Two more categories of Kanji: 転注文字 and 仮借文字

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If you you’ve gotten to this point, you probably noticed I mentioned in Kanji Classification that there are six categories of kanji called 六書りくしょ, however we’ve only focused on four main ones.

The reason for this is because the original division by the scholar Xu Shen a couple thousand years ago is simply not useful to most people learning kanji for a practical purpose. The first four classifications that we already introduced pertain to the composition/shape of the kanji. They give us an insight into the meanings (and readings) of the kanji based on their shape.

The last two categories on the other hand pertain to the kanji usage and the history behind them. They also aren’t mutually exclusive to the other four categories. They are closer to some meta-analysis of Kanji etymology than the rest.

転注文字 - Kanji with additional acquired meanings

転注文字てんちゅうもじ are kanji that originally had a certain meaning, however due to extensive usage in the language, they ended up acquiring additional meanings for all kinds of reasons.

To give you a couple of quick examples:

  • 楽 in its original form (樂) was a 象形文字しょうけいもじ depicting a musical instrument made of wood (木) and strings (糸) and had the meaning of “music”. However, the act of listening to music became associated with the idea of fun (たのしい) and happiness (らく) so the kanji also acquired the meaning of “happiness” or “fun” (たのしい). Note that the original meaning of music is obviously still valid as well (See: 音楽おんがく).
  • 労 in its original form (勞) was a 会意文字かいいもじ depicting strength (力) employed in extinguishing a fire from a burning house (𤇾 which is the short form of 熒) and this act leaves you exhausted. The original meaning was “tiredness” or “hard work”. However, it eventually also assumed the meaning of “showing gratitude for someone’s hard work” (ねぎらう).

仮借文字 - Kanji that changed meaning due to phonetic loans

仮借文字かしゃもじ are kanji that in ancient times (often before their arrival into Japan) had a different meaning, but due to the fact that they sounded similar to other more common words (that were likely easier to write), they changed meaning to reflect those other words instead.

This is a phenomenon that is not that different from that of Ateji, however much older.

As a consequence of this, their shape usually has no relevance to their meaning, however they can still often represent certain specific phonemes or phonetic components if they appear in other kanji as 形声文字けいせいもじ.

For example, the two kanji 来 (coming) and 麦 (wheat) originally had different meanings, and they swapped them for each other.

On the one hand, 来 meant wheat and was a 象形文字しょうけいもじ as its old form (來) clearly shows awns of wheat possibly being left to dry. On the other hand, 麦 meant “coming” and was originally a 形声文字けいせいもじ (old form: 麥) having 來 at the top for sound, and 夊 at the bottom for meaning (it’s a foot).

Since “coming” was a more common word than “wheat” and the kanji 來 was much simpler to write while carrying the same sound, the two symbols ended up swapping places. Now 来 means “coming” and 麦 means “wheat”.

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