RADICAL NOTES

9. The "Person" Radical: 人, 亻, and the Top of 介

Given how self-centered the human species is, it's a wonder that the "person" radical hasn't made its way into just about every kanji. Although it hasn't, it does pop up in a significant number. When that happens, we tend to see it in this form on the left side of characters:

亻 (にんべん: "person" radical on the left side)

Humans come in all shapes, though, and kanji radicals are no different. The following two versions also qualify as the "person" radical:

人 (ひと: "person" radical)
 (ひとやね: "person-roof" radical)

Note how the names change along with the shapes. The stroke count (two) is the same in all cases.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In Tokyo, a Chinese restaurant makes ample use of the 人 shape! The restaurant is named Ren Ren Ren, coming from the Mandarin reading of 人 as ren (ignoring tones). In Chinese, 人人 means "everybody." Although 人人人 doesn't exist as a Chinese word, it serves here as a coinage and as an exaggeration of 人人.

The "Person" Radical as 人

Let's look at these variations on the "person" radical more closely, starting with 人. This shape is a mere component in just a few kanji:

座 (870: to sit)
囚 (1353: prisoner) 

The same shape serves as the radical in these kanji:  

以 (419: -ward; by means of) 
傘 (1310: umbrella)

Actually, 傘 is a controversial case. Some sources say that it contains the "person" radical, but if so, is that because of the four 人 shapes or because of the  up top? Perhaps it's neither. Henshall (who has supplied all etymological information in this Radical Note, unless otherwise noted) says 傘 is a pictograph of an "umbrella," with  as the "canopy" and 人 as the "pieces that support it." In that case, 傘 contains no people at all! Apparently, some reference sources have filed this character under the "person" radical because they needed to put it somewhere, not because the etymology dictated that choice.

Several other kanji look as though they contain 人, but etymologically they don't. For instance in 内 (364: inside), the 人 shape used to be 入 (63: to enter). That makes sense, given that 内 means "inside." Furthermore, 人 is neither a radical nor a component in 卒 (537: to graduate), even though this kanji looks a lot like 座 (featured above). 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Another representation of a person, one who appears to be sunbathing by the ocean.

The "Person" Radical as 亻

Let's focus now on 亻, which is much more clear-cut as a radical. There's no doubt about whether it exists in the following kanji or why it would: 

仕 (285: to serve) 
他 (334: another, the others)
(1490: mythical being, wizard, fairy; hermit)
(1643: to fall)

However, this radical does show up in some places you wouldn't expect:

例 (605: example)

You might think this kanji includes a person because someone wants to make an example of him. But, no, this character represents "people (亻) lined up (列) in the proper order," says Henshall. Later, it came to mean "comparison." After that, it turned into "example, to liken, precedent."

It's also surprising to see that the next kanji contains 亻:

何 (80: what)

What?! This character combines 亻 with 可 (can). Not "tin can" but "to be able." Well, that's what Henshall says. According to another source, Kanjigen, 何 originally depicted a person who was shouldering a burden. It later evolved to mean "to use a husky voice to call and stop somebody." Kanjigen notes that 可 represents the sound of the husky voice.  

The "Person" Radical as the Top of 介

Finally, let's move on to the roof—namely, , the "person-roof" version of this radical. In Japanese, people call this shape ひとやね (roof) or ひとがしら (head of a person), where がしら is the voiced kun-yomi of 頭 (head). Referring to the "head" in this case makes a lot of sense because  doesn't mean "roof" at all. Rather, this shape sits atop a character, just as a head rests atop a person. Some examples of  as a radical:

介 (1059: to mediate) 
企 (1120: project) 

The 介 kanji originally depicted a person encased in armor! 

Sometimes a character containing  is classified as having the "person" radical even if that shape has no etymological connection to people. In fact, this shape tends to combine with the small horizontal line beneath it to mean "cover." That's the case in the following kanji:

会 (87: to meet)
今 (125: now) 
令 (603: command) 

In other words, where there seem to be people, there often aren't. It's simply a cover-up!

Well-Populated Kanji

However, certain kanji are indeed well populated. The next character contains two versions of the "person" radical:

似 (696: to resemble) 

In one non-Joyo character, all three "person" radical variations seem to make an appearance:

儉 (frugal)

This kanji is the old version of 倹 (1213: frugal). Etymologically, 儉 actually contains only two instances of the "person" radical. As Henshall indicates in his discussions of 倹 and 験 (475: test)—two kanji with identical right sides—the 亻of 儉 and its two instances of 人 check out as "people," but the  and the small line underneath again mean "cover." Somehow, the whole 僉 structure may lend the connotation of "avoidance of duplication," he says. That's rather funny in a kanji with a profusion of "people" who are more or less doing the same job!

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