Yamato Kotoba- The Original Japanese Language

Starting to learn Japanese is a daunting prospect. There are two 46 character syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, and then the Chinese characters, kanji. When I began learning, I had a basic concept that the early Japanese language had no written form and the characters were borrowed from China. Most kanji characters have an on’yomi, or Chinese reading and a kun’yomi, which I thought was a Japanese reading. However, the language is a little more complex.

Yamato kotoba is native Japanese, or Old Japanese. It is the original language spoken before the Chinese influence and writing system was established, somewhere around the 3rd or 4th century. Many words are retained in the modern Japanese language. The Chinese reading of Yamato Kotoba 大和言葉 is Wa-go.

Kango is the name for words taken from Chinese, with the on’yomi reading. Gairaigo is the component “lent” to Japanese from many foreign languages. Wasei-go are words that are Japanese in origin but use the Kango structure and reading. Ya-kugo are translated words, names of things not invented or concepts that were not thought of at the time the language was developed. These words have been added on later. Ateji are kanji that are used only for their on’yomi reading and have no pictorial meaning.

As it is quite confusing, I have broken it down into a table.

Yamato KotobaOriginal Japanese or Old Japanese; many everyday words and core vocabulary; most single kanji- however usually polysyllabic, following the tradition consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel pattern; includes all adjectives and particles; a mixture of kanji with hiragana, using the kun’yomi or the reading by meaning rather than phonetic; traditional Japanese counting system, which can be used for all things.
KangoThe reading, derived from Chinese, of the kanji characters Comprises around 60% of written Japanese, but only 18% of spoken language; historically, the language of science, learning, religion and government; usually two syllables and can finish with a consonant and include a long vowel; modern Japanese counting system which has many different counters and a dizzying array of numbering systems.
GairaigoIntroduced from around the 9th century; foreign borrowed words; written in the second syllabary, katakana.
Wasei-kangoThese are Japanese invented Sino-Japanese words. They read like kango, with the on’yomi reading, but are original Japanese words.
Ya-kugoTranslated words- often for technology or conceptual things without a name is Chinese, such as telephone 電話 den. Interestingly, many of these words were back borrowed into modern Chinese.
AtejiJapanese words using the on’yomi reading, chosen for pronunciation rather than etymology or meaning. These words appear to be Kango, but are of mixed origins.

Yamato Kotoba, or kun’yomi readings of common kanji include 水 mizu or water; 木 ki or tree; 山yama or mountain.

Kango or on’yomi readings of the same kanji 水 sui or water; 木 moku or tree; 山 san or mountain.

Some examples of gairaigo written in katakana are オーストラリア which is pronounced oosutoraria and means Australia. スターバックス pronounced suta-bakkusu or Starbucks. Or my favourite チーズケーキ pronounced chi-zu ke-ki or cheesecake.

Onomatopoeia are very popular in Japan and are Yamato Kotoba words, they are however written in katakana. Some very common ones are doki-doki ドキドキ which suggests excitement and the sound of your heart beating quickly. Also peko-peko ペコペコwhich means hungry and is representative of a rumbling tummy.

Common wasei-eigo include matcha 抹茶 powdered green tea used for ceremony; haiku 俳句 traditional poetry; sencha 煎茶 green (leaf) tea; judō 柔道 martial art-translates to “the way of gentleness”; kendō martial art- translates to “way of the sword”; Shintō 神道 Japanese religion, Bushidō 武士道 samurai code of chivalry; geisha芸者 professional female entertainer and artist; daimyo 大名 Japanese feudal lord.

Interestingly, initially kanji was only used by men. It was known as otokote 男手 or men’s hand. Women were not allowed to learn or write kanji. They invented their own script, which is hiragana. Originally written in cursive script, and used to pen the very first ever novel The Tales of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. Hiragana was known as 女手 or women’s hand.

The original number of characters in Chinese is more than daunting for the modern learner. Some suggestions indicate there may have been upwards of 80,000 characters. Of course many of these are no longer used, and no person alive today would be able to read or write the entirety. Modern Japanese requires knowledge of a designated 2,136 characters, known as the Jōyō kanji. In addition many Japanese would understand many other readings of kanji that are nanori, or pronunciations only used in names. You can read more about Japanese names here and an older post about kanji here.

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