Kanji Dictionary Publishing Society - A Brief Introduction to Japanese Morphology -

A Brief Inroduction to Japanese Morphology

by Jack Halpern
The CJK Dictionary Institute, Inc.
January 8, 1999
Revised: December 16, 2005

Principal Word-Formation Processes

Languages differ in the processes by which they form new words. The Japanese language is agglutinative; that is, it forms words by putting together basic elements, called morphemes, that retain their original forms and meanings with little change during the combination process. A morpheme is a distinctive linguistic unit of relatively stable meaning that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts. As a rule, each Chinese character represents one morpheme.

The most important word-formation processes in Japanese are described below. The examples are taken from my dictionary, The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary.
  1. Compounding

    Compounding consists of combining two or more words or word elements having their own lexical meaning (having a substantial meaning of their own) to produce a new unit that functions as a single word. Since the Chinese characters are extremely productive in their ability to generate new words, compounding plays a major role in Japanese word-formation. By combining a stock of a few thousand characters, hundreds of thousands of compound words are created.

    Traditionally, a compound word is considered to be a combination of two or more free words, such as headwaiter, which consists of head and waiter. In Japanese, a compound may be any combination of free words, combining forms, and affixes that together function as a single word. The resulting compound is distinct from, but related to, its constituent components. For example, the compound 造船所 zo_senjo 'shipyard' consists of the free word 造船 'shipbuilding' (造 'make; build' + 船 'ship') followed by the suffix 所 'place'.

  2. Derivation

    Derivation refers to creating a new word by adding to a stem a word element such as a suffix that expresses grammatical meaning but has no lexical meaning. For example, in English the adverb-forming derivational suffix ly is attached to the base form great to form the adverb greatly. In Japanese, the noun 黒 kuro 'black' is combined with the adjective-forming suffix い i to form the adjective 黒い kuroi 'black'.

    It is important to note that words formed through derivation are distinct words in their own right, not merely variants of the word from which they are derived.

  3. Inflection

    Inflection consists of adding word endings or modifying the form of a word in order to indicate various grammatical functions, such as tense (called conjugation,) or number and case (called declension.) The resulting word is another form of the original word, not a new word in itself. For example, worked is the past tense of work and books is the plural form of book. In Japanese, the last syllable of the verb 帰る kaeru 'to return' is inflected to yield 帰れ kaere, the imperative form. Inflectional word endings in Japanese are usually written in hiragana.

Morphological Functions of Kanji

Each character may, in addition to one or more meanings, have various grammatical and syntactic functions. One of the most important characteristics of kanji is their role as word elements; that is, their ability to form countless compound words by being combined with each other. New words can be formed by adding an affix (suffix or prefix) to a base form, or by joining combining forms with each other. For example, the suffix -済 -zumi 'completed' is attached to 点検 tenken 'inspection' to yield 点検済 tenkenzumi 'inspection completed'.

Another important function of kanji is as a free word, which is any word that can be used independently. Other functions include abbreviations, function words, counters, units, titles, numerals, and phonetic substitutes. Affixes, combining forms, and free words can be combined with each other in various ways, the most important of which are shown below:
combining form + combining form 外 + 人 → 外人 gaijin foreigner
combining form + free word 来 + 年 → 来年 rainen next year
free word + suffix 外国 + 人 → 外国人 gaikokujin foreigner
prefix + free word 明 + 年度 → 明年度 myo_nendo next year
free word + free word 日本 + 料理 → 日本料理 nihon-ryo_ri Japanese cuisine

Free words, combining forms, and affixes are basically distinct functional categories, but a character in any given sense may act in more than one of these capacities. Sometimes, a character may function as an affix in one sense and as a free word in another; at others, its meaning as a free word may be the same as its meaning as a combining form. For example, 著 acts as a combining form in the sense of 'author, write', as a suffix in the sense of 'authored by', and as a free word in the sense of 'literary work':

著 2300:

1a  author, write, publish --------equivalent of a combining form
  b [suffix] authored by, by --------------equivalent of a suffix
     著作する chosaku suru write, author
     三島由起夫著 mishima yukio-cho authored by Mishima Yukio
cho 著】 literary work, book ----------equivalent of a free word
...の著 ...no cho book written by...
Below is a brief description of the principal morphological functions of Chinese characters in Japanese.

Principal Morphological Categories

  1. Free word
    Free word refers to any independent word; that is, any independent on or kun word that can be freely combined with other words in a sentence. In the example above, 著 is a free word meaning 'literary work'.

  2. Combining form
    Combining form refers to a part of a word that is not an affix and that can form a new word by combining with one or more words or parts of a word. Combining forms and affixes are thus mutually exclusive. In the example above, 著 acts as a combining form meaning 'author, write'.

    The function of characters as combining forms is of major importance in the formation of words in Japanese. As an on word element, a combining form corresponds to a single character; as a kun word element, it corresponds to a single character with or without okurigana endings. Normally, the part left after a combining form is removed from a compound word (e.g., 外人 gaijin 'foreigner') is a one-character combining form (外 gai 'foreign'). If the remaining part is a free word consisting of two or more characters (e.g., 外国 gaikoku 'foreign country' from 外国人 gaikokujin 'foreigner'), then the part removed (人 jin 'person') is an affix, not a combining form.

  3. Affix
    Affix refers to a part of a word added to a base form (word or word element having its own lexical meaning) to form a new word. Verbal affix is a part of a word added to a base, to form a new word, usually a kun verb. For example, in 読み終わる yomiowaru 'finish reading', the verbal affix 終わる 'finish' is attached to the base 読み 'to read'.

    Affixes added to the beginning of a word are called prefixes; those added to the end of a word are suffixes. Affixes include titles, counters, units, and certain function words, but exclude combining forms. Whereas combining forms are normally unmarked, affixes and verbal affixes are specifically identified by a label or some other means, as illustrated below:

    古 2002:
    furu- 古-】 [prefix] old, secondhand
    古新聞 furushinbun old newspaper

    What distinguishes an affix from a combining form is that the part of the word that remains after the affix is removed is, in principle, an independent unit in its own right, usually a free word consisting of two or more characters. The exception to this are titles, counters, units, and certain function words, in which the remaining part may consist of one character.

  4. Abbreviation
    Abbreviation refers to a single character used as a shortened form of a compound word, usually represented by its first constituent character. The first character of a compound is often used to represent the entire compound, as 大 for 大学 in the example below:

    大 3416:
    4a abbrev. of 大学 daigaku: university, college 大卒 daisotsu university graduate
    Abbreviations are a concise means of conveying meaning, especially when used to create new compound words that might otherwise be long and cumbersome. Abbreviations play an active role in the formation of Japanese compounds,

    Abbreviations could be of ordinary compound words, as in 三本間 sanponkan 'between third and home base', where 三 stands for 三塁 sanrui 'third base' and 本 stands for 本塁 honrui 'home base', and in 入園 nyu_en 'entering kindergarten', where 園 stands for 幼稚園 yo_chien 'kindergarten'. Abbreviations could also be of place names, especially of city and country names, as 阪 for 大阪 o_saka in 来阪 raihan 'coming to Osaka'. /ol