Weekly Classic Computer Trivia Question (20150105) (Kanji)

Rich Alderson RichA at LivingComputerMuseum.org
Tue Jan 6 14:11:41 CST 2015

From: Tapley, Mark
Sent: Tuesday, January 06, 2015 9:09 AM

> On Jan 5, 2015, at 7:22 PM, Rich Alderson <RichA at LivingComputerMuseum.org>> wrote:

>> No, they are not.  Kanji are *LOGOgrams*, expressing *words*, not *ideas*.
>> (In fact, in Japanese they can express more than one word, given whether
>> they are read as Japanese or one of several different Chinese pronunciations,
>> of which kanon[1] and goon[2] are most common.)

> That is a pretty interesting statement. There are many words in Japanese
> which are written as a combination of two or more kanji (possibly plus word
> endings, written out in hiragana). That to me fits a lot better with the
> description "ideogram" than "logogram" (based on the etymology of both
> descriptions).  "Ideogram" is also the description I have heard most often
> (by far).

> How does the "logogram" description deal with combinations of kanji?

When multiple kanji are used to write a Japanese word, they are often used not
for their meanings but for their sounds.  Even when used for their meanings,
it is specific word meanings, not some numinous "idea", which are in play.

The notion of "ideograms" goes back to mediaeval and Renaissance misunderstand-
ings of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, of which monumental examples such as
"Cleopatra's needles" existed in Rome.  The pictures of birds, mammals,
serpents, etc. were taken as literal, and were supposed to put an image into
the mind of the viewer such that the intended meaning should become clear.

Even after the decipherment of Egyptian by Champollion, the same notion was
still applied to the Chinese writing system and its descendants by a Western
misunderstanding of its structure ("radical" + "phonetic", where the radical
can, if forced, be viewed as ideogramatic, though that's not correct, either).


Rich Alderson
Vintage Computing Sr. Systems Engineer
Living Computer Museum
2245 1st Avenue S
Seattle, WA 98134

mailto:RichA at LivingComputerMuseum.org


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