Although the Japanese and Chinese languages differ considerably in their syntax and pronunciation, one characteristic they share, along with use of kanji, is lots of homonyms. Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary, for example, lists 70 characters with the pronunciation shih (or shi, when transcribed in hanyu pinyin), which sounds like the English “shirt” minus the “t,” varying only by their intonation.
In Japanese, many of those 70 characters are also pronounced “shi” (as in the English “she”). They include 史 (history), 師 (teacher), 市 (a market or city), 矢 (arrow), 士 (a warrior or gentleman), 使 (to use), 始 (first or begin) and 獅子 (shishi, lion), to name a few.
While the meaning of an individual kanji might be clear when written out, a way was needed to differentiate the words when spoken aloud due to the large number of homophones. This is done mainly by forming compound words, many of which are purposely redundant through the use of two characters having closely similar meanings.
Take the example of 変化 (henka, change, inflect), commonly followed by する (suru, to do or to perform an action). Both 変 (hen) and 化 (ka) can mean change. So why not just say “hen,” or “ka” by themselves? When these characters are used as verbs, that’s just what happens. The character for hen is also read kawaru (to change) and likewise ka is read bakeru (to transform, to change radically).
This kind of intentional redundancy has the effect of facilitating comprehension. Another example would be 停止する (teishi suru, to halt or suspend), where both 停 (tei) and 止 (shi) mean “stop.” In verb form, both the first and the second characters can be read tomaru, and the second can also be read yameru. Using two characters of similar meaning (expressed in this case as “stop-stop”) creates an easily understood compound word. Still another would be 衣服 (ifuku, literally, “clothing-clothing”) for apparel.
Characters can also be paired to support or supplement the intended meaning. For instance, we can find many adjectival nouns like 暗黒 (ankoku, literally, “dark-black”), meaning darkness, or 説明 (setsumei, literally, “speak bright”), meaning to explain. Others would include 平坦 (heitan, “flat-flat”), for level; 衰弱 (suijaku, “decline-frail”), for weakness; 清潔 (seiketsu, “pure-clean”), for hygienic or sanitary; and 転落 (tenraku, “revolve-drop”), for fall.
Yet another method for clarifying the meanings of words is to tack on an additional character whose function is to assign the base form to the word that precedes it, usually while emphasizing the pronunciation of the preceding word. (In linguistics it’s called an enclitic.) The most common of these is the character 子 (usually read shi or ko, and originally meaning a child).
As we shall see, 子 has several variants, so it is necessary to memorize these words by rote.
Some common examples of how words are made with 子 include 帽子 (bōshi, cap); 格子 (kōshi, lattice or grid pattern); and 弟子 (deshi, literally “younger brother child,” but meaning a follower or disciple).
Then there’s 杓子 (shakushi, a wooden ladle). The expression 猫も杓子も (neko mo shakushi mo, literally “cats and wooden spoons”), is equivalent to “every Tom, Dick and Harry” when referring to people or “the whole shebang” (“the whole kit and caboodle”) when referring to objects.
The shi reading also has a special use as an honorific, usually rendered as “master” when referring to ancient sages such as 孔子 (Kō shi, the Master Kung), or 孔夫子 (Kung fuzi, referred to as Confucius in its Latinized version). There’s also military strategist 孫子 (Sonshi, Sun Zi) — the author of 兵法 (“Heiho,” “The Art of War”) — and many others.
The shi changes to ji in words like 障子 (shōji, a paper screen) and 王子 (ōji, prince); and to su as in 椅子 (isu, chair); 扇子 (sensu, folding fan); 様子 (yōsu, state of affairs or circumstances); and 茄子 (nasu, eggplant). It can also be read as tsu, as in 面子 (mentsu, face), when used in phrases like 面子にこだわる (mentsu ni kodawaru, to be overly concerned with one’s personal honor) or 面子を保つ (mentsu wo tamotsu, to save face).
Among the kun-yomi (native Japanese readings) of 子 are ko or go, as in 双子 (futago, twins); 振り子 (furiko, a pendulum); 江戸っ子 (Edokko, a native Tokyoite going back three or more generations); 団子 (dango, a dumpling); and 黒子 (kuroko, a black-clad stagehand in kabuki or the puppet theater, used figuratively to mean a manipulator who is pulling the strings behind the scenes).
In Japanese surnames and place names, 子 is more likely to be pronounced ko or go, such as in 金子 (Kaneko), 益子 (Mashiko) and 田子 (Tago), but we can find a few exceptions, like 蛭子 (Ebisu).
On top of that, 子 can be pronounced ne or nezumi (rat) when referring to one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Why does such a simple character like 子 get pronounced so many different ways? We must understand that kanji were imported from different parts of China (and also Korea) over many centuries. As pronunciations at the sources changed, so did the Japanese adoptions.
As an example, take a relatively modern import like 餃子 (gyōza), a Chinese dish known in English as meat dumplings or pot-stickers. While probably not intelligible to a Chinese speaker, gyōza resembles the way it’s pronounced in China, “jiaozi” (sounds like “jee-ow-zuh” with a slight emphasis on “ow”), quite closely, even down to the palatalization of gyo.
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