. That doesn't mean regularized English spelling wouldn't be an improvement! So I think eliminating kanji would be a good idea in the same sense that reforming English spelling would be a good idea: it would be an improvement, yes, but it's impractical. Not only is it difficult to change something you've done all your life, people would also be unable to read things spelled with the old orthography.

By the way, just to clear this up, I don't find kanji to be as big an obstacle for me as learning vocabulary in general, so I'm actually not a stereotypical kanji-hating foreigner. :) Not to mention that, even if Japan decided to switch away from kanji right now, I'd still need to learn kanji. Why? Because much of the media I'm interested in already uses kanji.

If people didn't haphazardly mash characters together. I personally find this statement rather offensive and ignorant as someone who knows Chinese and Japanese.


Then, with all due respect, I think you're offended too easily. :) I'm a student of Japanese myself, of course, and I'm not learning it just to fling insults at it. It's just that I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

'Cause that really is what it boils down to. If somebody needs a new word, they just coin one by putting two kanji together. If they were doing this with an alphabetic or syllabic writing system, I suspect they would more readily notice that the result matches an existing word (or, worse, several) and think twice about the word's formation.

By the way, "mashing [morphemes] together" isn't a behavior specific to Chinese and Japanese. We don't do it so much now, but we used to do it in English too... some people got fed up with it and derisively called them inkhorn terms because the resulting words looked like they'd spilled out of an ink bottle. So by no means am I singling out East Asian languages here... they just happen to be the languages that wind up with a lot of homophones as a result, and they still coin new words this way more readily than we do.

If Sino-Japanese compounds were to be replaced, what would you replace them with? I hope you don't say Graeco-Latin compounds from Western languages; they are seldom intuitive to most westerners and would mean even less to Japanese, it would be like replacing the Graeco-Latin compounds in English with alternatives from Hebrew. Native Japanese compounds could be an option but the same problem exists with replacing Graeco-Latin (including Romance) loanwords in English with Germanic equivalents.


I was thinking along the lines of native Japanese roots, yes. Or the words might be reformed from different Sino-Japanese roots that avoided the ambiguity. Moreover, I think you're taking my idea a bit out of context. I wasn't imagining any large-scale deliberate effort to replace Sino-Japanese roots. Rather, I was thinking the language would just evolve that way naturally over time. After all, words get replaced all the time in all languages; it just happens slowly enough that we don't really notice. If a language has a "problem", that problem will correct itself. It's evolution in action. :)

An argument made on the basis of literacy is also without basis - Taiwan, Japan and even the PRC have high rates of literacy in spite of the use of the "oh-so-complex" writing system, with it being particularly remarkable in China with the many rural areas.


There's no doubt that those nations, especially Japan, are highly literate. However, it takes students longer to reach literacy -- an American child will find it easier to read a newspaper than a Chinese of the same age -- and it requires more effort from them, effort that could be put into other fields of study.

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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby quendidil » Fri May 21, 2010 1:22 pm

furrykef wrote:
If people didn't haphazardly mash characters together. I personally find this statement rather offensive and ignorant as someone who knows Chinese and Japanese.


Then, with all due respect, I think you're offended too easily. :) I'm a student of Japanese myself, of course, and I'm not learning it just to fling insults at it. It's just that I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

'Cause that really is what it boils down to. If somebody needs a new word, they just coin one by putting two kanji together. If they were doing this with an alphabetic or syllabic writing system, I suspect they would more readily notice that the result matches an existing word (or, worse, several) and think twice about the word's formation.


Then the way you see it is fundamentally flawed - by word here I assume you mean the result matches a homophonous word rather than a word with the same semantic content, which would indeed be rather illogical. With the focus being on the homophony, again, a different set of issues come into play - I don't think it is a major issue.

furrykef wrote:By the way, "mashing [morphemes] together" isn't a behavior specific to Chinese and Japanese. We don't do it so much now, but we used to do it in English too... some people got fed up with it and derisively called them inkhorn terms because the resulting words looked like they'd spilled out of an ink bottle. So by no means am I singling out East Asian languages here... they just happen to be the languages that wind up with a lot of homophones as a result, and they still coin new words this way more readily than we do.


