Help explain kanji radicals to a self-studying newbie
April 8, 2009 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Please help me understand why Kanji radicals that "are not independent kanji" or katakana still have a basic definition...

I'm studying Kanji with the workbook "Let's Learn Kanji", and it breaks it down by Radicals, gives a few examples for each- these broken down by radicals that ARE also independent kanji, and those that AREN'T. (and on the right side of each example, it gives further examples of other full kanji where the radical is a part of).

Example scan of page here:

What I really don't understand, is for the radicals that are not also independent kanji, for the love of god, why do they have a definition then?! I know I'm just missing some simple connection, but it seems to me that if it isn't a full symbol for human legs (for example), then that radical wouldn't be called that.

Anyone have a better explanation?
posted by Eicats to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
because they used to be words, right?
posted by christopherbdnk at 10:41 AM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Without knowing much about the history of kanji, I'd opine that it has more to do with the transition from Chinese (or Korean) characters and the evolution of the language over time. Perhaps the definitions as explained in that book are provided more for a historical "this is where it came from" context. I'd imagine that Chinese uses that character and it means what it says it means.

Or the definition is instead a description, something that a teacher of kanji uses to name the radical. Like how an umlaut is derived from "um (alteration)" and "laut (sound)" and it means to change the sound of the vowel (from Merriam-Webster).
posted by CancerMan at 10:57 AM on April 8, 2009

The clue is in the left column of your example. For each one it shows the kanji that the radical is based on. And that kanji still has a meaning.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2009

The radicals are what give(or gave) the kanji meaning, like hieroglyphics. It's for the same reason we have a name for the letter "z" even though it's never by itself.

The combined meanings of Japanese radicals might be obscure to westerners or have lost meaning over the centuries, but is still makes sense sometimes.
Like flower(hana): 花
The radical at the top means flower or plant but you will see it in other plants or flower-related kanji, like leaf: 葉

(Your browser needs to be Japanese-enabled for these characters to show up properly)
posted by nikkorizz at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2009

The page has a good list of radicals.

Anyway, kanji or Chinese characters have been around since 1500 BCE, and most literate Chinese people know at least 4000 (Japanese are expected to learn 2000).

Along the way, Chinese characters have developed and have been changed and reformed several times, in Japan, Taiwan and mainland China (but not Korea), each with their own set of reforms, and so the radicals themselves have been altered at times.

So, a radical that started out as a word with a specific meaning is now just a radical, probably revised by a bureaucrat of committee in the equivalent of a Ministry of Education.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:05 AM on April 8, 2009

Best answer: It's because they help you with contributions to the meaning. We have something very similar in English. Think about the non-word "dis" -- it can't stand as a word on its own but if you understand that it often contributes to the meaning of undoing something (when combined with verbs), then it can help give you clues to words like "discover", "disable", "disappear".

Or take the suffix "er". It has a few separate meanings, but one of them is "one who does X". So the words "boxer", "driver", "harvester", "baker", etc. all have the meaning of "one who does X" embedded in them, contributed by "er".

It's not exactly the same with kanji but it is very similar. If you see, say, the radical for water then it's a good bet that the meaning of the full kanji has something to do with water. And so on. In the case of "dis", it actually was a fully-fledged Latin word at one time in history, which is how it came to be this sub-word in English. Many of the radicals are the same in that they were borrowed from Chinese and modified for Japanese.
posted by kosmonaut at 11:10 AM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Because even though they aren't independent, they are given meaning to make them sticky enough to remember and refer to.
posted by dobie at 11:20 AM on April 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I think the suffix/prefix comparison really made the lightbulb go on for me. :) Prior to that I understood the "hints to the meaning of other kanji" connection, but I just couldn't grasp why if a symbol was the basis for a specific meaning, why wasn't it considered it's own word: the comparison to english suffixes and such makes a lot of sense.

Thanks again!
posted by Eicats at 11:30 AM on April 8, 2009

This guy is nuts, but maybe his technique could help too.
posted by beerbajay at 2:45 PM on April 8, 2009

^ good stuff, similar to Henshall's pioneering book.
posted by mrt at 4:32 PM on April 8, 2009

Best answer: What your book calls "radicals that are not independent kanji" should really be "abbreviated radicals". That is, they are independent kanji, but when they're independent they have a different, usually more complicated appearance.

The parenthesized form in the leftmost column of your sample page is the independent form.

As another example, the plant radical that nikkoriz referred to has the independent form 艸.
posted by zompist at 4:33 PM on April 8, 2009

Yeah, once you move on to more complicated kanji, you're going to be really thankful that those radicals have meanings. On some occasions you will be able to guess what a word is even though you can't read it or pronounce it, just from the context and the meanings of the radicals.

Other times the radicals seem to have nothing to do with anything, but you can still turn that into a way to remember the word. For example, on the scan you linked, the kanji for "miru" has the radicals for "eye" and "feet." You kind of wonder what the hell feet have to do with seeing, yeah? But if you look at the kanji knowing what the two parts mean, you see that the eye is huge compared to the feet, so it looks like an exaggerated little person with huge eyes. So if you look at it that way, it seems really obvious that it means "to see."
posted by Nattie at 4:57 PM on April 8, 2009

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