In the previous installment of this series, I discussed how class divisions in Japanese society exacerbated the problem with homophones already present with on-yomi. Here I will be discussing a few possibilities to reduce the number of homophones in use.
The first thing to do when writing, is to simply see if the word you are using passes the context test. The context test is basically this: if you write out the word you are using only with kana instead of kanji, will you still be understood? If yes, then keep using the word. If no, throw it out and try a different word. Kanji can be really useful in distinguishing homophones, but in many ways they can also be a crutch. In most languages around the world, homophones that are hard to disambiguate fall into disuse. But with kanji, homophones that should have died out long ago are allowed to persist indefinitely. In order to trim down the use of homophones, it is important to be cognizant of how understandable a word is sans kanji.
This might seem challenging, but luckily Japanese is also a language that is rich in synonyms. For example, let’s look at one of the 45 words pronounced こうしょう from before and see if there are some other words we can use in its place. The word I will go over here is 交渉 which means negotiation and can be used with the verb する to mean to negotiate. 交渉 has a few quasi-synonyms, known as 類語 (ruigo), such as 談判・だんぱん and 折衝・せっしょう. There is also the verb 掛け合う which can mean to negotiate with or to talk over with (someone). Now of course, not all of these words are completely interchangeable in all situations. For example, 交渉 has the nuance of referring to diplomatic negotiations or negotiations with a company in a business setting, while the verb 掛け合う has more of a connotation of a 1-1 correspondence with someone. Nevertheless, all of these words have some degree of overlapping nuance. So if you feel that the nuance is appropriate, you could substitute 交渉 for something else.
The next strategy to employ is to prioritize kun-yomi pronunciations more than they currently are. As mentioned earlier, on-yomi typically take on the role of the higher register in Japanese. On-yomi words (aka Kango) are perceived to be more sophisticated, formal and educated. However, if this bias in favor of kango can be overcome, Yamato-kotoba could in theory be used as a more readily understandable substitution.
In fact, many kango have Yamato-kotoba equivalents that are written with the exact same kanji. These pairings come in two different ways. The first way involves either reversing the order of the kanji used and/or adding in okurigana.
Some examples include:
殺人 ・さつじん becomes 人殺し・ひとごろし (Murder)
登山・とざん becomes 山登り・やまのぼり (Mountain climbing)
切腹・せっぷく becomes 腹切り・はらきり (Seppuku / Ritual Suicide)
出血・しゅっけつする becomes 血が出る・ちがでる (To bleed)
生物・せいぶつ becomes 生き物・いきもの (Living organism)
忍者・にんじゃ becomes 忍びの者・しのびのもの (Ninja)
立腹・りっぷくする becomes 腹が立つ・はらがたつ (To become angry)
The second type of pairing makes use of the same kanji written in the exact same order without okurigana, but still allows for multiple possible pronunciations.
化学 ・かがく・ ばけがく (Chemistry)
馬主・ばしゅ・うまぬし (Horse owner)
Not all of these substitutions are pure kun-yomi. For example, ばけがく is an example of a mixed word and is kun-on. Nevertheless, the words that make use of kun-yomi are much more distinct than their pure on-yomi counterparts.
However, it is worth pointing out that all of these words have slightly different nuances. For example, 工場, when pronounced as こうじょう, has the connotation of being a much bigger factory than a こうば. But this nuance is not set in stone and can vary from speaker to speaker. There are probably 工場 out there that people might debate as to whether it should be called a こうじょう or a こうば.
By keeping these strategies in mind, one can make sure they are communicating clearly and effectively. But there remains one last nagging question at the back of my mind- Does any of this even matter? I’ve spent these past four entries explaining the origin of most homophones in Japanese and strategies to avoid them, but I still have not answered the question that I posed at the very beginning of this series which was whether or not the abundance of homophones are as big of a problem as they are made out to be. Could Japanese in theory be written purely in kana and still be perfectly understandable? I will explore this idea more in part V.