指事文字 - Kanji that indicate abstract ideas
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指事文字 are kanji whose shape offers some visual representation of abstract ideas or concepts. Some of them are obvious on a first look, like 一, 二, 三. Some others are not as obvious, like 本 or 末, but at the end of the day if you can remember the reason why they look like this and what they visualize, they are great for a mnemonic based approach. By just looking at them, you’ll be able to retain their meaning.
- 一, 二, 三
- The simplest kanji, they are just numbers. Just count the number of horizontal lines
- While this kanji can be read as ほん (book) in onyomi, we need to focus on the kunyomi that is もと (origin, source). This kanji looks like a tree (木) with a horizontal line at the bottom, pointing at the tree roots (the origin of the tree).
- Likewise, this kanji means すえ (end, tip, top). Take the same tree (木) as before, but this time instead strike a horizontal line at the top.
- 上, 下
- These ones are also quite straightforward. One points up, the other points down.
Unfortunately, since languages aren’t perfect, there are exceptions. The kanji 四 for example is 指事文字 but its origin does not have the same meaning that we attribute to it in modern day (four). Originally, it represented “breathing”, as the kanji shows an open mouth (口) with tongue and teeth.
Likewise for 八, it originally represented two lines separating, and its original meaning was to “separate” (分かれる). It only later got re-assigned the meaning of eight.
Fortunately, 指事文字 are among the least common and most unique-looking kanji, so they should be relatively easy to remember without much trouble since they stand out from the rest.