Three Attributes, Three Functions – Outlier Linguistics

Three Attributes, Three Functions

Three Attributes, Three Functions

By John Renfroe

Note: In this article I use onyomi (オンみ) exclusively to indicate the pronunciation of kanji. This is simply a convention we use for the sake of consistency, and because as the Chinese-derived pronunciations, the onyomi are the only ones relevant when discussing kanji formation.

So, how do kanji actually work?

It’s fairly simple, believe it or not. Most kanji are made up of components, and those components can play different roles within the kanji.

Our dictionary breaks each kanji into its components and tells you exactly what each component’s function is.

Most components are related to the kanji’s meaning or sound (or sometimes both!), although some are completely unrelated to the kanji’s meaning or sound.

Let’s take a look at how that works.

Words and Writing

You can think of a spoken word as a combination of sound and meaning. Take the word “grass.” Its sound in American English is /græs/ and its meaning is this:


Writing adds another element to the equation: form. “Form” refers to what the writing looks like. So we can say that writing is a combination of sound, meaning, and form.

Put another way, a written word is a form that indicates a sound and meaning (a word). In this case, the form is:


That form indicates the sound /græs/ and the meaning “grass.”

It’s the same with kanji. Let’s look at the three attributes (form, meaning, and sound) for the kanji 大.


So we can say that the form 大 indicates the sound ダイ dai and the meaning ‘big.’ So far so good, right?

The Three Functions

As I said earlier, most kanji are made up of components. These components can have different functions, so we call them “functional components.”

The three main types of functional components in kanji are directly related to the three attributes we talked about above: form, meaning, and sound. That’s why we’ve called them form components, meaning components, and sound components. Let’s look at an example of 大 playing the role of each type of component.

Form Component

When 大 shows up as a form component in another kanji, that means its form (a picture of a person) is what’s contributing to the kanji’s meaning. For instance, the kanji 美 (ビ bi, “beautiful”) depicts a person (大) wearing a headdress (which today looks like 羊). You can see that more clearly in the ancient form:


So here the form of 大 (a person) is what’s contributing to the kanji’s meaning. The meaning of 大 (“big”) is irrelevant, as is the sound (dai is unrelated to bi).

Meaning Component

When 大 shows up as a meaning component in another kanji, its meaning (“big”) is what’s contributing to the kanji’s meaning. An example is the kanji 尖 (セン sen, “sharp”). 尖 consists of 小 (ショウ shō, small) over 大 (“big”).


And why does “small” over “big” mean “sharp?”


So here it’s clearly the meaning of 大 (“big”) that’s contributing to the kanji’s meaning. The form of 大 (a person) is irrelevant, as is the sound (dai is unrelated to sen).

Sound Component

When 大 shows up as a sound component in another kanji, its sound (dai) contributes to the kanji’s pronunciation. An example is the kanji 太 (タイ tai, “fat, thick; grand”). Obviously, the sound of 大 (dai) and the sound of 太 (tai) are related.

One Component, Multiple Functions

Sometimes a component can have multiple functions. In the example of 太 “fat, thick; grand” above, 大 “big” is not just a sound component, it’s also a meaning component. But the form of 大 (a person) is irrelevant here.

So we’ve covered the three main categories of functional components. Form components and meaning components can be grouped under a single category called semantic components, since they’re both related to the kanji’s meaning. Sound components are in a category of their own, and are related to the kanji’s sound.

However, there are some components which have nothing to do with the sound or meaning of a kanji. We call those empty components, and we’ll cover those in another post!


  • Hello. I write today merely to say ‘thank you’ for undertaking this research and making it available via this website, and via mobile apps like KANJI STUDY (for Android), produced by Chase Colburn. Both Outlier content and Kanji Study have been indispensable for my self-education in Japanese, what with having relocated to Japan suddenly a few years ago with only rudimentary formal (classroom) study. Two years later, I’m preparing to sit the JLPT N2 exam. Knowing that I can comprehend kanji more deeply with both Outlier and the accessibility of Kanji Study, I feel very confident in my preparations and chances for success both now and in the future. Thank you to all involved, much love and light and self-awareness to all sentient beings. Gassho.

  • @T,

    You can’t simply look at a kanji and determine what role each component is playing. You have to do the research, or find a resource that has done the research for you. Fortunately, we’ve done the research for you, so you can look up this info for over 2000 kanji in our dictionary:

    John Renfroe
  • Is it there some way to visually identify a component’s function?

    These concepts are very interesting, but how can I use them predictively if these functions have been randomly determined over time?

  • This was quite insightful, thank you for this. I am writing my own conlang and this gave me inspiration. Also, it is useful in memorizing kanji/hanzi.


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