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$13,845
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284
backers
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Funding Unsuccessful
The project's funding goal was not reached on Thu, December 28 2017 12:00 AM UTC +00:00

About

Table of Contents

What is it?
Demo
How is it different?
Radicals? No.
Who is it for?
What does the research say?
The Poster
Use of funds
Who are we?

What is it?

The Outlier Kanji Dictionary is a revolutionary new mobile dictionary of kanji for iOS and Android. It will be released through the dictionary app Japanese by Renzo Inc. Japanese has a built-in flash card system, and they'll be adding even more robust study functionality soon. Our dictionary will integrate with all of those features!

Demo

A demo of our dictionary is available in the latest version of the Japanese app by Renzo Inc. for iOS! (Sorry, Android users, it's not available for you yet! But you can check out the demo for our Chinese version here.)

If you have Japanese installed, update to the latest version and go to Reference > Kanji > Grade 1. Outlier Kanji Dictionary is available for all 80 grade 1 kanji!

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If you don't have the Japanese app, you can install it for free.

This demo contains:

  • form explanations for all 80 kanji
  • component breakdowns for kanji which can be broken down
  • ancient forms for "unbreakable" kanji and for any kanji which shows up as a semantic component (an umbrella term for form and meaning components) in other kanji
  • information about what the kanji can mean as a semantic component in other kanji, if applicable
  • references for each entry, so you can see where we're getting our information

It doesn't contain the following Essentials data, all of which will of course be included when it's released:

  • onyomi and kunyomi readings
  • meanings as a standalone kanji or in combination with other kanji 
  • example vocabulary

It also doesn't contain anything from the Expert Edition. If you'd like to see what that will look like, or if you're using Android, check out the demo for our Chinese version here.

How is it different?

Our dictionary explains how kanji actually work, so that you'll understand the real sound and meaning connections between them.

We studied the history of the Chinese writing system at the Master's and PhD level under some of the top scholars in the world. We've already released the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters earlier this year, which is part of our CTO's PhD research in Chinese paleography at National Taiwan Normal University. We're bringing a PhD in Japanese onto the team to help us adapt the content for Japanese learners.

Our dictionary takes cutting-edge research on the origin and evolution of the kanji and distills that information into something that's clear, correct, and easy to digest even for zero-level beginners.

We explain kanji in terms of their functional components. Some components express meaning (meaning components), some express sound (sound components), some depict something (form components), and some do none of the above (empty components) because they're either corruptions of other components in an earlier form of the kanji, or they merely serve as a mark to distinguish one kanji from another.

There are four kinds of functional components:

To understand this, we need to start from basic principles. Keep in mind that this is not what's usually taught about kanji (most people teaching kanji have no idea how they're actually structured), so it may take some time to process.

A spoken word is a combination of sound and meaning. That is, speech has those two attributes.

Writing is a physical representation of speech. That is, it gives form to words. So writing has three attributes: form (what it looks like), meaning (what it means, of course), and sound (pronunciation).

In early Chinese writing, most of these forms were pictographic. The mark for “mountain” looked like a mountain. The mark for “sheep” looked like a sheep. And that works for some words, but since some words are harder to represent with a simple picture, people had to get creative. They did this by combining kanji (to oversimplify a bit), using existing kanji as "building blocks" or components in other kanji, with each component being used for one or more of its attributes (form, meaning, or sound).

Form components: A hand 又 (the form of 又 is "a right hand”) taking an ear 耳 (“ear”) from a victim (a common practice in ancient Chinese warfare) represents the word “take” 取 (shu; “to take”). Each component is being used for what it depicts (that is, its form) rather than what it means or how it's pronounced.

Meaning components: Sometimes a kanji depicts one thing, but means another. For instance, 大 (dai; “big”) depicts a person (that is, its form is “a person”), but it means “big.” So, 小 (shou; “small”) over 大 makes 尖 (sen; “sharp, pointed”) because pointy things go from big to small (think of a triangle). Since 大 represents “big” here rather than “person” (that is, its meaning is used rather than its form), it’s a meaning component.

Sound components: Sometimes they would choose a component for its sound, and add a form or meaning component to disambiguate. For example, 悟 (go; “enlightenment, understand”) and 語 (go; “speech, language”) are pronounced the same, so they contain the sound component 吾 (go; “I”). To disambiguate, 語 contains 言 (“speech”) to indicate that the word being written has to do with speech, while 悟 contains 忄 ( a component form of 心, “heart, mind”) to indicate that the word being written has to do with the mind.

So those are the three main component categories, and they're directly derived from the three attributes of writing. There's another category called empty components, but they're much less common. These are components which don't express sound or meaning. Sometimes an empty component is simply a mark used to distinguish one kanji from another (ex.: the horizontal stroke in 百 is simply used to distinguish it from 白, but has no sound or meaning).

