Japanese writing is ultimately due to using Kanji as phonetic symbols as opposed to using them solely as logograms. Though Kanji are primarily used for their meaning, their use as phonetic symbols has lived on in Japanese writing in what is known as Ateji 当て字.
When referring to Ateji, however, there are, in fact, two separate definitions. Even though Ateji primarily refers to phonetic spellings, the word may also be applied to irregular readings that are based on the meaning of the word. In this lesson, we will focus on the first definition.
‘Phonetic’ Ateji 字義を無視した当て字
A classic example of a phonetic Ateji is 寿司. Although sushi could be spelled with the Kanji 鮨, 寿 conjures imagery of felicitations and longevity and 司’s imagery involves control/mastery. In a way, sushi governs life. At the end of the day, the meanings of the characters don’t actually reflect the etymology of the word they’re used in, even though the character-play is evident.
※Readings written in カタカナ indicate loanwords; these ‘foreign readings’ are still classified as KUN readings.
※The origin of 背広 is uncertain, but one theory suggests that it derives from “civil clothes.”
※There are some Kanji whose original meanings are hardly ever used. Examples of this include 亜 which is used to indicate the sound /a/ while its original meaning is “next” and 欧 which is used to express the first syllable in “Europe” while its original meaning is “to stoop down.”
Japanese is particularly adept at absorbing words from other languages. Of the examples shown above, several were loanwords from European languages. Although it is still far more common to see such words written in Katakana, writers since the reestablishment of foreign relations in the 1800s have sought to give as many Kanji spellings to loanwords as possible, and using Ateji is one clever way of going about this.
※沙翁 is thought to be an abbreviation of 沙士比阿, with the use of 翁 intended to be taken for its literal meaning of showing reverence to a man from an older time.
※基督 is used in both Chinese and Japanese.
※The word 金平糖 derives from the Portuguese word “confeito” meaning “comfit.” The technique of making such candy was introduced by the Portuguese to Japan in the 16th century. Since then, this sugar candy has become the most influential candy in Japanese culture.
Toponym Ateji 地名の当て字
Prior to foreign place names being written primarily in Katakana, the majority of the world’s toponyms were given Kanji spellings, some of which are still commonly known as a form of trivia. For the most part, there is heavy overlap with the Kanji spellings used in Chinese as those would have been coined there first, but there are instances of Japanese using alternative spellings. For all intended purposes, the Ateji spelling chose below should be viewed as the ‘Japanese’ spelling in the context of Japanese studies.
Ignoring Sound 読み方を無視した当て字・熟字訓
The most common source of Ateji is using Kanji for semantic reasons※ while forgoing their standard, individual readings. Many of these have resulted in Japanese etymology not matching up with Chinese. Writers are frequently creative, often applying a native word to what would otherwise be a Sino-Japanese compound–ex. reading 生活 as くらし instead of せいかつ.
Such readings are known as 熟字訓, which means they are treated as KUN readings involving compound words as opposed to individual Kanji. These words tend to be the hardest to acquire and learn, but whenever the intended reading is deemed to be too obscure, writers will usually incorporate Furigana.
※Though these fit into the overarching definition of Ateji, the phenomenon of 熟字訓 is typically treated separately in education.
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