Why is there no kanji for "です"?

The ending phrase “です” is used so much in 日本語 that I am confused why there is not a simple kanji to minimize the strokes and time required to write complete sentences.
Is there an explanation someone can share with me for this?

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I think your basic assumption about what kanji are for is flawed. They don’t exist to minimise strokes or make things easier to write, especially not for common words - a lot of extremely common words are rarely if every written in kanji, and it’s not like the kanji for common words are always simple (take 綺麗 for instance - very common word, more than triple the stroke count in kanji vs kana).

In a nutshell, kanji came first. Japan didn’t have a writing system of its own, but Japanese people (monks, I think, mainly?) adopted the Chinese writing system, meaning at that point all of Japanese was written entirely in Chinese characters - both the kanji as they are now, and the all-Japanese words using man’yōgana. In that sense, there are “kanji” for です, namely the Chinese characters used for で and す before kana were invented. As you can see in that article, multiple possibilities exist.

Later on, cursive version of these Chinese characters would be simplified into hiragana, precisely for writing things like okurigana, particles, and things for which no kanji existed. Likewise, katakana are also just simplified man’yōgana - セ for instance is derived from 世, and チ is just straight up 千 but with a bit of a curve.

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Merchants trading with China too (I’m pretty sure)

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です is a contraction from some other phrase. At this point it’s so removed from its original phrase (in fact, scholars can’t even agree on what the original phrase was at this point) that it doesn’t really have any kanji to be connected to.

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As @sudgy says, there’s never been a kanji for です, but I suspect even if it had once had one it wouldn’t any more. In modern written Japanese the norm is to write various little linking pieces and ‘grammar’ words in kana, even when there are kanji versions that were regularly used in earlier (i.e. pre-WW2) texts. For instance my modern copy of 吾輩は猫である has a note in the back saying that as part of converting the text to a modern writing style they changed 丈 to だけ, して居る to している , and 是 to これ, among others (as well as converting the whole text’s kana usage from historical to modern kana spelling). These are all words that no modern text would use kanji for. My guess is that in the alternate universe where です had a kanji form, it too would be one of these words where modern usage always writes it in kana.

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Monks and official court scribes are who we have evidence for, I think. Religious texts and inscriptions, and official records and chronicles, get preserved, where text written for more ephemeral purposes gets discarded.

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Fun fact: things that do exist to minimise strokes are called “ligatures” in English, and they exist in Japanese too - the Japanese word is 合字. For example, the ます verb ending can be written as 〼 (which looks like a ます measuing cup, see?)

(But… don’t write it like that when you’re just writing a sentence or whatever. It’s only used in specific circumstances.)

であります. Or possibly でございます depending on who you ask.

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…or de sooroo (Late Middle Japanese copula), or a few other options…

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Very informative post. Just have a minor point of ‘disagreement’ (some would perhaps call it ‘nit-picking’): :sweat_smile:

Well, actually… < classic nit-pick opening :wink:>

For Japanese people themselves (or rather, the historical people who would give rise to future/modern Japanese culture), Japanese came first (or rather, the historical language(s) which would give rise to future/modern Japanese language(s)).

In other words, people were speaking Japanese before they were writing it. And when the Chinese/Kanji characters were imported, they didn’t instantly replace spoken Japanese. Hence, of course, the kunyomi and onyomi differentiation for the same kanji characters.

So, the word です is almost certainly of early Japanese origin/etymology rather than of Chinese origin.

Now, there may have been a Chinese character which performs a similar function to です / だ / である – namely as a ‘copula’ – and at some point in history it may have even been in common use in writing. I have no idea whether this was the case or not; my point is simply that this Kanji version of です would have been plopped onto the existing Japanese word, and would have been pronounced in the kunyomi / native reading (in all likelihood). In particular, it wouldn’t have been pronounced according to Chinese pronunciation of whatever the kanji character was, when used for the purposes of acting like the copula of a sentence.

