Japanese Homophones: Making them work for you

The Homophones: They’re alike, and that’s a good thing!

People often say “there are so many homophones in Japanese”. And it’s true. Japanese has fewer vowel‐sounds and far fewer possible syllables than most languages. So quite a few words are pronounced the same as each other.

This can feel confusing. But it can also work for you if you approach it in the right way. First of all, homophones are rarely actually confusing in practice. How much trouble do you have in English with “to”, “too” and “two”; “know” and “no”; “lie” (fib) and “lie” (down), for example?

Homophones aren’t really a problem. And as an English speaker you are already used to them. Some languages are less tolerant of them than English. In French, for example, the word for “yes” is oui and the word for “today” used to be hui (cf. Spanish hoy, German Heute). However, when French pronunciation changed and “h” was no longer pronounced at the start of words, oui and hui became homophones and the French could not bear the ambiguity. They started saying au jour d’hui ‐ (the day hui) for “today”.

If you’ve ever wondered why French has such an unusually long term for such an everyday (heehee) concept as “today” ‐ that is why. English, on the other hand, is happy with very common homophones like “to”, “too” and “two”. Speakers realize that in practice they aren’t usually confusing. So an English speaker really shouldn’t worry too much about Japanese homophones.

However, what one can do instead of worrying is make those homophones work for you.  Because they can actually be very useful. You can use them to form mnemonics, but I often find that you don’t even need to do that. Often, just remembering that a word is pronounced the same as another word acts as a mnemonic in itself. The mind loves connections. Give it a connection, however odd, and it will tend to stick to it.

Quite often I check for homophones and will pop them in my Anki with a note “same pron” (I am too dumb to understand fancy words like “homophone”). And I find that very often, along with the word I will remember the “same pron” words.

Sometimes there is a long list of homophones for a word. Don’t pop them all in. They look scary, but in fact they will start to make more sense as you understand their structure ‐ why they mean what they mean. But pick one or two that feel nice to you. Rikaisama’s frequency information can help you to find the strategically most important.

For example, I was delighted to realize that 減少 genshou, “decrease, reduction” has the same pronunciation as 現象 genshou, “phenomenon”. I actually knew both words already, but realizing that they are homophones gives me a quick cross‐check when I am wondering if I have one exactly right.

If you want a mnemonic, just remember the law of entropy (or the “heat death of the universe”). All material phenomena are constantly and inevitably decreasing. There is also a 現生  genshou which is a Buddhist term meaning “the present world”. Frankly, I wouldn’t bother with that as it is very uncommon. However, if you do want to memorize it, just remember that the present world ‐ the one we incarnate beings live in ‐ is precisely that world of ever‐waning phenomena. Which is a very Buddhist point of view. And true.

Can you do this with other homophones? Certainly you can. As I said, you don’t necessarily always need to. Homophones, once you recognize them and note their curiousness, often stick by themselves. But, suppose you want to remember the homophones 機械 kikai, machine, 機会 kikai, opportunity, 毀壊 kikai, destruction and 奇怪, kikai, strange. Just remember that great technical progress has often come about in time of war and in military contexts. In other words: warlike societies see machines as an opportunity for destruction. I don’t know about you, but I find that rather strange.

Conversely, destruction has often been an opportunity for (the creation of) machines. Still equally strange in my view.

I recently encountered the word 生気 seiki, vitality, verve, vigor, while playing Dragon Quest VII. Now, the word makes perfect sense in kanji terms (life‐spirit) but for remembering the pronunciation on the fly (for example when talking or listening) it is also helpful that it has the same pronunciation as 世紀 seiki, century or era. For me that works as a straight cross‐check, though if you want a mnemonic, just remember how lively people are at the start of a new century. Like a New Year party on happy‐juice.

Now in this case there are several other seiki’s. This is the sort of thing that worries people, but in fact they are all very regular etymological combinations of easily‐understood kanji. If they look like a strange and random mare’s nest now, don’t panic. Just leave them alone for now and realize that they will make much more sense once you know more Japanese.

Most of them are quite particular and not necessary to know right now (if you are at the being troubled by them stage). The commoner ones are 生起 seiki occurrence, happening (kanji= life‐occur) and 性器 genital (kanji=gender‐instrument).

