Where there kunyomi for compound words in the past?


There is something about Japanese & Chinese Kanji that is still not clear to me…

According to his Tofugu article, at some point in history the Japanese language decided to import from Chinese most compound kanji (changing slightly the pronunciation) and that’s when onyomi and kunyomi readings arose. But now I wonder… before that happened, were there kunyomi readings for those compound words in Japanese?? :thinking:

Practical examples:

鳥 - [とり] - Japanese word for “bird”, kunyomi reading
白鳥 - [はくちょう] - Chinese word for “swan”, onyomi reading

心 - [こころ] - Japanese word for “heart”, kunyomi reading
身 - [み] - Japanese word for “body”, kunyomi reading
心身 - [しんしん] - Chinese word for “body and mind”, onyomi reading

Why did they do that??.. what, Japanese had no native word for “swan” or for “body and mind”??.. can’t believe that…

Why replacing the native reading for compound words only??
At this point they could import all words from Chinese, so also “bird” would had become [ちょう] replacing [とり], and “heart” [しん] instead of [こころ]

Or am I misunderstanding something??

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Well, believe it or not… English didn’t have a word for swan at one point in time.


White birb :eyes:


本当に? are swans so rare??

What I meant is that languages evolve as we experience the world. So, at one point in time there most likely wouldn’t have been a word in any language for the thing we call a swan.

It’s the same for Japanese.

A better example in English would be the “English” words for man and woman which were wer and wyf. Over time, English lost these words except for only two words that preserve them: werewolf and midwife/midwifery.

Again, this is the same for Japanese.

tl;dr: some words will have been lost to history, some will have fallen into abeyance, and others didn’t exist at all.

You might notice that the jukugo used are more often complicated ideas rather than simpler ones that every human can relate to.

Edit: my grammar not is very gud


ALSO, it might be worth mentioning after my last post that Japanese does have a “native” word for swan anyway: 白鳥(しらとり).


ah interesting… then why are we learning [はくちょう] here??

You can read it both ways, but はくちょう seems to be the more “standard” one according to Jisho:



It helps you learn the onyomi.

You might find a lot of the words you’ll see but if you speak them to a native speaker they might feel weird about it.

But with 白鳥 you could easily say ハクチョウ instead.


Interesting, words get lost over centuries, understandable… then let’s use a more modern word: 車 “car”

Since also this word was imported from China, basically if in Japan you say [くるま] or [しゃ] they will understand you anyway?? (based on the context of course)

It’s because largely on’yomi can’t be used on their own and need to be with other on’yomi to form compound words.

Like oxygen is a word but oxy and gen aren’t words.

With くうしゃ it’s two on’yomi together that form a single word. But you can, if you really wanted to, say そらぐるま but I wouldn’t recommend it.

(in response to your later comment @ollylove )


yeah, but why is that??
空車 why is this [くうしゃ] and not [そらくるま]?

I know 広辞苑 offers definitions in historical order, so looking there might yield some clues or insight.


I personally think that Japanese is such a beautiful language, I love the Japanese sound, that’s why I’m learning it… but I also think they ruined it by importing the Chinese readings…

Take this word for example: 社長 - director (of a company)… you read it [しゃちょう] because it’s a compound, and it sounds sooo chinese, I don’t really like it… but if they kept the native Japanese reading [やしろおさ], it would have sounded much more japanese, and I would had appreciated it much more…

but I guess I have to get over this “chinese sound”, if I want to move to Japan, find work there and ask [この会社の社長は、だれですか?] :sweat_smile:

aah, if only there was a way to go back in history and never let that Chinese adoption happen!!

I personally don’t like the current trend of importing English words into Japanese. For me, they sound ridiculous. But it seems that in Japan this is considered “cool” :man_facepalming:.


To paraphrase a linguist whose name I can’t remember, there is no “why” in language learning. No “why is it like this,” only “it is like this.”
You can ask why why why all day without getting anywhere, because it doesn’t matter. It just is how it is. No one decided it should be this way. It evolved this way. Language is utterly arbitrary. There is no why. There are just as many questions about English. They also don’t matter and are a waste of time.


I don’t agree… I think that if we have a doubt we should not ignore it and force our mind to accept [anything] without understanding it… we should always make even just a little research, it will help our mind memorize things better…

for example:

I really couldn’t understand why きれい (pretty) is a な adjective when it ends in い
I had to memorize it and remember to add な before a following noun… eventually I decided to make a little research and the reason was easy: it comes from the kanji 綺麗, so no い at the end - it’s just that it’s very complicated and people prefer to write it in hiragana, that’s why it confuses us…

But now it’s clear and it’s easier for me to remember to add the な after this adjective, and all other adjectives that are actually whole kanji


I totally disagree that asking why is useless and unimportant for learning. I just don’t have time to argue about it now.


To be fair it’s common for younger generations world wide to implement english loanwords on their language, I know because I do it all the time and I’m portuguese xD

Because no one says しらとり to mean “swan” in everyday life, basically ever? You might see that reading in a poem or a novel or something, but you would sound ridiculous using it sincerely in a conversation. When there are multiple words for things, they tend to end up in different registers. In this case, しらとり sounds poetic and literary, and はくちょう sounds like the everyday word. Sometimes the opposite happens, and it’s the onyomi version that sounds literary. But it’s not strange for them to diverge.