I am aware of the existence of "inkhorn terms" and I even mentioned that in my original post - though I used the term "Graeco-Latin loanwords" instead which IMO, doesn't have the same derogatory air to it and is more specific to English. To reiterate, while these words often don't mean much to the average English speaker, with kanji compounds, Japanese speakers are able to at least get the gist of Sino-Japanese compounds if not the specific meaning of the words. As for homophony, again, it's not an issue in written texts and I don't believe it is that much of an issue in speech either.

furrykef wrote:
If Sino-Japanese compounds were to be replaced, what would you replace them with? I hope you don't say Graeco-Latin compounds from Western languages; they are seldom intuitive to most westerners and would mean even less to Japanese, it would be like replacing the Graeco-Latin compounds in English with alternatives from Hebrew. Native Japanese compounds could be an option but the same problem exists with replacing Graeco-Latin (including Romance) loanwords in English with Germanic equivalents.


I was thinking along the lines of native Japanese roots, yes. Or the words might be reformed from different Sino-Japanese roots that avoided the ambiguity. Moreover, I think you're taking my idea a bit out of context. I wasn't imagining any large-scale deliberate effort to replace Sino-Japanese roots. Rather, I was thinking the language would just evolve that way naturally over time. After all, words get replaced all the time in all languages; it just happens slowly enough that we don't really notice. If a language has a "problem", that problem will correct itself. It's evolution in action. :)


One thing about evolution that often gets overlooked by laymen is that evolution doesn't indicate progress - evolution has no goal. Darwin himself didn't really like the term for this very reason, because it implies that there is in fact a design that "unfolds" out. The direction Japanese is going is having more and more 外来語 replacing Sino-Japanese compounds even in the sciences - something I personally find deplorable and rather a step in the same direction as the dodo.

furrykef wrote:
An argument made on the basis of literacy is also without basis - Taiwan, Japan and even the PRC have high rates of literacy in spite of the use of the "oh-so-complex" writing system, with it being particularly remarkable in China with the many rural areas.


There's no doubt that those nations, especially Japan, are highly literate. However, it takes students longer to reach literacy -- an American child will find it easier to read a newspaper than a Chinese of the same age -- and it requires more effort from them, effort that could be put into other fields of study.

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Based on the TIMSS scores for the last decade, countries using Chinese characters (including Japan) have always outperformed countries using alphabetic scripts in maths and science. Lest you mention Singapore as a possible counter-example, as a Singaporean I'll let you know first that the majority of Singaporeans are Chinese and learn Chinese at school - literacy in Chinese varies but is on average no worse than an average non-Beijing mainlander (or from the general area around Beijing).

As for children in countries using an alphabetic script (I don't really think the USA is a good example here) being able to read sooner than children in the Sinosphere - I highly doubt that. Manga and "light novels" in Japanese may be seen as being rather childish media by foreigners but the language used is often adult-level and the themes explored are usually deeper than Western media for the corresponding age range. As for the Chinese, in Taiwan and China they often read and understand some of the simpler Tang poems around the age of 12, can the average American child understand Shakespearean sonnets at that age?
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby furrykef » Fri May 21, 2010 3:43 pm

Forgive me if I don't respond to every point in this discussion. I have to admit that some of the points here are getting specific to the point that they go beyond the bounds of my knowledge... I do hope I haven't been shooting my mouth off too much. :)

quendidil wrote:One thing about evolution that often gets overlooked by laymen is that evolution doesn't indicate progress - evolution has no goal. Darwin himself didn't really like the term for this very reason, because it implies that there is in fact a design that "unfolds" out.


Well, yes and no. Evolution has no goal in the sense that it's not actively directed by the hand of God or any other force. This does not negate the principle of "survival of the fittest", that a species will either get what it needs to adapt to its environment or it will die out. There are many striking examples of convergent evolution, where unrelated creatures that are far apart in space (and possibly time!) that live in similar environments grew similar features to adapt to those environments. For example, both birds and bats have wings, even though their last common ancestor did not have wings. Likewise, there are many examples of species who have had organs shrink or disappear entirely -- or become adapted to other purposes -- because their original purpose was no longer needed. In this sense I think it could be said that an "invisible hand" does guide evolution, but only in a very broadly metaphorical sense. I think what Darwin was objecting to wasn't the idea of an invisible hand, but rather the idea of taking it too literally (i.e. the idea that there was more going on "under the hood" than merely random mutations of genes and the way genes combine with other genes).

