Kanji, ideograms that constitute a bulk of the Japanese written language, come in four rough types. Pictographs, Indicators, Combographs, and Meaning-and-Sound Borrowers.
The first type is pictographs which stand in for the actual thing they represent. Some researchers claim fewer than 4% are actually pictographs.
人 biped (human)
弓 bow (as in “bow and arrow”)
戸 Japanese style door
口 mouth, entranceway
木 tree, wood, timber
本 roots (origins)
麦 wheat, barley, oats
All these are nouns which really limits their applicability in the realm of human affairs.
Indicators. Visual stand-in or pointer for a concept. Here are some examples
立 Stand up
面 Face, facet
末 Top end, tip
片 one of a pair
Combographs, kanji composed of two or more kanji to create a third meaning.
“A meeting of meanings” to forge a new alloy with different properties.
武 is composed of 戈 and 止
Military arts = Spear + Stop
Trust (Person + Speak) … Word is bond.
Physiognomy (tree + eye)
Rest/Take Off/Take break = Person + Tree
Man = Field + Power
Namely = Fragrant + Seal
Red (Big + Fire)
Fragrance (Millet + Sweet)
Hair hanging long (Long + hair)
Semantics and Sound Borrowers, meaning and sound borrowers, soundalikes inherit a phonetic value (pronunciation / reading) from one of their subkanji, and inherit meaning from another.
Meaning and Sound Borrowers make up 90% of Japanese Kanji.
「漢字の約９割が形声文字であるといわれている。」Roughly 90% of Kanji glyphs used in Japanese are classifiable as Meaning and Sound Borrower kanji.
[Reference 3: shinyuzemi-niigata.wixsite ]
This amazing fact, that 90% of kanji inherit their sound value (phonetic value / reading) from a subkanji has been explored in great detail in the book The Kanji Code. Likely inspired by a dictionary of kanji from Ancient China that contained 6 groups, although the sixth group only has 1 kanji in it, and many scholars prefer to stick to 4 groups for comprehension rather than divide one of the remaining groups in two.
Natalie Hamilton’s The Kanji Code is a great resource in learning the phonetic readings constituting over 90% of the kanji.
形声文字は、音を表わす文字（音符）と、意味を表わす部分（意符）で構成されています。Sound and Meaning Borrower Kanji have a phonetic helper subkanji and a meaning helper subkanji.
An exhaustive list of these “Soundalike” kanji, that usurp meaning from one and phonetic reading from another, can be found in Reference 4 where they also show derivations like the image above.
In the kanji characters above we can see that the phonetic reading is inherited from the right-hand side (Reference 5).
Here’s a graphical synopsis of the four kinds:
Roughly speaking, we can put a coarse approximation to the number of kanji in each category:
- Pictographs (3-4%)
- Indicators (1%)
- Combographs (5-6%)
- Meaning-and-Sound-Borrowers (90%)
also called Shape-and-Sound-Borrowers.
Thanks for reading, we hope that you’ll use this new knowledge to master the kanji swiftly!
- Types of Kanji (Originally 6) are largely derived from Xu Shen’s work from 100 CE, presented in 121 CE.