False friends

A question here perhaps for Chinese learners of Japanese or linguistics.

For the past couple of months I’ve been learning Mandarin fairly intensively. It is going better than anticipated (which might not mean well!) I was always a bit intimidated by Chinese owing to its reputation as a very difficult language to learn but so far it hasn’t lived up to that reputation. The tones aren’t as hard as I thought (not that I’m getting them right but my tutor seems able to understand me despite my failures), the grammar is so far the easiest of any language I’ve studied and knowing so many kanji has really helped with the hanzi as the meanings are usually the same or similar as sometimes the pronunciation is close or the same except for the tone.

It would be even easier if I were learning traditional Chinese but studying simplified Chinese as I understand that is more prevalent in mainland China.

Some hanzi I don’t recognise I’ve checked in my Japanese dictionary and many appear so they are in Japanese but perhaps not in daily use.

What interests me however are the hanzi that exist in Japanese but have a completely different meaning. To take just one example there is 没. In Mandarin it means “not have / not” and is one of the most common hanzi yet in Japanese it means “to die / drown / disappear”. Does anyone know how the meaning changed so dramatically and whether the change happened in Japanese or whether Japanese retains the original meaning and it in fact changed in Mandarin after the Japanese started using hanzi to write Japanese?

Ironically 没 is often paired with 有 (没有) and the pronunciation and meaning of 有 in Mandarin is almost the same as in Japanese.


From my limited experience with chinese is that it’s easy to learn, hard to master.

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没 has an archaic meaning of “lacking, without” in Japanese that shows up in compounds like 没我. I don’t know Chinese but according to a couple of online dictionaries, it has the meaning of “drown” or “sink” in Chinese as well.

So, it appears that both meanings exist in both languages, but the “not” meaning has become more prevalent in Chinese and the “drown/sink/die” meaning has become more prevalent in Japanese.

Japanese uses the kanji 不 and 無 ubiquitously as prefixes meaning “not,” so it’s possible that meaning for 没 was redundant and therefore not needed. I’d be interested to know the difference in nuance between 没 and 不 in Chinese, since I know 不 is also in common use in Chinese to mean “not.”


Interesting, I didn’t know it has a meaning of to die in Japanese. Could it be because the meaning of ‘not have’ = ‘no longer’ hence ‘to die’?

I think 没落 (decline/ruin) means the same in both Chinese and Japanese. I speak Cantonese but my Chinese isn’t very good.

没 comes up in WK (can’t remember which level but in the 50s), with definition of to die but don’t think I’ve come across it in practice yet.

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Surely that applies to all languages?

Since I am also a Mandarin beginner, take this with a grain of salt: 没 is usually used for negation in the past tense, while 不 is for the present tense. 沒有 (not have) is an exception, because it’s in present tense.