And sometimes an empty component used to express sound or meaning, but it corrupted over time and no longer does. A good example is the four dots at the bottom of 黒 (“black”). 黒 originally depicted a person with a tattooed face, with extra dots emphasizing the tattoo. The person’s legs and the dots separated from the rest of the kanji, and in the modern script they look like 灬, the component form of 火 (“fire”). But since the dots actually have nothing to do with fire in this kanji, we call 灬 an empty component.

Radicals, right?

No, not radicals. Radicals were created as a way of indexing kanji in a paper dictionary. They aren't an inherent part of the writing system; they were invented after the writing system had already been around for over 1500 years! They may or may not have anything to do with the structure of the kanji itself, so it's best to ignore radicals when talking about kanji structure, and to use them for their intended purpose: looking up kanji in paper dictionaries.

In fact, the clue is in the Chinese and Japanese term for radical: 部首. Beginning with the Shuowen Jiezi 説文解字, an ancient Chinese character dictionary published nearly 2000 years ago, dictionaries were organized into sections, or 部. Each kanji in a given section contained the same graphical component. That component would be the first entry of the section, or the "section head" (部首).

Radicals are often chosen arbitrarily by a dictionary editor. The component serving as the radical may or may not have had a function in that kanji, and the function may not have been to express meaning; sometimes the sound component is the radical, and the meaning component is not. In 錦 キン kin "brocade," for example, 金 キン is both the radical (that is, 錦 shows up in the 金 section of the dictionary) and the sound component, but 帛 "silk" is the meaning component.

So we explain characters in terms of their functional components rather than talking about radicals, because doing so allows us to explain how kanji are actually structured.

Who is it for?

Anyone who is learning kanji, at any level. There are two versions of the dictionary to satisfy different levels of curiosity:

The Essentials Edition

The Essentials Edition is the baseline version of the product. It contains all the information which is essential to know about each kanji (ancient form, form explanation, component breakdowns, meanings, and stroke order) for all 2136 Jōyō Kanji and 862 Jinmeiyō Kanji (2998 kanji total), plus their constituent semantic components (about 300).

The Expert Edition

The Expert Edition allows you to dive deep into the history and evolution of each kanji. It contains everything in the Essentials Edition, plus detailed "Expert entries" which show how the kanji's form changed over time, along with other interesting historical tidbits about the kanji. This version is perfect for people who really like digging into the history and etymology of the writing system, or for those who want more detailed information available in case they get stuck trying to learn a kanji.

Here's a comparison of the two editions of our Chinese dictionary for your reference. Note that the main entry is the same, but the Expert Edition will contain an extra "Expert info" section which goes into much more detail:

From the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters
From the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters

Because of the significant amount of extra work involved in creating these expert entries, the Expert Edition will be released later than the Essentials. If you back Expert during the Kickstarter, you'll get a copy of Essentials when it comes out, as well as regular updates until the Expert Edition is finished!

What does the research say?

Scholars have known for years that teaching kanji in terms of their actual structure significantly enhances retention. But the available resources mostly rely on traditional etymologies to explain kanji structure, if they make any attempt at all. Traditional etymologies largely rely on the Shuowen Jiezi 説文解字 (セツモンカイジ Setsumon Kaiji in Japanese), which is nearly 2000 years old.

In fact, one of the world’s leading scholars on the history of the writing system, 劉釗 Liu Zhao at Fudan University in Shanghai, has this to say: "Of the characters in the Shuowen Jiezi (説文解字 Setsumon Kaiji) for which paleographic data exists, it is not at all an exaggeration to say that 80-90% of the Shuowen's explanations are problematic."

We have much better evidence and research available in 2017, but no resource for learners has attempted to make use of the most up-to-date research. We're filling that gap.

What about mnemonics?

We love using mnemonics to learn kanji. It's a very powerful way to aid memory. However, most mnemonic systems for learning kanji break the kanji down incorrectly, and completely ignore each component's function within the kanji.

But learning real kanji structure and the real function each component has allows you to see the real system-level connections between the kanji. Layering a mnemonic on top of that makes it that much more powerful. 

Here's an example: 開 "open." A popular mnemonic for 開 is that it's composed of 門 door/gate and 开 "torch." The mnemonic goes that if you hold a torch 开 when you arrive at the gate 門, they'll open 開 the gate and let you in. That's fairly memorable, but it's much more effective to learn the real etymology here, because it allows you to see connections with other kanji, which the "torch" story obscures.

開 is a door (門) which is closed (indicated by 一), and is being pushed open by two hands (廾). And that "two hands" component shows up in a lot of other kanji. Check out this video to find out more:

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The Poster

Semantic components poster (note: this is the Chinese edition; it will be adapted for Japanese)
Semantic components poster (note: this is the Chinese edition; it will be adapted for Japanese)

The "Semantic Components I" poster lists 50 common meaning and form components, along with their basic modern meaning, pronunciation in both kana and romanization, stroke order, variants, and a few example characters using it as a form or meaning component. It will be A1-sized (59.4 x 84.1cm, 23.39 x 33.11 inches). The poster will feature beautifully handwritten characters by calligrapher Harvey Dam. You can see an example of his handwriting on his bio page on our website.

