Kanji Clinic #75, The Japan Times, November 15, 2005
"A kanji quiz to reveal the sometimes illusive nature of radicals"


Radicals are the 214 kanji components traditionally used to classify characters in dictionaries. They can often be valuable aids for those taking a component analysis approach to learning kanji. A characterfs radical, or gkey element,h often indicates the general nature of its meaning. For example, familiarity with the -radical, meaning gplanth and featured at the top of (hana, flower) and (cha, tea), can put you in the semantic ballpark of botany if you happen to encounter it in an unfamiliar -radical kanji such as (koke, moss).

Unfortunately, however, radicals donft always serve as transparent semantic clue-givers. Have you ever wondered why, for example, the first kanji in the compound p (eigo, English language), p, features the -radical? To learn why, and to explore both the advantages and limitations of using radicals for kanji learning, try todayfs Odd Kanji Out quiz:


ODD KANJI OUT QUIZ
1. is a radical meaning gplant.h Which of the following -radical kanji does NOT represent a plant?
a. b. c.p d. t e.

ANSWER: (kusa, grass), (SAI, vegetable), t (ha, leaf), and (fuji, wisteria) are all plants. The answer is c.p (EI, superior/England). When it was first created in ancient China, p meant gbeautiful flower,h and later came to mean gsuperior.h p was chosen as the first character in the Chinese word for gEnglandh because the Chinese pronunciation of p, gying,h is a close approximation of gEng.h

2. is a radical meaning gtree,h featured as a component in over 100 of Japanfs 1,945 general-use kanji. Which of the following -radical kanji does NOT represent a type of tree?@
a.~@b.@c.@d.@e.

ANSWER: ~ (ume, Japanese apricot), (sugi, cedar),@ (matsu, pine), and (sakura, Japanese cherry) are all trees. The answer is e. (kabu, stock/stump). The original meaning of was gstump,h and the idea of a gfirm baseh was extended in Japanese to include gstocks in a company.h In general, the semantic connection of -radical kanji to trees and/or wood is relatively transparent [e.g., gbridgesh (, hashi) are made of wood and trees are gplantedh (A, u-eru)], but the etymologies of some -radical kanji, such as l (sama, polite suffix,) and (KEN, authority), are obscure.

3. is a radical meaning gof the bodyh (derived from the kanji niku, flesh). Many -radical kanji represent parts of the human body, but one of the following does NOT. Which one is it?
a. b. c.x@d.c e.

ANSWER: (CHOU, intestines), (MYAKU, vein), x (HAI, lung), and (mune, chest) are all body parts. The answer is d.c (fuku-ramu, swell). The right-hand side of c, comprised of a drum-component (from , KO, drum) and three delicate hairs, indicates a drumbeat starting delicately and swelling in intensity. c originally meant gswelling bodyh (i.e., pregnancy). -radical characters that donft represent body parts include (FUKU, clothing) and (ka-tsu, win); the oldest forms of these two show that is actually derived from a drawing of a boat (now written M).


4. , a radical meaning gfish,h is a component found in over 150 kanji, most of which represent particular varieties of fish. Which of the following does NOT picture a creature that swims in water?
a.N b.~ c. d. e.

ANSWER: ~ (kujira, whale), (koi, carp), (sake, salmon), and (maguro, tuna) are all aquatic beings. The answer is a.N (SEN, fresh). The right-hand component of N is r (hitsuji, sheep), which had connotations of gfineh in ancient China, since sheep were prized animals. gFine fishh referred to gfresh fish,h and eventually came to mean gfreshh in general.

5. is a radical meaning gwater.h Which of the following kanji does NOT represent a body of water?
a.m b. c.r d. e.p

ANSWER: m (YOU, ocean), r (ike, pond), (mizuumi, lake), and p (WAN, bay) are all bodies of water. The answer is b. (BAKU, desert). Why does a kanji representing an arid expanse feature the water-radical? , like 85 percent of all kanji, happens to be a phonetic-ideograph, a combination of a semantic component and a phonetic one. The right-hand component of was chosen for inclusion in the character not for its semantic value but as a substitute for a highly visually complex character with the same pronunciation, in this case one meaning gcovered.h Thus, gdeserth was a place where water is hidden or gcovered.h

Some learners of kanji find explanations of their ancient origins-- including the reasons why given kanji are written with particular radicals -- very helpful in memorizing characters, while others prefer taking a more streamlined approach. I encourage you to read reviews of a variety of component-analysis learning aids at KanjiClinic.com, each with its own take on the role kanji etymology should play in your quest to achieve mastery of Japanfs general-use characters.

Here is another column about radicals, with a quiz.

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