Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2012 June 16

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June 16[edit]

Why do kanji have several readings?[edit]

I've never understood why kanji had to have so many readings. Like for example, "山" can be read as "san" or "yama". Even Chinese characters, although more plentiful, at least only have one reading most of the time which is usually only one syllable long. Chinese characters with more than one reading do exist, but they are not the norm. I'm aware of the on-readings (readings derived from Chinese) and the kun-readings (native Japanese readings), but why does kanji need to have so many reading in the first place? Is the multiple readings like an equivalent of words in English were the same word can have multiple meanings? But at least it's the same word (though sometimes it is pronounced differently), but in Japanese, the word (reading) itself can change quite drastically! Why does this have to be the case? Narutolovehinata5 tccsdnew 03:36, 16 June 2012 (UTC)

There's an interesting discussion in Geoffrey Sampson's book Writing Systems. The basic oversimplified answer is that originally Japanese was written entirely with Chinese characters (before the kana syllabaries existed), and this resulted in a variety of expedients and stratagems being resorted to. A number of improvements in writing Japanese have been made since that earlier time, but there hasn't really ever been a complete radical restructuring, so that most of the basic different ways of using Chinese characters have continued to the present... AnonMoos (talk) 05:08, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
I guess the reason boils down to the fact that the kanji have semantic meanings, so you use 山 to mean "mountain" regardless of how it's pronounced in a particular word/compound. If we did the same in English, "木" would be pronounced "tree" by itself, but "木eal" would be pronounced "arboreal", and "愛木" would be pronounced "philodendron". Actually we do do this in English, but on a very small scale: think of the different pronunciations of the characters "1" and "2" when used by themselves compared to when used in "1st" and "2nd". Angr (talk) 09:34, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
Wow, nice explanation. (talk) 11:42, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
If I'm remembering correctly (I can't find anything on Wikipedia), Old Persian sometimes borrowed from Aramaic, so when they wrote the Aramaic "mlk" it was meant to be read as the Persian "shah". We do this with Latin abbreviations in English too - "e.g." is sometimes read "for example", for example. Adam Bishop (talk) 14:33, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
That particular phase is more commonly called "Middle Iranian" (e.g. the language of the Sassanids etc.) The Pahlavi script is one of the most peculiar writing systems ever -- the 22 letters of the Aramaic alphabet (not completely adequate to write a Persian language in the first place, due to the usual Semitic lack of vowel letters etc.) were merged to 14 to 16 distinct letterforms (depending on how you count), so that the letters g, d, and y were merged, for example (with a number of further coalescences in careless writing). Then this tremendously ambiguous and inadequate form of writing was supplemented by writing Aramaic spellings in Persian-language texts to indicate Persian words. So the word pid father was written AB′ because the Aramaic word for father was a form of Ab, etc. AnonMoos (talk) 17:13, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
Our article on Chu Nom, the adaptation of Chinese characters for Vietnamese, explains that some characters were chosen for their semantic resemblance, some for phonetic resemblance, and some for both. It actually mentions kanji as having some similarity. Also, in the novel River of Smoke by Amitabh Ghosh, set in the 18th century, a character compiles an English-Chinese dictionary using the phonetic resemblance method. Perhaps there really were such dictionaries - the novel is well researched. Itsmejudith (talk) 17:31, 16 June 2012 (UTC)

Agent noun[edit]

If I wanted to form an agent noun for the word 'flee', what would be the best way of spelling it? (talk) 10:41, 16 June 2012 (UTC)

I suppose fleer, just as the comparative of free is freer and the agent noun of see is seer. Angr (talk) 10:50, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
That makes sense. Thanks. (talk) 11:06, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
I did find ...
And as in dreams one cannot do that one longs to do ;—
Nor can the fleer flee outright, nor can pursuer pursue ;—
... in Charles Merivale's rhymed translation of Homer's Iliad, 1869, Book XXII, verses 196-197. ---Sluzzelin talk 11:42, 16 June 2012 (UTC)
Thanks. It's good to know it's a real word. (talk) 13:11, 16 June 2012 (UTC)