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Grumpy guy comment: "Kanji" is not a language!


I watched Steve Jobs unveil the new iPhone 4 today. As part of his demonstration, he invited the audience to look at a non-English language on the phone's high resolution screen:

When you get to character-based languages... Kanji in this case... it's also striking...

Hey, that text does look great on the gadget! But...

Dang it, there is no language called Kanji. This mistaken idea keeps on spreading, so let's make a tiny contribution in trying to squash it:

The word 漢字 kanji is Japanese for "Chinese character". That's the literal breakdown – 漢 kan is one of several Chinese characters meaning "China, Chinese", and 字 ji means "written character" or "written letter". (For the scholars: the 漢 part comes from a historical area of China. If you've heard of the Han Dynasty, that "Han" and 漢 are one and the same.)

And that's all there is to kanji. It's the Japanese word for "Chinese character(s)", whether those appear in written Chinese, or in written Japanese, or in written Korean, or in a hamfisted tattoo on some wretch's leg (with random strokes missing and ninja written upside down).

Sure, kanji are used in written Japanese. So are the homegrown phonetic characters called kana, and so are Arabic numerals, among other bits and pieces. It's all part of the Japanese writing system. But the presence of those Chinese characters in Japanese no more gives the language itself the name kanji, than the presence of those Arabic numerals gives the language the name arabia suuji. Either of these is simply one component of the written language.

So what is the proper name for the Japanese language? In English, just "Japanese". That's it. Whether the written or spoken language, it's "Japanese", and never anything else. 

Unless you're speaking something other than English, in which case it'll be (for example) Giapponese (Italian), Японский (Russian), Japansk (Norwegian), or even nihongo (Japanese). That latter is a combination of nihon ("Japan") and go ("language") – i.e., pretty much the same construction as the English name "Japanese".

Of course, you could write the word nihongo using hiragana, as にほんご. Or using katakana (should you for some reason want to do so), as ニホンゴ. You can also write nihongo using kanji, as 日本語 – and in Japanese, you normally would write it that way.

Just take note that whatever language you're speaking, the word which names the Japanese language is not kanji. Never was and never will be.

So. Now, when you see someone make that mistake, you know where to send 'em for a straightening-out! (Let's see, what was Steve J's famous email address?)


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