Pronunciation and Spelling Meanings

Does anyone else get the impression that the way a word is written with kanji is just a contextual specification of an otherwise identical term?

Even if it does apply to only a few words, a concrete example that comes to mind is かえる for returning, with 帰る returning home, and 返る returning in general. It works the same way with 帰す for sending someone home and 返す for simply returning something.

I wouldn’t know how to display pitch accents here, so that words like 蛙 aren’t treated similarly, but it seems like there is a certain disparity between the written and the spoken Japanese language.

Other such examples that come to mind:

上る, 登る, 昇る: (のぼる) - going up (generically, by means of climbing, in the sky)
早い, 速い: (はやい) - early/fast, specific contexts aside (for non-Japanese), essentially the same meaning
暑い, 熱い, 厚い: (あつい) - hot (people, things, concepts? (hospitable behavior, seriousness of an illness, abundance, generally translating to forms of warmth in ways less explicit than the first two writings))
会う, 合う, 遭う: (あう) - to encounter (people face to face, harmonious encounter (matching), unexpected/undesirable encounters)

There is quite an expansive number of such cases, and while not all words that share a pronunciation share a meaning, it seems like it is the case most of the time.

In this case, does it still really make sense to teach Japanese vocabulary through the writing? To me it seems like a phonetic approach to vocabulary in terms of how they relate to one another makes more sense than relying on what’s ultimately a borrowed writing system.

This by no means aims to discredit learning kanji, or challenge that kanji is helpful (it is very much so), but rather I’m questioning how vocabulary is being taught, and whether there aren’t better avenues that would teach spoken Japanese more effectively than through the means of the writing system.


厚い often is used to mean thick. Just FYI. For example, 厚い本 (thick book). So I would tread lightly when it comes to associating something else as the primary meaning in your head.


While they often have multiple ways of writing them, the different ways usually come with different nuances. For example:

見る, 観る, and 診る are all the same word, but each have subtle differences.

Secondly, if you teach just phonetically, you are going to run into bigger issues. Take いる for example. It can be 居る, 要る, 炒る, 入る, or 射る, and the first 4 are rather common. Memorizing a billion defitions for いる would make things rather hard on a learner. Even with pitch accents, they aren’t all distinguished. And いる isn’t that far from a normal word in this regards considering how few sounds Japanese has.

Also, pitch accent varies by region. So if you focus on that to distinguish the words, learners will get very confused by anyone with any dialect. Even if one sticks to Tokyo, Standard Japanese is actually different from the modern Tokyo dialect(s), despite what some are lead to believe.


Could be that meaning started out with insulation in mind.
Still, the difference for how it’s used in practice, once a foundation is laid down, should be acquired more easily from contact with native speakers or material, but would ease things up when trying to get a broad grasp of the language initially.

I outlined nuances in my example, I don’t deny nuances.

I postulate that Japanese being a very contextual language, these “subtle differences” would be understood/cleared up by the context within which the words are said anyway.

As for pitch accent and dialects, well, I suppose that’s something I’ll have to figure out once I move there. Still, “standard” Japanese should be a good guideline, no?

It’s the dialect that is standard for media, so if you speak it perfectly, there won’t be any misunderstanding. But you learning to distinguish in your head only by pitch accent will lead to confusion when you see that people don’t strictly ahere to them, even within a dialect. The kanji generally provide a window into how Japanese people actually distinguish them.

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Is anyone out there teaching that all the kanji variants of あう are different words?

You’re not asking with regard to WK, right? WK is about learning the kanji, and you learn some vocab in the process. The primary goal is not learning the vocab here.


This is likely the result of the fact that written Japanese is heavily influenced by Chinese, and the two languages make different distinctions.
帰 and 返 have the same kun’yomi, and perhaps the Japanese did not distinguish between 帰す and 返す before writing was introduced. However, they have different on’yomi, reflecting the fact that they are different lexemes in Chinese.

Other examples include 測る, 計る and 量る, which refer to different types of measurements.

You’ll also see words that were clearly compound words at some point in Japanese, but which are written using a single kanji; 導く is just 道引く, and 雷 is 神鳴り.


Developing speaking and listening skills in a foreign language cannot be done through the eye. Kanji, symbols and romanized Japanese should serve to remind you of what you’ve already heard, and heard many times. Only then will you be able to actually read Japanese, not decode material directly to your own native language, bypassing the Japanese language completely.

There are a multitude of alternatives out there for learning spoken Japanese. Pimsleur and Glossika come to mind regarding modern solutions. In the old guard, you’ve got “Japanese: The Spoken Language”, the book I paraphrased in my first paragraph.

