Big in Japanese

When reading the kanji for big, it is just おお. However, the きい is added to make 大きい. I’m not sure what the meaning of adding the last two hiragana characters is or how it changes the meaning of the word. I couldnt find anything about きい being a regular addition of some sort.

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This is more about how kanji works in relation to the grammar of Japanese. Japanese existed as a language before kanji came over from China.

おおきい is a Japanese word that means big.
大 is a Chinese character that means big.

Japan imported the kanji and applied it to their writing, so 大 would get used for おおきい, but the grammar of Japanese is different from Chinese. The endings of words in Japanese can change for tense and other reasons, so the kanji couldn’t replace the entire word.

This allows you to represent the word using the Chinese character concept while still allowing for all the various changes it can undergo.

大きい is big
大きかった was big
大きくない is not big

and so on.

As for why the き is included on the outside of the kanji in addition to the い if only the い changes… It seems like おおきい is derived from older adjectives that did end on the third character, but they continued to write the beginning the same way even after more got added to it.

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大 is a character meaning “big,” but it’s not a word. It appears in a number of words.

This is actually not a foreign concept in English if you think about it as though it’s a Latin affix. It’s not exactly the same situation, but I think it helps. Think about a prefix like “extra-” in English. You can make all sorts of words with “extra-” as a component: extraoridnary, extracurricular, extrapolation, and extraneous are a few examples. In each case, you can see where the “extra-” part fits in: something extraordinary is beyond the ordinary, extracurricular activities are beyond the school curriculum, and an extrapolation is an inference beyond what someone knows for sure.

In Japanese, with 大, you can make a number of words. Some examples are 大きい (big), 大学 (university), 大人 (adult), and 大統領 (president). You can see how the 大 part fits into the meaning of each these words: an adult is a big person, for example, and a university is a big/great school.


大きい is an adjective. Specifically, it’s an い-adjective, which always end in -い (but all adjectives ending in -い are not necessarily い-adjectives, as there are a few exceptions). The kana here give you a hint that it’s an adjective.

(In Japanese, you can conjugate adjectives, which is where you get words like those @Leebo mentioned.)

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I think it’s also worth pointing out that おおきい uses the kun’yomi reading of the character, which indicates* that the word is Japanese in origin. I’m definitely not an expert in Japanese and I am not an etymologist by any stretch of the imagination, but I would interpret this as meaning the adjective 大きい existed—in some form, at least—in Japanese before the introduction of the Chinese writing system. This would make sense, as it’s a very common word that would have seen daily use in the spoken language. Some long-dead Japanese person decided that the word should be written with 大 because the meaning is similar. By contrast, 大学 uses the on’yomi reading, which makes me think it could be of Chinese origin.

Indeed, if you look at the etymology of 大きい, it mentions origins in Old Japanese, while the etymology of 大学 says it’s from Middle Chinese.

It’s not a surprise to me, then, that you have -きい and not just -い (to make it an い-adjective) here; this is an old word and it’s gone through some changes over time. @Leebo’s explanation is good.


It’s not a regular addition.

You can see kana in addition to -い in a number of other commonly used い-adjectives. Examples include 危ない (dangerous), 美味しい (delicious), 小さい (small), and 冷たい (cold). There’s not really a pattern and it’s just something you have to memorize.


*I’m sure there are cases where this isn’t true. Languages are complicated.

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Somewhat of a tangent

I’d say it’s safe to assume kun’yomi = Japanese pretty much always.

There’s a handful of words that were introduced to Japanese so far in advance of the arrival of kanji that the words became “Japanese” before the kanji showed up, and thus they became kun’yomi. We think this is the case because these kun’yomi happen to resemble equivalent words in extremely ancient Chinese, but it was so long ago that we’re not entirely sure - it might even be the reverse, that Chinese got it from Japanese. Or both from Korean. And either way, considering the length of time involved, the question of whether or not the readings are actually Japanese is probably entirely philosophical.

Examples are: くに, かま, うめ and きぬ

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I was surprised to see that the kunyomi of 頁 is ページ :stuck_out_tongue:

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I looked up Kunyomi, so more like things not Chinese. Appendix:Japanese glossary - Wiktionary, the free dictionary

I was thinking of possiblity of misclassification as Kunyomi; but Onyomi often has the Chinese era to be referenced from.

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Hah, forgot about that one. Reckon that’s only because they don’t have an slot for ei’yomi in their kanji dictionaries. :stuck_out_tongue:

The Golden Rule strikes again.

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