On ka

I was reading a book a few days ago and I came across the word か細い: kabosoi, hosoi (slim) with a mysterious ka prefix. To judge from the context, it didn't seem very different in meaning from plain old hosoi, but that ka at the start bugged me. I'd seen it before in か弱い (kayowai), which, again, didn't seem to differ much from regular yowai (weak or delicate).

So, I decided to look it up in the ol' Iwanami dictionary of old-school Japanese, my most trusted single source for this kind of thing. According to the Iwanami editors:

  1. It can be found in the oldest Japanese texts.
  2. It basically means "seems" or "-looking". So か弱い means "weak-looking" (or "delicate-looking", etc.)
  3. It is related to the ka at the end of words like shizuka (quiet, peaceful) and yutaka (rich, abundant). (These words are much more common, even today.)
  4. By the Heian era, these kas had spawned ke and ge, but I'm not even going to get into all the subtle distinctions and nuances in meaning there.

Here's a か黒き (ka-black) in context, from the Manyoushuu:

可母自毛能 宇伎祢乎須礼婆 美奈能和多 可具呂伎可美尓 都由曽於伎尓家類
鴨じもの 浮寝をすれば 蜷の腸 か黒き髪に 露ぞ置きにける
kamo-jimono / ukine wo sureba / mina no wata / kaguroki kami ni / tsuyu zo okinikeru
Like the wild ducks
I float adrift by night
And so the dew has settled
on my hair,
which was once black
as a univalve's guts.

蜷の腸, "a [certain type of] univalve's guts", is a pillow-word for か黒き (or variant か黒し) -- neither of them appear anywhere in the Manyoushuu unaccompanied by the other.

Popularity factor: 8


You can also find a definition for the ka- prefix in normal 国語辞書 like 広辞苑, albeit shorter and with less detail.

Koujien says:[b]か[/b] (接頭) 形容詞に冠して語調を整える。万葉集(15)「か黒き髪に」。「か細い」「か弱い」

In comparison to the 古語辞典 you referred to, the Koujien entry is rather uninformative. Maybe I should get my hands on one...


Yeah, I started with the Koujien 'cause I was in a cafe at the time and only had my electronic dictionary, but "語調を整える" didn't really satisfy me. And when I got home, it wasn't even in the 日本語源大辞典.

So you're a Benesse person? I'll check the school copy and let you know what they say tomorrow.


Speaking of Benesse, their 表現読解国語辞典 also has a tiny little entry on the ka- prefix.


The above definition makes the ka- prefix seem a little like the do- prefix, as in ど真ん中. 大辞林 Daijirin has a similar definition.


I just checked in a free period, and the Benesse 古語 dictionary uses basically the same language as the 国語 one (as you might expect).


The 日本語文法大辞典 isn't much more informative:接頭語。古語、現代語。動詞・形容詞の前に付ける。微かな雰囲気にあるものであることを示す。一説に、語調を整え、また、意味を強めるとも。I didn't know it attached to verbs as well, though. (E.g., 「か寄れる姿」from the Genji) Learn something every day!


Here are some more little definitions...

小学館の例解学習国語辞典第七版 says:下のことばの調子を強める。例:かよわい体。

As expected for a dictionary aimed at elementary school kids, slightly simpler vocabulary, but still has the same gist as everyone else. The inclusion of this prefix in a elementary school kid's dictionary, however, makes me think that it can't be all that obscure a usage. Not that I've personally encountered it in my reading...


Good ol' 新解さん goes against the flow and expresses its definition in a relatively unique fashion (i.e. not the same as 99% of the other kokugo dictionaries out there), and actually seems like a much better definition for a JSL like me.


I have nothing to say about ka-, but I would like to know how you pronounce Benesse: Ben Essay or BeNESS?


Oh, nice! I shamefully admit I know nothing about 新明解, but if that's representative of its entries I'll have to start keeping a look out in Book Off.

LH: the kana are ベネッセ, so Benesse is a straight romanisation (i.e. every vowel is pronounced). It's apparently this Benesse, who have some connection to Berlitz...

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