[3] The History of the Language Leads to an Understanding of its Structure

What is a “kubi’kazari”?

About a half century ago, a “konnpyu-ta-” (computer) was called a “dennshi keisannki” (electronic calculator). In the 1960s, the pop group “The Tigers” had a big hit with “hana no kubi’kazari,” but this “kubi’kazari” (necklace) has now become an obsolete term. Furthermore, these days the media uses “burakkuauto” to refer to a blackout instead of “dai’teidenn.” In this way English words are increasingly being used instead of Japanese terms.

Applying Kanji Readings to Japanese Readings

Lacking a shared script of their own, in ancient times the Japanese adopted kanji characters from China. In the beginning Japanese people disregarded the character’s meaning, instead using only kanji that were pronounced in a similar way to Japanese phonics. For instance, characters like “安” for “あ” (a), and “以” for “い” (i). Then they took elements from kanji and transformed them into simple symbols to create katakana, while hiragana was formed from elements of cursive kanji.

Kanji Can Also Be Applied to Match the Original Meaning of Japanese Words

Although the phonetic readings of kanji differ from region to era in China, they still maintain the same meaning. Since Japan adopted all these readings, a single kanji can be pronounced in several different ways. Furthermore, kanji were utilized that had an equivalent meaning to Japanese terms. For instance, the kanji for mountain “山” (sann or senn in Chinese phonics) was taken to represent the Japanese word “やま” (yama).

Western Words Are Written in Katakana

In modern times, with the advent of globalization, many foreign words, especially English terms, were incorporated into Japanese. As the alphabet was not widely studied, at that time, Japanese people wrote the sound of these foreign words in katakana. As a result, foreign words were pronounced in a Japanese way within the limits of katakana.

Japanese Has Changed with the Times

One of the reasons why these so called “katakanago” were so popular was that there was no need to learn English spellings. You could also say that this satisfied the Japanese national character, with its attraction to Western culture. It is often said that the Japanese language is complicated, but if you learn more about its history, you will find it easier to understand.

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