Japanese and Homophones

Japanese, as a language, is somewhat unusual in that it has many, many homophones. Many of these are originally Chinese-compound words that were imported into Japanese, and subsequently lost their kind of intonation found in modern Chinese languages that would help to distinguish them. Their sound became flat and mostly indistinguishable from other similar words. Yet their Chinese characters (kanji) are different, and they still convey different meanings:

I don’t entirely agree with the rant in this video, plus his lack of understanding of the Heart Sutra, but it’s still a good explanation for how kanji were gradually imported into Japanese from a great Youtube channel.

For example, there are three different words are all pronounced igi:

  • 意義 – Meaning, significance of something.
  • 異議 – Objection, dissent
  • 異義 – A homonym (ironically)

However, many native Japanese words also tend to sound like one another, and their meanings can be similarly hair-splitting. A classic example is the verb ageru:

  • 上げる – To raise something up
  • 揚げる – To deep fry something
  • 挙げる- To use something as an example (e.g. to praise it)

With the verbs, you can see that stem of the verb, which doesn’t change in conjugation, will be represented by the appropriate kanji, and help you distinguish which ageru in written form you’re talking about. But even that isn’t always the case.

The verb awaseru can be written as:

  • 合わせる – To match (or to synchronize)
  • 併せる – To merge, or put disparate things together.

The example above gets pretty different, even for native Japanese speakers, hence there are books that help explain when to use one kanji versus another.

The good news is that for a language student, with plenty of reading practice, and the patience to build vocabulary rather than wasting time memorizing kanji, one gradually picks up these nuances and eventually gets an intuitive sense. The organic growth of the writing system, with waves of imported Chinese characters makes Japanese a difficult written system. On the other hand, despite what some Westerners assert, it is logical, definitely not impossible, and simply requires patience and practice.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: