What is a phonetic component?

kanji phonetic componentPhonetic components such as 㑒 (KEN), 青 (SEI) and 亡 (BOU) are the parts of kanji characters that indicate their sound or pronunciation. In fact, 青 unlocks the ON reading of at least five kanji characters – so I call it a ‘power phonetic’. Most people know about the radicals, which give a hint to the meaning of a kanji, but phonetics are not as well known.

Some phonetics are also radicals, and some are kanji characters in their own right. Other phonetics are neither radicals nor kanji characters – these can be referred to simply as components.

For example, the following kanji all contain the 㑒 component, and they also have the ON reading KEN. So the phonetic component 㑒 can be said to indicate the ON reading KEN.

  • 検    examine
  • 険    danger
  • 験    verify

㑒 is neither a radical nor a Japanese kanji character, so it is referred to as a component. In fact, in order to write it, you need to use a Chinese font, as it does not exist as an individual character in Japanese character sets!

In Chinese, 㑒 means everyone or all. It is a simplification of the Chinese character 僉, which depicted two people under a roof, and the idea of all the people being in agreement – think of a town meeting.

ON-yomiIt may seem strange to be referring to the Chinese meaning of components when you are studying Japanese, but the fact remains that kanji were imported from China, and they still retain many links in meaning and sound. One study found that about 60% of Japanese kanji words have the same or a similar meaning and orthography as their modern Chinese equivalents.

The ON reading (onyomi /音読み ) or Chinese reading literally means ‘sound reading’, which seems to be a big hint to the phonetic nature of kanji.

Learning the phonetic components will give you an extra tool in your kanji study toolkit. The faster you can learn the kanji readings, the more time you will have to spend on all the other aspects of Japanese study, such as grammar, vocabulary and honorifics!

The Kanji Code: Japanese_phonetic componentsLearning the meaning of components is also quite fascinating, because kanji makes even more sense when you understand its origins.

Our new book The Kanji Code lists 150 phonetic components for you to learn at your own pace. Each component includes a meaning, ON reading, example kanji and kanji words that use that reading.

 Learn phonetic components with The Kanji Code book