Why? (your e-mail, Part Two)Today we'll hear from David about a sub-topic--specifically, Japanese. He says English is not his native language, but his written English is very strong and much better than he would have you believe.
First, let me apologize for the English I am about to write, as this is far from being my native language.
About your recent post questioning why so many various writing systems exist, I’ll just tell you in a short form about the Japanese one, as it is quite recent and although Japanese history, even the most recent, is a matter darker than what constitutes a black hole, the genesis of the Japanese writing system seems to be quite documented.
To sum it up, the Japanese didn’t have (as far as is known) a way to write their syllabic language until Buddhist religion came to them through their exchange with the Chinese Empire. For some time, they even preferred to use Chinese. As is often the case, the religious cast is the literate one, and while being versed in the Chinese Buddhist literature, they started using logograms to represent the Japanese sounds (this is very important: they didn’t use them for their graphical meaning, though it can’t be ignored the Japanese scholars enjoyed resorting to double-entente). The sad part is that any religious person would use their favourite pick in the Chinese array: the results weren’t very intelligible, and to this day, those early Japanese texts are still open to interpretation as to how they should be read vocally, or even what they might mean more deeply.
A first normalization came, appointing a first try at standardizing the reading by selecting a few logograms for each syllable. Logograms are not mere pictures, but are simplification of pictures consisting of multiple parts called "keys" (you could almost say the « keys" are almost like the letters forming an ideogram word, to simplify it). By using such a single selected part from the logogram, the writing was simplified into what is known as the Katakana syllabary (still used today to write mostly foreign or scientific words). The Hiragana, the other Japanese syllabary, is a very cursive form of writing of those logograms as well, that was at first to be used by women and is now the standard writing system.
All this is estimated to have happened over roughly five centuries, in the latter half of the first millennium of our era.
Here comes the tricky part: logograms became also injected back into the modern Japanese language. Some words, purely Japanese or of Chinese Influence, can be written using single or combination of the Kanji, which actually simplifies the reading - especially in a language with so much homonymy. Those Kanji or combination of Kanji oftentimes make sense on their own, allowing you to get an idea or even understand what is meant without strictly knowing the word (the way the Greek-Latin etymology can help you with Romance languages). Some of those choices can be quite arbitrary too. Etymology of the Japanese words is a very tricky matter ironically, made even more complicate with the various writing forms and their evolution, and I won’t divulge more into this aspect. Baring exceptions or short sentences such as warning signs, you can’t make proper sentences using only Kanji; the grammar forms of the Japanese sentence are all tied to the Kana syllabary, and many, many words are written using those as well.
There is no limit to upper Kanji usage per se, although the American-sponsored post-war constitution put a limit to the number of « regular » ones : 1945 (sic) at first, 2100-something nowadays, but you’ll become familiar with much more than that becoming fluent in the Japanese language.
Some think the Japanese writing originated to become the purest form of Buddhist writing. It was to boot both Chinese and Sanskrit out of their league (there are even some interesting, although mostly remote, ties between Sanskrit and Japanese language).
Anyway, I carefully avoided the Chinese Elephant in the room, and while this doesn’t resolve the huge split in languages and why we don’t all draw side views of angular nosed dudes instead of our silly letters, I hope this might be of a little help as to where the particular and peculiar Japanese writing form is coming from. The Japanese language is fascinating, almost philosophically so: the split in its speech and written form feeling almost like the classical Soul and Body one. It might explain why it owes so much to the Chinese language, while being absolutely distinct from it.