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Sino-Japanese vocabulary or kango (Japanese: 漢語 , pronounced [kaŋɡo] , "Han words") refers to that portion of the Japanese vocabulary that originated in Chinese or has been created from elements borrowed from Chinese. Some grammatical structures and sentence patterns can also be identified as Sino-Japanese. Sino-Japanese vocabulary is referred to in Japanese as kango (漢語), meaning 'Chinese words'. Kango is one of three broad categories into which the Japanese vocabulary is divided. The others are native Japanese vocabulary ( yamato kotoba ) and borrowings from other, mainly Western languages ( gairaigo ). It is estimated that approximately 60% of the words contained in a modern Japanese dictionary are kango, but they comprise only about 18% of words used in speech.
Kango, the use of Chinese-derived words in Japanese, is to be distinguished from kanbun , which is historical Literary Chinese written by Japanese in Japan. Both kango in modern Japanese and classical kanbun have Sino-xenic linguistic and phonetic elements also found in Korean and Vietnamese: that is, they are "Sino-foreign," not purely Chinese. Such words invented in Japanese, often with novel meanings, are called wasei-kango. Many of them are created during the modernization of Japan to translate Western concepts and have been reborrowed into Chinese.
Kango is also to be distinguished from gairaigo of Chinese origin, namely words borrowed from modern Chinese dialects, some of which may be occasionally spelled with Chinese characters or kanji just like kango. For example, 北京 (Pekin, "Beijing") which was borrowed from a modern Chinese dialect is not kango, but 北京 (Hokkyō, "Northern Capital", a name for Kyoto), which was created with Chinese elements is kango.
Ancient China's enormous political and economic influence in the region had a deep effect on Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and other East Asian languages throughout history, in a manner somewhat similar the preeminent position that Greek and Latin had in European history. For example, the Middle Chinese word for gunpowder, Chinese :火藥 (IPA: [xwa˧˥jak] ), is rendered as hwayak in Korean, and as kayaku in Japanese. At the time of their first contact, the existing Japanese language had no writing system, while the Chinese had a written language and a great deal of academic and scientific information, providing new concepts along with Chinese words to express them. Chinese became the language of science, learning, religion and government. The earliest written language to be used in Japan was literary Chinese, which has come to be called kanbun in this context. The kanbun writing system essentially required every literate Japanese to be competent in written Chinese, although it is unlikely that many Japanese people were then fluent in spoken Chinese. Chinese pronunciation was approximated in words borrowed from Chinese into Japanese; this Sino-Japanese vocabulary is still an important component of the Japanese language, and may be compared to words of Latin or Greek origin in English.
Chinese borrowings also significantly impacted Japanese phonology, leading to many new developments such as closed syllables (CV(N), not just CV) and length becoming a phonetic feature with the development of both long vowels and long consonants. (See Early Middle Japanese: Phonological developments for details.)
Sino-Japanese words are almost exclusively nouns, of which many are verbal nouns or adjectival nouns, meaning that they can act as verbs or adjectives. Verbal nouns can be used as verbs by appending suru (する, "do") (e.g. benkyō suru (勉強する, do studying; study)), while an adjectival noun uses -na (〜な) instead of -no (〜の) (usual for nouns) when acting attributively.
In Japanese, verbs and adjectives (that is, inflecting adjectives) are closed classes, and despite the large number of borrowings from Chinese, virtually none of these became inflecting verbs or adjectives, instead being conjugated periphrastically as above.
In addition to the basic verbal noun + suru form, verbal nouns with a single-character root often experienced sound changes, such as -suru (〜する) → -zuru (〜ずる) → -jiru (〜じる), as in kinjiru (禁じる, forbid), and some cases where the stem underwent sound change, as in tassuru (達する, reach), from tatsu (達).
The term kango is usually identified with on'yomi (音読み, "sound reading"), a system of pronouncing Chinese characters in a way that at one point approximated the original Chinese. On'yomi is also known as the 'Sino-Japanese reading', and is opposed to kun'yomi (訓読み, "reading by meaning") under which Chinese characters are assigned to, and read as, native Japanese vocabulary.
