Creative Components

pineconeNatalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code is an Amazon #1 Best Seller.

Sou… what’s all this about pine cones and Christmas trees?

When I was compiling the phonetics list last year I asked some Chinese students in a class if they could tell me the meaning of some of them.

‘They don’t have a meaning!’ replied one student, bemused. These students were well aware that certain kanji (well, hanzi to them) components have no meaning but indicate a certain sound. This system goes back to the origins of the kanji system in ancient China. These components are known as phonetic components, and while most people agree they exist and are useful, there is no official English list.

In 2018 I set out to name them, to better help learners of Japanese understand kanji composition, and as a way to remember the ON readings. I translated the components that were kanji in their own right, or radicals, into English. I then worked with a well regarded native-speaking Japanese translator (who also speaks Chinese) to check that my English components names were accurately translated.

Out of the 150 phonetics I identified, I termed those that weren’t kanji or radicals. And while many of them had a meaning,  a small number didnt seem to have any meaning. My translator colleague confirmed this – either that or their meaning was so obscure/archaic as to be not worth using.  喿 was one of them.

That’s when I came up with the idea of naming them Creative Components and devising a memorable name for them. Because I think things are always easier to remember when you can put a name to them. The radicals all have a name: for example:

mouth 口

gold 金

fire 火

Its basic semantics: being able to put a name to a radical makes it easier to identify and remember. I’m trying to do the same thing for the components by naming them.

As the name suggests, I used creative licence when naming the Creative Components.  I tried to link the name to the radicals where possible, because I really believe that the radicals are the key to learning kanji meaning. I had a lot of fun coming up with the names and you might enjoy trying it too.

For example, appears in both 操 (operate) with the hand radical 才and 燥 (drying) with the fire radical 火, and they both have the ON reading, SOU. Clearly, the radicals point to the meaning (you operate something with your hand & fire dries things out).

These are classic keisei moji (形成文字), or what I like to call form-sound kanji. That is, a kanji character in which the form provides a hint to the sound or pronunciation.

Form-sound kanji are said to make up 80-90% of the Joyo daily kanji, and are composed of a radical that hints at the meaning and a phonetic that hints at the sound.

If we look at some example words we can see how the SOU sound corresponds to the 喿 phonetic. So we are effectively reading the kanji compound words phonetically!

操作   SOUSA   to operate
乾燥   KANSOU   dry, arid

What do you think 喿 looks like? Do you have an idea for a creative component name? #thekanjicode #creativecomponents #kanjifun

View our List of Phonetic Components

Read about The Kanji Code


P.S. I need to credit Australian teacher Carolyne Thornton for the first creative component name mnemonic, which I’ve incorporated  into the introduction above:

‘Sou, what’s in the gift boxes!?!!’

Read more blog posts by Natalie

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