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Japanese Homographs

Discussion in '日本語 (Japanese)' started by ShakeyX, Apr 21, 2014.

  1. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    "Because of the way they have been adopted into Japanese, a single kanji may be used to write one or more different words (or, in some cases, morphemes), and thus the same character may be pronounced in different ways. From the point of view of the reader, kanji are said to have one or more different "readings". Deciding which reading is appropriate depends on recognizing which word it represents, which can usually be determined from context, intended meaning, whether the character occurs as part of a compound word or an independent word, and sometimes location within the sentence."

    -from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanji

    Just wanted to make clear I fully understand the way in which Japanese addopted Chinese Characters and the way in which one Kanji can have several readings, but there is a fuzzy line in my mind between "readings" and "words".

    I understood that a single Kanji can have one or many "kun" readings and one or many "on" readings but I always understood these to be readings of the same "words". So I thought that different situations (such as compound words) called for a different reading to be used, but both in the minds of foreigners and japanese people it is valued as one meaning or one word.

    Now we also have homographs, where one kanji can be used for something that means something COMPLETELY different much like homographs in other languages "to bear" "a bear" / 一時 one oclock, 一時 a while, 一時 a moment.

    Now what I'm trying to work out is, is there a distinction between "readings" and "homographs" or do all separate readings of a word come with slightly different meanings.

    I feel as is the case with 一時, it is clear to see how all 3 words relate, one oclock... one moment... a moment.. a moment is a while... they all link. So it's almost like to me we have two stages of homography

    1) readings which can be used in different situations to mean SLIGHTLY different things but still within the realm of the same meaning

    2) an actual homograph like "to bear" and "a bear" with completely different meanings (could anyone give a japanese example of this as I don't have one to hand).

    Is it true in the japanese mind the readings are valued as different "WORDS" as the wiki would suggest, or that they are readings of the same word... unlike "to bear" and "a bear" which i keep using as my example, which are definitely different words.


    P.S. Just to make it ultra clear "I am trying to find out if there is a distinguishable difference between "readings" of one same word and "homographs" completely different words that use the same kanji, OR if in the mind of a Japanese person there is no distinguishable line and this is all a continuum.
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2014
  2. hanako52 Junior Member

    I am not sure if I understand your questions correctly, but I will try to tell you a little bit about what I know.
    I don't know much about homographs. What we have in Japanese is called 同音異義語(homonym).
    There are countless homonyms in Japanese. My understanding is that, for example, 東海(toukai) and 倒壊(toukai) are homonyms that are different words with completely different meanings.  

    Regarding words that have different readings but have slightly different meanings, nothing came to mind instantly.
    通り(touri) and 通(tu) could be an example, but is 通 a word?

    If you look at many kanjis very closely, yes, there are many chinese characters with different readings and slightly different meanings.
    I am not sure if we have many such cases at word level(熟語). I say 1時 to mean one o'clock but it is just a convention and is totally different from when I say 一時 only meaning a short period of time. 一瞬 is a moment. 一時期 is a while.

    I think someone else has a better explanation for this.
  3. Tonky Senior Member

    I'm sure you understand the basic, but just in case, it has a big connection to the time/era when the "Yomi/Readings" were imported.

    Here is a very famous example with loanwords that came from European languages.
    A loanword from Portuguese "Carta". It used to mean all those card games or cards used for games, but now we only use it to mean Japanese traditional ones made of paper. (Traditionally, seashells were used before Karuta.) ​
    A loanword from German "Karte". It is used only for medical records that doctors use. Many medical terms are German based loanwords.​
    A loanword from English "Card". It is widely used for a small piece of hard paper or plastic with certain information. ​
    For more examples, refer to the below link.