It is similar to how English is a Germanic language, even though the majority of words are of Latin (often via French) and even Greek origin. The words that are Germanic though, are deeply baked into the language, and are often grammatical/syntactical in function.

For example, just look at the word ‘the’. Germanic origin, as are many English words with ‘th’ in them. Indeed the ‘th’ construct was originally its own letter, known as a ‘thorn’: þ

(Interesting side note: As English evolved and became more Latinized, þ was often written as a latin Y, leading to the classic trope of a medieval wooden sign with “Ye Olde Tavern”. Today, most of us would actually pronounce that as “Yee Old Tavern”, but the “Y” was actually represting the thorn character “þ” – and thus was pronounced “th” – and so really should just be pronounced “The Old Tavern” basically just as it’s pronounced today. Indeed, in times even earlier than that, it would have been written with the thorn itself as “Þe Olde Tavern”, with Þ being the uppercase version of þ. Aaannyway, I digress!)

Or, consider the words: this, that, (the) other, and which. Compare with Japanese’s Ko-so-a-do (こそあど) system as in: これ, それ, あれ, どれ. Just as the English words are of Germanic origin (since English is a Germanic language), it’s almost certain that those Japanese equivalents are of Japanese (i.e. not Chinese) origin.

Finally, consider the word ‘is’. German origin. Just like I’m sure です is of (early/proto) Japanese origin, rather than Chinese.

Therefore, whether a kanji later got assigned to the word です (or whatever it was before it was です), it’s a Japanese word first.

Although this might be (is) nitpicking, it does have a point, as there are many words now natively Japanese which did originate from being imported, along with the Kanji characters, from China. For those words, it is actually correct to say that “kanji came first”. I just want to make that distinction clear, and recognize that です is almost certainly one of the words where kanji didn’t come first.

</ nitpick over>

As for why whatever kanji may have been assigned to it in the past is not still being used today? I have no clue. Possibly because the onyomi wasn’t ‘desu’, and hence had no chance of competing with the baked-in grammatical/syntactical function of the native word pronounced ‘desu’? Also, possibly because the same kanji would have been used for です / だ / である (or whatever their historical equivalents were) and thus wouldn’t have allowed distinguishing between various politeness and formality levels?

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It’s not Chinese, but it’s not a word that’s been kicking around in the same role since Old Japanese, either. The language has had something doing that grammatical job since forever, but exactly what it was seems to have varied over time (often with a choice of a single-particle copula or a “some particle + aru” combination). If you believe the “worn down from ‘de sourou’” theory, that derives from a Late Middle Japanese politeness marker -sauraw-, which in turn originates from an Old Japanese verb samorap- “to serve, be in attendance”, which would make it cognate with ‘samurai’… In contrast some bits of grammar have been much more stable over the same timeframe, like ‘wo’ to mark objects, and ‘aru’ as the verb of existence.

(My source here is Frellesvig’s A History of the Japanese Language, as usual.)

de sourou, incidentally, does have, or at least include, a kanji: で候

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Well, to be fair, so do で有ります and で御座います

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Really minimizes those strokes.

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Not kanji enough. Needs to be written using で’s original kanji, 伝.

これはぺん伝候

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This is all a fascinating read, thanks to everyone here bringing their knowledge to bear!

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I was hoping to find an early example of です and go “well, technically here’s です is man’yogana” but I don’t think that’s gonna happen (although it could hypothetically!)

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です is much younger than when manyōgana was used, so a kanji representation would be as true to the origins as writing something like カレー in kanji. Although I feel like if です existed and was used during that time, we could possibly see some kind of simplified combination of 伝寸 (or whatever the most popular manyōgana at the time was) used for です today.

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I don’t recognize any of the kanji you guys are now talking about. :sweat_smile:

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That’d be 咖哩. :slightly_smiling_face:

Yeah, you’ve triggered The Etymology now. Bottom line: don’t worry about those - です doesn’t have kanji, and kanji wasn’t introduced as a means of simplification.

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uh…what is that?

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