The roots of the Japanese language are a subject of heated debate among scholars. At first sight, it might seem like Japanese was somehow derived from Chinese: After all, they share the same writing system, right? Not quite. In this article, we’ll take a look at the writing system, grammar and pronunciation differences of these two languages (Japanese vs Chinese), and consider the difficulties that each language poses for learners.
The only major commonality between Japanese and Chinese is a common writing system, which the Japanese adopted in the 3rd Century. Previously, the language had no written form.
The adoption of Kanji (Chinese characters, called Hanzi in their language of origin) carried with it the adoption of some Chinese loanwords. And it’s also worth mentioning that Chinese cultural influence shaped Japan’s own culture. According to Columbia University’s Robert Oxman, “The Japanese consciously and deliberately borrow — in this instance from China. Then they create a cultural synthesis which is uniquely Japanese.”
A Common Writing System?
The wide majority of Chinese characters contain a semantic component (also known as a radical), and a phonetic component. The radical suggests the meaning of a character, while the phonetic component suggests a certain pronunciation.
The Japanese might have taken their writing system from the Chinese language. But the grammatical and vocabulary-related differences between Chinese and Japanese are so deep that they forced the Japanese to adopt and handle characters not only for their meaning but also for phonetics.
It’s also worth noting that Hanzi characters don’t have the same meaning as their Kanji “equivalents”.
Hiragana and Katakana, two of the Chinese-based writing system that Japanese uses, are very clear products of the need to adapt Chinese to Japanese. Upon studying them, we can see how phonetics was a vehicle to adapt the Chinese writing system. Hiragana and Katakana aren’t writing systems in the sense we think of them in the West. They aren’t alphabets, but syllabaries, systems based on syllables rather than single sounds.
Languages always evolve. Sometimes that process is left to the speakers, and sometimes governments intervene. From the 1950s onwards, the Chinese Government made an effort to simplify and standardize the language’s written form. The product is what we now know as Simplified Chinese.
Traditional Chinese characters are officially used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Communities in the Chinese diaspora tend to prefer this writing system as well.
Japan had its own simplification process, which culminated in 1946, with the promulgation of Tōyō kanji, a list of simplified characters.
Chinese and Japanese tend toward different sentence structures. While Japanese is an SOV language (subject, object, verb), Chinese is an SVO language (subject-verb-object).
Japanese grammar is often seen as more complex than its Chinese counterpart. For instance, in Japanese, verbs and adjectives are often combined. And, while Chinese doesn’t have conjugations, Japanese does. Luckily for learners, Japanese has the same conjugations for all subjects and very few irregular verbs. Japanese verbs’ plain forms always end with u.
Japanese vs Chinese Pronunciation
In tonal languages, the meaning of your words changes depending on your “pitch accent”. That is, on which syllable you put emphasis to. Tones are one of the hardest-to-learn aspects of Chinese. While Mandarin has four tones, the number is as high as eight for Lukang Township Taiwanese.
Japanese is a tonal language. For instance, hashi can mean “chopsticks” or “bridge” depending on how you pronounce it. But Japanese tones aren’t as many as in Chinese dialects, and they can be easily recognizable in the written form, through different Kanji. Hashi (meaning “chopsticks”) can be expressed through this logogram: 箸. And hashi (meaning “bridge”) can be expressed through this logogram: 橋.
Kanji and Hanzi are pronounced very differently. On the other hand, several Kanji characters have two possible pronunciations, which gives proper Japanese pronunciation a certain level of difficulty.
All Japanese texts can be read in two ways: Onyomi, derived from the Chinese pronunciation, and Kunyomi, the original, indigenous Japanese reading. Depending on which Kanji characters are present within a text, the proper pronunciation can change so dramatically that even Japanese natives could find it hard to read aloud.
The Japanese and Chinese writing systems can seem a little daunting for language learners — which often takes learners to rely far too heavily on Rōmaji and Pinyin. And Japanese conjugations can seem daunting for English speakers. But the most challenging part of both Japanese and Chinese might be learning the right pronunciation.
While tones might be the trickier part of learning Chinese, some learners who learned Chinese after learning Japanese note that the possibility of various readings in Japanese was far more troublesome on a day-to-day basis than Chinese tones. Both languages are full of subtleties, and it might take time to get accustomed to them. But that’s where their beauty resides.
And, due to these same subtleties, if we need to communicate with a native Japanese or Chinese speaker, we should leave little to chance. If you’re looking for Chinese translation services or Japanese language services, it’s ideal to count on a native linguist, or on a foreign professional who has real-life experience using the language on an everyday basis.