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開ける, 明ける and 空ける are all read as あける.

From their kanji, it is obvious that 開ける has to do more with opening (a door etc), 明ける with dawning and 空ける with emptying...

However, JMDict gives the exact same senses for all three of them (in fact, lists them as the same word):

開ける(P); 空ける(P); 明ける(P) 【あける】 (v1,vt) ① (esp. 開ける) to open (a door, etc.); to unwrap (e.g. parcel, package); ② (esp. 開ける) to open (for business, etc.); ③ (esp. 空ける) to empty; to clear out; to make space; to make room; (v1,vi) ④ (esp. 明ける) to dawn; to grow light; ⑤ (esp. 明ける) to end; (P)

OK, not quite the same senses for all (each sense is given a "preferred" kanji), but still seems to claim that there might be cases where one kanji spelling could be used instead of another.

Is this an error in JMDict (and should all three have separate definitions), or can anybody think of cases where the above spellings are used instead of one another?

Edit: to clarify, my question could be summed up as:

  • Does your dictionary disagree with mine?

if not:

  • Can you give me one situation example where any two of the above spellings could be used interchangeably (with or without minor differences in nuance)?
share|improve this question
I have the impression that that use cases of these three kanji are almost disjoint, but I am not completely sure. – Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 16 '11 at 1:55
I don't recall EDICT being like that a while ago. It looks like someone has merged several entries to make it easier to maintain perhaps. In the EDICT I have stored locally, they are all treated as separate entries. – Mark H Jun 16 '11 at 2:26
I think it is on topic as he is asking if there really is a difference between them. Dave is just using EDICT as a source he's seen that says X, but he believes Y, and wants to find out what the correct answer is. Think of this question as if it was "i heard from my teacher that" instead of "In EDICT there is" – Mark Hosang Jun 16 '11 at 3:26
@repecmps: sorry, but I strongly disagree. 1) EDICT is not a tool, but one of the most widely used (and therefore reasonably authoritative) dictionary. 2) I don't think it is that obvious... kanji reading nuances rarely are. But if you feel confident enough (and have any source to provide) to answer along this line, please do! – Dave Jun 16 '11 at 3:31
@repecmps: you missed the important part of that sentence, which comes after: "has to do", not "is limited to". By stating this first, I was trying to limit the frame of the question (I stand by my "obvious" because we all know that these kanji have a certain association with some of the senses). Once again, the fact that a reference says one thing, while I (and many others) think otherwise, makes it perfectly on-topic to me. You may think that this question is trivial and I sincerely invite you to post an answer with proper reference :-) – Dave Jun 16 '11 at 7:15
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Historically, all of these are indeed the same word, which had a base meaning of "clearing an obstruction". From this base meaning you can easily get to "making/getting empty" and "opening".

As for the meaning of "brightening", if I understand correctly, the story goes like this: Since ancient time had a metaphor of dawn (夜明け) as the night (夜) clearing up (あける) the obstruction it has put on the sky, and allows the light to flow freely. From the same root (ak-) also come the words 明るい and 赤い. Yes, the color that is associated with the night clearing up is red and not white, because the reddish hue that often accompanies dawn (though we're more likely to associate reddish hue with sunset in our western imagery).

All of these words and senses seems to be of very old origin, i.e. they had formed well before kanji came to be used for writing Japanese. When the Japanese had to fit the Chinese kanji (which were obviously tailored around Chinese words and meanings) to their language they obviously couldn't find a single kanji that would convey all of the senses of あける together.

Most of the kanji associations that evolved into what we now know as kun-readings came from an old writing system called kanbun, that barely had any phonetic elements. Japanese written in kanbun was effectively translated to Chinese and even laid out in Chinese syntax (though later some reading aids were added to help readers convert it back to Japanese syntax), and at least in the beginning, it had to be acceptable Chinese, so the writer had to replace あける with 開 (remember, there was no okurigana in the first kanbun texts) when it meant 'open', with 空 when it meant 'empty' and with 明 when it meant 'brighten'. Over the time these distinctions stuck, and up till today most Japanese choose the appropriate kanji for each meaning. In my personal experience, these meanings have grown so distinct in modern language that you'd usually find people "confusing" the kanji only when their IME misfires (which happens quite a lot :)) or when they try to make a word-play.

Dictionaries are another thing though, and since most of them base their entry partition (at least partially) on etymological grounds, they may end up putting all of these kanji under one unified entry (often with usage guidelines, but still under one roof).

share|improve this answer
Woa thanks for all the details! That's exactly the type of answer I was looking for... So, the take-away-message would be that, for practical purposes, these are indeed 3 different words with no sense overlap whatsoever, correct? – Dave Jun 16 '11 at 8:13
整いました!夜とかけて、プレゼントととく。その心は…どちらもかならずあけます! Ah, Japanese word-play... :) – Derek Schaab Jun 16 '11 at 13:43
@Dave: Probably. It seems like modern-day speakers easily differentiate between them, so I'd say yes, but it's also hard to get rid of the historical baggage of the language sometimes. – Boaz Yaniv Jun 16 '11 at 16:11
Is there a typo in the second-to-last paragraph? Maybe you meant "the writer had to replace あける with 開...when it meant 'open'", or did they use that other character in older Japanese? – Troyen Jun 16 '11 at 16:35
@Troyen: Yeah, it's a typo. I've accidentally used 空 twice. Thanks for the tip. – Boaz Yaniv Jun 16 '11 at 17:01

My understanding was that while they all have the same reading, they are in fact completely different words. Which the 3 definitions that you have mentioned Dave being in line with how I would use and have seen these kanji being used in Japan.

So to answer your question, i think the Edict is incorrect. Looking at some of the other comments it seems that they are listed properly, at least from my perspective, as separate entries in their dictionaries.

share|improve this answer
I don't like the word "spelling" the way you just used it either (-: Since the words are spelled in kanji (the way I read it) they don't have hiragana spellings, they have pronunciations, which can be written in hiragana, but that's the subtle yet important difference. – hippietrail Jun 16 '11 at 3:02
Perhaps "reading" is a better word. – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 16 '11 at 3:05
@hippietrail: disregard my (now deleted) previous comment. I somehow mistakenly assumed you were addressing my use of 'spelling' and just realised you were probably talking about @Mark, who I guess edited his post ever since (?). – Dave Jun 16 '11 at 3:39
@Dave: No problem sorry for the ambiguity. The question definitely reads better now. – hippietrail Jun 16 '11 at 3:43
@dave: Yup, just edited it. Not using English on a regular basis has made my english get crappy. – Mark Hosang Jun 16 '11 at 4:33

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