How useful is context in understanding uncommon Japanese words?

Continuing the discussion from Practical meaning of levels:

Is Japanese more/less context-comprehensible than English?

For example, if I were to pontificate about the difficulty of English, I would say that it’s actually okay. If you don’t know what the word pontificate means, you can guess it using context clues or make an educated guess.

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I believe understanding from context is something universal and should be true for all languages.


If I didn’t know better, I’d say from this context that pontificate means “to complain”.

I think you need to get to a certain level before these more conceptual words are understandable solely through context. And that’s probably true in any language.

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Yeah, and I would tend to agree, but part of me hesitates due to kanji & differing readings + meanings. That’s all.

express one’s opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic. :+1:


On the other hand, kanji sometimes makes it easier, since you can usually guess the meaning of words that use kanji you’re already familiar with.


Would that mean that the Pope is the Great Complainer?


Depends which pope, I suppose. :wink:


I see your point that English is “easier” but that’s only because a child can read English after looking at the alphabet for a bit while Japanese has pesky Kanji. Besides, you’d only be REALLY good at deducing from context in English if you had a decent understanding of word stems etc.

For words you know the Kanji for, can guess the reading, but don’t know the meaning, it’s really just the same as English. Quite easy to deduce a rough meaning from context, and arguably easier than English in some cases because English word stems can come from French, German, Latin etc. and are not consistent.

For words where you don’t know the Kanji, yeah you’re basically s**t out of luck!


Yeah, context is aaaaalways important. And Japanese is a far more contextual language than English.

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Quite accurate, as he should be the one complainig about social injustices and such. :thinking:

Whether you can intuit a single missing word from context is a bit hit-and-miss though… I definitely run across situations where a single unknown word appears, even repeatedly, and I still can’t figure it out just from context.

But there are of course also a lot of times where a new word just makes sense either from context or because it consists of components you already know.


Actually Japanese is much more context dependent than English or similar European languages. Part of the reason is the use of zero-pronouns, in which pronouns are omitted in a sentence if they are clear from the context. For example, in Japanese it’s grammatically correct to wite


which doesn’t include information on who actually eat the apple, but it is to be inferred from the context. This is only a simple example, but things get more complicated as you introduce movement verbs, causative, causative-passive, receiving and giving verbs, etc.

Moreover, as you all know, in Japanese person, gender and number are not indicated morphologically and can only be deduced from the context.

The book I have that is intended to help elementary school kids with their 国語 lessons has a section on trying to infer the meaning of words you don’t know from context. But it’s on my work desk, so I’ll get a pic next time I can.


Ya, I understand that it’s context dependent. There’s a difference between being able to infer meaning from words by using context and not being able to understand a word without context. I’m asking about the latter, not the former.

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*) Context is useful at guessing the meaning no matter the language. I don’t see how it would be different in Japanese with respect to any other language

*) Without context, on the other hand, in Japanese you can guess the meaning of unknown words by looking at the individual kanjis that make up the work. In western languages you could attempt a similar guessing procedure if you know the etymology of the word (its greek, roman, etc. roots), but it’s far more difficult without studies of ancient languages.

I think the second example (guessing the meaning of unknown words based on their component kanji) is not really about context which is “the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.

Yes, in my second example, just read the first two words of it, I’m talking about guessing the meaning of words without context.

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I kinda feel the power of context is less being able to guess a completely unknown word, and more being able to know which of the seventeen or so definitions listed in the dictionary is the correct one.

Like, I’ve seen people post, to pick a random example, “What does かう mean?” and it’s like well, that depends - is it ペンをかう or 猫をかう?

That’s a good point. Context helps a lot in distinguishing the many homophones in Japanese.

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Yes, sorry, I missed that.

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