sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.2.

1.2.7. Why do kanji have several different pronunciations?

On'yomi and kun'yomi

In Japanese, one kanji, or Chinese character, may have a number of different readings. For example 木, which means "tree", may be read in three ways: moku, boku, or ki. The moku and boku readings are called on'yomi (音読み), and the ki reading is called a kun'yomi (訓読み).

Before the introduction of Chinese characters to Japan, Japanese had no written form. The Chinese pronunciations, on'yomi, like moku, came in to Japanese at the same time as the kanji. The kun'yomi, like ki, were native Japanese words which existed before the introduction to Japan of Chinese characters, and were attached to the kanji on the basis of the character's meaning.

More than one kun'yomi

A kanji may have several kun'yomi, for example if it is used for several different meanings, but these can usually be distinguished by okurigana, the kana placed after the kanji. (See 1.1.8. What is ?) For example, the kanji 行, meaning "go", has two possible kun'yomi of iku and okonau. These words are written with extra kana: iku is 行く, with the kanji followed by く, and okonau is 行う, with the same kanji followed by う.

More than one on'yomi

Most kanji came to Japan between the fifth and ninth centuries. The on'yomi is a Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of the character at the time it was introduced. Some kanji were introduced more than once from different parts of China at different times, and so have multiple on'yomi. They may also have different meanings.

On'yomi are classified into four types:

  1. Go'on (呉音), literally "Wu sound" readings, from the pronunciation of the Wu region of China, which is in the vicinity of modern Shanghai, during the 5th and 6th centuries;
  2. Kan'on (漢音) readings, from the pronunciation during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th to 9th centuries, primarily from the standard speech of the capital, Chang'an;
  3. Tou'on (唐音) readings, from the pronunciations of later dynasties, such as the Song and Ming Dynasties, covers all readings adopted from the Heian era to the Edo period;
  4. Kan'you-on (慣用音) readings, which are mistaken readings of the kanji which have become accepted into the language.

For example, the following kanji have a variety of readings in these systems:
Kanji Meaning Go'on Kan'on Tou'on Kan'you'on
Light myou mei min *
Go gyou kou an *
Extremely goku kyoku * *
Pearl * shu * ju, zu
Level do taku to *

The most common form of readings is the kan'on one. The go'on readings are especially common in Buddhist terminology such as gokuraku (極楽) "paradise". The tou'on readings occur in some words such as isu "chair" or futon.

Japanese and Chinese pronunciation

In Chinese, each character is associated with a single Chinese syllable. However, many on'yomi are composed of two moras (see 7.7. What is the difference between a mora and a syllable?), the second of which is either a long vowel in the first mora, or one of ku, ki, tsu, chi, or n, chosen for their approximation to the final consonants of Middle Chinese. In fact, youon (see 7.8. What is ?), as well as syllabic n (see 7.10. What is syllabic n?), were probably added to Japanese to better simulate Chinese; none of these features occur in words of native Japanese origin.

When to use kun'yomi and on'yomi

On'yomi mostly occur in words which are compounds of several kanji (jukugo). Many of the jukugo were adopted along with the kanji themselves from Chinese words. Chinese-borrowed terms are considered to sound more erudite or formal than their native counterparts.

In surnames, the native kun'yomi is usually used, as in 藤原 "Fujiwara", although there are many exceptions such as 工藤, "Kudo", which uses on'yomi. See 9.3. How do Japanese names work?. Male personal names often use on'yomi; female personal names tend to use kun'yomi.

On'yomi and kokuji (kanji made in Japan)

The kokuji, the kanji invented in Japan (see 1.2.5. Which were created in Japan?), do not normally have on'yomi, but there are exceptions, such as the character 働 'to work', which has the kun'yomi hataraku and the on'yomi dou, and 腺 'gland', which has only the on'yomi sen.

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