An interesting explanation of why Japanese works the way it does

A friend of mine linked me to a comment on reddit which has a great take on the workings of on’yomi and kun’yomi, and how Japanese is based so heavily on meanings.

Imagine a world in which the word “financial” were spelled “$ial”, “monetary” were spelled “$ary”, and “money” were spelled “$”. So we’ve done two things here: we’ve mixed symbols and letters, and the symbols have different pronunciations depending on what word they’re in.
Japanese is like that, except with a ton more symbols, and by the way there are no spaces between words.
Another analogy: imagine if we had a symbol for water (I’ll steal from Chinese and say 水). Now you know how we have all these Greek and Latin roots? Let’s just use the same symbol for those, so we’ll write “hydrate” like “水ate” and “aquatic” like “水ic”. And “water” is spelled “水”.
Japanese is actually a bit simpler than English here. In this hypothetical system for English, each character will get three classes of pronunciations: one for the Latin root, one for the Greek root, and one for the English word. This is because English steals from two foreign languages (Latin and Greek) to get its fancy roots. However, Japanese only steals from one language (Chinese) to get its fancy roots. So each character only gets two classes of pronunciations: Chinese and Japanese.
Final analogy: how do you pronounce 1cycle, 1rail, 1st, and 1?

This could be a help to newcomers how struggle with the “why does is it sui one time and mizu the other??” concept.



I think it nicely makes a metaphor of the process.

I think ultimately while it’s good to understand the reason why different readings exist, in the same way we can tell if a word came from Latin, etc., the biggest take away lesson for any newcomer regarding on’yomi and kun’yomi is this: think of the vocabulary words as words.

Most languages are filled with words that are spelled the way they are just because that’s the way they are spelled, with no particular rule explaining it - sometimes you unfortunately just have to learn how they’re spelled ^-^


Exactly! Yet many newcomers complain about the fact that Japanese does it. I think they just don’t realize that it’s a widely spread concept in languages. The “final analogy” shows this best, in my opinion. We are actually quite used to pronouncing the same concept/meaning in different ways. We just tend to accept it if it’s letters and reject it if it’s pictograms, since “they should always be the same!”


If you get the chance and want to really get frustrated at the English language, check out this poem called ‘The Chaos’ by Gerard Nolst Trenité - it’s entirely about how the English language is filled with unexplained homonyms and homophones.


I really like Pomax’s Guide for this very reason. It goes over the etymology for a bunch of things, like conjugation.

That is a pretty nice way to explain the Japanese writing system to my friends, that do not learn Japanese.


While it doesn’t matter for the analogy used to illustrate the way readings work in Japanese, only a relatively small subset of the non-Germanic words in English comes from Greek, with the vast majority being borrowed from either Latin or French.

English spelling is highly irregular, obviously, but there is also a good amount of languages that have a pretty close mapping of sound to letter with (very) few inconsistencies, e.g. Spanish, Finnish, Turkish, Croatian.

I think my biggest problem isn’t the different readings, but how the same word can mean different things.
If someone could explain that to me, I’d be set.

I figure things are spelled a certain way, but when きょうりょく can mean many different things, I’m lost.

Here’s another example:

And, P.S.: Yes I know I’ve said this before.

I guess context is everything; when listening to speech and knowing which means which.
Reading and writing it doesn’t really matter at this point, so, I guess compartmentalizing everything is key? That way, I know which definition to apply in the moment?

p.p.s: I thought hikaru meant to shine or akaru, whichever.

well for きょうりょく having multiple meanings, English has homophones and homonyms as well.
Read/reed, read/red, bear(animal)/bear(bearing arms), led/lead, dye/die(pass away)/die(singular of dice), etc.
Japanese isn’t alone in that. We also have words which can have different meanings depending on context.
Tie in a race/tie a knot; draw a picture/draw a sword.
Hell we even have words which are their own opposite.
Dust sugar on something/dust something off; overlook (ignore something vs to oversee).

