Same words

how do Japanese speakers differentiate kanji that sound the same in conversation? i’ve come across so many Kanji that use “shi” and “ko” for instance. for “ko” how do they know when your saying old or child. for “hi” how does the listener know if you mean fire or sun? I hope I dont get an answer like “its all in the context” cuz that would be very unsettling. also, hope its not like the English “their”, “there”, and “they’re” similarities. i’m only level 3 so perhaps as i go along this question will become self explanatory.

Thanks for the help,


The short answer is that Japanese people do not think in terms of individual kanji when they are talking.

They learn words. Then they learn how to write those words with kanji.

As an aside, your comment about “old” and “child” confused me for a while. Then I realized you were talking about 古 and 子. Only one of these is a word on its own. Child is 子 (こ). The kanji 古 cannot be read as こ alone. It doesn’t appear as a word that way.

And yes, context usually does solve it.

And furthermore, 火 and 日 actually do not sound the same* when used in a sentence, because of how pitch accent works.

日 as in 日が出る (the sun rises) would have a low > high pitch on 日が, because 日 has a heiban pitch accent.
火 as in 火が出る (fire comes out) would have a high > low pitch on 火が, because 火 has an atamadaka pitch accent.

So natives would not say those the same way*. But it will take a lot of practice for a non-native to hear that kind of difference, unfortunately.

Thankfully, if someone is talking about the sun or fire should be fairly clear from the surrounding information.

*in Standard Japanese


Context is also apparently the main assistant for native speakers as well, though I don’t remember the exact source I know that there was a study on the topic of how much pitch accent matters in actually speech. The division was something like 60% or more context and the rest being pitch, for natives of course (I believe they got the percentages from analyzing brain patterns). So the take away is that pitch accent shouldn’t be stressed over toooo much.


Thank you Leebo. I kinda figured it would be mostly context but I didn’t know about pitch. That really helps out. I wonder if later levels help us with reading whole sentences or what pitch to use?

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As Loafer noted, pitch accent shouldn’t be a primary concern. My point there was just to say that often words that look the same at first glance actually don’t sound exactly the same.

There is a user script for showing pitch accent though, if you’re really curious.


You can’t always rely on pitch, then yes you’ll have to use context.


This is actually quite fascinating!
Where did you learn about that stuff?

I just asked my other half who is Japanese to say those two statements that you wrote out loud, and you are definitely correct on the accent difference between the two ひ’s. I think that when speaking, this accent difference is a big part of the contextual difference.


edX has a good self-paced class on Japanese pronunciation, of which pitch accent is just one part. I haven’t completed that course, and it’s not where I personally learned about pitch accent, but I have done some of it and I think it would be good for a lot of people.

I personally picked things up about pitch accent here and there, before watching some of Dogen’s videos, but not really doing his full course.

If you want to know how I checked those two words when making the post, I used the weblio dictionary that has a number indicator for pitch accent.火日


The course looks interesting!
But I can’t read the weblio pages for the life of me. Lol. I’m only level 13…

Well, for the purposes of pitch accent, you just need to look at the number next to the word.

Why is that unsettling?

Let’s pretend you’re talking to a friend of yours, in English:

“Your kid still playing sports?”
“Yeah, seems we’re always buying stuff for it. Gonna go to the store today to buy him a new bat.”

Would you spend any conscious thought wondering whether he meant a bat, as in a wooden stick for hitting balls, or a bat as in a nighttime animal?

Maybe you work as a repairman and someone gives you a ring:

Hi, yeah I’d like someone to come out and help with some (leaks / leeks) in our master bathroom.

Would there be any ambiguity, would you be scratching your head wondering if they meant help with water dripping out of a pipe, or if they wanted help with a variety of onion?

There are a lot of homonyms in Japanese, and it might seem daunting at first, but when you realize you’re already dealing with these things automatically in English (or whatever someone’s native language might be) it’s just way less concerning.

As someone mentioned, certain words do have different pronunciation and pitch accent which helps you with the meaning. Perhaps analogous to record in English which could either be something like pressed vinyl for music (noun) or the act of taking the sound of music and transferring it to some permanent medium (verb) - these two words having different stress syllables.

Even without that though, if you asked a Japanese friend of yours what the weather forecast was, and they responded…


…you probably wouldn’t have to wonder whether they meant if it will rain, or weather candy will fall from the sky (even without the different pitch between them in standard Japanese).

Or likewise if you asked them what they did at the park today and they said…


…there probably wouldn’t be any ambiguity of whether they photographed beautiful flowers, or beautiful noses.

Unless your friend is really weird.


This helped as well, thank you. To answer your question, it would be unsettling to me becuase one, I am searching for a language without confusion. I personally don’t like inferring context and pitch in text based correspondence and dealing with the repercussions of completely misinterpreted intention or tone. I imagion this will be magnified 100fold with a new language unless you are very carfull. For instance, I have a list on my goodreads bookshelf for books I “have read” and another for books I “want to read” Goodreads already hard coded the read list and I always get conused at first if its meaning read or read. Things like that drive me nuts Second, at level 3, I really like how brilliant the Japenees phonetic alphabet is structured and hoped it would somehow help with my issues with English. Perhaps there is no “ideal” language, or one that has a different word for everything, but I wish there was…

If you are looking for a non-ambiguous language, Japanese is not it I’m afraid…


yeah doesn’t Japanese have something like 1/4 as many unique phonemes as English? I forget the actual number.

in any case … Japanese is clearly not where you’re going to find a language like that …

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This conversation reminds me of an episode of Star Trek (the original series). Kirk, Spock, and McCoy travel to a planet that is very much like 20th century Earth, except Rome never fell, and remains the center of a strong country. The crew hears about a growing movement of people who worship the sun.

Throughout the episode, Kirk’s group tries to understand why a society that mirrors Earth Rome would turn to the sun as an object of worship. In the end, when back on their spaceship, Uhura explains that, based on her monitoring radio transmissions from the planet, she learned that the growing movement is people who worship the son of God.

Hopefully this comment was on-topic enough!

Edit: Also reminds me of this scene from Bottle Fairy where Tama-chan introduces the fairies to はなみ:



The only ones that even come close are programming languages and many programmers will tell you that even those contain ambiguity.

That’s pretty much the cause of many a flame war on the internet. Real life is complicated. :wink:


I know some programming languages and I guess your right. I guess I have what I’ve been looking for all along.

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