149. The "Word" Radical: 言

I seem to find few words for the "word" radical. What can one say about 言, the character and radical that means "to say"? It appears in scads of characters, including ones related to "speech":

語 (112: language, speech, word)

話 (221: to speak; story)

Nevertheless, I'm practically speechless. I like the Japanese word for that, by the way

無言 (むごん: silent, mute)    no + words

Essentials of the "Word" Radical

Well, I can tell you the essentials, and somehow I feel compelled to do it in very few words:

Variants: none

Number of strokes: 7

English names for this radical: word, to say, to speak

Japanese names for this radical: げん, いう, ごんべん

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This sign in Tokyo features three instances of our radical in a row! Here's how the large words break down:

矢崎 (やざき: surname)
設計 (せっけい: plan; design; layout)
計画 (けいかく: plan; project)
-室 (-しつ: room)

As for 株式会社 (かぶしきがいしゃ), that just means that this is a public company.

The "Word" Radical on the Left Side

The last Japanese term applies only when 言 is on the left side of a character. That's where it almost always pops up, as in these Joyo kanji:

計 (105: plan)

読 (189: to read)

許 (650: to permit)

訳 (982: to translate, sense, reason, cause)

(1144: to pack into, cram, stuff; be clogged; rebuke; interrogate)

訂 (1617: to revise)

The "Word" Radical When It's Not on the Left Side

Of the Joyo characters featuring 言 as the on-duty radical, only a few deviate from this pattern:

言 as the whole kanji:

言 (274: to say)

言 on the bottom:

警 (847: to guard against, warn, admonish)

You've probably seen this kanji in 警察 (けいさつ: police; police station).

誉 (1874: honor, fame, glory)

You may know the word 誉める (ほめる: to praise).

誓 (1478: to vow)

言 on the bottom right:

謄 (1658: to transcribe, copy)

I'm surprised that 言 is the on-duty radical here, not 月. Perhaps that's because 月 isn't a separate entity here. Rather, it's part of , which is a kanji in its own right (1603: the royal "we") but has been bent out of shape and rendered nearly unrecognizable in 謄. Also, 謄 has to do with words (e.g., transcribing documents), so it makes sense for 言 to be the radical.

How 言 Looked in Ancient Times

In ancient times, 言 looked quite different. In fact, it seems that the shape kept changing and changing. Here's an array of LST seal–script versions of 言, courtesy of Richard Sears:

Since then, though, this shape has settled into a very stable existence.

Kanji with the "Word" Radical: A Connection to Words?

In fact, the 言 radical is so regular that in character after character, it tends to maintain not only its position on the left but also its meaning. I've investigated the etymologies of a few kanji that feature 言 as the radical but seem to have little to do with words. And in just about every case, the connection to words actually exists but is slightly obscure:

試 (499: to test, try)

Henshall says this kanji combines "words" and "to form." The part on the right also acts phonetically to mean "observe." The character originally referred to "observing which form of words was most effective," leading to "test." I gather that those early tests were psychological or literary, something I wouldn't expect of a culture that existed so long ago.

警 (847: to guard against, warn, admonish), which we saw above in the "bottom" category

A component meaning "respect" sits atop "word." Long ago, 警 meant "to speak cautiously and respectfully," according to Henshall. That led to "being cautious" and "counseling caution," which was more or less "to warn." Then this became "reproach." What happened to all that respect?!

訪 (972: to visit)

You may know 訪 from 訪問 (ほうもん: visit) or 訪ねる (たずねる: to visit). Henshall explains that 訪 initially meant "asking widely in order to follow a line of inquiry," which involved "visiting many people." Now "to visit" is a major meaning, and 訪ねる rarely means "to inquire" these days, though it once did.

誰 (2062: someone, who)

In this case, "word" combines with "old bird," but the right side solely provides the sound of the kanji, according to Kanjigen. This is the only case in which I can't make out the connection between 言 and the character housing it.

Compounds with Two Instances of 言

I imagine you'd like to see compounds featuring two instances of 言. My word, there are quite a few! Here's a sampling:

言語 (げんご: language)    words + speech

言い訳 (いいわけ: apology, excuse, explanation)    to say + reason, cause

設計 (せっけい: design, plan)     to set up + plan

談話 (だんわ: talk, conversation)    to talk + to speak

話し言葉 (はなしことば: spoken language; colloquial expression)

      to speak + word (last 2 kanji)

日本語訳 (にほんごやく: Japanese translation; Japanese version)

      Japan (1st 2 kanji) + language + translation

訴訟 (そしょう: lawsuit, litigation)    to sue + to litigate

許諾 (きょだく: to consent, approve, permit)    to permit + to consent

無言電話 (むごんでんわ: silent phone call experienced as a form of harassment)    

no + words + electricity + to speak