Among the world's languages, Japanese surely qualifies for a first-place blue ribbon in the "complex and irregular writing system" category. A major factor contributing to this complexity is the existence of two types of homophones.
First, there are Chinese-derived on-homophones. The tonal Chinese language has many more sounds than Japanese. When Japan imported kanji wholesale from China, the Chinese pronunciations of kanji words were transliterated into the narrower range of the Japanese phonetic system; the result was a great number of compound words with the same pronunciation.
Perhaps you are already familiar with on-homophones such as 汽車 (kisha, a steam-powered train) and 記者 (kisha, a reporter). Look up "seikou" in a large Japanese-English dictionary and you are likely to discover a dozen homonyms, with meanings as diverse as: "success" 成功, "steel manufacture" 製鋼, "western suburbs" 西郊 and "sexual intercourse" 性交.
Since each character in a kanji compound conveys a distinct meaning, on-homophones are easily distinguished in the written language. In the event of confusion in conversation, speakers explain what character they have in mind, sometimes by drawing it in the air.
Far more troublesome than on-homophones for writers of Japanese are kun- (native Japanese) homophones. Some, such as 神 god, 紙 paper, and 髪 hair-- all pronounced kami but each possessing a distinct meaning -- are easily dealt with. Unfortunately, most kun-homophones are perilously close in meaning. Beginning students of Japanese grapple with this confusing variety when they encounter the likes of 早い(hayai, early)/速い(hayai, quick), 直す(naosu, fix)/ 治す(naosu, cure) and 始める(hajimeru, to start)/初めて(hajimete, for the first time).
The distinctions between kun-homophones are often so subtle that even native speakers do not know how to use a particular homophone correctly. Ask a Japanese friend or colleague to explain in which circumstances you should use 硬い, 堅い, and 固い (all are pronounced kataiand mean "hard") or 柔らかい and 軟らかい (both are pronounced yawarakai and mean "soft")--the reply you receive is likely to include head-scratching and "soo desu ne"-ing.
Native speakers typing a potentially confusing kun-homophone on their computers can refer to the user-friendly guides that automatically pop up onscreen; or they might reach for a dictionary. But even reference aids can disagree. Sometimes befuddled writers throw in the kanji towel and change a troublesome homophone back to hiragana.
I have found relief for kun-homophone headaches by memorizing one core meaning for each of the homophones in a pair or group. For example, take 暑い (atsui "hot," "hot weather," etc.) and 熱い (atsui "hot," "heated," "hot [food]," "passionate," etc.). Rather than memorizing this confusing assortment of meanings, I have selected the core meaning "sultry" for 暑い, which is used only for describing hot weather. (Can you see the 日-- "sun"-- shining down at the top of the character?)
Meanwhile, the core meaning "hot to the touch" for 熱い reminds me that this is the character used to describe hot liquids, hot food, and a child's feverish forehead-- all of which can be physically touched---as well as to describe passionate, non-Platonic love. I simply imagine "touching" the "flames" () at the bottom of 熱 to feel "the heat."
Other core meanings I use to keep pesky kun-homophones under control include:
1) "encounter" for 会う au versus "fit together" for 合う au;
2) "hold a job" for 勤めるtsutomeru, "perform one's duty" for 務める tsutomeru, and "try hard" for 努める tsutomeru;
3) "make space" for 空ける akeru, "open" for 開ける akeru, and "dawn" for 明ける akeru.
The problem of kun-homophones has been largely ignored in kanji textbooks and reference works for non-native Japanese. One notable exception is Jack Halpern's "New Japanese-English Character Dictionary," which provides thorough usage notes for virtually all of the one-character kun-homophones currently in use -- as well as core meanings for all of the kanji listed therein.
The three-pronged treatment plan described above-- i) consulting the usage notes in Halpern, ii) selecting a core meaning to create distinctions between confusing kun-homonyms, and iii) searching for meaning-based clues in kanji components--should provide relief for the persistent headaches induced by kun-homophones in modern Japanese. Good luck!
Mary Noguchi hails from Asheville, North Carolina, USA, where she is spending
the summer. As always, send her email at Kanji Clinic.
Have you read Reader Response for July-August?