– Free Online Kanji Etymology Dictionary –
3,500-4,000 years ago the Han Chinese invented characters to express their spoken language in written form. This spoken language was systematic, with clearly identifiable conjunctions between sound and meaning. Scholarly reconstructions of the sounds of ancient (or proto-) Chinese allow us to make a preliminary identification of the phonetic matrices according to which the Chinese characters were devised, opening a window to the worldview of this fascinating language as possessed by its early speakers.
The etymologies in this online dictionary are written specifically to account for the meanings the characters express in modern Japanese. These meanings often but not always overlap with the characters' meanings in Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. CKV students may benefit from the dictionary's presentation of the characters' origins, but should be sure to consult appropriate reference sources for the modern meanings the characters possess in CKV.
About the Etymologies
Hikaru Morimoto and I collaborated on research into Chinese characters for nearly a dozen years, concluding with his death in 2004. The etymologies contained in this site take their cue from two prominent Sinologists, Bernhard Karlgren and Akiyasu Todo, both of whom organized Chinese characters according to word families of phonetically and semantically related terms.
Distinguishing our etymologies from Todo's is the viewpoint that phonosemantic principles apply to 1) the initial consonants, 2) final consonants, and 3) the vowels O and U in ancient Chinese.
The following chart presents examples of elements that appear frequently in compound characters. Each element is assigned a semantic keyword (denoted as a "descriptor"). The third column presents a representative selection of compound characters in which the element appears and exercises the semantic influence noted. The examples are in no particular order. Note that the semantic descriptors do not necessarily match the elements' meanings when they are used as independent characters. Click on any character to view its complete etymology.
(Click here to view the Reproduced Chart)
Naturally, the 6,500 characters in this online dictionary represent but a fraction of all those that have ever been created. The Japanese standard is considered to be Dai Kan-Wa Jiten (大漢和辞典: revised and expanded version of 1960; edited by 諸橋轍次 [Morohashi Tetsuji] inter alia), which contains 50,000 characters. In China, a 1994 book lists 85,000 while another publication said to be on its way will exceed 100,000 characters.
For all that, a random sampling of the 50,000 Morohashi characters suggests that well over half are alternate forms and that another large chunk are personal nouns. The sampling also reveals thousands of characters for which the original significations and/or historical usages are uncertain (many of these refer to plants or to insects and other small creatures). That leaves, according to my rough calculations, approximately 4,000 characters for which etymologies might be produced with confidence. I hope to add as many of these as possible to the Kanji Networks corpus in coming years.
Credit for all that is good and useful in this dictionary belongs to Hikaru Morimoto. With me rests the blame for everything else.
Lawrence J. Howell, May 2009
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