The Semantic Components II poster adds another 50 semantic components. The layout will be the same, but you'll get an additional 50 components!

Keep these posters on your wall as a reference to jog your memory, or as a way to work on your handwriting!

Use of funds

We’re working on this full time, and it’s a huge project. In addition to adapting the existing data, there are several hundred kanji which either differ from their Chinese counterparts (and thus require further research on our part), or aren’t common in Chinese (and thus need to be done from scratch), or are used only in Japanese (the kokuji 国字, kanji created in Japan). Not to mention the meaning section for each kanji will have to be more or less done from scratch due to the issues specific to learning Japanese. There’s also the cost of adapting, printing, and shipping the printed posters and other overhead costs.

Who are we?

 Ash Henson, co-founder, CTO, and Chief Researcher

Formerly an electrical engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Ash has an undergraduate and master's in engineering, and is now a PhD Candidate in Linguistics and Paleography in the Graduate Institute of Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. His coursework and research focuses on historical phonology, paleography, oracle bone script, and excavated Warring States bamboo texts. He speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Dutch, German, and English, and is learning Japanese.

John Renfroe, co-founder and CEO

John studied Linguistics and Paleography in the Graduate Institute of Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. His coursework and research focused on excavated Warring States bamboo texts, historical Chinese character morphology, and the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 and its commentaries and criticism. He now lives in Tokyo and is learning Japanese.

Harvey Dam, Data Manager and Researcher

Harvey did a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese, and a Master’s in World Languages at the University of Utah. His coursework focused on second language acquisition and classroom pedagogy. He’s also a student of Chinese handwriting, especially regular script 楷書, and his handwriting appears on our posters and in our dictionary. Harvey speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and some Japanese.

 

A spoken word is a combination of sound and meaning. That is, speech has those two attributes.

Writing is a physical representation of speech. That is, it gives form to words. So writing has three attributes: form (what it looks like), meaning (what it means, of course), and sound (pronunciation).

In early Chinese writing, most of these forms were pictographic. The mark for “mountain” looked like a mountain. The mark for “sheep” looked like a sheep. And that works for some words, but since some words are harder to represent with a simple picture, people had to get creative. They did this by combining kanji (to oversimplify a bit), using existing kanji as "building blocks" or components in other kanji, with each component being used for one or more of its attributes (form, meaning, or sound).

Form components: A hand 又 (the form of 又 is "a right hand”) taking an ear 耳 (“ear”) from a victim (a common practice in ancient Chinese warfare) represents the word “take” 取 (shu; “to take”). Each component is being used for what it depicts rather than what it means or how it's pronounced.

Meaning components: Sometimes a kanji depicts one thing, but means another. For instance, 大 (dai; “big”) depicts a person (that is, its form is “a person”), but it means “big.” So, 小 (shou; “small”) over 大 makes 尖 (sen; “sharp, pointed”) because pointy things go from big to small (think of a triangle). Since 大 represents “big” here rather than “person” (that is, its meaning is used rather than its form), it’s a meaning component.

Sound component: Sometimes they would choose a component for its sound, and add a form or meaning component to disambiguate. For example, 悟 (go; “enlightenment, understand”) and 語 (go; “speech, language”) are pronounced the same, so they contain the sound component 吾 (go; “I”). To disambiguate, 語 contains 言 (“speech”) to indicate that the word being written has to do with speech, while 悟 contains 忄 ( a component form of 心, “heart, mind”) to indicate that the word being written has to do with the mind.

So those are the three main component categories, and they're directly derived from the three attributes of writing. There's another category called empty components, but they're much less common. These are components which don't express sound or meaning. Sometimes an empty component is simply a mark used to distinguish one kanji from another (ex.: the horizontal stroke in 百 is simply used to distinguish it from 白, but has no sound or meaning).

And sometimes an empty component used to express sound or meaning, but it corrupted over time and no longer does. A good example is the four dots at the bottom of 黒 (“black”). 黒 originally depicted a person with a tattooed face, with extra dots emphasizing the tattoo. The person’s legs and the dots separated from the rest of the kanji, and in the modern script they look like 灬, the component form of 火 (“fire”). But since the dots actually have nothing to do with fire in this kanji, we call 灬 an empty component.

Risks and challenges

The fact that we already have much of the data in place for Chinese (although it isn’t finished) means that we just have to adapt it for Japanese learners, since the two languages both share a writing system: the kanji.

Delivery dates indicate the date by which the first usable version will be delivered. That version will cover at least the first 1000 kanji, and we’ll release regular updates after that until the full dictionary is complete.

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Funding period

- (31 days)