The Nanbanjin Nikki


Linguistic ghosts of Sino-Japanese: go-on, kan-on, tôsô-on and other misnomers

Sometimes people ask from what variety of Chinese did each of the traditional kanji “readings” came. Short answer, according to Miyake:

Long answer: it’s complicated.

Chinese writing and Japanese readers

First, let’s recall some basic facts. The Chinese writing system (hànzì) is morphosyllabic—each character represents a syllable, and almost always also a morpheme—with both uses tailored specifically for the Chinese languages; they weave a complex network of phonetic and semantic hints that only really make sense in a Chinese context. It is singularly ill-suited to write Japanese, a completely different language in all possible regards; but it’s the first writing system that the Japanese learned (via Koreans), and during most of history the Chinese civilization had such enormous prestige that other systems they learned never really caught on.

So the problem the Japanese faced was how to use this writing if it was not adequate for their own language. Their first and most straightforward solution was to simply learn Chinese, and indeed until very recently the Chinese language was a major literary and utilitarian medium—but only written Classical Chinese; spoken Chinese was (probably) never a major established language in Japan, except for specialists. This is an important point! We might reasonably expect that the Japanese would make changes to Chinese writing so that it could better represent Japanese, and that did in fact happen; but we might be surprised to learn the extent that Japanese language itself changed in reaction to Chinese, and furthermore, that the influence happened basically through the written medium (contradicting somewhat the tendency of modern linguistics to dismiss writing as of secondary importance). It’s as if the language adapted so that it could be better written with hànzì. Thus Fischer goes as far as claiming Japan is essentially a nation of readers—that “Japanese culture” as we know it arose as a direct consequence of large-scale reading. He might be exaggerating, but you get the point.

Totally available

The influence of Chinese writing on Japanese worked on all levels—phonetic, morphosyntactic, even pragmatic (e.g. it seems that the native morpheme iro “color” came to have sexual connotations (as in iro-otoko color-man = “lady-killer, sexy male”) because it was equated with Chinese 色 “color”, which had such implications in Chinese culture). But the biggest influence, by far, was in the lexicon. To call this “borrowing” is to underestimate its scope; up to 60% of a typical Japanese dictionary is comprised of Chinese “borrowings”, or of natively-coined composite words made of Chinese-borrowed morphemes (though a typical utterance will have a much smaller proportion; a study found NHK broadcasts to hit 18%, and NHK-speak is more formal—therefore sinified—than everyday speech). The mechanism operating here is that of “total availability”: a writer could, in principle, graft any Chinese word—hànzì and all—into his Japanese-language text, and the use of Chinese terms for something that could very well be expressed in native Japanese wasn’t frowned upon; rather, it would only sound more erudite and prestigious. What’s more, the typical literate reader could read Chinese anyway, so there was no reason not to use it (in later periods such as Edo, when literacy expanded to a wider public, liberal use of furigana “subtitles” helped in decoding texts, so that they kept borrowing unusual hànzì freely and playfully). I believe the morphemically segmented nature of Chinese writing must have made it natural to think of the borrowings in terms of morphemes, and to recombine them in novel ways—or even to mix them with Japanese morphemes in composite words.

The Japanese weren’t alone in this interesting situation. Parallel processes happened with two other linguistic groups that were in a similar cultural position regarding China: the ancestors of what we now call Korea and Vietnam. Martin coined the word “Sino-Xenic” to denote the “vast bodies of borrowed language forms” from Chinese into these three languages.

Since the main mechanism of borrowing was classical-text reading followed by written imitation, we could wonder if the Sino-Japanese (SJ) vocabulary might not be mostly restricted to writing and never actually come alive in speech (like e.g. the Latin abbreviations that I have a bad habit of sprinkling in English text). And indeed, SJ reached such a level of homophony that too much of it would make speech unintelligible (see below). But an impressively large number of words gradually came to be used in conversation (—and to be internalized by new speakers as part of their native language), which raises an important question: how did the Japanese pronounced the foreign words? In fact the established reading conventions were quite regular, even artificial; the Japanese (and Koreans and Vietnameses) sent scholars to China to study their language and philology, and these scholars apparently devised rational correspondences between the Chinese initials and finals (as described in fǎnqiè dictionaries, rhyme tables and such) and native phonemes. Therefore, one can think of Sino-Xenic systems like go-on as many-to-one functions designed to map Classical Chinese readings to nativized phonemic representations. The rationality of such systems is complicated by three things: there’s more than one of them for each language; they each were subject to historical change specific to their mother language, distinct from further changes in Chinese; and there was no one model “Chinese”, to begin with.

