形声文字 - Kanji with a semantic and phonetic component
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The last typology of kanji is also the most prolific one, and in my opinion the most interesting among them. It accounts for over 90% of kanji so being familiar with how it works will be extremely beneficial to both your understanding and memorization.
形声文字 are kanji that are composed of two main components. One part (called 意符) will tell you a general semantic idea about the kanji’s meaning (Is it a body part? Does it pertain to water? Is it food? etc). The other part (called 音符) will instead give you some hints on how that kanji will be pronounced in onyomi.
If we look at the kanji 町 (city/town/street), the left side (田) tells us what the kanji is about, the right side will tell us how it’s pronounced (丁, チョウ). The 田 semantic component originally comes from あぜ道 which are raised footpaths that demarcate the boundaries between rice paddies (hence, street).
Keep in mind that not all parts of a 形声文字 will relate to the meaning. I’ve seen a lot of confused explanations about kanji treating them all as 会意文字 and making up a story about why a 形声文字 uses a certain component or not. Some components just exist to impart a phonetic reading, they have nothing to do with the meaning. It’s good to remember that.
Three types of 形声文字
Truth be told, the classification of 形声文字 can be further split into three different subgroups.
In the first group, we have kanji that, thanks to their phonetic components, end up having the same reading:
- 紙(シ) = 糸 + 氏(シ)
- 姉(シ) = 女 + 市(シ)
- 理(リ) = 王 + 里(リ)
In the second group, we have kanji that produce a very similar sound with a similar component:
- 村(ソン) = 木 + 寸(スン)
- 暑(ショ) = 日 + 者(シャ)
In the third group, we have kanji that only differ from each other by their へん radical (left-side semantic component) but keep the same sound:
- 板 and 坂 are both pronounced ハン
- 講 and 構 are both pronounced コウ
Let’s look at some more examples and see if we can recognize some patterns:
- 語 (language/word)
- The semantic component is 言, it means the kanji relates to language
- The phonetic component is 吾 and is read ゴ
- 村 (village)
- The semantic component is 木, it means this kanji relates to something that has to do with trees or woods (think of wooden houses)
- The phonetic component is 寸 which is usually read スン, but in this kanji it becomes the onyomi ソン
- 説 (opinion/theory)
- Again, the semantic component here is 言, as this also relates to language
- The phonetic component is 兌 which is originally read エツ and becomes セツ in this kanji.
- 泡 (bubble)
- 氵 is the water (水) radical, and we know this kanji relates to water
- 包 is the phonetic component and is read ホウ
- 飽 (satiate, tired of)
- 食 is the semantic component, we know it’s a word that relates to food
- 包 once again is the phonetic component and is read ホウ
A note on learning readings
There is this common misconception that learning kanji readings is a waste of time because there are too many of them and they are too irregular, and you’re better off learning words instead. While it is true that there is no one rule you can learn to get 100% accuracy when reading kanji aside from just… well, learning the words, if you learn how phonetic components work you can train your intuition and become really good at guessing readings even of kanji you’ve never seen before. It’s an extremely valuable trick to keep in mind.
According to some frequency analysis, if you learned how these components work, you would be able to accurately predict phonetically almost a quarter of all words in wikipedia articles (constrained to joyo kanji list) even if you had never seen them before.
Consistency of readings
Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen in other kanji classes, nothing is ever simple. Kanji have been introduced to Japan at different points in time from different dialects of Chinese. They also went through significant phonetic and morphologic changes through history thanks to how the language evolved. This means that not all kanji will have regular readings from said phonetic components. There have been some really interesting research on how accurate we can be when predicting kanji readings and it turns out that some specific phonetic components will always be read a certain way, whereas some others are much more inconsistent.
Note: when we talk about consistency we specifically mean 音読み consistency, 訓読み are a completely different topic that cannot be explained by phonetic components. Also, the process of rendaku can happen to pretty much any kanji regardless of their phonetic component so we can’t do much about that.
To learn more about onyomi and kunyomi:
I really recommend giving the original article a read, but I’ll try to summarize it here in a few sentences.
As a quick rundown, after performing some analysis on the shape and phonetics of the kanji, we are able to identify certain kanji primitives that will give us a certain predictive accuracy for their reading.
There are two values to keep in mind when analyzing a phonetic series:
- The readings coverage
- Extra readings
The readings coverage is how many kanji sharing the same component also share a certain sound in any of their readings.
On the other hand, extra readings are kanji with more than one onyomi that share the same component.
Obviously, if we can identify a component that has no extra readings and 100% reading coverage, it means that every single time we see that component in an 音読み compound, we’ll know with 100% certainty (minus rendaku rules) how it will be read. We call this a perfect series.
This is a huge advantage when you are trying to memorize kanji readings, and it effectively turns certain phonetic components into the equivalent of letters of the alphabet, which is exactly what we want.
Here are some examples of perfect series (but really, read the original article, it’s really good):
- 包 (ホウ) → 包 抱 泡 砲 胞 飽
- 付 (フ) → 付 府 符 腐 附
- 司(シ) → 伺 司 嗣 詞 飼
- 冓(コウ) → 冓 媾 搆 構 溝 篝 覯 講 購 遘
- 采(サイ) → 彩 採 菜 采
- 票(ヒョウ) → 剽 嫖 慓 標 漂 瓢 票 縹 飃 飄 驃 鰾
- 亢(コウ) → 亢 伉 吭 坑 抗 杭 航 頏
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Let me reiterate: if you know the onyomi of one of those kanji, you will know with 100% accuracy the onyomi of all of those kanji in the series. This is an insane life hack to boost your language reading ability.