I am Level 10, and I just encountered 当て字. I had heard about phonetic Kanji before, usually used for tourists who want their name spelled out in Kanji just to sound cool. I didn’t think it had a purpose. I am just wondering: Why would someone DO this? I mean, like a real Japanese speaker, not a tourist who just wants to be cool. Am I missing something? Is this a common thing? Wouldn’t it be proper to use the real Kanji for a word?
A lot of ateji is attributed to the past when they were using borrowed Chinese characters, before the existence of the kana syllabary. There was no other way for them to write stuff that was foreign since katakana didn’t exist yet, so they just used kanji for their sounds rather than for meaning to indicate loan words.
As an aside, if you’re interested in studying it more in-depth, you can look up 万葉仮名, which is where hiragana/katakana were derived, and which was used in one of the most famous Japanese poetry books (the 万葉集)
I hate 当て字
A common word that uses 当て字 is すし, the kanji used for sushi are 寿司. However neither of those kanji have anything to do with food, they were just used for their sounds す and し.
Ateji was also used for writing loanwords in Japanese, nowadays this is done with katakana.
What “proper” kanji? 弁当 is both ateji and the “proper” kanji for the word べんとう.
As a native English speaker, I feel like it’s inappropriate for me to tell any other language that it is making phonetic or orthographic mistakes. English phonetics can only be understood (barely) through tough thorough thought.
I think I’m beginning to understand! I think I know now what it is. And probably some of the Kanji for vocabulary I’ve already learned is some あてじ! Thank you!
No one said anything about anyone making mistakes. However, when learning a language, it is not inappropriate to ask questions to better understand. I think I do undertstand it now too!
Wouldn’t it be proper to use the real Kanji for a word?
It seems to me that the kanji native speakers use is “proper” by definition.
Some semantic matching examples you may know from early WaniKani levels: 中東, 海王星
Ateji is phonetic matching (picking characters because of their sound).
Sometimes, Ateji is both phonetic and semantic matching. From the article:
In some cases, however, the kanji were chosen for both their semantic and phonetic values, a form of phono-semantic matching. A stock example is 倶楽部 ( kurabu ) for “club”, where the characters can be interpreted loosely in sequence as “together-fun-place”. Another example is 合羽 ( kappa ) for the Portuguese capa , a kind of raincoat. The characters can mean “wings coming together”, as the pointed capa resembles a bird with wings folded together.
You may notice that the ateji words are often very “Japanese-sounding” words that nonetheless get jukugo representations (even though most jukugo words are of Chinese origin). For example, I would presume 素敵 falls into this category. The ateji serves to give them a jukugo representation.
Chinese does it much more aggressively than Japanese for loanwords; almost everything, even brand names, gets borrowed in this way, ex:
Modern Standard Chinese 声纳 shēngnà “sonar” uses the characters 声 shēng “sound” and 纳 nà “receive, accept”. The pronunciations shēng and nà are phonetically somewhat similar to the two syllables of the English word.
Another example is the Mandarin form of World Wide Web, which is wàn wéi wǎng (万维网), which satisfies “www” and literally means “myriad dimensional net”. The English word hacker has been borrowed into Mandarin as 黑客 ( hēikè , “wicked visitor”).
Notice that in Chinese, phono-semantic matching is used almost exclusively; the hanzi are rarely chosen purely for their sound.
Compare also jukujikun, which is when you have kanji that semantically match, but the reading is completely different entirely. For example, 今朝, 昨日, 明日, 河豚, and so on.
And what would the “real” kanji for something like 亜米利加 be?
Well, I wasn’t sure of the definition of 当て字. I was assuming it was something non natives were using. But now I see what the real definition is and how they are used!
Well, when I asked this question, I didn’t know what the real usage was for these. I thought they were mostly by non natives. But now I see how these words work and what they are with all the examples everyone has given and that they are native as well. So, I appreciate the people who took the time to explain it, because I didn’t understand. Kind of didn’t appreciate the people who didn’t. We all need to help each other. That is what a forum is.
Proper kanji as in “why would someone use ‘longevity director’ for sushi?”
Amusingly, there was a period in (I think) the eighties when writing simple kana phrases with complicated ateji was a fad. It was seen as being kind of edgy and cool. For example, 夜露死苦＝よろしく (i.e. as in よろしくおねがいします).
After a while, you just tune out the noise.
It was also a fad amongst teenage girls in the 90s and I think early 2000s to replace random hiragana letters with katakana.
In any culture, you can always rely on teenage girls to push the limits of language.
Thank you for this morning’s belly laugh!
@TamanegiNoKame Are you secretly from this time period?
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