I think another basis of Darwin's objection was that nature's idea of an improvement needn't match our own: if our species suddenly became considerably more likely to survive if we all dropped about 50 IQ points, and that situation persisted for long enough, then that's what eventually would happen, because it'd have to or we'd die. So in that sense it wouldn't be an improvement, but that doesn't change the fact that we would still be evolving towards a specific "purpose", insofar as a chaotic system with no underlying intelligence can have a purpose in mind. :)

Of course, let's not neglect the obvious fact that linguistic evolution is not the same as biological evolution, so they're not necessarily bound by precisely the same laws. In particular, language has no obvious mechanism that's an obvious analogue to reproduction, and "survival of the fittest" is rather difficult to apply to it in a literal manner. Nonetheless, I do believe there is a similar tendency for a language to evolve to fit its needs, though I don't really have much science to back up that claim.

The direction Japanese is going is having more and more 外来語 replacing Sino-Japanese compounds even in the sciences - something I personally find deplorable and rather a step in the same direction as the dodo.


I'm afraid I'm not clear on how a large influx of gairaigo is "deplorable" or a step towards extinction...
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby quendidil » Fri May 21, 2010 4:51 pm

Do you as an aspiring polyglot honestly not see the threat to a language in having its natural (and naturalized) lexicon being eroded by a flood of loanwords entirely unfitted to the language's phonology and which have little inherent meaning to its speakers usually resulting in local usage which bears little in common with how the words were originally used?

I don't care much for political labels, though I don't quite think the following is considered one, still I hesitate to ask: Are you a Chomskyist?
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby furrykef » Fri May 21, 2010 5:14 pm

quendidil wrote:Do you as an aspiring polyglot honestly not see the threat to a language in having its natural (and naturalized) lexicon being eroded by a flood of loanwords entirely unfitted to the language's phonology and which have little inherent meaning to its speakers usually resulting in local usage which bears little in common with how the words were originally used?


Isn't that not unlike the situation with Old English after the Norman invasion, or with Korea and Japan after contact with China? Sure, English has consonant clusters, but heck, Chinese has tones! Yet few lament the death of Old English, ancient Japanese, etc. -- they simply got used to the borrowings and now nobody thinks it's strange in the least. So too I think it will be with Japanese and English. Things are a bit awkward now, but within a few hundred years, things will probably be smoothed out: either the English loanwords will seem more natural, or they'll have been replaced by then, just as many "inkhorn" terms died out in English.

I don't think it's really possible for a language to be harmed in any objective sense other than if people stop speaking it.


I don't care much for political labels, though I don't quite think the following is considered one, still I hesitate to ask: Are you a Chomskyist?


A Chomskyist?! How dare you make such accusations! Why, I've never been so insulted in my entire life!

...What's a Chomskyist? :mrgreen:

Joking aside, I'm not familiar with Chomsky beyond the general idea of transformational grammar, which I don't think is relevant here (correct me if I'm wrong). So I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask which particular ideas you have in mind.
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby quendidil » Fri May 21, 2010 6:04 pm

Just because something is accepted as being "normal" doesn't mean it's correct or in this case a better (primarily, more efficient) means of expression, oftentimes, it's quite the opposite - Classical Chinese for instance was much more syllable-efficient than any of its daughters (or step-daughters) and it probably didn't have tones based on current research. Which is why I brought up the dodo - it was adapted to its circumstances until an exterior force came around and decided it was a rather easy-to-catch source of protein; the same here goes for the linguistic hegemony of English. It's impossible to predict accurately how events will play out over the next few decades, but if the trend of adopting gairaigo continues, in about a century people in Japan (and probably the rest of the world) will speak creoles of English. You probably won't see this as "bad" but IMHO it's a sad caricature of genuine linguistic diversity.

The point about Chomsky is from an extension of his "Universal Grammar" and thereby a rejection of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Sapir-Whorf is easily refutable in its strong form (at least for human languages) but the basic premise that language shapes thoughts and thoughts shape language and the conclusion that different languages have fundamentally different effects on the minds of their speakers is difficult to deny IMO and has been proven to a limited extent.
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby Smythe » Fri May 21, 2010 6:42 pm

quendidil wrote: It's impossible to predict accurately how events will play out over the next few decades, but if the trend of adopting gairaigo continues, in about a century people in Japan (and probably the rest of the world) will speak creoles of English. You probably won't see this as "bad" but IMHO it's a sad caricature of genuine linguistic diversity.


