Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Homonyms in Japanese - Homophones & Homographs

The Japanese language is full of homonyms, and if you're planning on learning Japanese, or at least understand what characters are saying in anime, then you got to know what homonyms are, and what are homophones and homographs.


Basically, a homonym is a word that's not synonym with another word but is homograph or homophone with it. In other words: a homonym doesn't have the same meaning, but is written or pronounced the same way.


A homophone happens when two words pronounced the same way. Japanese is full of these.

English Homophones

In English, the most infamous homophones ever, the priority of the grammar nazi mantra, are:
  • there
  • their
  • they're.

—these three words, despite being pronounced the same way, are written differently. They are homophones.

Japanese Homophones

In Japanese, homophones are far, far, far, far more common. Ridiculously more common.

The reason for this is simply that Japanese has fewer sounds than English, so the chance of two words sharing exactly the same sound is higher. It's also an extremely regular language, so it favors certain syllable patterns more than others, leading to even more homophones.


In writing, the ambiguity of homophones is often fixed. This happens because Japanese writing has the kanji, .and lots of kanji have meanings associated with them, so two words of different meanings get written with different kanji even if they're pronounced the same.

For example, sanka 参加, "participation," and sanka 酸化, "oxidation." These words are pronouns exactly the same, but because they're written with different kanji, a reader would easily be able to tell one apart from the other.

On top of that, Japanese has multiple alphabets, so not all words are written with kanji, some are written with kana, and that makes telling a word apart from the other even easier.

Examples of Homophones

A couple of examples of homophones, for reference:
  • kanji 漢字 and kanji 感じ
    "Chinese characters" and "feeling."
  • shibou 死亡, and shibou 脂肪, and shibou 志望
    "Death," and "grease," and "ambition."
  • chichi 父 and chichi
    "Father" and "[breast] milk" or "breasts."
  • hentai 変態 and hentai 変体
    "Pervert" and "alteration of body."
  • jojoni 徐々に and Jojo ni ジョジョに
    "Gradually" and "to Jojo."

Sometimes, a homophone looks like it's the same word written with a different kanji. These are a bit dangerous since these words are very similar and it's easy to mistake one for the other.
  • hayai 早い and hayai 速い
    "Early" and "fast."
  • atsui 暑い and atsui 熱い
    "Hot weather" and "hot object."
  • mono 物 and mono
    "Thing" and "person."

    Not Homophones

    I want to note that, if you don't speak or listen to Japanese, you're only used to reading Japanese, you might end up thinking something is a homophone when it's in fact not.

    This happens when two words have different pitch accents, so they are pronounced differently. But this pitch accent thing doesn't show in the kana. For example, the following words are not homophones:
    • nihon 日本, (にほん)
    • nihon 二本, (にほん)
      Two cylindrical things.

    This is because, despite the reading of both words being nihon にほん, as shown in the furigana, the words are pronounced with different pitch accents.

    So they are not homophones, because they are pronounced differently, but they may be homographs if they're written the same, which they are not, at least not in actual Japanese, but they are written the same in romaji.

    The most widely used romaji system to transliterate Japanese words, Hepburn, transliterates only the kana and not the actual pronunciation of the word. So if the kana is the same, the romaji is written the same, hence the words become homographs in romaji.

    Not Even Homographs

    Note, however, that in some romaji systems, such as JSL, words with different pronunciation are romanized differently. That means even if the reading of the word is the same in Japanese they wouldn't necessarily be homographs in JSL romaji. For example:
    • nihôn̄ 日本
    • níhon̄ 二本

    As you can see above, JSL romaji puts accents on the words according to the pronunciation, so they are not romaji homographs any longer.


    A homograph happens when two words are written the same way. This is rather hard to happen in Japanese when kanji is involved,

    Examples of Homographs

    In Japanese, there are many kanji that represent a word when written alone, but it's rare for a same kanji to represent multiple words. A good example of when such rarity happens is this:
    • kane
    • kin

    As one would expect, if two words are written the same but pronounced differently, they're heterophones, that means the reading of the kanji varies.

    Another example:
    • getsu
    • tsuki

    The above concepts are somewhat related, I guess, but it's still different words written with the same kanji.

    Another time example:
    • ichinichi 一日
      One day. First day of the month.
    • tsuitachi 一日
      First day (of the month).

    Above, both words are extremely similar, but only ichinichi can mean "one day." The word tsuitachi always means "first day (of the month)".

    Another case where time becomes ambiguous is in the words for the weekdays in Japanese. Because they are often abbreviated. For example, doyoubi 土曜日 is "Saturday," but it can be written as a simple do 土, in which case it becomes an homograph with the word tsuchi 土, "soil."

    In many cases, a kanji used for a noun is also used as suffix. For example:

    The above is one of the most confusing kanji for beginners, and it's easy to see why: they are both extremely common words. One is used to say "you" in Japanese, the other is regularly added after people's and characters' names.

    True Homonyms

    For most people, a homonym must be either a homograph or a homophone. This means a homonym might be a homograph heterophone, same spelling, different pronunciation, or a homophone heterograph, same pronunciation, different spelling. For a few people, though, a homonym is a word that must be both homograph and a homophone at the same time.

    This sort of "true homonyms" are more common in Japanese than heterophone homographs (pronounced differently, written the same). This happens because of words loaned from English and other western languages, the so-called gairaigo 外来語.

    When these foreign words get imported into Japanese, they undergo a type of transliteration called katakanization, they get written with katakana, but as I have mentioned before, Japanese has fewer sounds than English, so words that are pronounced differently in English may end up being katakanized the same, written with the same katakana, and, thus, pronounced the same way.


    There are countless examples of this, specially in shorter words, because you can literally import the entire English lexicon into Japanese.
    • basu バス
    • basu バス
    • basu バス
    • fooku フォーク
    • fooku フォーク
      Folk. Folk song.
    • naito ナイト
    • naito ナイト

    How to Tell Homonyms Apart

    Given that homonyms are so common in the Japanese language, beginners will often ask: how do you know when this means this word or this word? And the answer is always the same: trust the context.

    When the pronunciation is the same, it's impossible to differentiate two homophones by ear, because they are pronounced literally the same. But you can make a good guess assuming someone is talking about a "feeling," kanji 感じ, they felt, and not the "Chinese characters," kanji 漢字, that they felt.

    Likewise, homographs, written the same, can't be told apart when reading, specially not if there's no furigana. However, unless you've been teleported to an isekai where people still use gold as a currency, it's very easy to tell when someone is talking about "money," kane 金, and when they're talking about actual "gold," kin 金.

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