Dec 11, 2017

Outlier Kanji Dictionary

Preview image of kanji etymology explanation provided by Outlier Kanji Dictionary

One of the most difficult things about learning Japanese is, of course, kanji. Often kanji feel arbitrary and randomly made up, making memorising difficult.

Well, good news everybody! We are very happy to announce that our friends at Outlier Linguistics are making an awesome new dictionary of kanji etymology which will be released exclusively through Japanese.

It will offer accurate explanations of the historical origins of 3000 kanji, including a lot of information that has literally never been available in English before.

Earlier this year, they have already released the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters. Now they are going to adapt the content for Japanese learners.

How is it different?

The Outlier Kanji Dictionary explains how kanji actually work, so that you'll understand the real sound and meaning connections between them.

A component breakdown of the kanji 想 showing meaning- and sound components

Here's John Renfroe from Outlier:

Our dictionary takes cutting-edge research on the origin and evolution of the kanji and distills that information into something that's clear, correct, and easy to digest even for zero-level beginners.

We explain kanji in terms of their functional components. Some components express meaning (meaning components), some express sound (sound components), some depict something (form components), and some do none of the above (empty components) because they're either corruptions of other components in an earlier form of the kanji, or they merely serve as a mark to distinguish one kanji from another.

Scholars have known for years that teaching kanji in terms of their actual structure significantly enhances retention, but the available resources mostly rely on traditional etymologies to explain kanji structure, if they make any attempt at all. Traditional etymologies largely rely on the Shuowen Jiezi 説文解字 (せつもんかいじ Setsumon Kaiji in Japanese), which is nearly 2000 years old.

In fact, one of the world’s leading scholars on the history of the writing system, 劉釗 Liu Zhao at Fudan University in Shanghai, has this to say: Of the characters in the Shuowen Jiezi for which paleographic data exists, it is not at all an exaggeration to say that 80-90% of the Shuowen's explanations are problematic.

John and his team have much better evidence and research available in 2017, but no resource for learners has attempted to make use of the most up-to-date research. They have studied the history of the Chinese writing system at the Master's and PhD level under some of the top scholars in the world.

Fixing Mnemonics

We love using mnemonics to learn kanji. It's a very powerful way to aid memory. However, most mnemonic systems for learning kanji break the kanji down incorrectly, and completely ignore each component's function within the kanji. Learning real kanji structure and the real function each component has allows you to see the real system-level connections between the kanji. Layering a mnemonic on top of that makes it that much more powerful.

Here's an example: 開 "open". A popular mnemonic for 開 is that it's composed of 門 door/gate and 开 "torch". The mnemonic goes that if you hold a torch 开 when you arrive at the gate 門, they'll open 開 the gate and let you in. That's fairly memorable, but it's much more effective to learn the real etymology here, because it allows you to see connections with other kanji, which the "torch" story obscures. In fact, 開 is a door (門) which is closed (indicated by 一), and is being pushed open by two hands (廾). And that "two hands" component shows up in a lot of other kanji.

Radicals, right?

Radicals were created as a way of indexing kanji in a paper dictionary. They aren't an inherent part of the writing system; they were invented after the writing system had already been around for over 1500 years! They may or may not have anything to do with the structure of the kanji itself, so it's best to ignore radicals when talking about kanji structure, and to use them for their intended purpose: looking up kanji in paper dictionaries.

In fact, the clue is in the Chinese and Japanese term for radical: 部首. Beginning with the Shuowen Jiezi 説文解字, dictionaries were organized into sections, or 部. Each kanji in a given section contained the same graphical component. That component would be the first entry of the section, or the "section head" (部首).

Radicals are often chosen arbitrarily by a dictionary editor. The component serving as the radical may or may not have had a function in that kanji, and the function may not have been to express meaning; sometimes the sound component is the radical, and the meaning component is not. In 錦 (キン) "brocade", for example, 金 (キン) is both the radical (that is, 錦 shows up in the 金 section of the dictionary) and the sound component, but 帛 "silk" is the meaning component.

The Outlier Kanji Dictionary explains characters in terms of their functional components rather than talking about radicals, because doing so allows you to understand how kanji are actually structured.

Early-bird access

There will be a demo available in the next update of Japanese for you to try for yourself!

Every contribution counts, so if this is something you'd like to see in Japanese then we hope you'll consider backing their project.

Kickstarter: The Outlier Kanji Dictionary