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Column #35 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, April 10, 2003
"A double-header: twin-kanji compounds"

Tokidoki, the Japanese pronunciation of the compound 時時 meaning "sometimes," reminds me of "okey-dokey," which I learned to say as a toddler and have loved ever since. Upon arrival in Japan for the first time two decades ago, I used to interject 時時 overzealously into my early attempts at conversational Japanese.

I also began to delight in other pleasantly rhythmic, repetitive words that are frequently used in the language. Some of these are non-kanji words that imitate sounds, such as guzu-guzu (grumbling) and jabu-jabu (splashing), and those that describe actions and conditions, such as seka-seka(fidget) and hoka-hoka(warm). Another category of words in modern Japanese with repeated sounds are the approximately 150 twin-kanji compounds-- like 時時-- comprising two identical characters pronounced the same (or nearly the same) way.

Joining identical kanji into single words serves three main functions: 1) pluralization of nouns: 人人, hitobito, person + person = "people," and 国国, kuniguni, nation+nation= "nations," for example; 2) intensification of the meaning of a modifier: 早早, sousou, quick+quick= "right away" and 広広, hirobiro, wide+wide= "spacious"; and 3) creation of a modifier by the reduplication of a noun: 洋洋, youyou, ocean+ocean= vast. Twin-kanji compounds may be composed of either Chinese-derived pronunciations (on-yomi) or independent native Japanese words (kun-yomi), and adjectives are formed by adding -shii.

The kanji repetition symbol, 々, is typically used to reduplicate a particular kanji (e.g.: 時々 instead of 時時), but it is not incorrect to reduplicate the character itself.

The meaning of many twin-kanji compounds can be readily understood if you know the core meaning of the character: 日々 (hibi, day-day) means "daily," 段々 (dandan, step-step) means "gradually," and 刺々しい(togetogeshii, thorn-thorn) represents "barbed, biting." Here are some other examples of twin-kanji compounds with relatively transparent meanings:

神神しい god+god= heavenly (kougoushii)
上上 above+above= best (joujou)
物物しい thing+thing= showy (monomonoshii)
初初しい first time+first time=naive (uiuishii)
平平凡凡 average+average+ordinary+ordinary=commonplace (heiheibonbon)      

Some twin-kanji compounds require knowledge of a symbol's secondary meaning-- not the first one generally studied by kanji novices. Until I plugged in the secondary meaning, "shade," rather than the primary meaning, "color," for example, I could not grasp why the character 色 (iro) was utilized in the common word 色色 iroiro, meaning "various" (i.e.: various shades). Think of 空々しい (sorazorashii, feigned) not as "sky-sky" but as "empty-empty," and you will see how this compound came to be.

Even foreigners well-versed in kanji may be initially puzzled by the likes of 脈脈 (myakumyaku) and 綿綿 (menmen), which both mean "continuous." The two "veins" in the former compound depict blood pulsating through a continuous network of interconnected veins and arteries, while the two "cottons" in the latter create an image of the detailed, unbroken fibers in a bolt of cotton fabric.

The core meaning of 堂 (dou) is "public hall" (as in 食堂 shokudou, cafeteria). 堂堂 (doudou) is meant to conjure up an image of dignitaries sitting majestically at the Imperial Court and conveys "dignified."

Insights into class and gender differences in ancient China and Japan can be gleaned from kanji. For instance, sexism seems to rear its head in 女女しい (woman-woman, memeshii) meaning "cowardly." 雄雄しい (male-male, ooshii) means...yes, you guessed it, "brave."

With only one kanji to memorize, and fun to pronounce, twin-kanji compounds are worth getting to know for learners at all levels. For a bit of fun with your Japanese friends or students, try writing (preferably from memory) and discussing two or three of the twin-kanji compounds you have learned in today's column.

Tired of forgetting kanji? Why not spend an evening at Kanjiclinic.com learning what you can do about it.

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