    The same way, Kanji imported in each era have big connections to what we imported together at that time.
    The oldest one that already existed before Nara-era when many Japanese started traveling back and forth to China to learn Buddhism and Chinese culture. It is said to be brought by ancient Chinese (likely Southern) and Koreans. Most general Buddhism terms use go-on, as well as many other old concepts and things that had become general in those days.​
    The one that Japanese directly brought back from the mainland China between Nara and Heian period, and the government and the elite encouraged using it as the legitimate reading. (They tried to throw away Go-on but it was already ingrained among the society.) It has a bigger connection with Confucianism and Japanese-made kango/和製漢語 (since the elite made them) ​
    -Tō-on/唐音, Sō-on/宋音
    These are almost like loanwords and connected very strongly with materials imported back then, mostly with limited use. They were brought after Japan stopped sending students to China, mostly by Zen monks and traders.​
    Idiomatic or common readings that were used from errors.

    To answer this:
    So, we can tell that 鑑真和上 is がんじんわじょう, 空海和尚 is くうかいわじょう, 最澄和尚 is さいちょうかしょう, but in anime "一休さん", 和尚 is called おしょう(さん), all due to the sect/school difference.

    Kun-Reading/訓読み is totally different from On-Reading/音読み, more like "translation" into the original Japanese word. So, you could say, Kun has somewhat distinguishable difference from others.
    For example, 食物/しょくもつ and 食べ物/たべもの both mean food, but 食物 sounds more formal and used in official documents while 食べ物 is a general word, used most commonly. 市場/しじょう and 市場/いちば both mean market, but しじょう sounds like an official big one such as stock market while いちば sounds like a casual familiar food(or alike) market that are more common in daily life.

    1) いっとき・ひととき・いちじ is a bit tricky but I understand what you mean. However, they are more like one word 一時 but used in different (but linked) meanings just like an English word "once" - ① one time only, ② at any one time, ③ at some time in the past. (Just for the record, イチ is go-on, ひと(つ) is kun. ジ is go-on, とき is kun.)

    2) The issue here stems from the difference of "sound system" between Japanese and Chinese.
    When we imported kanji with their pronunciations, we re-created *new* pronunciations that were reproducible by Japanese speakers. As you may know, Chinese is very rich in its phonology with its unique four-tones/四声 that Japanese did(could) not convey with the writing system.

    After all, there are distinguishable ones as well as those that aren't. But most Japanese do not bother but learn them as they are. Many of us make reading errors too all the time as there is no end to "learning", just as many English speakers are not perfect in every spelling they come across in life.
  4. hanako52 Junior Member

    Tonky さんへ


    1、この方が言っているhomograph とは梅雨(ばいう)と書いて(つゆ)と読むといったことを指しているのですか?

    2、”I understood that a single Kanji can have one or many "kun" readings and one or many "on" readings but I always understood these to be readings of the same "words". So I     thought that different situations (such as compound words) called for a different reading to be used, but both in the minds of foreigners and japanese people it is valued as one meaning or one word.”

      同じ漢字だけれども読みが異なる熟語が使われる場合に、その読み方をひとつの意味あるいは言葉として我々はとらえてるのか。 ということをこの方は言っているのでしょうか?



  5. Tonky Senior Member

    私の推察にすぎませんが、「一時」を例にあげられていたため、homographは同異義語(cf. homonymのnymはnoma/名前)で、同じ漢字の言葉ということを言われているのではないかと思いました。が、同音異義語も同じく悩ましいところで、両方悩んでらっしゃるかもしれません。


    私も to bear と a bear につられて ShakeyXさんの2への返答に同音異義語の説明返してましたね:p 失礼しました。
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  6. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    Sincere thanks for the replies. I know my explanation was messy, my mind was exploding. But just to confirm and lock it down I will attempt (having now found some examples) and see what you think.

    When originally hearing about "readings" as opposed to introducing them simply as homographs (as they would be in any other language if one symbol/logograph was used for multiple different words) this ofcourse made me think the following:

    "Kanji has many readings but they all mean the same thing, just used in different circumstances"

    Now, after reading finding this example: 私, I see differently.

