In replying to inquiries on this site concerning kanji origins, composition and interpretations, certain respondents (1/2) have described analysis based on sound symbolism as "non(-)mainstream." If so, what characterizes mainstream analysis, and which scholars of kanji (Chinese characters as used in Japan) belong to this mainstream?

  • 1
    You have a question in your title, but is this just intended as a note to this site?
    – Earthliŋ Mod
    Apr 10, 2014 at 1:03
  • As pointed out, your (long) post is mainly made of statements rather than question. This seems to belong to meta, not the main site.
    – Dave
    Apr 10, 2014 at 1:21
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    There's a relevant post on Language Log by Victor Mair I'm sure you're already familiar with: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3699
    – user1478
    Apr 10, 2014 at 2:35
  • @ Earthliŋ: Don't quite catch what you mean by "a note to this site." @ Dave: The statements are intended to clarify precisely what I mean by the title question. If it belongs to meta and not the main site, I'm fine with that. @snailboat: Yes, I'm familiar with Mair's post. As the note says at the bottom, I helped prepare it. Are you saying then that the scholarly mainstream of kanji etymology and analysis is embodied by John DeFrancis and/or William Rozyck? They are the only two scholars (no disrespect, Richard Sears) named in the post. More on this after hearing your response. Apr 10, 2014 at 6:35
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    I think people are confused about what kind of response you are looking for. Do you just want commentary on what is the scholarly mainstream for kanji etymology? In what context? This site? In general?
    – Troyen
    Apr 10, 2014 at 18:14
  • This site attracts attention from students of Japanese interested in knowing why certain kanji bear certain meanings. My question aims to generate a response that will steer future inquirers to sources for kanji etymology that respondents on this site regard as mainstream, in contrast to the Kanji Networks interpretations that certain of them have described as non(-)mainstream. Apr 10, 2014 at 22:29
  • @LawrenceJ.Howell You mention two posts by two different users on this site and a "preemptive note", so I initially just read your post as a general note for the users of this site, rather than a question.
    – Earthliŋ Mod
    Apr 10, 2014 at 23:35
  • You wish to generate a response that will steer learners towards mainstream kanji etymology resources, which, by your last comment, doesn't include Kanji Networks? This makes it sound like you want to steer learners away from your site. I'm genuinely trying to understand your post, but I'm afraid I still don't.
    – Earthliŋ Mod
    Apr 10, 2014 at 23:41
  • @ Earthliŋ: OK about the note thing. Regarding my last comment, what I desire is for respondents on this site to address the question of what constitutes mainstream kanji etymology, "mainstream" of necessity being something other than the material on offer at Kanji Networks, as at least two respondents on this site would have us believe. (There's no logic in employing the descriptor non(-)mainstream in the absence of a mainstream.) And sure, I'm happy for students interested in kanji etymology to familiarize themselves with contrasting viewpoints; students can visit KN anytime they care to. Apr 11, 2014 at 1:40
  • After reading the "question" and the comments, I'm still not certain how it fits into the format of Q&A of Stack Exchange sites. It doesn't really fit that well into meta: it doesn't discuss the usage of JL site. It may belong to resources post (meta.japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/756/…).
    – Szymon
    Apr 11, 2014 at 9:39
  • I would suggest closing this post and writing a new question, possibly linking to this as background information. The new question body should just contain the question (with a paragraph explaining the question). I think this is the only way anyone will answer your question.
    – Earthliŋ Mod
    Apr 11, 2014 at 9:52
  • @Szymon and Earthliŋ - There seems to be confusion as to where this question belongs on the site, so rather than closing this post I'll leave it here and render the question pithier, as follows: "In replying to inquiries on this site concerning kanji origins, composition and interpretations, certain respondents have described analysis based on sound symbolism as "non(-)mainstream." If so, what characterizes mainstream analysis, and which scholars of kanji (Chinese characters as used in Japan) belong to this mainstream?" Apr 11, 2014 at 23:21
  • @LawrenceJ.Howell I think that could work. Can you edit the question in this case?
    – Szymon
    Apr 11, 2014 at 23:23
  • 2
    OK, have done so. Apr 12, 2014 at 2:10

1 Answer 1


This question has been around for quite a long time, and there still doesn't seem to be any suggestions of satisfactory and accessible Japanese resources to explain kanji glyph origins in the last few years to represent opinions of the scholarly mainstream.

There have been two major (and perhaps not entirely independent) developments in paleography research in the last 30-40 years which have greatly expanded knowledge and improved analyses of characters, and these are:

  • Synchronisation of detailed Old Chinese and Middle Chinese phonological data with character analysis;
  • Large improvements in the analysis of glyphs from the Warring States period.

The latter provides the crucial link between Oracle Bone and Bronze Script forms and the Seal Script and Clerical Script forms.

Without these two developments, character analyses and explanations were heavily prone to over-interpretation and sound symbolism, and such explanations are considered quite non-mainstream and incorrect now. More conservative and traditional resources will be guilty of doing the same thing, and also cannot be trusted.

The following is a sample list of authors and an example of one of their titles that is considered some of the most authoritative and up-to-date literature to do with Chinese paleography and phonology:

  • 裘錫圭《文字學概要》
  • 高明《中國古文字學通論》
  • 劉釗《古文字構形學》
  • 杜忠誥《說文篆文訛形釋例》
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》
  • 陳劍《甲骨金文考釋論集》
  • Baxter and Sagart, Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction
  • 李學勤《古文字學初階》
  • 何琳儀《戰國文字通論》

While these are not accessible to most Japanese readers, the current situation is that Japanese resources that most people quote to do with the topic do not actively reference the latest development in the field.

If anyone owns a copy of 角川《新字源》, please check the bibliography to see if they reference any of the authors above, as I've seen a few good character explanations coming from this resource quoted from other people, but don't own a copy myself. If they do reference them, this would be a good starting point for a list of Japanese resources for character origins.

On the whole, I'm not actually convinced that glyph origins (apart from kokuji, shinjitai not shared with Chinese regions, and kanji purely used for kokkun words) are even on topic for this site due to their heavy relation to Chinese linguistics and only passing relation to on'yomi, but that's for another question.

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