One thing you will note with all these (and if you want to look up せいき in Jisho, all the others too) is how very useful the Sound Sisters are. Nearly all of the pronunciations are aided by knowing them.

生気 has the Sei Sister 生, plus 気 which is nearly always ki (sometimes ke/ge)

世紀 has 世 whose on‐reading is regularly sei and 紀 which includes the Ki Sister 己.

生起 is the Sei sister 生 plus 起 which again includes the Ki Sister 己.

性器 has 性 which includes the Sei Sister 生, and 器 has the regular on‐reading ki.

If you look up the other seiki’s (there are ten and you don’t need to worry about them all right now) you will see that their pronunciations are all clarified by one or more of the Sound Sisters, and most have quite regular and understandable kanji meanings.

So you see how our methods work together to give you multiple “mind hooks” on a word.

The words we are learning (or consolidating) we can easily attach to the others of the same pronunciation. If you need mnemonics for the actual homophonity (to coin a word) they are easy too.

For example, with 正規  seiki, (Sei Sister ) regular, normal, legitimate, we can remember that life and vigor in the West may currently be associated with unconventionality and “badness”, but in Japan it tends to be associated with being regular and legitimate.

An occurrence 生起 is clearly a vigorous movement of happening in the calm sea of being. If you want to associate genitalia with liveliness, I am sure you can. I don’t do that sort of thing. More seriously though, we are dealing here with the material source of life (do I think all these connections are mere accident? No, actually I don’t, even though some of them are just fanciful. But that would take us into subtle regions that are far beyond the purposes of this article).

Now seiki is one of the kind that worries people. Ten definitions for one word‐pronunciation. Just remember: you don’t need to worry about all ten at once. In fact you shouldn’t. The mind can’t really handle ten at once so you lose the mnemonic value of the homophone. Take one or two (probably three at the outside) of the most useful homophone‐partners of the word you are currently learning and associate them together; you can then add more at a later time if you want them.

It is good when you have multiple mind‐hooks working together. The homophone word‐group, the Sound Sisters, knowledge of the kanji and their meanings all work together, hooking meaning, sound and kanji from various angles.

Of course, the best “hook” of all is usage. Hearing them, reading them, saying them. But the other hooks are all important ‐ like the scaffolding that is needed until the building is complete.

Like scaffolding, it all interlocks, making a firm structure. Unlike scaffolding, while some of it will eventually go away (fanciful sound associations and such), other parts will become a part of the building (kanji meaning and word structure).

But all the scaffolding is important while the building is still being constructed. And homophones provide some very useful bars and struts (or whatever they call them) in that scaffolding.

Far from being your enemies, homophones are your friends and allies if you know how to use them.

4 thoughts on “Japanese Homophones: Making them work for you

  1. Hello!

    On paragraph 2, first sentence.

    This can feel confusing.

    I think it’s better: “This can be confusing”. Because I think “this” can’t feel “confused” at all. < even this structure I find it strange.
    I perfectly understand your sentence, though.
    I feel it's just strange in written form (unusual)

  2. Despite the small sound inventory in Japanese there is still substantial room for more sound combinations that would have helped reduce the amount of homophone words in the language, at least when it comes to native Japanese words. But languages don’t came into existence as a conscious effort but rather they come into existence spontaneously and slowly through time.

    1. Yes, exactly. There may be various ways languages “should” work but they actually work the way they do!

      Actually I often find myself surprised by how many homophones there aren’t. For example when part-way through typing a word the kanji-suggester suggests the right one an awful lot of the time I find. Sometimes it is because it is “trained” by the fact that we use some words a lot, but often that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      The other thing to bear in mind is that the concept of “homophone” is perhaps sometimes a bit of a Western imposition on Japanese. Not in all cases. But often it is conditioned by what we think of as a word and what we expect of a word. As I explain in this article, many “words” are as much a combination of two on-reading “words” as they are “one word”, and as one gets used to Japanese one learns to think of them that way. In these cases (and there are a lot of them) the whole “homophone” notion tends to fade with experience and give place to a better appreciation of the flexibility of the Japanese “word”.

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