Kanji vs. Vocabulary: 牛 (cow)

I’m a bit confused about the difference between a stand-alone kanji and a stand-alone kanji used as a vocabulary word.

For instance, this kanji: 牛 means “cow,” whether it’s the kanji or the vocabulary word. But it is pronounced ぎゅう if it’s the kanji, and うし if it’s the vocabulary word.

How would you know which way to pronounce it if you saw it on a sign, for instance?

Thanks!

   Doug
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If you see it on a sign on its own, it will be the kunyomi reading for the vocab. If it’s part a bigger word like milk - 牛乳, then it will be the onyomi reading. I see ぎゅう as a building block and うし as a word…

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A kanji is some kind of letter. It is a character that is used to write words. Think of the letter ‘a’ but in an oriental alphabet. Sometimes there is a single kanji word, like the word “a” which is made of a single letter. A kanji has several readings. The most frequently used one is taught with the kanji. Other less frequent one are taught with the vocabulary. For 牛 the most frequent reading is ぎゅう. When the single kanji word is used, the less frequent reading うし is applicable.

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This is a bit of a misunderstanding. WaniKani asks you to answer with ぎゅう for the kanji item because they taught you ぎゅう in the lesson. But ぎゅう and うし are both valid readings of the kanji as a concept.

When it’s a vocab word by itself, it is うし.

This is a bit of complicating factor, actually, because signs tend to use abbreviations and different grammar from sentences, so it’s possible to imagine some scenarios where 牛 by itself is うし and scenarios where it’s ぎゅう on a sign. For instance, 牛 (ぎゅう) could be used as an abbreviation of 牛肉 (ぎゅうにく) and in that case, you would probably read the kanji as ぎゅう.

But if you’re just reading a normal text with 牛 in a sentence, it will likely be うし if it’s by itself as a word.

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How would you know which way to pronounce it if you saw it on a sign, for instance?

You wouldn’t. That’s one of the big reasons why people who speak European languages find Japanese so difficult to learn. I’ve seen it called the chicken-and-egg problem.

To wrap your head around the difficulty, you have to understand a bit of the historical context. Kanji are imported from China. When they were brought over, the Japanese kept a rough approximation of how these words were pronounced in Mandarin. That’s the on’yomi reading.

The thing is, the Japanese imported kanji for concepts they already had words for, and they often kept these words with their native (or kun’yomi) readings. That’s why the same kanji will often read differently when used in vocab.

Tofugu has a must-read article on how this Franken-alphabet came to be.

That’s why 牛 is ぎゅう sometimes and うし other times. About the only rule I’ve seen is that when a word has more than one kanji, it’s usually all on’yomi or all kun’yomi – though even this has exceptions.

This is why Japanese school students spend a lot of time simply copying kanji by hand. It’s why furigana exist – to help foreign readers and young children. Outside of kanji, Japanese is actually a pretty approachable language. The grammar is very regular, and word order is relatively predictable. Compared to Russian or English, verbs are a piece of cake in Japanese.

But with kanji, you have the boss fight of languages for anyone who has grown up speaking a European language.

Ah, that’s a bit too final. It’s more like, with enough exposure to how the language works, you can make an educated guess, and be right most of the time.

Don’t be silly. You don’t make oyakodon with beef.

But seriously though, I don’t really see how this is a chicken-and-egg problem. A chicken-and-egg problem is one in which you can’t get A without having B, and you can’t get B without having A. In this situation, only one thing is lacking - experience with the language.

The golden rule in Japanese: All Rules Have Exceptions, Even This One.

No, that’s to practice writing. Reading is a different skill.

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Things tend to look easy in retrospect. I find multiplication easy. My nine year-old son doesn’t. The difference is you can take multiplication apart and reason it out from first principles. In Japanese, you really can’t. You just have to memorize your way through it. Before you have enough kanji under your belt, it is very difficult to read Japanese. But you need to be able to read to get better at Japanese. That’s your chicken and egg.

The difficulty, as the OP noticed, is that there’s no obvious connection between a word and how it’s read. That’s why this site exists – to get learners over the pons asinorum that is kanji. Of course it’s learnable. It’s just not particularly approachable as languages go.

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Ok, not super related but same kanji vs vocab issue. So let’s say I’m driving (or I suppose in Japan, probably on a train) and pass a field of cows. Would I say ぎゅう because it’s all I’m going to say, or would I use うし?

It is うし because the word for cow is the single kanji word 牛 and its reading is うし.

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Just wanted to say a thank you to everyone who took the time to respond to my question. I do think I have a better understanding of it all now, and really appreciate the help!

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Thank you, rtperson, for the Tofugu article you linked. I knew about on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, but that article really made a whole lot of stuff much clearer to me!

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