Origin and Formation of Kanji

Every kanji, at first sight, at least for the person unfamiliar with them, may look like an amalgam of meaningless strokes, but nothing could be further from the truth. The origin of Chinese characters is clearly pictographic –that is, each character, in its original form, represented a given concept in a more or less faithfully graphical way, so that the strokes forming such a character could suggest, on their own, the concept intended to be represented.

The original corpus of the Chinese characters, from which the actual characters ultimately derive, is called oracle bone script and bronze-ware script, since the former can be seen in skeletal remains which the ancient oracles used to perform divinations, and the later come up as inscriptions on various bronze items dated to the first millennium BC.

Both in the oracle bone script and in the bronze-ware script, a vast number of characters visually representative of tangible concepts appear. Furthermore, there is a big set of characters that, although not completely pictographic, also depict ideas in a symbolic way with a representative approximation of tangible concepts, typically formed by association among other already existing characters. The first type of characters are called pictograms and the second ideograms.

In the sample of the bronze-ware script shown above you can see a combination of pictograms and ideograms. The six first characters are pictographic representations of the concepts of “person”, “child”, “eye”, “grasping hand”, “tree”; The last four characters are associative ideograms formed representing the concepts of “to protect” (person + child), “to look” (eye + person), “to reach” (grasping hand + person), and “to rest” (person + tree).

The vast majority of the kanji’s compositional base is formed by pictograms, since ideograms, as I mentioned before, generally make use of the former for their formation. These original characters that are used to form other new characters are called primitive components and each kanji or sinogram is one of them, it is derived by one of them, or it is formed by at least two of them. There are, in addition, other component glyphs with a semantic or phonetic value formed in turn by two or more primitive components. These kind of components are called, thus, secondary components. Most of the ideograms, in the compositional sense, can also be classified as semantic compounds, since they have been formed by two or more primitive components according to their semantic value.

Each component is assigned a meaning and, in most cases, also a sound that, in origin, would be equivalent to the phoneme used to express the said meaning in Old Chinese.

Being the formation of new characters through semantic association of components an arduous task requiring a high degree of imagination, a method known as rebus was quickly adopted.

The rebus method is about using a component that has been assigned a particular phoneme next to another component of a purely semantic nature. In this manner, the sound of a component is borrowed to attach it to the meaning of another component. These types of characters are called phono-semantic compounds or phono-semantic characters and make up the large majority of Chinese characters in use today.

Many scholars conclude, perhaps due to the lack of a rigorous etymological analysis, that in most phono-semantic compounds the phonetic component has lost its original semantic value. However, the group of people who, over the centuries, has been developing and standardizing the Chinese writing system, took great care in choosing components with a phonetic value so that their meaning would not be lost and, in addition, could emphasize even more the meaning of the new graphic formation. That the phono-semantic compound characters also retain semantic value in their phonetic components is now a proven reality.

We can summarize that the component glyphs, whether primitive or secondary, are the primordial nucleus needed for the categorization, understanding and, eventually, the learning of kanji characters, because they shape the whole system of logographic Chinese writing. The majority of Chinese characters have been formed, thus, by the semantic or phono-semantic combination of those components.

The student of kanji will be better off if he or she takes advantage of the characteristics of these components and how they work and associate within the corpus of Chinese characters.

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