When learning a foreign language, there are four main skill categories: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Of these 4 skills, listening is often considered to be the hardest skill to acquire. This is because it’s the only skill where the learner doesn’t have full control of speed. You can read, write and speak however fast or slowly you are comfortable with. But when it comes to listening, you are subject to the whims of the person you are listening to.
Over the course of this five part series, I’ve been talking at length about homophones in Japanese, how they came to be so numerous and strategies to avoid them. But all of these points have skirted the most important and fundamental question of all, which is, does it even really matter?
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.
As discussed in the previous segment, many homophones have arisen due to the overuse of on-yomi, which are short and phonetically limited, as well as phonological drift.
To better understand why this phonological drift happened the way it did, we need to understand the state of affairs in Japan before the modern era. Like most places around the word, access to literacy and education was limited to the wealthy, higher classes, and back then, being educated meant knowing Chinese and Chinese culture, in much the same way that in Europe, being educated meant knowing Latin.
As we explored in the previous segment, there is nothing inherent to Japanese phonology itself that accounts for the large number of homophones. Given the language’s inventory of phonemes and phonotactics, it is more than capable of coming up with enough unique words to avoid homophones altogether.
A common refrain heard across the internet is that Japanese is a phonologically impoverished language. In fact, they say, it is so phonologically impoverished that the language is inundated with an unwieldy amount of homophones. As a result, it is impossible to write Japanese using a purely phonetic writing system. Kanji are the only way to disambiguate words.
The truth is much more complicated. Japanese does in fact have an unusually large amount of homophones but the cause is only tangentially related to its phonology. Additionally, kanji may actually be exacerbating the problem.