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1. How did Japanese know how to read kanji before invention of kana? (having only kanji to write a language)

2. Without kana and romaji, if they heard a new word - how could they look it up in a dictionary?

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1. Kanji were originally from Chinese. Japanese used extremely accented Chinese (sorta like what they do with English now) to pronounce Middle Chinese words, which eventually became 音読み. For example 日本 /njit.pon/ became /nippon/. For 訓読み, they simply find the nearest native Japanese word in meaning. You can imagine an English person seeing 走 and pronouncing it "run". Remember that "literacy" in Japan back then basically meant knowing a significant bit of Chinese.

2. First of all, most people were not literate, and thus had no need of looking up things in dictionaries. Dictionaries back then do give readings in 万葉がな (manyougana), which basically is a finite set of kanji used only for sound. It's like giving the kanji reading entirely in other kanji, used all as phonetic 当て字 (ateji). Example of equivalent in Modern Japanese: よろしくお願いします => 夜炉四句悪袮雅医四魔素

+1 for the concise 訓読み example :) – execjosh – 2013-08-29T02:38:38.817

But if kanji has more than one reading, how could it be used as manyougana? Hiragana/Katakana is useful, because every character in it has only one reading... – DrStrangeLove – 2013-08-29T05:31:13.700

1@DrStrangeLove Don't forget that the readings of kana do vary in modern Japanese. For example, I'm sure you know that は can be read ha or wa depending on context. – snailcar – 2013-08-29T06:00:02.557

Originally there were 変体仮名{へんたいがな} - alternate kana which originate from the alternate choices of 万葉がな. ん was originally hentaigana for む。These appear to have been in common use until 1900 (when a law was passed to stop them being used in schools). There were even, early on, alternate systems like 上代特殊仮名遣{じょうだいとくしゅかなづかい} which appear to differentiate between some sounds that are the same in modern Japanese. But I think the mapping was consistent, so 夜 was always よ (within a given system). – nkjt – 2013-08-29T08:23:53.153

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@DrStrangeLove There were standard readings for manyougana. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27y%C5%8Dgana

– ithisa – 2013-08-29T15:20:20.113