However, there are cases where the distinction between on'yomi and kun'yomi does not correspond to etymological origin. Chinese characters created in Japan, called kokuji (国字), normally only have kun'yomi, but some kokuji do have on'yomi. One such character is 働 (as in 働くhataraku, "to work"), which was given the on'yomi dō (from the on'yomi of its phonetic component, 動) when used in compounds with other characters, e.g. in 労働rōdō ("labor"). Similarly, the character 腺 ("gland") has the on'yomi sen (from the on'yomi of its phonetic component, 泉sen "spring, fountain"), e.g. in 扁桃腺hentōsen "tonsils"; it was intentionally created as a kango and does not have a kun'yomi at all. Although not originating in Chinese, both of these are regarded as 'Sino-Japanese'.
By the same token, that a word is the kun'yomi of a kanji is not a guarantee that the word is native to Japanese. There are a few Japanese words that, although they appear to have originated in borrowings from Chinese, have such a long history in the Japanese language that they are regarded as native and are thus treated as kun'yomi, e.g., 馬uma "horse" and 梅 ume . These words are not regarded as belonging to the Sino-Japanese vocabulary.
While much Sino-Japanese vocabulary was borrowed from Chinese, a considerable amount was created by the Japanese themselves as they coined new words using Sino-Japanese forms. These are known as wasei-kango (和製漢語, Japanese-created kango); compare to wasei-eigo (和製英語, Japanese-created English).
Many Japanese-created kango refer to uniquely Japanese concepts. Examples include daimyō (大名), waka (和歌), haiku (俳句), geisha (芸者), chōnin (町人), matcha (抹茶), sencha (煎茶), washi (和紙), jūdō (柔道), kendō (剣道), Shintō (神道), shōgi (将棋), dōjō (道場), seppuku (切腹), and Bushidō (武士道)
Another miscellaneous group of words were coined from Japanese phrases or crossed over from kun'yomi to on'yomi. Examples include henji (返事 meaning 'reply', from native 返り事kaerigoto 'reply'), rippuku (立腹 'become angry', based on 腹が立つhara ga tatsu, literally 'belly/abdomen stands up'), shukka (出火 'fire starts or breaks out', based on 火が出るhi ga deru), and ninja (忍者 from 忍びの者shinobi-no-mono meaning 'person of stealth'). In Chinese, the same combinations of characters are often meaningless or have a different meaning. Even a humble expression like gohan (ご飯 or 御飯 'cooked rice') is a pseudo-kango and not found in Chinese. One interesting example that gives itself away as a Japanese coinage is kaisatsu-guchi (改札口 literally 'check ticket gate'), meaning the ticket barrier at a railway station.
More recently, the best-known example is the prolific numbers of kango coined during the Meiji era on the model of Classical Chinese to translate modern concepts imported from the West; when coined to translate a foreign term (rather than simply a new Japanese term), they are known as yakugo (訳語, translated word, equivalent). Often they use corresponding morphemes to the original term, and thus qualify as calques. These terms include words for new technology, like 電話denwa ('telephone'), and words for Western cultural categories which the Sinosphere had no exact analogue of on account of partitioning the semantic fields in question differently, such as 科学kagaku ('science'), 社会shakai ('society'), and 哲学tetsugaku ('philosophy'). Despite resistance from some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, many wasei kango were "back-borrowed" into Chinese around the turn of the 20th century. Such words from that time are thoroughly assimilated into the Chinese lexicon, but translations of foreign concepts between the two languages now occur independently of each other. These "back-borrowings" gave rise to Mandarin diànhuà (from denwa), kēxué (from kagaku), shèhuì (from shakai) and zhéxué (from tetsugaku). Since the sources for the wasei kango included ancient Chinese texts as well as contemporary English-Chinese dictionaries, some of the compounds—including 文化bunka ('culture', Mandarin wénhuà) and 革命kakumei ('revolution', Mandarin gémìng)—might have been independently coined by Chinese translators, had Japanese writers not coined them first. A similar process of reborrowing occurred in the modern Greek language, which took back words like τηλεγράφημα telegrafíma ('telegram') that were coined in English from Greek roots. Many of these words have also been borrowed into Korean and Vietnamese, forming (a modern Japanese) part of their Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies.
