Radicals: Not an Exact Science

Or, the meat cleaver approach to kanji

 

The vast majority of kanji are comprised of smaller pieces called radicals, and you’ve probably heard the rule of thumb that “left side indicates meaning, right side indicates reading.” Then you learn a couple dozen scattered kanji in Japanese 101 and go, “What the fuck ever, lady—kanji don’t have no logic, stop pretending like it does.”

 

Well, “logic” is a rather strong word for it, but there is a method to the madness, sort of. I’ve come to the conclusion that radicals are important, very important, and sorely neglected in Japanese-language classes.

 

For example, you’re given a new kanji to learn: , which means shadow. Fifteen strokes. You could learn those fifteen strokes, or you take a cleaver to that kanji and hack it in half—suddenly you have + . 「景」 in itself is a kanji that means scenery and is the radical for fur. Slice scenery apart and you get (day) + (capital). You could keep going and cut up capital into roof + mouth + small, but you get the idea—almost all kanji is comprised of parts that you’re going to see again elsewhere, and it makes no sense to relearn each new kanji as a dozen random strokes when instead you can see them as being made up of building blocks.

 

The Japanese school system does teach some radicals, though they focus on the left-hand side and don’t acknowledge a whole host of recurring components (etc) as being units in and of themselves. Generally though, Japanese people get twelve years to learn how to write their own language, so they can take their time and they really do learn each kanji as fifteen, or seventeen, or twenty random strokes. Gaijin have to cut corners, if we hope to learn Japanese while we’re still young enough to pick up hot Japanese people.

 

 

Left-hand side: The “sort of” Meaning

(If you know this already, you can skip to the good bit further down.)

 

There are a dozen or so radicals that appear frequently on the left-hand side and (can) indicate that the kanji has a vaguely related meaning. Like so:

 

– time (sun radical)

– poetry (words)

– to hold (hand)

– samurai (person)

 

Obviously you can’t look at if you’ve never seen it before and go, “Oh hey, it’s the person radical, ergo that kanji must mean samurai!” but if you’re writing “carry” and you know which radical means hand, you’re not likely to forget what goes on the left.

 

Person

Derived from

related to people, but that’s a really broad category and this one is often very abstract

Hand

Derived from

things that are done with the hands

Words

written or spoken word

Water

Derived from

to do with being wet

Thread

things that are thin like thread or involve being linked together in some way

Mouth

eating, drinking, yelling

Day/sun

illumination or time

Movement

Not to be confused with Person

Movement

motion or the concept of distance

Wood

raw materials, construction

Emotions

Derived from

feelings

Metal

worked metal (keys, mirrors, needles), raw metal (silver, copper), adjectives related to metal (sharp, blunt)

Money

money and commerce, but often used for unrelated meanings too

Ground

things done with dirt, (burying and digging), landscape features

Fire

fire, heat, and drying

Sickness

illness and treatment

Food

edible stuff

Woman

anything involving women – wives, daughters, sisters, marriage

Small animal

small animals, behavior thereof

Rice

uncooked food

Rice seedling

(usually abstract)

Feet

Derived from

dancing, jumping, stomping

Weather

Derived from

natural phenomena, precipitation, electricity, earthquakes

Hill

sometimes deals with height, usually abstract though

Altar

Looks like katakana

religion and tradition, often abstract

Clothes

Looks a hell of a lot like altar, with an extra dash

so abstract that it scarcely imparts any meaning

Meat

by itself, the kanji for moon; as a radical it usually indicates bodily stuff

Car

transportation

 

Right-hand side and STRONG RADICALS

 

Here’s another set of kanji illustrating how you can swap out left-hand radicals:

 

– shining (sun)

– to beckon (hand)

– to introduce (thread – connecting abstractly, in this case)

– swamp (water)

– imperial edict (words)

 

Now for a pop quiz – how do you say each of the five kanji above? Answer: ショウ. Yes, all of them. It is not a coincidence that they have the same right-side radical and the same onyomi. And yet it bugs the hell out of me that all Japanese-language courses seem to teach kanji like it is. If you learn a certain kanji as part of a compound word, you’re likely to be paying more attention to the general shape than the exact components, and if that same shape and same reading turns up again in a different word, you’re going to be hard pressed to notice the difference. Why, you might graduate with a degree in Japanese without ever realizing that and and (all pronounced けん) are three different kanji. Not that I did that, of course.

 

There are many simple kanji that are reused as radicals and retain their original onyomi instead of their original meaning. I picked up the term “strong radical” from Schultz’s kanji dictionary (who likewise embraces the kanji-by-meat-cleaver school of thought) for those radicals that have a very strong influence on onyomi. In the same vein, if you see a kanji that consists of one of the common, generic left-hand radicals from above (water, person, etc) tacked onto a complete other kanji, the meaning is probably completely different but there’s an 85% likelihood that it took the onyomi from the original. ( (return) and (tears), for example, (take) and (hobby))

 

If you’re still not convinced that you should be paying attention to strong radicals, here’s another pop quiz for your quizzing pleasure. Quick, onyomi for the following kanji:

 

– anti-

– food

– hill

– publish

– board/plank

– heights

– sell

 

Hint: the first one is ハン. Guess what all six of the rest are.

 

Strong radicals are good to know.

The ones in red are best to start with if the list looks too intimidating, because they’re the most common and the most strong.

 

                          えん

                         

                         

                         

                          か、けい

                          かい

                          かく

                          かん

                          かん

                          かん、げん

                          かん

                          かん

                         

                         

                          きゅう

                          きゅう

                          きょ

                          きょう

                         

                         

                         

                         

                          こう

                          こう

                          こん

                          はく

                          はん

                          はん

                          はん

                          ひ、は

                         

                         

                          ひょう

                          ひょう、へい

                          ほ、ふ

                          ぼ、ばく、も

                          ほう、ぼう

                          ほう

                          ぼう

                         

                          りゅう

                          れん、とう

                          ろう

                          たい、だい

                          ちゅう

                          ちょう

                          ちょう

                          ちょう

                          てい

                         

                          とう

                          とう、れん

                          どう、とう

                          さい

                         

                         

                         

                         

                          しゅう

                          じゅ

                          しょ

                          しょう

                          しょう

                          しょう、せい

                          しょう、せい

                          しょう

                          しん

                          しん

                          しん

                          せき

                          せん

                          そう

                          そう

                          そう、しょう

                          そく

                          そく

                          まん

                          みん

                          ゆう

                          よう

                          よう

 

(radicals that I couldn’t find on their own; mostly look at the right side)

                          けん、かん (top)

                          けん

                          けん

                          ふく

                          せん

                          てき

                          きょう (top)

                          よう、つう

                          ふく

                          えん、わん

 

 

These do, admittedly, have zero effect on a kanji’s kunyomi, but it’s a shortcut and you gotta grab those where you can find them.

 

A FUN GAME

with which to practice kanji-writing and knowledge of radicals

 

Get a partner. Start with any normal kanji that has at least two radicals, write it down on a piece of paper and then pass the paper back and forth, taking turns and coming up with a new kanji that reuses a radical from the previous one.

 

Ex: 腕 脳 悩 憎 贈 販 飯 喰 叫 収 etc

 

This is fun to play with Japanese people because they’re not good at it, and they can’t understand why.

 

Japanese people don’t tend to think of kanji in terms of their component radicals, so when you point out that and have the same top half (actually , an old kanji meaning “slave” and a strong radical for ), they’re likely to squint at it and go, “Oh dude, you’re right! Wild.”

 

:: Back to Japanese main ::