    私 read as "watashi" is used to mean "I" while 私 read as "shi" is used in compounds where it seems to mean "personal" (i.e. 私考).

    So now while I can see that "I" and "personal", do have a connection, they must be considered by even japanese people to be DIFFERENT words, used to convey different meanings. It almost makes me question why the word "reading" is used atall if you understand me?

    Unless all "readings" conform to being of a similar related meaning or is it the case that homographs and readings are just all in the big mix and even those that have completely unrelated meanings are thrown in as being a "reading" of the kanji? Does anyone have an example of this? I.e. one kanji having a reading that bith means Car and Cheese? You know, completely unrelenting things?

    I hope this is understandable, this has just made me confused as to why "readings" is used as a special term if it holds no special purpose.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  7. Tonky Senior Member

    to OP,
    As I re-read what I wrote and what hanako52 said above, I noticed that I gave a wrong reply to a part of your post.
    So, yes, you could say that, as in 色紙 ①いろがみ/origami paper or colored paper, and ②しきし/a square piece of hard paper for drawing a picture, calligraphy or signature, and 仮名 ①かな as in katakana and hiragana, and②かめい/a temp name to hide the real name.
    However, these are only distinguishable by each context and background.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  8. Tonky Senior Member

    That's like saying "why do you even have different spellings for the same pronunciation", like "fibre" and "fiber" ;)

    Of course we need "readings" because, well, how else do we utter those words?!
    On-Kun reading exists to make it easier for us to learn, although it may not help you much in the beginning stage.
  9. ShakeyX Senior Member

    British English
    No that's the point, it isn't the same as saying "fibre" "fiber", I understand that these things exist in all languages what I am specifically asking is the definition of "reading".

    To, Too, Two are homophones (Sound the same, different meaning)

    (to) Bear and (a) Bear are homographs (Spelt the same, different meaning)

    Both can be defined as homonyms however my point is what is the difference between HOMOGRAPHS (i.e 私 meaning both "I" and "personal", spelt same, different meaning) and READINGS (i.e. 私 meaning both "I and "personal", spelt same, different meaning).

    What is therefore the definition of a reading if it is exactly the same as the definition of a homograph.

    You see, I see no real difference between these two things and therefore no reason for a word "reading" to exist. It exists in Japanese as if it is a new concept which I originally thought to mean "Same meaning, same kanji, but different pronunciation". But is it just the same as Homograph? Or do "readings" of a kanji all share similar meanings and routes, giving them this special title of "reading"."

    This is why I asked if there was an example of one kanji having readings which also mean COMPLETELY different things such as Car and Cheese as that would completely prove that Homograph and Reading are the same, if this however is not possible, then I guess I understand the use of the word reading.
  10. Tonky Senior Member

  11. Tonky Senior Member

    Homographs and Readings are totally different concepts of the system, and I have a hard time understanding why you find an issue with them both existing, and why you find them as "the same definition".

    Homographs is a linguistic term given to those sets of words that have the same writing but different meanings. Some people call it 同綴異義語, 同形異義語, or 異音異義語 in Japanese, although none of them are common terms.
    Readings is a weird English translation of 読み, which is rather, a kind of "pronunciation" to us that every kanji has, and kango homographs are only a part of what exist in our language. Each reading differs as how and when we started using them, like I explained in my wall of text above.

    When we imported the kanji "私", we read it both in its original(or similar) Chinese pronunciation "シ" and in our original Japanese word pronunciation "わたし" or "わたくし". And when we learned the Chinese word "私立 (built by someone privately)" we just applied the Chinese reading "シリツ" only since it will be too long to apply it with a whole Japanese explanation (and we didn't have the exact same word in original Japanese), but then sometimes read it as "わたくしりつ" to distinguish from "市立/シリツ・いちりつ (municipal, built by city)". We have both readings of シリツ and わたくしりつ for the same word with the same meaning which is NOT a homograph.

    Does that make sense?

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