Alongside these translated terms, the foreign word may be directly borrowed as gairaigo. The resulting synonyms have varying use, usually with one or the other being more common. For example, 野球yakyū and ベースボールbēsubōru both translate as 'baseball', where the yakugo 野球 is more common. By contrast, 庭球teikyū and テニスtenisu both translate as 'tennis', where the gairaigo テニス is more common. Note that neither of these is a calque – they translate literally as 'field ball' and 'garden ball'. ('Base' is 塁rui, but 塁球ruikyū is an uncommon term for 'softball', which itself is normally ソフトボールsofutobōru).
Finally, quite a few words appear to be Sino-Japanese but are varied in origin, written with ateji (当て字)— kanji assigned without regard for etymology. In many cases, the characters were chosen only to indicate pronunciation. For example, sewa ('care, concern') is written 世話, using the on'yomi "se" + "wa" ('household/society' + 'talk'); although this word is not Sino-Japanese but a native Japanese word believed to derive from sewashii, meaning 'busy' or 'troublesome'; the written form 世話 is simply an attempt to assign plausible-looking characters pronounced "se" and "wa". Other ateji of this type include 面倒mendō ('face' + 'fall down' = 'bother, trouble') and 野暮yabo ('fields' + 'livelihood' = 'uncouth'). (The first gloss after each character roughly translates the kanji; the second is the meaning of the word in Japanese.)
At first glance, the on'yomi of many Sino-Japanese words do not resemble the Modern Standard Chinese pronunciations at all. Firstly, the borrowings occurred in three main waves, with the resulting sounds identified as Go-on (呉音), Kan-on (漢音), and Tō-on (唐音); these were at different periods over several centuries, from different stages in Historical Chinese phonology, and thus source pronunciations differ substantially depending on time and place. Beyond this, there are two main reasons for the divergence between Modern Standard Chinese and Modern Standard Japanese pronunciations of cognate terms:
Nonetheless, the correspondences between the two are fairly regular. As a result, Sino-Japanese can be viewed as a (transformed) "snapshot" of an archaic period of the Chinese language, and as a result is very important for comparative linguists as it provides a large amount of evidence for the reconstruction of Middle Chinese.
The following is a rough guide to equivalencies between modern Chinese words and modern Sino-Japanese on'yomi readings.
Unless otherwise noted, in the list below, sounds shown in quotation marks or italics indicate the usage of non-IPA romanization such as Hanyu pinyin for Mandarin Chinese and Hepburn romanization for Japanese. Symbols shown within slashes or square brackets, like /ɡ/ or [dʒ], are IPA transcriptions.
