Kanji phonetics: 未

Okay, so I’ve made a few posts about radicals (parts of kanji that tell you something about the meaning) but I haven’t said much about phonetic elements in kanji yet. It’s hard to notice when you first start out, but the pronunciation of a kanji is actually more predictable than you might think. Slightly more predictable. More like a “buy one get one half off” sale than a complete solution to all your problems, but still.

Take 未 (“not yet”). It’s pronounced み (mi). And kanji that contain it tend to have similar pronunciations: either み (mi) or まい (mai). That’s how a lot of kanji are set up: one element that tells you the pronunciation, and one that tells you the meaning

All this applies to the Chinese-based readings, not the native Japanese ones. They were probably all pronounced the same way in ancient Chinese, but with all of the borrowing etc that happened over time we’ve ended up with some mi’s and some mai’s in Japanese.

味(み、あじ/mi, aji) taste, flavor
The “mi” 未 that has to do with your mouth 口.

  • 味覚(みかく/mikaku) sense of taste (覚 be aware/awake)
  • 調味料(ちょうみりょう/choumiryou) spices, seasoning (調 tune, harmonize; 料 ingredient)
  • 味わう (あじわう/ajiwau) to taste, to savor

魅(み/mi) charm, bewitch
The “mi” 未 that has to do with demons/ogres (oni, 鬼)

  • 魅力 (みりょく/miryoku) charm, appeal (力 power)

妹(まい、いもうと/ mai, imouto)younger sister
The “mai” 未 that has to do with women 女.
未 also sort of lends a meaning to this one; she’s not a woman yet, she’s my little sister shhh she’s still like 4 yes I am aware she’s in college now.

  • 姉妹(しまい/shimai) sisters (姉 older sister)

昧(まい/mai) dim, indistinct
The “mai” 未 that has to do with the sun 日 (or the lack thereof)

  • 曖昧(あいまい/aimai) vague, ambiguous (曖 dark, unclear—if you know the “ai” that means “love” 愛, it’s just using 愛 as a phonetic with the sun radical 日)

There are phonetics that are more useful than 未 (like 白, which shows up in like ten kanji that are all pronounced “haku”), but most give you three to five kanji with similar if not identical pronunciations. So knowing this doesn’t magically make you able to read everything right now, but it DOES help you organize them in your head a bit.

Here is an online kanji dictionary that lets you search by components, if you want to try discovering groups like this yourself.

from BAILA August issue | photo by Sachiko Yamamoto