Why do kanji have so many homophones?


#21

They added a few “new sounds” like ウィ, ウェ, ファ, フィ, チェ and so on. But Japanese are basically confusing themselves because no one understands their katakana-English, and they even don’t know what was correct in the first place when they write in English. I saw a sign for “ballet parking” recently.

But it also gives one explanation for @Sextron’s issue.
In Japan: ease of conversion >> understandability


#22

They don’t need to invent new sounds to make バス (bus) and バス (bath) not be homophones. The use of “new” there was supposed to be from the word’s perspective, not the language’s. Sextron’s point was they should just use random combos for the kanji to differentiate them. So you could make バス (bath) into… uh… ジョヌ, a combination of sounds that currently has no associated meaning and thus wouldn’t conflict with バス (bus).

That’s what I meant by his proposal not making sense.

But you would lose the loanword element completely, which is presumably what they’re trying to avoid by keeping 60 こう kanji and not randomly assigning them 60 unique sound combos.


#23

Homophones are an integral part of the Chinese language and the Chinese love them! They don’t change them because homophones are what make Chinese such a wonderful language for wordplay. Also, modern Mandarin tends to use a lot of compound words. A loose rule of thumb is that one character often conveys sound information while the other may supply meaning. This helps cut down on the ambiguity that a language replete with homophones might otherwise be plagued by.

But back to Japanese… you see, Old Japanese borrowed heavily from Old Chinese at a time when written Chinese was structured in a concise and poetic way that was more or less completely divorced from the actual spoken language (which meant that the homophones weren’t an issue in the written language because the characters contained little sound information - which has proven to be a bane to modern scholars). When the Japanese borrowed this somewhat beguiling style of writing from the Chinese, they tried to pull sound information from a system that wasn’t meant to represent sounds, leading to serious problems with homophones and alllllllll sorts of weird attempts to write Japanese sounds using Chinese characters.

For more information on this, I would suggest you NOT bother reading the oddly misinformed kun’yomi/on’yomi post from Tofugu and instead give A History of the Japanese Language by Bjarke Frellesvig a quick skim. It’s super interesting and will give you all the information you could ever have wanted.


#24

This sort of makes you wonder at which point do words stop being English loan words and simply become a part of the native Japanese lexicon. Maybe “ballet parking” makes no sense in English because it is in fact not an English phrase written in English but rather a Japanese phrase written in romanji.


#25

There’s probably a better example, since “ballet” isn’t actually valid romaji. It’s just them trying to write in English and failing in this case.


#26

This is sort of what I’m getting at. In a language with such a rich history of fluidity and adaptability as Japanese, maybe they aren’t “failing” at writing in English but rather simply reshaping their language through usage. Early attempts by the Japanese to incorporate Chinese characters into the written language were colossal failures by Chinese standards, but went on to become a proud tradition of (in the pre-modern era) unmatched literacy and literary prolificity. Watch, in a century or three, “ballet parking” will just be part of every day life :smiley:


#27

Yes, reassigning readings inside the Japanese sound boundaries would be a too extreme solution. Who should enforce that? I just read that Emperor Kammu tried to ban go-on, didn’t get very far.

But let’s just say that the quality of importing phonetically in Japan has not improved over time. Why not keeping the roman letters and just read them バス, or something like バッス and バフっ, at least trying to stay closer to the original? While importing the Chinese characters they could have opted to add a few sounds instead.

Looks interesting, a bit pricey though. And 462 pages :wink:


#28

Oh sorry, that “ballet parking” was written in English. The Japanese writer probably just started out with バレーパーキング and picket the first English word with that sound, at least it wasn’t barré parking.


#29

This is exactly the kind of response I was looking for. Not that it just conforms to my idea of confusion, but you seem to have a much better idea of the history of the languages than most people posting here. Or maybe you’re just more confident. You can’t really know online.

But as for all the katakana words, I really don’t think Japanese people should make such an effort to make words with katakana. They’ve made Japanese words for foreign words in the past, so why make katakana words now?

