One of the clues that enabled Western scholars in the 19th century to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics came from the hypothesis that the ancient system of pictographs might resemble Chinese characters, in that at least some were intended to represent sounds rather than depict meanings.
That indeed turned out to be the case. And like hieroglyphs, a high percentage — perhaps as many as two-thirds — of the kanji in regular use incorporate easily recognizable phonetic components that give a pretty consistent indication of how they should be read.
Let’s start with the character 古, read ko and also furui, both meaning “old,” which is written with crossed lines above a mouth.
In his 1964 book “Pictorial Chinese-Japanese Characters,” Oreste Vaccari gives this explanation: “This character is formed by the symbol 十 (jū, ten) and 口 (kuchi, mouth). The idea that suggested the combination of the two symbols to express the notion of ‘old’ was that any piece of news told in succession by word of mouth 10 times or by 10 people became ‘old.’ ”
Now that’s a great help in our memorization, but alas, it has nothing to do with the actual origin of the character. My 漢和辞典 (kanwa jiten, etymological dictionary) explains that 古 originally illustrated a crown that identified its wearer as a divine spirit, and took on the meaning of “long ago.”
Be as it may, almost all the characters you’ll see incorporating this “crown” are read ko.
Let’s start with 古代 (kodai, ancient times), 古墳 (kofun, an ancient burial mound) and 考古学 (kōkogaku, “the study that considers old things,” i.e., archaeology).
When 古 appears in other characters, they are also likely to be read ko. Take 故, read yue in its kun-yomi (訓読み, native Japanese pronunciation), which means “because” or “the reason for.” Read ko and appearing after a person’s name in parentheses, 故人 (kojin) means that person is deceased, equivalent to “the late” in English. You can also find it in 事故 (jiko, an accident), or 故障 (koshō, out of order).
Combine 古 with the tree radical and you get the verb 枯れる (kareru, to wither) used in such words as 枯渇 (kokatsu, to become depleted) and 栄枯 (eiko, vicissitudes). With the meat radical, 胡 means “barbarian” or “foreign,” used in 胡椒 (koshō, black pepper). And with the ninben (human classifier) you can see it in 個人 (kojin, an individual), characters often displayed atop taxis to indicate the driver owns the car.
Another phonetic component in wide use is 工, pronounced either kō or ku. It originally represented the image of a tool for measuring or aligning, and when used alone, usually conveys the meaning of building or producing things.
You’ll encounter it in such terms as 工事 (kōji, construction work), 工業 (kōgyō, industry) and also 工夫 (kufū, meaning to scheme or devise, but also read kōfu, a blue-collar laborer). Preceded by “large,” it becomes 大工 (daiku, carpenter) and can be found in the surname 工藤 (Kudō).
While 工合 (more usually 具合) can be read guai and mean “condition” or “health” in Japanese, the same characters in Chinese, pronounced gong he, mean “work together.” Written as “gung-ho,” the slogan was popularized by the U.S. Marines during World War II and is still widely used to describe someone who is extremely enthusiastic or eager, particularly as relates to military matters.
You’ll see characters containing 工 in such words as 攻撃 (kōgeki, attack), 成功 (seikō, success), 貢献する (kōken suru, to contribute), 紅葉 (kōyō, “red autumn leaves,” also read momiji, meaning “maple”) and in the word for sky, 空 (sora), as in 空港 (kūkō, airport).
Finally we come to 亡, which in its original form was meant to show a person hiding in the shadows, therefore signifying “to flee from,” and by extension, “nonexistence.” It can be pronounced bō or mō. We find it in 死亡する (shibō suru, to die) and 亡命 (bōmei, to defect to another country). Then there’s 亡者 (mōja), as in 金の亡者 (kane no mōja, “a ghoulish, money- mad person”) and in 未亡人 (mibōjin, a widow).
When the woman classifier is beneath it, we get words like 妄想 (mōsō, delusion) and 妄信 (mōshin, blind belief in something). Combined with 目 (me, eye) gives us 盲 (mō), meaning “blind.” A seeing-eye dog or 盲導犬 (mōdōken) literally means “dog that guides the blind.”
The same phonetic also appears at the upper left in 望み (nozomi, wish or desire), appearing in 希望 (kibō, hope), 望遠鏡 (bōenkyō, “gaze distance mirror,” i.e., telescope) and 展望台 (tenbōdai, a viewing platform).
Interestingly, 亡 can be used with both variations of the heart classifier, and both read bō. When the heart is written underneath, it becomes 忘れる (wasureru, to forget), found in such words as 忘年会 (bōnenkai, year-end party) and 健忘症 (kenbōshō, amnesia). With the heart classifier on the left as risshin-ben — the so-called standing heart radical — it becomes 忙しい (isogashii, busy).
Preceded by 多い (ōi, many), we get 多忙 (tabō, extremely busy), as in ご多忙の中，小生の記事を読んで頂いて、誠に ありがとうございました (Go-tabō no naka, shōsei no kiji o yonde itadaite makoto ni arigatō gozaimashita). In other words, “Thank you sincerely for taking time from your busy schedule to read this insignificant person’s article.”
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