Sino-Xenic are like onions

Up until now we have been pretending Chinese is a single static reference point, but in fact the Chinese themselves were already in a state of diglossia: the written Classical Chinese had fossilized in a language of learning, like Classical Latin, Classical Arabic, or Quenya, while its spoken counterpart changed significantly and diverged into many varieties. Even among Sinitic speakers, each linguistic community would have different traditions for how to pronounce the classical works, and it’s on these conflicting traditions (probably even some Korean ones) that the Japanese based their own, which would later alter their very language. The processes went something like this:

  1. The Japanese learn “how to pronounce Chinese texts” from some source;
  2. These pronunciations are consciously adapted into Sino-Japanese readings (on-yomi) with regular phonetic correspondences;
  3. The resulting words, morphemes, and even some new phonetic features of this reading tradition are incorporated in the Japanese spoken language, changing it significantly;
  4. As the Japanese language is subjected to natural changes, all the on-yomi “readings” change with it;
  5. While 3–4 are still ongoing, another iteration starts at 1.

The Japanese have traditionally classified their Sino-Japanese readings into a number of strata: go-on “Wu sounds”, kan-on “Han sounds”, and tôsô-on “Tang and Song sounds”. But one should never lose sight of the evolution of Sino-Japanese forms themselves, together with the Japanese language. So when we think of the relationship of, say, go-on readings with Chinese, we have to think not only which Chinese, but which go-on reading; early go-on and kan-on (as suggested e.g. by the historical kana spelling (rekishiteki kanazukai)) had a number of Sinitic features (such as glides) that were lost later and are not reflected in their current counterparts. At first they even had available the Old Japanese (OJ) so-called“eight vowels” system, and presumably must have employed the extra rhymes to try to represent different Chinese finals. The most curious of things is that some of the current go-on and kan-on readings don’t even exist. What? Let’s look more closely at the categories:

Very early borrowings

Some words now thought to be Chinese borrowings are not even perceived as Sino-Japanese by speakers, and usually aren’t regarded as such; accordingly, there’s no traditional category in which to file modern uma “horse” or ume “plum”, which were believed to be kun’yomi or “native readings” (translations assigned to characters), even though they’re likely of Sinitic origin. Miyake calls these “pre–Sino-Japanese loans”.


Miyake believes go-on was derived from Late Old Chinese (LOC) in the earliest and Early Middle Chinese (EMC) in the newer layers, probably as filtered through Sino-Paekche. This corresponds roughly to the Six Dynasties period.

The traditional term is not necessarily evidence that the origin of these readings was the Wu region in the south; “Wu sounds” was a disparaging Chinese expression for all non-Qin pronunciations by advocates of the new Chang’an standard.

Kan-on and the Reading Wars

With the unification of China by the Sui and the subsequent Tang dinasty centered in Chang’an, Chinese sociolinguistics changed progressively. At first the old standard of Wu was perfectly acceptable, but in time the northwestern dialect of Chang’an (Chang’an Late Middle Chinese) rose to prominence and the old kind of recitation came to be considered “provincial and substandard” (Pulleyblank). The Yamato envoys of the Tang era learned this and hurried back to correct the “wrong” pronunciation of their fellows.

Surprisingly enough, they suceeded; the new pronunciations became the de facto standard to this day. We have historical evidence of the battle, such as governmental edicts mandating Buddhist clergy to adapt to the new sounds—which, oddly enough, Yamato scholars called Han sounds (kan-on) instead of “Qing sounds” as was their name in China (which would be sin-in in kan-on). Decrees or not, Buddhism was the one major vocabulary area where kan-on didn’t caught. As Miller (p. 104) memorably puts it:

The good pious souls who had been taught to trust in the future bliss of issai shujô “all sentient beings” in gokuraku “paradise” and their salvation from jigoku “hell” through faith in the jihi mugen “unlimited compassion” of the Bodhisattva, and all this in go-on, could now hardly be expected almost overnight to shift both their faith and their pronunciation to the issetsu shûsei, kyokugaku, chigyoku, and shihi bukan—the kan-on equivalents of the terms above. It had been hard enough for the Japanese converts to Buddhism to learn what all this sort of thing was about in the first place, without now having to learn to say it all differently.