Katakana words are only understood by Japanese people. Foreigners don’t understand them, and as a foreigner, if you want Japanese people to understand you, you have to make a best guess in which way Japanese people butchered the foreign word.

It often isn’t in a way that makes sense phonetically.

This is neither here nor there, but I honestly think Japan should just get rid of katakana. Foreigners don’t understand words spoken with a katakana pronunciation, and Japanese don’t understand native foreign words that aren’t pronounced with katakana pronunciations.

I’ve met several elementary students that had 1000000% better pronunciations of foreign words than adult Japanese people do. It’s baffling when I can understand an 8 year old better than a 16 year old.


#30

Not directly related to the reason of having so many similar sounds, but this link explains how you can use homophones to predict reading of a kanji. This might help you a lot. https://namakajiri.net/nikki/testing-the-power-of-phonetic-components-in-japanese-kanji/


#31

Why on Earth should Japanese people change their language to conform to people who can’t speak it? And you can spell computer as こんぴゅーた if you want, and it won’t really change anything about the usage of the word and the fact that it’s ingrained in the lexicon.

BTW, there is a kanji form of computer. 電子計算機

Does that solve the problem? Can Japanese people now say computer with perfect English pronunciation?


#32

Great link, very interesting! :+1:


#34

Once words are borrowed and ingrained in a language they are part of that language. Japanese loanwords (written in katakana or otherwise) are just like any other word In the language. Therefore the non-Japanese speaker is actually the one butchering the foreign (Japanese) word by not knowing the correct way to say it in Japanese.


#35

I always used to get so frustrated, but I’ve learned to just let things be when I encounter stuff that doesn’t seem to “make sense” when learning another language. Language evolves naturally with no regard for making sense, and however many things you can come up with that don’t make sense in language X, you can find just as many nonsensical things in your native tongue (unless you’re a computer or something :robot:)


#36

I don’t think you should be offering advice to a culture about how they should structure their language ever, much less when you do not yourself speak the language. I could list a variety of reasons why, but I would like to think that they are apparent upon reflection.


#37

A french person might not understand the word toilet with english pronunciation and an english person might not understand it when using the french pronunciation. Is this wrong?

There also exists the English word water closet, but for whatever reason people are still using the french loan word instead. Should they stop?

Or is japanese in some way unique in that it shouldn’t use loanwords or adapt them in a way that makes sense for a native to pronounce, whereas in languages like english it’s ok?


#38

I’m going to ask a serious question which will affect how people (including myself) will answer you:

Are you asking this out of a wish to know the actual reason, or in order to vent your frustrations?

At the moment it looks like venting in the guise of wanting to know, which is, like you see, not going to fly well in this company.


#39

The simple answer here is when enough time passes that most people don’t realize it, or all the people who cared have died. That’s why French words in English and Chinese words in Japanese aren’t talked about as Loanwords or 外来語. Even some of the oldest Portuguese words like じゅばん fit this.

Anyway, Pedantic note: Japanese was never really influenced by Old Chinese. The first influence of Chinese was at the earliest Early Middle Chinese which was then filtered through Korean through the spread of Buddhism into Japan. It wasn’t until later, which I’d call definitely Middle Chinese that direct influence from China happened.

The Nihon Shoki directly matches up with Middle Chinese as opposed to Old Chinese. This would be Old Japanese, but the very tail end of Old Japanese.


#40

I agree that a great deal of the language exchange that gave us the on’yomi pronunciations in Japanese did occur during the time period in which Middle Chinese pronunciations were in use (for those of you that have no background in Chinese history, this period corresponds with the Tang Dynasty roughly 600 - 900 AD), but I stand by my claim that Old Japanese was influenced by Old Chinese, since OC formed the basis of the Literary Chinese writing system that the Japanese of the day were so in love with.


#41

Hey @tanukiballs, can you explain this further? Does this mean these texts were not read out loud so same sounds were no problem, or that the symbols had no sound attached at all? My impression is that most kanji were created from things with a similar sound from the beginning, so a reading should always have been included.