Learn Japanese Homonyms
Have you ever confused the bird crane with the lifting machine at construction sites? The word
“crane” is a homonym; it is spelled the same but can mean different things. In Japanese,
homonyms exist too, and they can be hard to distinguish at the beginning. Let’s master them
by paying attention to the three clues: kanji, context, and intonation!
Looking at the kanji tells you right away what the homonym is referring to.
For example, both medicine and coin are written as こうか in Hiragana, but differently in kanji:
Mr. Tanaka likes collecting coins from various countries.
The effect for this medicine appears after three hours.
If looking at the kanji does not work, the next thing you should do is to pay attention to the context. Read at the following sentence:
The monkey took permission from a tree.
Yesterday, I ate oysters at a seafood restaurant.
かき can mean two things: persimmon or oyster. Because the first sentence refers to an object
on a tree, persimmon is likely to be the right choice over oysters. Similarly, you would expect
oysters at a seafood restaurant more than persimmon.
When homonyms are used in conversations, it may be a good idea to pay attention to the
intonation. Read the following conversation:
Mr. Tanaka “What do you like?”
Mr. Yamada “I like あめ!”
Here, あめ can mean two things: rain or candy.
あめ(rain) places an emphasis on the あ sound, while あめ(candy) places an emphasis on the め
sound. Watch this video to hear the difference, and practice saying them out loud.
Here are some more examples:
ISHI: 石(rock) and 医師(doctor)
KOUEN: 公園(Park) and 公演(Performance)
SINCHOU: 身長(Height) and 慎重(Careful)
KISHA: 記者(Journalist) and 汽車(train)
KANSHOU: 干渉(interfere) and 鑑賞(View, appreciate)
Homonyms are difficult to distinguish at first, and even native speakers can confuse them sometimes. When in doubt, don't be afraid to ask a clarifying question. Remember, conversation is a two way street and you can identify the meaning from the speaker by follow up questions and context clues. Good luck with Homonyms! And please let me know of any questions / comments on these.