“Japanese sounds”. These are go-on vocabulary items (other than Buddhist terms) that were already so naturalized that they resisted kan-on assimilation; e.g. niku “meat” or netsu “fever”, which in kan-on would be jiku and zetsu. They’re simply an older layer of go-on, and were formed in the same manner. Advocates of kan-on might have used this term, “Japanese sounds”, for go-on in general, in order to bring more prestige to the “Chinese sounds” they brought from the continent.

New kan-on (shin kan-on)

A term coined by Tôdô Akiyasu to design late Tang and Northern Song readings that were brought by scholars even after the Heian court had officially closed relations with the Tang. These words (like hosa for go-onbosatsu”) never became popular and didn’t survive for long.


“Sounds of Tang” (tô-on) and of Song (sô-on); an umbrella category for any reading imported after shin kan-on, the most important group of which was the specialized vocabulary of the new Zen sect. These readings never made any major inroads in mainstream Japanese, though a few words managed to get in (e.g. 椅子 “chair” as tôsô-on “isu” and not go- or kan-on “*isi → *ishi”).

Notice that by this time the Tang dinasty had already fallen, so that the term tôsô-on is misleading; its fundamental sources are late Northern Song and early Yuan. Also, go-on probably wasn’t Wu, kan-on wasn’t Han, and wa-on wasn’t Japanese :)

Fake readings

In current Japanese practice, every character is assumed to have a kan-on and at least one go-on reading. That’s a bit funny, because many go-on readings were lost after the victory of kan-on. Even kan-on lost some readings to history, and had others that didn’t come to Japan at all; but a typical kanwa jiten (character dictionary) will have kan-on readings for everything. What happens is that modern Japanese lexicographers developed a practice of inferring the missing readings, extrapolating them from analogy with other characters and from fǎnqiè. This wouldn’t be that bad if it wasn’t for the fact that they typically don’t mark the unattested creations at all, so that the reader has no way of knowing whether a given reading is real or made up; Miyake says that “I have yet to see two SJ dictionaries whose go-on readings match completely”.

Miller (again, memorably) called such coinages “linguistic ghosts”, “generated on the basis of readings for other characters, and so on [no pun intended?] in a vicious circle”. Miyake calls them pseudo–go-on and pseudo–kan-on.

What this all looked like

I don’t have sources at hand about what kind of transformations the various Sinoxenic “functions” applied to their sources—I don’t even know if this is reconstructed with certainty; the ghost mismatches suggests not. Here are a couple random examples from Miyake and Miller:

Miyake (p. 103) gives the structure of SJ syllables as:


  • C₁: initial
  • G: glide
  • V: vowel
  • C₂: SJ counterpart of MC consonant, being one of:
    • (a) the mora nasal n
    • (b) the vowels {i, u}, forming diphtongs like [ai], [ui], [au] (→ modern [oo]) or [eu] (→[yoo])
    • (c) one of the CV sequences {hu, ti/tu, ki/ku}, or mu = [-m]

(MC *-m and *-n had distinct OJ equivalents, but they merged into the moraic /N/ by late Heian; prior to the merge, MC *-m was written as “mu”.)

Next week I’ll blog on what Miyake calls “systems of sinographic readings” and the phonogram-based transcription of Old Japanese, which should also illuminate a few facets of the Sino-Japanese phenomenon.

The Chinese words in this post are reconstructions based on Sarostin and Pulleyblank’s, as cited by Miyake (who likes them a lot). Keep in mind that this is still a debated area & there are a number of competing theories. Main sources of this post are:


I beg forgiveness of the Linguistic Gods for kind of conflating together morphemes and their phonetic realizations with character readings. I find it hard to keep them clearly distinct in this context; the way the Japanese have traditionally thought and discussed about things like go-on and kan-on are as “readings for kanji”, not “competing strata of Chinese borrowings transformed by conventional phonetic operations followed by historical change”.


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