Wakeru and Wakaru

So clearly 分かる and 分ける are intransitive and transitive forms of the same concept or were at some point even though they translate as to “to understand” and “to separate”. But what was the original concept? And is there a different word used for “to separate something” in everyday Japanese?

Assuming I’m not totally off base, this type of thing (obviously related words that now have very different interpretation) happens occasionally in English, too, and I find that really interesting to track down how the words are related. Unfortunately I’ve heard that the actual etymology of many Japanese words is had to pin down so I guess this will just be a sort of mnemonic for me unless someone knows for sure.

My guess would be that the “separate” meaning came first and by metaphor the ability “to separate something into its parts” came to refer to understanding.

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I think you are right, the kanji itself shows how something is separated (八) into two parts with a knife (刀).

The understanding meaning comes later (and maybe Japan only?), Shirakawa says 国語では「わかる」とよみ、道理の分かる人のように、判る(理解できる)の意味に用いる。

So you can use it to write 判る (<- also わかる).


Some good reading on the etymology of the word here, although it doesn’t answer your question directly:

" The Japanese verb wakaru is most often glossed as to understand . However, wakaru is intransitive, and it takes the thing that is understood, distinguished, or recognized as the subject (usually marked by particle (ga)), and not the object (usually marked by particle (o)). Strictly speaking, wakaru is thus closer to English to be understandable , as the verb wakaru describes the thing itself, unlike English to understand , which describes the action of the person doing the understanding, distinguishing, or recognizing."

It never even occurred to me that I conjugate it that way!

My guess is that the English translation “to distinguish” (or more accurately, to be distinguishable!) is probably the closest bridge between the meanings “understand” and “separate”. The root “dis” even means “apart”.

You can distinguish one red marble in a bag from all the other blue marbles. That both carries this mental image for me of the red marble standing out, or being apart from, all the others; you can see it’s borders; in your mind’s eye, you draw a mental border around it’s edges and cut it away from all the other noise in the picture. This sense of “distinguish” seems related to separating, to me.

But “distinguish” also means you’re seeing it clearly-- you can’t distinguish a blurry shape in the bag if you have bad eyesight. To see it clearly and sharply sounds a lot like what your mind would do with a hazy, non-concrete concept. You can distinguish a concept and make it out-- it is distinguishable in your mind. You understand it

PS-- this reminds me of another set of things that never occurred to me were related until I started studying Japanese: The “r” and the “l” sounds seemed like a totally arbitrary group of sounds to confuse for each other at first. But then hearing the English examples “Airy” “Eddy” and “Ellie” you can hear how they’re all very close (and how weirdly enough the Japanese “r” can be replicated with the English “dd”!)


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