Edit to your PPS: Synonyms exist in many languages, often with some nuance distinguishing them eg quiet/silent.


I guess I have to compartmentalize these things. I still haven’t wrapped my head around this concept.

Ah you edited your post so now this one doesn’t make sense in context :sweat_smile:

my post

I pronounce dye/die/die all the same. I pronounce read (past tense) same as the color red. I pronounce read (present tense) same as reed. Pretty sure all these examples have the same pronunciation.
Example, level 1 vocab includes 人工 and 人口, both read じんこう. However, contextually, population and man-made are used in pretty different contexts so I doubt I will ever confuse them in spoken language.

Kind of like omoi. Omoi can mean heavy. Or it can mean any number of things relating to thought or feeling, depending on what you add to it. Omoi-dasu, omoi-de, omoi-tsuku…etc.

Sorry, didnt mean to hijack the thread… carry on.

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If this helps people then that’s great, but I find it a little difficult to follow because even though I know it’s an example that requires suspension of disbelief it describes the English language incorrectly.

It’s true English has many words and word roots that come from Greek and Latin but this is a small percentage (around 6% and 29% respectively) with the proportion of words from native English being only around 20-30% and the rest being taken from other Germanic languages or other Romance languages.

This is the opinion I share.

I think at the very most the takeaway should be that: compound kanji generally use on’yomi and standalone kanji generally use kun’yomi and any exception is an exception.

I say that because I don’t see how $al or any of the other examples given in the comment are helpful in any context.

日光 is にっこう because that’s the word. 日 is ひ because that’s the word. 光 is ひかり because that’s the word.

It’s the same as learning that /ou/ in English is a short /o/ in cough and a long /o/ in pour. Knowing that cough comes from Proto-Germanic and pour comes from Old French doesn’t help you learn these just like knowing that にっこう is Chinese sounds and ひ and ひかり are Japanese sounds doesn’t help you learn them.

I think there’s a trend with Japanese to make it seem more difficult and academic than it needs to be. It’s just a language with rules and exceptions like any other.

It doesn’t need to be explained through inaccurate hypothetical situations about English. It kind of just is the way it is. If you’re confused about on’yomi and kun’yomi I really don’t know if the comment in the OP is the way to go about explaining it.


This is a general problem in second language acquisition. People try too hard to learn about a language instead of acquiring it. Then they get used to decoding the language, rather than experiencing it.


This is definitely something I’ve noticed, especially in online resources like Imabi (no disrespect intended). There’s a focus online in telling you why a point of language is the way it is which I think is unhelpful at best and a flex at worst.

Sometimes I will seek out the historical basis of something if it seems strange but other than that I see no point to deconstruct the language to its historical and etymological roots unless there’s a really good reason for doing so.

To be fair to imabi, it is a linguistics-based resource that is intentionally going into depth on that. For people like me who are interested in linguistics, not just the language itself, stuff like imabi is great. It can definitely be too much for someone just trying to get a handle on the language itself.


光る is to shine like a lightbulb. 差す is to shine like to stand out. Also see how it’s used in 指差す, to point at.

That’s a great analogy overall.

I think it is what makes Japanese and Chinese so interesting to learn.

In English (and other languages) you need to train yourself to recognize affixes. They are not as apparent as in Japanese or Chinese. In Japanese and Chinese, you immediately see how the word has been constructed (with some exceptions, of course).

For example, the prefix “uni-” means “one”. You find it in words such “unicycle” or “universe”. But since the meaning of the prefix is not as apparent as in Japanese, some ****** decided to make the word “unisex” to mean “suitable for any gender”, as in “universal gender”. If we had “1cycle” and “1verse”, no ****** would have thought to make the word “1sex” for that meaning.

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Sorry, would you mind not using the r-word like that? I’m not a big fan of it.


Sorry, I don’t agree with you.