Three Attributes, Three Functions
By John Renfroe
Note: In this article I use onyomi (音読み) 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.
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).
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).
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!