How to tell a word's origin?

I have a problem remembering what words rendaku by brute force memorization, so when I found this Tofugo article I was naturally exited.

The article basically has 2 main ideas:

  • Japanese Origin Words Do Rendaku
  • Chinese Origin Words Do Not Rendaku

However, it doesn’t say how do you know which words have a Japanese origin and which have a Chinese one. Without a clear marker this is actually more difficult to remember than rendaku perse.

Without their guide I need to remember the word’s meaning, reading and whether or not it rendakues using bare memorization. With their guide I need to remeber the words’ meaning, reading and origin, which is arguably more work than the first option because not all words rendaku but all words have an origin.

Am I missing something here?

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Basically, go read their onyomi / kunyomi article, I think. That will cover it.

I did, but it didn’t really answered it. The article is more of a historical one and although interesting to read, it doesn’t say how to determine whether a reading is onyomi or kunyomi.

Even the section “How can I know the reading?”

In any case, if you see kana with kanji, it’s (almost definitely) Japanese/kunyomi.

If it’s just kanji, and it’s a compound, it’s probably Chinese/onyomi.

If it’s just kanji, and it’s not a compound, it’s probably Japanese.

Some words are combinations of both, some are completely different in origin (eg 珈琲, coffee), and some are exceptions to those rules of thumb, but that covers the broad strokes.


Usually if a word is a jukugo, so composed of two or more kanji, it will use the on’yomi.

Usually if a kanji’s reading has more than 1 syllable, it is kun’yomi. Edit: not a good rule.

Also if a word is written with okurigana, it is usually kun’yomi.

There are exceptions to all of these, but it works in general.

This seems like a bit of of a loose one… If you say “more than two mora then it is 100% kunyomi” then it’s pretty airtight, because I can think of plenty of two mora onyomi.

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That is why I said syllable instead of mora :wink:

But ‘more than two mora’ is probably a clearer way to describe it.

Well, then I think I don’t know what it means. Are you calling きゅう one syllable? But さく is two?

If it’s just kanji, and it’s a compound, it’s probably Chinese/onyomi.

You could then argue that if it’s a compound it probably doesn’t rendaku, since it’s probably onyomi. However, the starting point of this discussion was exactly the improbable situation in which one isn’t onyomi and does rendaku.

To rephrase it: the main problem is knowing when to rendaku.

The naive solution is to memorize each word individually (most don’t rendaku, but some do) and this solution is hard. The “better” solution, according to tofugo, is to use their guidelines that involve knowing a word’s origin. The solution to this is to memorize each word’s origin individually (most compounds are chinese, but some aren’t) which is just as hard as the first solution.

This is why I thought I was missing the big picture here.

Yes that is what I meant. But then さく and the like are also on’yomi, so I guess that rule has too many exceptions to be called a rule. So I will just cross that out of my initial list

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Ah yes. the problem was rendaku. I never read a guide on predicting rendaku, and my own method is hardly foolproof, so sorry that I can’t be of help there.

I don’t know what to tell you. At a certain point, you will have no doubt what the origin of a word is when you learn it. I don’t need to think about those rules to be able to tell you if a word is kunyomi or onyomi the first time I hear it. Or if it’s kun-on, on-kun, or jukujikun. Or a loanword from another language entirely.

I didn’t do anything in particular to arrive at that point, it’s just something that happens when you know enough words. And given that there are always exceptions, you just have to take words as they come. In some cases, you can find linguistics papers that break everything down into precise rules, but no one actually thinks about those rules when they are learning. Or certainly not when they are on the spot recalling a word mid-sentence.


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