Morphological theory and orthography: Kanji as a representation of lexemes

Akiko Nagano, Masaharu Shimada

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Orthography has been given marginal status in theoretical linguistics, but it can offer 'visible' insights into the invisible mechanisms of grammar. Japanese kanji graphs, Chinese characters used to write Japanese, provide an excellent illustration of this perspective. Our core claim is that the kanji orthography reflects the working of lexeme-based morphology in Japanese grammar. Specifically, we show how the lexeme-based morphological framework developed by Mark Aronoff and Martin Maiden can explain apparently cumbersome and inefficient properties of the kanji usage, its dual pronunciation in particular. Among the findings of this study are the following: (i) the underlying mechanism of the kanji's dual pronunciation is suppletion, native and Sino-Japanese synonyms working as morphomic stems of the same paradigm; (ii) this suppletion emerged and developed as a paradigmatic strategy of synonymy avoidance; and (iii) the large-scale suppletive morphology has long been retained in Japanese because it has served advantageous functions in the maintenance of lexemic isomorphism and in lexical stock expansion. Our findings shed an entirely new light on the bafflingly complex nature of Japanese orthography; it is the complexity of morphology, a grammatical module that is deemed to be the locus of language-specificity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)323-364
Number of pages42
JournalJournal of Linguistics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014 Jul

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language


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