I would predict that in a century (maybe two), people who speak English as a native language will also be speaking a creole of the current language (of course, to them it will be proper English). That's the bitch about a global community - everything gets stirred together.

I agree - I don't think you can use the word 'evolution' when it comes to language - I mean, the Romans, Greeks, and Celts all were able to get their points across without a problem before those languages mutated to other thing. And, of course, before Greek, Etruscan, Indo-Aryan, ...etc., it is theorized that these working, creative languages 'evolved' from Indo-European (which itself was probably very good at creatively expressing ideas). Languages do change. I, too, find it sad, but inexorable (and better then trying to freeze the development of the language, as seems to be happening in France).
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby Lex » Sun May 23, 2010 12:08 am

quendidil wrote:It's impossible to predict accurately how events will play out over the next few decades, but if the trend of adopting gairaigo continues, in about a century people in Japan (and probably the rest of the world) will speak creoles of English. You probably won't see this as "bad" but IMHO it's a sad caricature of genuine linguistic diversity.


I don't think that it would be a creole. For one thing, a language with a bunch of loan words from another language does not a creole, or even a pidgin, make. You need an admixture of grammatical rules, as well, don't you? Whether or not it's sad is a matter of taste. At any rate, it's inevitable, as the Académie française has learned.

Also, as English continues to become the lingua franca (or lingua inglese?) of the world, I think that more cultures will have a conservative backlash, complete with linguistic revivals, America-bashing, and the works.
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Re: Replacing kanji in Japanese

Postby quendidil » Sun May 23, 2010 8:08 am

Lex wrote:
quendidil wrote:It's impossible to predict accurately how events will play out over the next few decades, but if the trend of adopting gairaigo continues, in about a century people in Japan (and probably the rest of the world) will speak creoles of English. You probably won't see this as "bad" but IMHO it's a sad caricature of genuine linguistic diversity.


I don't think that it would be a creole. For one thing, a language with a bunch of loan words from another language does not a creole, or even a pidgin, make. You need an admixture of grammatical rules, as well, don't you? Whether or not it's sad is a matter of taste. At any rate, it's inevitable, as the Académie française has learned.

Also, as English continues to become the lingua franca (or lingua inglese?) of the world, I think that more cultures will have a conservative backlash, complete with linguistic revivals, America-bashing, and the works.


I can't say this with absolute certainty, but I think much of the spread of English in traditionally non-Anglophone areas can be attributed to English speakers who learnt it as a second language or those not traditionally considered native speakers by most Britons or Americans - the former being comprised mainly of people involved in international business, research etc; the latter comprising of the Commonwealth countries. There is quite a bit of literature on this phenomenon under the labels "World Englishes", "Global English" &c.

Based on what I've read and anecdotal experience, there's been and there is likely to be little opposition to learning English based on political considerations (at least in Asia). China, for all its anti-Americanism (or rather, nominally anti-Western front) is experiencing a huge increase in those wishing to learn English (and other Western languages to a lesser extent). I don't think there'll be much of a conservative backlash, especially if (or as long as) the citizens of whatever country feel their language is still given priority. By the time there is a backlash, it'll probably be too late. This is already happening in Japanese to an extent, straight katakana-ized words from English are being adopted sometimes even if there is an existing Sino-Japanese word; some conservatives make a big deal out of it, but the public doesn't really care. (e.g. replacing some of the terms for "science fiction" with a straight katakana-ized サイエンス・フィクション) One thing about Chinese I like is the translation of foreign technical terms into compounds based on the characters on the same basis as the Graeco-Latin roots in English, this may be assisted by the fact that Chinese transcriptions of alphabetized words or names usually bear little similarity to the originals and are rather cumbersome to say.

Another example of the conservative backlash being largely impotent ties in with creolization in the Commonwealth countries. Here in Singapore, a creole of English with admixtures from various Chinese languages, Malay and a little bit of Tamil was created as a result of public schooling in English by teachers who might not have been exactly fluent themselves over the last 40 odd years. I'll admit, I usually speak in Singlish with friends and family but I can at least code-switch to a more standard form of English when the occasion calls for it or when I'm communicating with a non-Singaporean; many others, if they even code-switch at all, make cringe-inducing errors in basic grammar. That's the main thing about creolization I find sad - many people (I'd estimate about half the population) end up never speaking either English or their ethnic language fluently.
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