当て字 - what is a 'phonetic kanji'?


#1

I am currently keeping up with my level 10 vocabulary, and this word pops up.

当て字 phonetic kanji

The meaning section has an explanation, but I don’t understand it -

“Phonetic kanji, which are kanji that are used in words simply for their sounds, not for their meanings. They are there to be phonetic, and that is all. That is why this word refers to phonetic kanji”

Can you anybody give me a clue on what it is? Perhaps some examples?

(I tried googling ‘phonetic kanji’, but all I got was articles on how to read kanji using radicals and kun/on readings. It isn’t relevant, is it?)


#2

It just means “kanji where the meanings have no relevance and were only chosen because the sounds fit.” Which is exactly what you said you didn’t understand, so I guess it’s not helpful, but I also don’t know why it’s not clear to you.

寿司 means “lifespan director” if taken literally, but has the pronunciation すし.

Another one would be 亜米利加 for アメリカ

Those kanji’s meanings have no relevance to the fact that you can spell America with them, so they are 当て字 in this case.


#3

Aha… Do I get it right, that some kanji (and kanji combinations) were ‘appointed’ to certain words as their written forms in order to avoid inventing new kanji for them?


#4

Well, I don’t know if that’s exactly the reasoning, but it’s just a natural extension of the fact that they have borrowed pronunciations that means you can do this if you want when making words.

Japanese existed before kanji, so, everything has kanji “appointed” to it in some sense, unless the kanji was made for the first time in Japan (kokuji) or the actual kanji combo was borrowed from Chinese.


#5

Basically phonetic kanji were used to spell foreign words or native Japanese words that didn’t have kanji before kana were developed. In addition, when kanji were first being imported and later on as well, ateji were used to spell out words in kanji because Chinese was cool and that showed that the writer was educated. Again, spelling out words only using the sounds of the kanji, with no regard for their meaning.

The examples Leebo used are only two of a great many Japanese words whose traditional kanji are basically nonsense.

More examples:

英吉利ーイギリス ーGreat Britain
伊太利家ーイタリヤーItaly
独逸、独乙ードイツーGermany
阿蘭陀ーオランダーHolland

Note that the meanings of the kanji in these country names are irrelevant. They are used only for their sounds in order to spell out the names of the countries in kanji. In this usage they are phonetic kanji. They can still be used with their appropriate meanings in other words, in which cases they are not considered to be phonetic kanji…


#6

#7

There also happens to be a tofugu article with a few more examples: https://www.tofugu.com/japanese/weird-kanji-readings/

The first one I stumbled across in the wild myself was 珈琲 for coffee.


#8

I’d like to thank everyone, now I feel more comfortable with the concept.


#9

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