| Labial |
(bilabial · labiodental)
[p] · [f]
[pʰ] · [fʰ]
[b̥] · [v̥]
[m] · [ṽ]
|Pinyin||b · f||p · f||b,p · f||m · w|
|Wu||p · f||ph · f||b · v||m · v|
|Go||[p] → [ɸ] → [h]||[b]||[m]|
|Kan||[p] → [ɸ] → [h]||[b]|
([m] when the Tang source had coda [ŋ])
| Coronal stop |
(alveolar · retroflex)
[t] · [ʈ]
[tʰ] · [ʈʰ]
[d̥] · [ɖ̥]
[n] · [ɳ]
|Pinyin||d · zh||t · ch||d,t · zh,ch||n · n|
|Wu||t · c||th · ch||d · j||n, ny · n, ny|
([n] when the Tang source had coda [ŋ])
| Coronal sibilant |
(alveolar · palatal, retroflex)
(affricate / fricative)
[ts] · [tɕ, tʂ]
[tsʰ] · [tɕʰ, tʂʰ]
[d̥z̥] · [d̥ʑ̊, d̥ʐ̊]
[s] · [ɕ, ʂ]
[z̥] · [ʑ̊, ʐ̊]
|Pinyin||z,j · zh||c,q · ch||z,j,c,q · zh,ch|
|s,x · sh||s,x · sh|
|Wu||ts · c||tsh · ch||dz · dzh|
|s · sh||z · zh|
|Pinyin||g,j||k,q||g,j,k,q||w, y, ∅|
|Go||(null) or [j] or [w]||[j] or [w]|
|Kan||(null) or [j] or [w]||[j] or [w]|
|Go||[k]||[ɡ] or [w]|
|MC||Pinyin||Wu||Go||Kan||Tō-on||in some compounds|
|/m/||n||n, ∅||/mu/ → /ɴ/||/ɴ/|
|/ŋ/||ng||n||/u/ → see below||after /e/, /i/; after other vowels, /u/ → see below||/ɴ/||?? same as not in compound ??|
|/p/||(null)||ʔ||/pu/ → /ɸu/ → /u/ → see below||/Q/|
|/t/||(null)||/ti/ [tɕi]||/tu/ [tsu]||??||/Q/|
|/k/||(null)||/ku/||after front vowel, /ki/; after back vowel, /ku/||??||/Q/|
Later developments of diphthongs:
|Character||Meaning||Middle Chinese||Wu||Mandarin Pinyin||Cantonese (Yue)||Go-on||Kan-on|
|一||one||ʔjit||ih||yī||jat1||ichi < *iti||itsu < *itu|
|二||two||nyijH /ɲij³/||nyi||èr < */ʐr/ < */ʐi/||ji2||ni||ji < *zi|
|四||four||sijH /sij³/||sy||sì||sei3||shi < *si|
|七||seven||tshit /tsʰit/||tshih||qī||cat1||shichi < *siti||shitsu < *situ|
|八||eight||pɛt||pah||bā||baat3||hachi < *pati||hatsu < *patu|
|九||nine||kjuwX /kjuw²/||kieu||jiǔ||gau2||ku||kyū < *kiu|
|十||ten||dzyip /dʑip/||dzheh||shí||sap6||jū < *zipu||shū < *sipu|
|北||north||pok||poh||běi||bak1||hoku < *poku|
|東||east||tuwng /tuwŋ/||ton||dōng||dung1||tsu < *tu||tō < *tou|
|京||capital||kjæng /kjæŋ/||kin||jīng||ging1||kyō < *kyau||kei|
|人||person||nyin /ɲin/||nyin||rén||jan4||nin||jin < *zin|
|日||sun||nyit /ɲit/||nyih||rì||jat6||nichi < *niti; ni||?? jitsu < *zitu|
|本||base, origin||pwonX /pwon²/||pen||běn||bun2||?? hon < *pon|
|上||up||dzyangX /dʑaŋ²/, dzyangH /dʑaŋ³/||dzhaon||shàng||soeng6||jō < *zyau||shō < *syau|
|下||down||hæX /ɦæ²,ɣæ²/, hæH /ɦæ³,ɣæ³/||gho||xià||haa5||ge||ka|
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The four tones of Chinese poetry and dialectology are four traditional tone classes of Chinese words. They play an important role in Chinese poetry and in comparative studies of tonal development in the modern varieties of Chinese, both in traditional Chinese and in Western linguistics. They correspond to the phonology of Middle Chinese, and are named even or level, rising, departing or going, and entering or checked. Due to historic splits and mergers, none of the modern varieties of Chinese have the exact four tones of Middle Chinese, but they are noted in rhyming dictionaries.
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Wago are native Japanese words, meaning those words in Japanese that have been inherited from Old Japanese, rather than being borrowed at some stage. Together with kango (漢語) and gairaigo (外来語), they form one of the three main sources of Japanese words. They are also known as yamato kotoba.
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