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Of course there are better ways. Through speaking and listening practice. That’s why nearly all textbooks include audio lessons to actually practice and improve speaking and listening skills. And courses solely dedicated to teaching speaking use audio/visual media not writing.

Who is saying that learning to speak is best taught via writing? :thinking: I’ve never seen anyone claim this.


I didn’t post this in the “WaniKani” section, I specifically outlined that kanji and vocabulary are separate, I’m well aware WaniKani is for kanji.

I’m not pointing any of this out as in “yeah lemme take this shortcut and never actually bother with listening comprehension despite specifically pointing out that the written language isn’t all there is to Japanese”.

And I don’t know why pointing out that Japanese isn’t Chinese is an argument.

Is everything I point out as not being the case suddenly pointing out that people make such a claim rather than just using it as a means of reinforcing what I’m saying?

You’d think this is Quora with how most of the replies either repeat what was already pointed out (aka didn’t really read) or cherrypick sentences.

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You’re asking on WaniKani, so if you don’t point to something else the reasonable assumption is that you’re talking about WaniKani (at least in part), regardless of the category it’s in.

There are plenty of resources that teach vocabulary in other ways.


Then why even have a WaniKani section at all if it doesn’t matter and people will assume it’s about WaniKani by default?


In a lot of cases we are dealing with real homonyms (i.e., words that coincidentally sound the same) rather than polysemes (i.e., words that sound the same and have a related meaning), which occur to a significantly higher degree in Japanese than English.

Like others pointed out previously, the borrowing from Chinese has led to a large number of these specific homonyms, with cases like しんせい expressing a number of compound nouns entirely unrelated to one another, e.g. 申請 (application), 新生 (rebirth), 神聖 (holiness), where knowing (or being able to recognize) the kanji should help the learner retain the meaning as the analysis of the kanji combinations will arguably be more meaningful than learning that しんせい happens to mean application, rebirth, and holiness.

The Japanese wikipedia page on homonyms (同音異義語) has a non-exhaustive list of examples, some where the compound will share a kanji for one of its parts, but others where there is no relation whatsoever.

I acknowledge that this isn’t 100% related to your original question, but it should still illustrate that the kanji writing can be useful for pronunciation purposes as it can help the learner distinguish words that sound similar but are unrelated or better remember features that aren’t as distinctive (e.g., the difference between a long and a short vowel or the difference between t and d).

To use a personal example, I first learned the word 同僚 in a speaking context as どうりょう way before I learned the kanji and would sometimes mistakenly use it as *とうりょう in a sentence because I misremembered and had no clue about the etymology. Once I had learned its kanji spelling 同僚, I did not make that mistake again because I recognized 同 and its on’yomi from other words.

Generally speaking, the mistake of swapping/misremembering individual sounds in Japanese due to the lack of a shared etymology was a mostly new phenomenon for me as it would rarely happen in the other foreign languages I have learned, which were all Indo-European and to a good extent had a deducible, shared etymology. Even as a beginner, I wouldn’t have made the mistake of saying *touleur instead of douleur or *faugon instead of faucon in French, but I definitely had moments where I was wondering if it was じょうきょう or *じょうぎょう or even *じゅうきょう for 状況 before learning the kanji for it because I had no etymological clues to go off phonetically.


I should have specified that the case I’m making mostly applies to words of Japanese origin and not borrowed from Chinese.

As they still constitute the majority of words used in day to day life, I figured it would still be interesting/helpful to acquire that foundation through means that do not utilize kanji.

While borrowed-from-Chinese vocabulary constitutes roughly 60-70% of the vocabulary in Japanese, if I remember right it’s mostly what pertains to more technical or academic purposes, in the same way that European languages rely on Greek or Latin for similar purposes.

This would also be why the Japanese end up creating new “Chinese” words that are then borrowed from Japanese into Chinese.

For words of Chinese origin, I agree that the kanji-less approach wouldn’t be as effective.

“Technical” is pretty relative here. That is the general idea, but it is basically things that would be technical to a 7th century Japanese person. Words like "park, " "zoo, " "book, " or “dictionary” are all considered technical in this context. This doesn’t mean they are obscure. Most of the 和語 still in use are the non-する verbs and the い adjectives. Outside of that the 漢語 words definitely dominate even use as well, with the remaining 和語 words being some specific classes of words, like emotional stuff, and some miscellaneous things here and there.

And still, besides, you still run into the 居る, 要る, 入る, 炒る, 射る problem. Those are all 和語, viewed as distinct by speakers, and yet still have overlapping pitch accent in standard Japanese, let alone variation you will see amid dialects and individual speakers.


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